Tag Archives: diversity

WisCon Panel “Feminism in Gaming 2013”

Stealth elf - a dual blade wielding character from Skylanders

Stealth elf – a dual blade wielding character from Skylanders

At the end of last month, Madison, Wisconsin was home to the annual science fiction feminist convention known as WisCon. Gaming has made its way into some of the panels in recent years and the following will be a summary of some of the points made during the Feminism in Gaming 2013 panel.

Panel description - 2012 was a watershed year for discussion of misogyny in gaming, in many ways: Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter to examine misogyny in gaming, the backlash against it, and the counter-backlash; discussion of art direction in D&D Next; attacks on Felicia Day; the launch of the Gaming as Women blog; and other developments. What has happened so far in 2013? Is the amount of backlash more an indication that misogyny is getting worse, or that we’re finally getting around to the painful but necessary conversations? How much progress have we made, and what still needs to be done? #FeminismInGaming

There was a wonderful handout available at the panel and it is still online for those that would like to see it: Links to websites and interesting articles from 2012/2013

 

Some important moments from the last year

- the interviews during promotion for Tomb Raider that referenced wanting to protect Lara and threats of sexual violence against her character

- the backlash against Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter but also the counter-backlash that quickly funded the project

- the closing of Glitch, the multiplayer game

- #1ReasonWhy, the Twitter hashtag used by women in the video game industry describing some of the misogyny that they have experienced in their careers

- Dungeons and Dragons Next art direction

 

Does buying problematic games mean that we end up supporting their further development and also continue to support the stereotypes that the games portray?

-Having limited funds for games also means you limit your choices – if you can only get one or two new games a year, it can become difficult to decide where to spent your money.

- One possible way to experience a game that you feel may have problematic elements without first purchasing it is to either rent it or borrow the game from a friend and then make the decision if you want to purchase the game itself.

- These decisions are further complicated when games have things that you love and want to support but still have problematic elements. One example mentioned was 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. It is a puzzle/adventure game that is text heavy which is an under represented type of game, but it had sexist representations of female characters. But the game as a whole contains both of these elements.

- One way to deal with problematic elements in games is to spread the word about those issues. Take screenshots, post blogs, talk about it on Twitter, write messages on the game forums,  tell your friends, spread the word however you feel comfortable that you are dissatisfied with different aspects of games and gaming culture. Discuss good aspects of games, but also discuss the things that upset you.

- Some people dislike financially supporting games in which violence and military action are the only solutions to a problem.  There is clearly a call for more creative games or simply more games that go outside the first person shooter genre.

- In the end, we all choose where we draw a personal line when it comes to financially supporting developers that make problematic games. There is no ONE WAY that will work for everyone.

 

Tabletop gaming

- One positive aspect of tabletop gaming is being able to create your own worlds and rules/alternate worlds and rules to circumvent problematic rules sets. While this is possible it also puts an additional burden on the players.

- One problem with tabletop gaming can also be the players themselves, and not just the game world. People bring their own assumptions to the table. One person mentioned a group that would always threaten any female player character with sexual violence at some point during a campaign. Those types of situations can occur even if those threats are not present in the game’s official campaign or storyline.

- Some groups attempt to make sure that everyone is comfortable by first discussing topics that should be kept out of campaigns. Someone mentioned the use of Safe Words and other tells so players could freely express when a campaign was making them feel uncomfortable.

 

Gaming Communities

- At times it can be the gaming community, rather than the game that is not inclusive.

- Audience members mentioned muting players when going online, never speaking up so that people don’t hear a woman’s voice, or only playing with friends when going online. The harassment drives people to cope in a variety of ways.

- Another person mentioned only playing single player games because they found online interactions to be too hostile.

- Yet another person mentioned not finishing Mass Effect 3 after having a traumatic experience with a multiplayer group.

- Communities have the potential be more harmful than games themselves in making players feel unwelcome and diminished.

- Alternately, it is wonderful to see when games attempt to bring community together. You can see that in some cooperative games or in things like Guild Wars 2 where the incentive is there to help other players rather than hamper their progress.

 

Clothing/Art Design

- There are a lot of examples of failure in this specific category! This occurs in terms of artbooks, game design, character design, and miniatures.

- In the family friendly game of Skylanders there is a character called Stealth Elf that is a dual blade user and she wears what is essentially a bra as a top. Even in games aimed at children there are female characters that wear revealing clothing as their default. This type of character design is pervasive in the industry.

- A comment was made about the character design changes of Samus Aran since the start of the Metroid series. The suit has become slimmer over time.

- In terms of art design, let’s not forget the failure of the headless torso figure from Dead Island.

- Another art design failure can be seen in the upcoming Dragon’s Crown game.

- To avoid some of the problematic female character design, some people mention only playing as male characters in games. We’d all rather see a change in character design rather than players feeling forced to do this to avoid problematic art direction.

- BioWare was praised specifically for their art direction with the female Commander Shepard when compared to the male Shepard.

 

Games/things we look forward to in the future (let’s be hopeful for a moment)

- Remember Me

- The next Dragon Age

- Roll 20 : a KickStarter project that focuses on bringing tabletop rollplaying online

- Minecraft mod ScriptCraft

- Odyssey: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Campaign Management – a tabletop game guide done by the Gnome Stew blog that has a cover showing a woman of color as a game master.

 

Other points made during the panel

- The solution cannot simply be “Then go make your own games!” when people point out issues in the current batch of games. Yes, it is wonderful that more toolsets are available for general use, but putting the burden solely on the players is unjust. Independent games are wonderful and are part of the solution, but they are not the whole solution to the problems facing the industry.

- As always, there was a call for more diversity in characters and character creation options. Why must the default always be straight, white, and male?

- There is needs to be more of a focus on the discussion of games and the industry. Let’s keep reading good stories, listening to good podcasts, checking out reviews that go beyond “was it fun?” and spread the word about these things.

