Stardock’s Elemental and What It Says About the State of Games

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 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.

Elemental: War of MagicWhen 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

Elemental's Egalitarian Bonus

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):

Faction Sovereign Sex Egalitarian
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…

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):

  1. By default, unit creation allows switching between female and male (like the Sovereign creation screen)
  2. By default, there is a maximum cap on units of 50% (or whatever) of the current population
  3. 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
  4. 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.

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16 Responses to Stardock’s Elemental and What It Says About the State of Games

  1. Christina says:

    Your solution is fine, but you will incur 40% more art cost assuming every unit has distinct art for each faction. If it us just a color shift the cost should be negligible. I haven’t played elemental.

    Often in game dev there is pressure to reduce the number of art assets to produce, it is harder in that environment to have a culture of egalitarianism. It requires commitment because you have to pay more money to artists, crunch more, etc. This results in options being constrained to reduce art costs for “practical” reasons.

  2. Christina says:

    Sigh…just woke up math error. 90% more art cost, not 40%.

    In general in game dev there is always pressure to equate art production with art usage. Art that is not seen by the majority of players is seen as a waste of time. It could be that that was part of the decision making process in elemental (no idea if it was).

  3. Laurentius says:

    I really like your 4 point solution, it’s clean and fit the game engine nicely. It’s the shame it was not designed that way. Having said that and being so huge fun of MoM myself i can’t help but add that Elemental is enormous let down for me. Despite some clever and playable ideas, devs decided to change what’s gererally applaouded by people who love turn based starategies into some tiresome chore (ie. cities developement – omg MoM 16 years old game have it 10 times better, wraping all kingdom progress around sparse reasources is no fun at all, etc ). And the state the game was realesed is something ridicousllly uncanny.( no need to elaborate, official forums are full of it ). To sum up, i had such high hopes for Elemental:WoM but after really trying to like this game despite it bugs and flaws it turns to no use. MoM tottally owns Elemental, it’s pretty sad state of game developement. Let’s hope Civ5 will not share same fate.

  4. Laurentius says:

    Ok, after second thought and another hour of crushes infested play of Elemental, i’m not sure of point 4 of your solution. 4. When creating a faction, Patriarchal (only male units) and Matriarchal (only female units) are mutually exclusive flaws that can be chosen -that can fit more or less given human faction, but for other races: demons or wraiths ? I mean it could be just opposite: ie. patriachal wraith society could mean that males are conjuring dark spells or whatever they like and females are send to slaughter on the battlefields or vice versa.

  5. Jayle Enn says:

    This reminds me of trying the demo for Escalon: Book One a couple of years ago. Independent developer, usual song and dance about open-ended exploration and gameplay, and the stereotypical amnesiac hero.
    On the character generation screen, there was the typical toggle switch for selecting sex… only it didn’t work. Trying to click over to ‘female’ flashed an in-engine error message explaining that the PC -had- to be male, which put the ‘open-ended’ claim to bed for me.
    I never bothered to actually play the game after that. After reading this, and being unimpressed with Stardock’s other games, I’ll be sticking with Master of Orion II and Master of Magic, too.

  6. tekanji says:

    @Christina: Because you can create your own faction in Elemental, all of the races have both male and female models. Therefore there would be no extra art assets needed for my suggestion to be implemented.

    @Laurentius: Yeah, the city development has been a huge let down for me as well. Not to mention that, at least as of v.1.06, what resources you start near pretty much determines whether or not you’ll win or lose the game, which is pretty broken IMO. I don’t know why they decided to so radically change the MOM settlement system (which, I agree, was one of its strongest points) but I wish they hadn’t.

    but for other races: demons or wraiths ? I mean it could be just opposite: ie. patriachal wraith society could mean that males are conjuring dark spells or whatever they like and females are send to slaughter on the battlefields or vice versa.

    Working within the existing structures, I believe that my proposed solution is the best in terms of 1) integration into the existing system and 2) ensuring clarity for the player.

    For instance, one thing I found out after the initial posting of this article is that — even in a so-called “Egalitarian” society — the game follows the convention of women marrying into the other family (ie. if you have a male child who marries into another faction, the woman he marries will automatically become part of your army and vise versa). That’s not an egalitarian system at all. Having a Patriarchal/Matriarchal option would be an easy fix (patriarchy is as-is, matriarchy is opposite) although it would require a bit of coding and through for the default (egalitarian) option, which I think would be best to have the option of choosing whether you’re asking the other faction for children to marry into your family, or seeing if they want you to marry off your children into theirs (with the “perceived value” being scaled according to their type of society, how far down from the throne the child is being asked for is, etc).

