by guest contributor Andrea Rubenstein
Andrea Rubenstein is the co-founder of the Iris Gaming Network and (when she has the time) posts on her two blogs The Official Shrub.com Blog (focuses on a variety of anti-oppression topics) and Better by Design (focuses her experiences learning game design in Japan). This article was originally published at Better by Design.
When I was younger I loved the game Master of Magic. I still love it — to the point that I have DosBox installed on my machine solely for the reason of being able to continue playing MoM. So, you can imagine my squee when, several years ago, my mother’s partner told me about a game Stardock was working on that was being heralded as the “spiritual heir” to MOM. That game was Elemental: War of Magic and it was finally released a week ago. I had been following the dev posts almost religiously for six months at that point, constantly agonizing on whether or not to join the beta testing when it opened (I opted for not because of lack of time).
So, after purchasing the game (which took a full week of back and forth with customer service, but that’s a story for another time) I immediately started playing the campaign. The campaign, like almost all campaigns in the history of strategy games, is A Story About A Manly Man Having Adventures With His Manly Friends. Well, whatever, I thought to myself, I didn’t buy the game for the campaign story, and anyway as soon as I build my first city I can balance the rampant manliness with female units. I should note that, customization — especially unit customization — had been a frequent topic on the dev posts and I was so excited that finally, after years of dealing with 99.9% of strategy games being-male only or male-heavy (with the female units being healing and other support and/or sexy sexy danger) I could design female units to my specifications!
Except, it turns out, not.
Elemental and male normativity
The Unit Design chooses facial features (eyes, face shape, skin color, etc) randomly, but allows you to customize unit weapons, armor, equipment, clothing, and hair… but not sex. Yes, you heard me: the Unit Design function does not enable you to choose the sex of your units. At least not by default. It turns out that only races who choose the Egalitarian bonus (at the cost of one point) are able to have both male and female units. The campaign faction is not egalitarian; in fact, only the Kingdom of Tarth is. So, breaking down the makeup of the default factions: only 1 out of 10 of the factions (10% of the total factions) allows for the creation of female units, while 90% (9 factions) force male unit creation, and 0% (0 factions) force female unit creation.
According to a post on the forums entitled Female Units?, the rationale behind this seems to be that: “[The cost for the Egalitarian trait is] for the ability to draw soldiers from your entire population instead of just the male portion. Basically you can have bigger armies.”
In the Female units are an extra in Elemental: War of Magic discussion over at Iris’ forums, 01d55 says of this decision:
The most hilarious part is that they almost certainly think they are making a feminist point: The egalitarian trait is paid for because it is bundled with a gameplay advantage – i.e. non-sexist societies are stronger.
I think assuming that is at least close to the dev team’s line of thinking is a pretty safe bet, so I’m going to address the problems inherent with the assumption that making egalitarian societies a bonus, rather than the default, is sexist.
I. Sexism as default
People play fantasy games for a myriad of reasons: escapism, wanting to explore uncharted territory, and to see what happens when we play the “what if” game of evolution. If fantasy is a vehicle in which to understand the human psyche, then what does it say that almost no video games yet created can imagine a world without patriarchal norms, such as those found in the problematic use of idealized bodies for fantasy races, being the standard?[Andrea Rubenstein, Idealizing Fantasy Bodies]
Since this always seems to come up, and it is actually pertinent to my argument, let me start off by saying: I do not believe, nor am I arguing, that Elemental’s dev team is out to “get” women, that they were intentionally and willfully sexist, or that they hate men. I am arguing, however, that they failed to fully account for how ingrained sexism is in all of us and therefore ended up with a game system that has a lot of unconscious and subtle sexism in it.
First off, even if you believe the argument that the Egalitarian option is a pro-woman statement (a “look! being non-sexist benefits your society!”) that still doesn’t give the game a free pass when it comes to sexism. Leaving off the campaign (because I don’t want to get into the usual amount of sexism discussion), let’s just look at some numbers (from CoreRaceConfigs.xml):
|Kingdom of Altar||Male||No|
|Kingdom of Capitar||Male||No|
|Kingdom of Gilden||Male||No|
|Kingdom of Pariden||Female||No|
|Kingdom of Tarth||Female||Yes|
|Empire of Kraxis||Male||No|
|Empire of Magnar||Male||No|
|Empire of Resoln||Male||No|
|Empire of Umber||Male||No|
|Empire of Yithril||Male||No|
|Total||2 Female (20%), 8 Male (80%)||9 Patriarchal (90%), 1 Egalitarian (10%)|
It should be noted that the Sovereigns you can pick from the “New Game” option have a different ratio (3 women to 7 men, making women 30% rather than 20%) but Tarth remains the only default faction that’s Egalitarian. The gender ratio, coupled with the fact that only one society in the default game is Egalitarian, drives home the reality that men are the default state of being and women are afterthoughts and extras. As I’ve said before:
Men are entitled to be the heroes, entitled to the IT jobs, entitled to make sexist jokes about women. Women are not, and have never been, the default in the way that men are, and thus we are not entitled to anything… women are at best an afterthought in the popular media that we consume in our everyday life…[tekanji, Is gender inclusive game design important?]