- We WANT to give the industry our money. Give us something we WANT to support!

 

One final point!

- Don’t let jerks strip us of the gamer title! There have always been, and always will be a diverse group of people that play video games and tabletop games. Let us not let them fool us or others that we don’t exist because we have ALWAYS been here. Don’t surrender that title over to them because it is not, nor was it ever, only their property. Be gamers and be feminists. They are not mutually exclusive!

No Excuses: It’s Time for More Female Protagonists

A black-and-white photograph and portrait of a dark-haired woman taken in 1944.

Violette Szabo, a secret agent in WWII.

If the game design of 2009′s Velvet Assassin were half as interesting as its history, I might be able to bring myself to play beyond the first mission. Velvet Assassin is loosely based on the story of Violette Szabo, a Parisian-born, British-educated woman who enlisted in the elite Special Operations Executive after her husband died in the Second World War. Although the game takes substantial liberties with the facts of Szabo’s life, the premise alone makes for a compelling game pitch: still grieving the loss of her husband, Violette devotes herself to sabotage and subterfuge behind enemy lines.

Velvet Assassin wastes this rich history on a clunky, tired game. The Metacritic average for the game settled at a failing grade: fifty-six out of one hundred. But, having played and enjoyed some poorly-reviewed games, I decided to take my chances. By the end of the first full mission, I was ready to watch the rest of the game on YouTube. Suffice it to say that Velvet Assassin is a frustrating and thoroughly uninteresting experience.

But this game’s story deserves “AAA” treatment. Consider all that it has to offer from a back-of-the-box perspective: a compelling female character with strong motivations, a well-known historical setting (World War II), and a delicious mixture of stealth, deception and demolition. Despite this strong premise, Velvet Assassin didn’t get picked up by Electronic Arts or Activision or Ubisoft; it was produced by a team of “about 35 people” (according to a developer interview) and published by Southpeak Interactive. With those financial limitations in mind, it’s a miracle that Velvet Assassin was playable, even if it turned out to be a mediocre game.

The conversation surrounding female lead protagonists in games is louder than ever. When Grand Theft Auto V was announced, podcasters and journalists speculated about the possibility (and the viability) of a female protagonist in a Rockstar game. Could she kill? Could she fit in a GTA story? The inclusion of playable female characters in Gears of War 3 left fans asking if the Gears franchise would ever have a female character in the starring role. And Mitch Dyer at IGN, presumably prompted by the portrayal of Aveline de Grandpré in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, asked Ubisoft if there would ever be a female protagonist in a main entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise.

It is astonishing that, in 2013, the inclusion of female leads in mainstream video game releases is still a faraway dream. Rare games like Tomb Raider and Bayonetta bet big on their female leads, but the discussion surrounding them rarely moves beyond the (de)sexualization of their protagonists. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto V will have three protagonists, all of them men. Adding to the trend, Chris Perna from Epic said that it would be “tough to justify” having a female lead in a Gears game given sales expectations. And Ashraf Ismail from Ubisoft told IGN that, when designing the lead character for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, his team “actually never thought, ‘could this be a woman?’” Continue reading

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7

Characters in Mario Kart 7

I’ve been playing a lot of Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS recently, and while I think it’s a great game, the character choice is extremely frustrating.

Back in 1992, the original Super Mario Kart on the SNES featured eight characters. Of these, seven were male (Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Koopa, toad, and Yoshi) while only one was female (Peach). Almost two decades on, let’s see how far we’ve come.

Mario Kart 7 has either 16 or 17 characters in total, depending on how you’re counting. Of those, eight are available for selection initially, with the others needing to be unlocked through play. So let’s start with the initial eight. These are, it turns out, exactly the same characters as the SNES original. Absolutely no improvement on gender diversity there, then.

The unlockable characters do show signs of improvement. Here, we have five male characters (Metal Mario, Lakitu, Wiggler, Wario, and Shy Guy) and three female characters (Daisy, Rosalina, and Honey Queen).

The 17th character is the Mii, which I’m not including here since it’s something of an oddball, seeing as it is an out-of-universe character, and one which is player created. I don’t like to play as a Mii, because it feels jarring against the backdrop of all the Mario characters, but the option is there (after you unlock it).

[Note: For characters where the gender isn't immediately obvious, such as Koopa and Wiggler, I'm going off the gender given on Nintendo's official site.]

So, of a total of 16, we have 12 male characters, and 4 female ones. In the 19 years since 1992, we’ve managed to go from 1/8 inclusion, to 1/4 inclusion. It’s something, I suppose, but it’s not anything I’m going to get excited over.

It gets even worse when you look at it a little more closely, though. Of the four female characters, three of them are extremely similar. Peach, Daisy, and Rosalina are all princess archetypes with crowns and dresses, and offer little variety beyond a pallet swap, a different hairstyle, and a different voice actress.

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a teal dress, standing by a blue kart.

Daisy from Mario Kart 7

Daisy from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a yellow dress, standing by a yellow and orange kart.

Peach from Mario Kart 7

Peach from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a pink dress, in a red and pink kart.

This is hardly a staggering array of diversity we’re being offered here. In fact, I’m tempted to combine all three of these characters together as variations on a theme. For the sake of fairness, I will also combine Mario, Luigi and Metal Mario, as well as Koopa and Lakitu. In total, this gives us 2 different “ways” to play a female character, and 9 different “ways” to play a male character. If you include the Mii, those numbers go up to 3 and 10 respectively.

Things get even worse when you consider that the character selection isn’t just a cosmetic choice. Instead, the characters fall into 5 different weight classes, with each different class having different strengths and weaknesses in speed, acceleration, handling, and so on. Of the 5 classes, only 3 (or 4 if you include the Mii) have female representatives. The two that are missing are the overall most balanced class (available if you include the Mii) and the class that’s best for beginners.