    Although, thinking more on it, it probably wouldn’t be too much more work to implement your suggestion. In order to do so, Matriarchal/Patriarchal flaws would refer only to succession choices and there would be two new (mutually exclusive) flaws All-female Army and All-male Army. The player could then write in a backstory to fit their choices.

    @Jayle Enn: Adding a sex toggle specifically to inform the player that their character has to be male strikes me as just… mean.

  7. Laurentius says:

    Ok here comes more of my thougths about your solution : 1 By default, unit creation allows switching between female and male (like the Sovereign creation screen) – definietly right option in terms of improving gameplay and inclusivness but let’s say males and females are equal in terms of warfare for every faction- that could mean units called lt’s say heayy infantry that consists both females and males indiscrimantely. (technical problem how to implement this aside). Thing is a little bit of sexism could be spicing up the gameplay. Let’s say femals and males are given different traits for different factions: ie. females units have bonus in hand to hand combat, males have lower morale but higher movement points, in this case having patriarchal/matriarchal trait- male/female only units would be a real flaw not allowing to utiliza all your faction military abilities.

  8. Meg says:

    Ugh, please no ability differences for men and women units. The idea is total bait for unintentional sexism on the part of the developers, and it’s so annoying to start up a new game and realize that I need to either completely change my desired playstyle or only use characters with dicks.

  9. Jayle Enn says:

    …Ooorrrr you define ‘matriarchal’ and ‘patriarchal’ in the context of game mechanics (‘only capable of fielding units of one sex, halving conscription rates), plop it into a tooltip, and keep on motoring.

  10. Laurentius says:

    Ugh, please no ability differences for men and women units. The idea is total bait for unintentional sexism on the part of the developers – there is risk but from gameplay perspective i have the feeling it would be actually more engaging. Without differences it wouldn’t actually made too much sense to have males/females units, it would be enough to have ie. cavalery unit that clearly indicate that it consists both wemen and men.

    and it’s so annoying to start up a new game and realize that I need to either completely change my desired playstyle or only use characters with dicks.- why giving female and male units different traits would make someone uisng only male units ? In Master of Magic and Master of Orion- different races have different abilities and actually that was what made these games so good.

  11. Ohma says:

    oh stardock, you so crazy

    really though

    I am still baffled as to why Stardock think their fluff is *so* important to their games. Yeah, if they made an RPG sure, totally, fluff really helps flesh out the world. But an RTS or TBS? The majority of people only need enough backstory (like, a paragraph) behind each faction to give them character and influence their impression of in-game events.

    Why they keep feeling like they need pages of text for every tech, or hidden, unchangeable game mechanics to force the game to conform to the reams of fluff I really can’t fathom. -_-

  12. lilmiss says:

    Eschalon Book 2 implemented the female option. It makes absolutely no difference to the plot. Not that it would really have made any difference to the plot of the first game either except for needing to be able to replace the word “brother” with “sister” in a little bit of text.

  13. Jargo says:

    Started playing Elemental this week, and i am very disappointed because the game is so buggy and unpolished, but also the Lore and gameworld where boring, uninspired, racist and sexist.

    Because a fantasy TBS is totally my game is still played it and look a bit around why it is so buggy and why its so sexist.

    Intresting post : “So Stardock CEO, Brad Wardell, wrote a book about a group of heroes building a fence to keep olive-skinned and dark-skinned antagonists out of a continent…”

    which is no suprise if you read his blog about politics:

    and his view on women in his fantasy book about elemental

  14. Alex says:

    @Jargo WOOOOW, thanks for the info… I can’t even say anything else but wow… O.o;;;;

  15. tekanji says:

    @Jargo After the posting of this article I came across the reddit article and, but I didn’t go so far as to look at Brad’s account on the latter site. And, for some reason, I didn’t realize that he was the racist and sexist (and most likely all-around bigoted) author of Destiny’s Embers.

    I really wanted to give Stardock the benefit of the doubt on all the bigoted crap I’ve come across (after all, most people don’t set out to hate non-privileged groups, it’s just built into the system so they don’t notice it) but given Brad’s politics I’m having a hard time seeing the poor design choices (after all, spending all that money on the female models and then making players jump through hoops in order to be able to use them is what I would call a waste of money) as anything but expressions of his (and his employees) hatred of people not like them.

  16. Ohma says:

    Oh yeah, Brad’s a dick.

    This stuff also shows up in GalCiv (though more on the lolbertarian end of the crazy spectrum than the not-very-crypto racist end). Like how humans were the first to discover hyperdrive (despite everyone else being interstellar empires for thousands of years prior to humans) due to the free market lol :V

    He also ‘joked’ about how he would fire anyone at Stardock who disagreed with his politics (a comment prompted by people calling him stupid for boycotting FedEx after they pulled their ads during Glenn Beck)

    so yeah

    Brad Wardell: “Classy”

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