Most video games, Elemental being no exception, have sexist notions ingrained deeply in them and no slight bonus to having an egalitarian society is going to outweigh the fact that women feature so little in the default content of the game.
II. We don’t agree with it, but that’s the way it was!
Designers and players alike need to stop using the idea of realism – “that’s the way the world works” – as an excuse for condoning sexism in games when they’re called out on it. It’s simply passing the buck.[jfpbookworm, The Realism Defense]
Fact: Elemental is set in a world based on medieval Europe where the typical society was patriarchal, there was a strict division of labor, and (as a rule) women were not conscripted to combat.
Fallacy: Therefore it makes sense for the default society in Elemental to be patriarchal.
While gamers often trot out The Realism Defense when defending sexism in games, the truth is that sexism is not a Fixated Fixture of Fixedness in old-timey worlds (anymore than it is with modern or future worlds) and therefore it can be tossed out with inconvenient rules such as “magic and monsters don’t exist.” Furthermore, while positioning egalitarian societies as the default won’t break most gamers’ feeling of immersion (one of the key components to creating a “realistic” game world), the opposite (defaulting to a patriarchal, male-only/male-heavy society) will ruin it for a lot of women and some men. Not to mention that sacrificing complexity (another key component of creating a “realistic” game world) for the illusion of “realism” ends up making the game less fun than it could be.
Of course, Elemental wants it both ways: to preserve the “realism” of patriarchal societies while showing that they “understand” sexism is wrong by offering an egalitarian option that is beneficial to the player.
This is hardly the first time the “but it’s a bonus!” excuse has been used to gloss over flaw in game design based on unconscious bias; in fact, I wrote about a similar issue in 2007, regarding Acclaim’s Dance. In that instance, the issue was brought up that the default avatar was white and if people wanted a different skin and/or model they had to buy it at the store. As one board moderator explained: “Black is an EXTRA feature. It makes your person look unique, so that is an EXTRA feature. Therefore, you having to PAY for it.”
My argument for that instance applies just as well to this case with “men” having their “sex” be represented by default, while women don’t have that luxury:
White people, who do already have it so that the avatars “represent [their] color in game” (and in most games, movies, tv shows, comic books, books, etc), have the luxury of seeing race as an extra, as something to do to make yourself unique and stand out. People of colour, who aren’t automatically represented in this game or most other parts of society, don’t have that luxury. If they want to have their avatars represent someone like themselves — something a white person doesn’t have to think about if they don’t want to — they have to pay. They get to see themselves be Othered and then told that they should be grateful because they are seen as “unique” and something to be desired. What is a fun accessory for a white player is a necessary component for a player of colour who wants to have the same ability as the white person to allow their avatar to represent their real life self. Privilege is not having to think about how the “extras” afforded to you come at the cost of allowing non-privileged groups the same basic representation that you take for granted.
The solution is easy
The worst thing in all this is that there is an easy fix to the problem of balancing access to female units, control over how much of your population can be converted to units, and the various fun-factors involved in access to sexist versus egalitarian societies. A fix that actually balances things better than the way things are now, and not just from an anti-sexism perspective.
Here’s my proposed system (expanded from my comment over at Iris’ forums):
- By default, unit creation allows switching between female and male (like the Sovereign creation screen)
- By default, there is a maximum cap on units of 50% (or whatever) of the current population
- The Egalitarian trait is renamed to Civilian Army (or Compulsory Service/Larger Army/whatever) to allow for 100% (or whatever) of your population to be converted to units
- When creating a faction, Patriarchal (only male units) and Matriarchal (only female units) are mutually exclusive flaws that can be chosen
In terms of making use of the game system’s customizability as well as increasing the fun factor: the proposed system allows for players to utilize the full potential of the Unit Design system by default; it also preserves the bonus offered by the Egalitarian trait (ie. larger armies); and, finally, it introduces two new flaws that allow for a more diverse and fun world (with a lot of storytelling potential).
In terms of anti-sexism, while it takes away the “Egalitarian societies are stronger” backhanded compliment, the proposed system removes the previous system’s assumption of male as default by 1) implementing an Egalitarian As Default unit picking system and 2) adding the option of creating a matriarchal society.
In other words, everyone wins: Stardock gets a more fun and robust game for relatively little work, players who like the current system can choose to play a Patriarchal civilization, and no one has to feel “punished” by the game because they want the option to create female units.
So what does all this say about the current state of games? Seeing as it’s 2010 and the problems I talked about in my 2007 post Is gender inclusive game design important? remain, I’d say that that it says that the way game developers conceive and implement their worlds hasn’t changed to keep up with technology. As Elemental proves, even companies on the fringe on the mainstream have the resources to make their game systems dynamic and inclusive, but instead they either don’t develop the content (same-sex marriage isn’t allowed in Elemental, for example) or end up implementing features that block players’ access to the content they have developed. Not to mention that the tone of the default content always betrays the reality that inclusivity was an afterthought.
To Stardock and all the other developers out there: The resources to make a robust, fun game are there. Don’t let your unconscious biases prevent you from making the best game you can. It may be hard in the short term, but in the long term everyone will benefit, believe me.