And if you’re only including the default characters and not the unlockable ones, we ladies only have one choice to match our one character. Needless to say, the men have all five choices available right from the beginning.

To me, the saddest part of all this is that Nintendo are meant to be a company that pride themselves on targeting a broader demographic than just 18-35 year old men. Nintendo games are meant to be the sort of games that anyone can play, regardless of age or gender. Come on, Nintendo, you can do better than this.

The Border House Podcast – Episode 4: Diversity in a Strange Land

A cover of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Read it!

A cover of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Read it!

 

The new The Border House podcast is up! Rather timely indeed, as we talked about the recent inclusion of progressive material at Kotaku and used the opportunity to talk about the relationship between writer, community, and indenity. Discussion about “responsibility” is parsed through and would definitely reflect on recent events. For those who haven’t seen, I wrote an open letter to Kotaku here that provoked quite the response.

Here is the Judith Butler’s mention that popped up in our conversation:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Butler#Excitable_Speech:_A_Politics_of_the_Performative_.281997.29

A correction, I was trying to think of HULK GAME CRITIC and mistakenly attributed their criticism to Arkham City to FEMINIST HULK, though the latter is definitely worth following as well.

Remember that we are now on iTunes! And here is our RSS Feed Link: http://borderhouseblog.com/?feed=podcast

 

Opening & Closing Credits - Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty

An Open Letter to Kotaku’s Joel Johnson

The article "The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku" with a picture of young men cosplaying.

The article "The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku" with a picture of young men cosplaying.

I just finished reading your article on Kotaku, “The Equal Opportunity Perversion of Kotaku,” a lengthier response than the one you gave me previously. In case you don’t recognize me, we had a conversation on Twitter about Dan Bruno’s recanting of his praise for the progressive development of the site. Your last paragraph originated from our discussion, and because you decided to take it to a public forum, I figured I would as well.

There is a reason I’m posting this at The Border House. A large part of our readership feels alienated by the content produced on Kotaku and deserves to have access to a dialogue with you that doesn’t require bearing the hostility your site is known for. To be fair, most gaming websites are hostile towards those who point out diversity related issues, and it’s easy to criticize you and Kotaku because you seem to know better. It’s a sucky position to be in, I empathize.

I remember the post that made me unsubscribe from Kotaku, before the good stuff started to roll in. Another gallery of naked women covered in video game accessories. It wasn’t because that post was SO offensive to me, but because I was TIRED of seeing articles like that over and over again. Seeing sexualized women isn’t bothersome to me unless I’m in a space that assumes I’m a heterosexual man, which is very, very often. Almost always when I check out my gaming sites.

What I am hopeful about is your willingness to discuss this issue. If there is something I’ve promised to my editors, it is a proactive outlook on solving the issues multiple identities have in the gaming community. However, I found both our conversation and your article little more than hand waving the issue, trying to be sympathetic while not actually committing to act upon the ideals you say to have.

Let me be clear, to both you and readers at The Border House: I don’t think censorship is a solution, I don’t think Kotaku has a civic responsibility if it doesn’t want one, and I’m completely fine with the expression of sexuality. What is problematic is the dissonance between what you describe as your ideals. The thing is, it’s actually NOT okay to have your cake and eat it too when it’s hypocritical to do as such. If you know that you’re adding to the misogyny and homophobia of a community that is extremely primed for it, how is that okay? You recognize that the columns about Japan rely on the “Asians are WEIRD” trope that is unhealthy, but you’re fine with it because it’s funny. The Male Gaze is mentioned and dismissed in the same breath, showing that you are aware it exists yet neglect to apply it to the kind of content Kotaku produces to explain why minority groups are turned off by the site. I don’t think you or any other writers are deliberately trying to offend anyone, but the intent to be generally open-minded to diversity doesn’t mean what actually happens is as well. How do you reconcile this? How do you tell people reading this at The Border House things are fine when you understand what’s going on is contradictory to what you know should be?

And what stung, both in our conversation and your article, was how you absolved yourself and Kotaku from doing anything by passing the buck to those who feel marginalized. Instead of aiming to produce a staff culture that shows their awareness and support for diversity issues through their content, you leave it up to those who feel unsatisfied to create that content for Kotaku. I don’t know how this is reasonable in any way. It sounds like Kotaku’s staff doesn’t want to do anything different, but still wish to come off as the good guys. That is having your cake and eating it, which is definitely not okay.

The problem is that Kotaku isn’t “equal opportunity” anything. You acknowledge that your staff tends to write towards one demographic and looks for content that falls into stereotypical expectations for what you’d find on a gaming. It’s the easiest thing to do, and doesn’t take nearly as much thinking as keeping in mind that there are more than the assumed immature young straight guy to pander for. That’s not equal opportunity. Equal opportunity would mean there is as much of a chance to produce content appealing for heterosexual men as it is for everyone else. And that’s not even recognizing the different expressions of sexuality for straight guys, just the mainstream one valorized by gaming sites such as Kotaku.

You misinterpreted me before; I don’t want to tag you with responsibility you didn’t agree to. However, it would show that you are a decent person when you are responsible for your own words and actions. If you “unabashedly” want to promote the voices and presence of minority identities in your community, then unabashedly do so. It’s fine if you don’t want to, but just say that.

I hope you can write back to me about this, and involve as many people as you can in this conversation. I would like to subscribe to Kotaku again, especially if more diversity-aware content becomes available. No ill will, just honesty with a wish for genuine, proactive change.

~Mattie

The Border House Podcast – Episode 3: Characters Done Right

Fang from Final Fantasy XIII

Fang from Final Fantasy XIII

 

Sorry for the delay everyone! But this episode, Denis Farr and I have a talk about Characters Done Right, and look further into how to succeed at creating diversity-aware characters.

We are still looking for transcribers! If you can volunteer to do 5 minutes of audio transcription, you would really help out the community. Please refer to this post for further details: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=6665

As well, the Podcast is looking for guest speakers! If you are actively writing about or developing games and would like to talk about diversity issues, let me know!

 

The Border House Speakers

Host: Mattie Brice

Editing: Kim

Denis Farr

 

Opening & Closing Credits - Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty

 

Catherine: Is this mature rated game about more than just sex?

Logo from Catherine. It shows an image of a female with Catherine as the left half of the woman in the image and Katherine as the right half.

Catherine is a new story driven, puzzle based game from Atlus. It is being advertised as a mature game that discusses adult relationships including the issues surrounding cheating, love, marriage, and commitment. It is told through the eyes of the male main character, Vincent Brooks, and deals with his anxieties and experiences with his long time girlfriend named Katherine and a new women he just met named Catherine. I wanted to know if this game explores adult relationships or if is just an excuse for cutscenes with sex and cheating. After finishing the game I have mixed feelings about its success. There are definitely some positives, but there are also several strong complaints that I have with both the content of the game and the advertising surrounding it.

Note: This post will be done in two segments, the first will cover general comments about the game and the marketing while the second half includes late game story spoilers. I will warn before entering the spoiler section so those that people can easily avoid them.

I had plenty of fears about this game before release date. Most of them are a direct cause of the marketing campaign. Based on the imagery I imagined a story in which an overbearing girlfriend “forced” Vincent to cheat because she made his life so miserable. I was worried that she would be painted as a nagging, cruel, and overbearing partner.  For Catherine I was concerned that she would be a temptress presented as an opposite to Katherine: where  one is sexual the other is not, where one is kind and free-spirited the other is cruel and overbearing. The sheep made me think of these men as lambs sent for slaughter and I imagined Catherine as nothing more than the temptress/shepard leading men to their doom. With the images of Vincent running from a monstrous version of a baby or of his girlfriend Katherine I envisioned him as a caricature of a man afraid of commitment in his relationship, which is a an often seen trope in media. I did not want to see men painted as immature and afraid of relationships and women as either smothering, overbearing figures or reduced to just their sexual appeal. The largest problem for me with Catherine is that while it is not the game that I feared, it did not break through those stereotypes and instead relied on them to create drama in the story.

 

The Deluxe Edition “Love Is Over” version of Catherine comes with the following extras: a T-shirt similar to one worn by Vincent in the game (it says Empty and has a row of hearts with only the first few hearts filled in), a pillowcase with the game logo and an image of a sprawled out Catherine in her lingerie-like outfit, a cardboard pizza box with the logo of the bar “Stray Sheep”, and a pair of boxer shorts similar to the ones worn by Vincent during the game’s nightmare segments. This deluxe edition of goodies is aimed at male gamers. The boxer shorts and the large shirt will either not fit or be worn by a significant percentage of potential gamers. The pillowcase specifically is a nod to maturity meaning nothing more than sexuality. The art book included with the game has an image of Catherine eating a slice of pizza. This image was also used in early advertising of the game and it is very sexually suggestive. Catherine’s box art itself was also deemed too risque by some stores. The original versions of the art were cropped into alternate covers which are now being sold by many retailers. This advertising and art design reduces the game’s Mature rating to code for BOOBS! Boobs! Boobs!! Sex! Boobs! That does a disservice to a game that Atlus claims is about the mature themes of relationships,  commitment, and desire. With so much of the advertising focused on the sexual imagery, it makes it difficult to take the claims of maturity seriously.

Catherine original cover art. For the Xbox360 it is an image of Katherine lying on her stomach with Vincent hanging on her shirt. Several sheep surround her. The PS3 artwork is an image of Catherine standing and moving the straps of her shirt down over her shoulders with Vincent stuck in her cleavage and several sheep falling around her.

Alternate covers for Catherine. Both the PS3 and the XBox360 artwork were cropped to show a closeup of either Catherine or Katherine's faces with falling sheep around them.

Love is Over/ Deluxe Edition of Catherine. Included a Stray Sheep pizza box, art book, music CD, the game, Empty heart t-shirt, boxers, and the pillowcase with the game logo and an image of Catherine sprawled on the pillow.

Purely in terms of Catherine as a game, I really enjoyed it. The puzzles were challenging but fair.  The undo button was a nice addition after complaints of high difficulty when the game was first released in Japan. Save points before every puzzle made it so that losing progress was never an issue if a specific puzzle was extremely difficult. There is also a Very Easy mode that can be unlocked in the opening screen of the game for players that have trouble with the high speed and intensity of the puzzles. With both Vincent’s cutscenes and the tales of the patrons at the bar I wanted to see where the story would go next. But at Border House we look at more than just if a game is fun and it is with the story of Catherine where most of my complaints are found.

Vincent’s actions often feel inconsistent with his stated desires. He claims several times that he wants things to stay the same in his life, which should mean that he wants to continue a relationship with his long time girlfriend Katherine. Yet his affair with Catherine is in clear contrast to this desire for things to remain unchanged. My annoyance with this is increases when I felt a lack of control over Vincent’s actions. He continues to make choices that seem to contradict how I answered the questions during the nightmare sequences and the responses I gave for the text messages on his cellphone. The only effect those choices have on Vincent are his thoughts during the cutscenes, but the major actions and decisions around those scenes are largely unaffected by my choices. This player lack of control mirrors Vincent’s perceived lack of control in his own life. He acts as those the relationship milestones and issues with Katherine are things that are happening TO HIM rather than something in which he is an active participant. In much of the game we see Vincent reacting to events in his life rather than taking responsibility for his decisions and their consequences.

One of the things that is done exceptionally well in the game is the voice acting. I especially like the voice work for Katherine. My initial worry of her being painted as nagging or angry was mostly erased through the wonderful voice work. At times there are lines of dialogue or segments where she is upset or angry but for the most part the acting did not steer her toward the stereotype I had feared. It feels ambiguous enough that the player can decide for themselves how they perceive Katherine.

A general complaint from the game is that it is primarily a male centered story. It tells the tale of a 32 year old guy and his worries and anxieties. The other sheep in the nightmare segments are also male. The majority of bar patrons are male. As a whole it feels like a game about men, for men, written with the male point of view in mind. Even when adding the stories of the other bar patrons and their anxieties the game lacks a greater diversity. It is mainly a tale of heterosexual men hanging out with other heterosexual men in a bar.

Now is when I now need to discuss some of the detailed story elements of the game. Spoiler territory ahead! Turn back now if you don’t want to read it.


Not only is this a game about men it is also extremely heteronormative. As the game progresses it is assumed that the men dying in their sleep are all heterosexual males who have been having affairs.  The very end of the game reveals that this is not the entire story. The antagonist of the game is one of the most heteronormative figures I have seen in recent games. It is revealed that this force making men undergo these nightmares is a god who explains his goals in the following terms: “Wasting a woman’s time of greatest fertility is a hindrance to the future of the species. So, we separate these non-fruitful couples and redistribute the women to men who can follow the natural order, you see.” This is an antagonist who literally sees women as nothing more than baby incubators. Through these nightmares and the help of Catherine he puts men into situations where they will cheat and therefore allow the women in their lives to move onto other men so that they can procreate. His argument reduces both men and women to their biological functions and says that this is the sole purpose of humanity. Love, compassion,  and partnership are never mentioned because all this god cares about are people having children.

Luckily, Vincent disagrees with that narrow view of humanity. He yells back at him  “Look men and women… they’re more complicated than you think!” and “Despite what you think, we don’t need any herding.” and finally, “But I AM human! And I’m free to choose how I live!”.  Sadly, this is not fully explored within the game. Throughout most of the storyline we see Vincent fear commitment, fear having a baby, fear taking responsibility, and fear talking to either woman about his true desires. Rather than being a complex character he is the often the stereotype of a man who cannot take a relationship seriously. His relationships with Catherine and Katherine are full of complexity but he chooses to not deal with either of them. He does not discuss his fears and anxieties with the women in his life and instead spends his time drinking at a bar with his friends. He is avoiding making a choice and living with the consequences of that decision. Men and women are more complicated than the god claims but Vincent shows little of that until he finally defeated the god at which point the majority of the game is long past. It is only at the end of the game that he begins to make conscience choices and live with the consequences of his actions.

Another revelation is that the blue/red scale used to gauge text message responses and confessional booth answers within the game represents Freedom versus Order. Choices that lean toward selfish desires or Catherine are Freedom, and those that care about the needs of a partner or favor Katherine are Order.  This just adds to a false dichotomy presented with Catherine/Katherine. Early on during their relationship Catherine she tells Vincent that she is happy to be his girlfriend but only if he never cheats on her. That comment mirrors Katherine’s desire for monogamy in a relationship. So both women want that “order” in a relationship yet Catherine is seen as Freedom whereas Katherine is seen as a restrictive Order choice. Instead, I saw both women as similar in some ways. While they may dress differently and have different physical appearances both women care about Vincent, want to spend time with him, contact him frequently by phone, and want a monogamous relationship. I have a difficult time seeing the two women as complete opposites like the game suggested with the Freedom versus Order dichotomy.

One large disappointment with the game came from a revelation surrounding Catherine. We are told that, “She is a succubus. She appears at will and seduces men under the curse by appearing as their ideal woman.” She is that shepard leading sheep/men to their slaughter. The overt sexuality she exhibits and the clothing that hints at lingerie exists because it is Vincent’s true sexual desire. Which means that the two main women in the game are portrayed as either coercing Vincent into commitment or as little more than a personal seductress. This reveal made Catherine a far less complex character and turns her into a pawn in the antagonist’s game. I am currently replaying the game and will be trying to choose Catherine as Vincent’s end game partner. I am unsure how the game will deal with this decision in light of the fact that she is not a real person. One small positive is that when discussing the affair with his friend Orlando, Vincent says that he knows Catherine would not be “his type” and he knows this because she is Vincent’s “type”. This bit of dialogue shows an understanding that sexual preference is varied and individual.  While Catherine is Vincent’s personal ideal he knows that this would not be true for everyone.

After learning the truth about Catherine it becomes obvious that the affair is not physical, but rather something that likely only occurs in Vincent’s mind. There is no physical Catherine and thus no physical affair. The only person that ever saw Catherine was Vincent, even when they were supposedly sitting together in the Stray Sheep bar. Yet Vincent said the following to Katherine in my game, “It may have been fake, but in my heart I was still cheating on you…. I’m sorry. I know you can’t forgive me for what I’ve done… I finally woke up.” His understanding that he did have an affair, even without the physical contact, was a high point in the game for me. He is in a monogamous relationship and therefore his belief that he is having an affair with Catherine and his lack of desire to end that relationship is a betrayal to his pledge to Katherine. That discussion showed a level of maturity and care for his relationship that the rest of the game was lacking.

Erica, the red haired waitress from the Stray Sheep bar. She is wearing a yellow uniform, with a white apron, white and green sneakers and is holding a tray with a beer and a rum and coke.

Finally, I cannot discuss Catherine with talking about the character of Erica Anderson. She is the waitress at Stray Sheep. She is cheerful, friendly, flirtatious, and has known Vincent and his friends since they were young. Toby, a younger friend of Vincent’s, has a crush on Erica. As the story progresses the two of them date and have a sexual relationship which is significant to Toby in part because it is his first sexual relationship. At the ending scene in my game Erica walks over to Toby to give him a hug but he pushes her away and says, “The guys knew you as Eric back in school. I want my damn V-Card back!” She replies with “Sorry, but once that hole is punched, there’s no refund!”.  That short scene informs the player that Erica is a transgendered character and there are both low and high points to how this is portrayed within the game. During the entire game Erica is referred to with female pronouns. In the art book and in the game guide her description also uses female pronouns. Sadly, there are several instances where Vincent’s friend hint that Erica isn’t a “real woman” but they could be easily overlooked at the time as them teasing a friend, but in hindsight they seem cruel. I did find it as a positive that they never tell Toby about Erica’s past throughout the bulk of the game. I saw this as a sign of acceptance of Erica by her friends. Therefore I am quite upset at Toby being told of Erica’s past at the end of the game by his friends because that is information that should be disclosed when Erica felt comfortable doing so, not given away as gossip. A further striking choice was made by Atlus when they decided that Erica would undergo the nightmares along with Vincent and the other men. I assume that she is having the nightmares because she is not able to procreate, but since only men are lured into that dream world it hints that she is not truly female, at least in the eyes of the god controlling the nightmares. That decision gives license for players to also not see her as truly female and that is the biggest failing in her portrayal.

Overall, Catherine is a game that fails to shatter stereotypes. In its attempt to tell a mature tale about adult relationships it thrives in cliches. Vincent wants everything to stay the same yet he fears a permanent commitment to his relationship. The idea of a having a child causes him great anxiety, so much so that a child is the boss in two separate nightmare stages. When he is unhappy with his relationship, rather than talking with his long time girlfriend, he instead sits in a bar getting drunk with his friends. Vincent’s “ideal” woman is a blond, blue eyed, younger woman who is sexually bold and wears provocative clothing. This is a set of over used cliched that are never shattered. Vincent’s conclusion that people are complicated creatures is never fully explored by the game. In the end, I wish Catherine showed more depth and examined its adult themes with more care. For games that do these things I recommend some previous titles by this team: Shin Megami Tensei Persona 3 and Persona 4. In fact, Catherine alludes to those games several times with images of characters or icons from the Persona series scattered around the Stray Sheep bar. Personally, I am thrilled that an Atlus game sold 200,000 copies in the first week but I wish it had been one of those two gems rather than this latest project. The Persona games handle complex character stories much better than Catherine and I would recommend those games for players interested in mature themes that really do mean more than just boobs and sex.

A brown skinned woman with an asymmetrical bob with a red streak stares intently forward. She is dressed in full body armor with an N7 symbol on the breast and carries a pistol in one hand and a glowing "omniblade" in the other.

FemShep Steps Forward, But for How Long?

On the final day of the San Diego Comic Con, I sat in a hotel lobby completely exhausted, but still unable to stop grinning as I watched two little girls carry on a protracted and energetic pretend battle with a pair of inflatable omniblades. This felt a perfectly fitting way to close out the week as Bioware spent SDCC 2011 actually putting some promotional resources into acknowledging the existence of the female version of Commander Shepard for the first time since the Mass Effect series began in 2007.

A brown skinned woman with an asymmetrical bob with a red streak stares intently forward. She is dressed in full body armor with an N7 symbol on the breast and carries a pistol in one hand and a glowing "omniblade" in the other.

Looks iconic to me.

It was over a month ago that Bioware marketing director, David Silverman, announced on twitter that the company would be producing a Mass Effect 3 trailer featuring FemShep. This deviation from their slavish adherence to the conceit of a single “iconic” Shepard — in the form of a suitably rugged yet suitably handsome but utterly banal white dude — was credited to the massive amount of support and love for FemShep amongst vocal fans, particularly communicated to the devs through social media. Of course, the announcement was made too close to E3 for anything at all to materialize by then and, outside of a few tweets requesting design input from the masses, FemShep fans were left to wait.

Left to wait until this past Saturday, when a much touted Big Announcement turned out to be that Bioware would let the fans choose which of the six versions of FemShep that they’d developed would be utilized in the trailer (and possible future marketing material). Now there’s probably something to be examined in how much of this FemShep push has revolved around the minutiae of her appearance, but I cannot describe how gratifying it was, as a huge fan of Mass Effect, of action heroines in general and Commander Shepard in particular, to walk through the Bioware headquarters at SDCC and see it decked out in high resolution person-sized posters of FemShep designs — more than one of which were visibly women of color.

Of course the probable winner (leading by a hefty margin as of the writing of this article) is the blondest, blue-est eyed option with the longest hair, but a FemShep appealing so stringently to Western beauty standards is still miles better than no FemShep at all. And just the fleeting opportunity — the outside chance — of having official Mass Effect promotional material that features a female Commander Shepard of color is a heady feeling.

Six headshots of women dressed in armor with a rifle on their back. They have varying hairstyles and hair colors and the three women on bottom appear to be of African, East Asian, and possibly Hispanic descent.

Look, Ma! They're not ALL white!

However, this long-awaited triumph only increases the dissonance when considering the other big bit of Mass Effect business taking place at SDCC 2011.

On Friday, one day before the FemShep reveals and announcements began, Mass Effect executive producer, Casey Hudson, and screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, were featured in a segment during the Legendary Pictures panel where they discussed the Mass Effect movie currently in development. Very little of substance was said, both men relying largely on rehearsed sound bytes about the depth and breadth and richness of the Mass Effect universe. (The sole exception to this was when Protosevich wandered off message into an analogy about other video game movies failing because the source material was like a beautiful but stupid woman, at which I and many others in room vocalized our disgust. I say he wandered off message only because I have to hope no one in media training fed him that line.)

The one piece of news that came from this was that the movie will focus on the events of the first Mass Effect game, contrary to fan speculation that it would tell an original story set in the universe in order to avoid presenting a version of the events of the game that could be considered “canon.”

The power of choice has always been a huge talking point in Mass Effect marketing. All of the statements in the wake of  this FemShep push revolve around the developers acknowledging the significance and importance of the character because of that element of choice. Even as they spent years plastering everything available with images of the same grizzled white dude space marine indistinguishable from the other grizzled white dude space marines fronting 95% of the shooters on the market, everything ever said was about how your choices define the Mass Effect universe.

The first choice, the fundamental choice, is who your Shepard is.

For a Mass Effect film, they could cast a person of literally any gender and any racial background as Commander Shepard. There is, by their own insistence, no set appearance, no immutable look. Iconic DudeShep isn’t canon, they’ve declared again and again. He isn’t the Shepard; he’s just a marketing tool.

Canonically speaking, Commander Shepard needs to be athletic; Commander Shepard needs to be charismatic; Commander Shepard needs to be the baddest badass in the galaxy.

Commander Shepard does not need to be a rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy. Bioware has just now taken tiny steps away from the rugged-yet-handsome-but-banal white guy being the single, enduring image of Commander Shepard that they show to the world at large. It seems almost perverse, in light of that, to go charging right back towards that when it comes to something as high profile as a feature film that will introduce Mass Effect to millions of new people.

Yet, I’m just not optimistic enough to honestly think that anyone involved will take the time to seriously consider the infinite amount of options they have, even if they’ve been actively in the process of exploring them in another context.

All I can do is I hope that I’m wrong and that, just once, this isn’t a choice that’s already been made.

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

The Politics of Game Hair

N.B. Many thanks to Latoya Peterson for allowing me to ask her a few questions, and my friend Janathan for reading and giving me feedback. I do not claim to have these experiences, but it is something I rarely see addressed.

The choices for game hair often are often disappointing. The physics for realistic hair are not quite there, meaning longer hair is rarely seen. However, as a white male with the accompanying privileges that can afford me in terms of being represented in games, it took me a while to realize just how bad the hair options are. It first started around 2000, when I began making my little Sims and basing them on real life friends—it was then that I realized, try that I might, I could not model my black friends effectively, because many of them liked to wear their hair naturally

Ever since that time I have kept an eye on the characters I am able to design in my games. From the original Sims to White Knight Chronicles to both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series (and many more besides—MMOs for instance), I have noticed that if I want to create a black character model, I am typically given at maximum four options, if that, when choosing hair options that are not treated in some fashion: cornrows, locks, mini-fros, or going the shaved route. Even more curious is that sometimes this is even further divided between selecting to play as a man or a woman; when playing Dragon Age 2, I noticed that my male Hawke had more options than my female Hawke, oddly enough (or, as is the case with Mass Effect 2’s editor, I found myself unable to emulate Jacob’s features very well). For Ronia Shepard, for instance, I found the options to shear off all her hair, or go with the pulled back ponytail look featured below (which still isn’t perfect, but alas).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

When presenting this topic to some people, there are typically two responses. Either, as I mentioned above, all hair options are horrible, so this should be seen as either a boon (this is said with a laugh, so as to make sure I understand it as a joke) or we should work on improving hair overall. The second is rarer, but also comes from a place of privilege, asking if black people really want these options? After all, the assumption goes, how many black people play these particular games anyway? And given that the assumed number is so infinitesimally small, wouldn’t that just be a waste of resources?

Of course, games are not alone in this lack of representation. In almost any media, when we do see a black man or woman who is supposed to be taken by us as attractive, there are certain standards regarding lightness of skin, acceptable facial features, and how their hair is presented to us—Eurocentric standards. The ideal is to have flattened, straightened hair for women, and short, closely cropped hair for men. This does not mean I want to excuse games, but want to point out how games are performing the same-old, which is a shame when we have games that propose that we get to create and make ourselves, to immerse ourselves in their worlds, or to inhabit some fantasy character.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

In my first example, with The Sims, the problem was further highlighted by the fact that the game had a thriving mod community. Hair options abounded, as many were not satisfied with the original stock of hair options. Try as I might, I found myself frustrated on two fronts: rarely was black hair considered, and, back in the days of the first Sims, clothing was split into three skin color categories (white, a yellow/light brown, and a light-toned black), and quite often, white was the only option for particular sets of clothing within the modding community. With the release of Sims 2, we did not seen a return to the clothing divided by skin color, though natural hair options have still been somewhat lacking in the default selection as the series progresses.

Which only highlights the related problem of the lack of diversity in the industry, and further, those voices being heard in directing a project, or coming up with its assets. It is still common that even basic skin color never goes darker than light-brown, and that the skin tones are abysmal in certain lighting conditions. It starts to seem as if it is an afterthought. Since many white people I know are still relatively ignorant in terms of natural hair,  or how the media quietly silences all but the ‘acceptable’ black beauty, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see how this occurs. Plainly: ignorance.

Games seemingly brag more and more often about their character creators, and how they have better options, allow more customization, and give the player the chance to really play themselves, or whomsoever they may choose. Myself? Yeah, I can play my pasty white-skinned self to my heart’s content, but I do not play games to always play myself, and I am one of those people aware of the self-loathing encouraged by media (both subtly and overtly) and the battles people can have about the politics of their hair in public (note: aware, not experienced). I want to play from different perspectives, even if the game does not wholly acknowledge my choices of created character.

There is a question of the social responsibility of games, and if we are to believe they have the same social responsibility as any media, we need more diversity in a number of ways, including self-representation for minorities (and theoretically for those who don’t want to play themselves all the time—much as with same-sex romance, it is folly to believe that only those who are queer would play such). The media’s black beauty standards should ideally have no role in games, though they are present. If we are to continue to open up character creators, however, we need to also allow a larger range of options, where natural hair does not get boiled down to what white society considers ‘acceptable’ and ‘politically safe.’

A large tower crane. To continue with the metaphor, a skyhook attached to an actual crane might well build something.

The Skyhook Society: On Sex and Sociological Incoherence in Games

A skyhook. ( A large gunmetal hook whose chains disappear into space; Image – Trafford Park Sculpture in Manchester, a monument to one of the first industrial parks in the world. Via Flickr/Tony Worrall )

It is hardly groundbreaking at this point to say that the social worlds painted in many video games and other fantasy environments tend to be based on politically charged ideas about gender, race, and so forth. Despite being wildly fantastic or surreal they are, just as often, presenting the player or the reader with a social world that is depressingly familiar. A world where the humans are white, where the power holders are men, where heterosexuality remains compulsory, where any sort of trans-ness is not even on the horizon; in other words a world with very familiar relations of ruling.

This is an issue that has arrested me ever since I started analysing fictional media. It bothered me in a very deep way, and not just because of its prejudice and clichéd nature. In so many games that purported to be sci-fi or fantasy, in ways great and small, I found myself confronted with the same notions of gendered and racialised power that suddenly made a galaxy feel something less than far, far away. There was something more to why these tropes of power felt so wrong to me, and I feel I’ve finally come to a preliminary conclusion about that:

It is that these societies lack internal social coherence.

In order to make their bigotries work they rely on a failure of imagination that produces skyhook societies where white cis men rule in clear defiance of social forces operating on the world. Social forces introduced by the writers themselves.

To be clear here, what is meant by the titular skyhook is something that holds a concept aloft in space, suspending it in midair unsupported by any underlying structure. It is a simple, miraculous thing whose suspension in midair is to be taken on faith. The idea, borrowed from Daniel Dennett’s framework for discussing different theories of evolution, is quite applicable to discussions of social theories. Every video game’s fantasy society expresses a certain theory of that society’s existence. However fantastic and unreal it may first appear, it is always expressing some theory, great or small, of human social organisation. This implies structure, yet structure is often absent. The reason for this has much to do with the great problem that vexes a lot of us who critique video games from a social justice perspective.

In other words the skyhook here is a substitute for any proper social structure that would undergird and properly explain these societies and their particular arrangements of power. Who rules what, and who does what to whom, in other words. I most recently explored this in my last article ‘The Twenty Millennia Decade’ where I criticised the various writers of several Star Wars Expanded Universe properties for inexplicably reinstituting patriarchal and white-supremacist power relations in their works that seemed expressly contradicted by the various societal forces they introduced in their worlds. To be more concrete about this: I suggested that their static patriarchy was unsustainable over twenty thousand plus years in a civilisation that was awash in loudly competing social arrangements, human and alien. In puzzling over the origins and inexplicable persistence of American-style patriarchy (a world where women were very rarely military officers, for example) in this world, I stated that in the end nothing could be found to hold it up. It seemed a lazy excuse to use boilerplate sexist narratives about women sleeping their way to the top or relying on paternal largesse to succeed in realms that are the traditional (for some reason) preserve of the menfolk.

Now, we all know this is not really a puzzle per se. The worlds are written like this because the writers do not want to imagine a non-patriarchal world and they will doubtlessly try to justify this with appeals to a mass audience that would be satisfied with nothing less than the stereotype.

But it is worth examining the particularities of how these worlds lack internal coherence. Their inherent failure to achieve verisimilitude is equally framed as an artistic criticism, one that demonstrates why the quest to reflect our own social relations in fantasy worlds gets in the way of telling genuinely interesting stories and portraying truly imaginative worlds.

The New World, Same as the Old World

A comment I wrote on Zaewen’s excellent deconstruction of fantasy matriarchy was an attempt to make clear some of the particular problems that one found in the world of the Drow:

Among Drow, if the society were really to be an inversion of Patriarchy (leaving aside, for the moment, the issue of caricature and distortion you eloquently describe that mocks women’s experience) then men would not be given access to the warrior or Mage caste. Except for the ‘rare exception’ which had ‘transcended the natural limitations of his sex’- i.e. exceptionalism in reverse. Why would a matriarchy, especially one that so brutally represses men, let them anywhere near weapons?

 

Rather, my friend said, they’d be kept from war because the women “couldn’t bear the sight of their beautiful, delicate men being harmed on the field of battle. What’s more, their man meat would be far too distracting for the women warriors.” Again, this is a proper inversion of patriarchy in all of its subtlety.

 

Then there’s the issue of the violent repression itself, symbolised by that fetishsistic picture you used at the start of the article with the male drow being used as a footrest.

 

That is not how oppression works in practise. Oppression is very often violent, yes, (rape, domestic violence, hate crimes, bullying, sexual harassment) but these things are very intentionally kept in the shadows of privacy (a matter I wrote about recently on my blog). In general, violence is a measure of last resort in terms of direct confrontation with the state. People have to want to obey. In Drow society it’s clear the men don’t wish to obey, en masse, which is a sociological problem with this culture. Societies do not, in practise, work like this. Oppressive systems cannot survive constant rebellion, especially not if the underclass has access to weapons and magic.

 

As my friend and I agreed, what man would play a Drow male if his condition was truly equivalent to the position of women in Patriarchy? A man relegated to housework and fieldwork, told he was too fragile to do anything important?

 

The Drow are a fantasy of overcoming “female power.” Many men believe that women are all nags who use our feminine wiles to deceive and sunder them. This is then projected onto the Drow, who at times seem like caricatures of complaining henpecking housewives, who become a means of overcoming the evil woman through fantasy in a cathartic exercise.

 

You also made a good point about clothing. In a truly flipped-Patriarchy Matriarchy we’d see men walking around with few coverings on, possibly with bulging codpieces, oriented towards a ‘female gaze.’ Women, by contrast, might still adorn themselves with symbols of rank and station, but they would have next to no reason to dress in enfeebling and impractical ways. Why do so when they are in power? Their whole schema of sexy would be different. Women would not be the sex class, nor the referent for sex.

To frame all of these off-the-cuff critiques in my larger argument, what happened with the Drow was that their matriarchy was skyhooked into making sense. There is no proper social structure that girds the gender order of the Drow world. There is no mechanism of socialisation that explains why Drow men do not rise up in revolution when all the conditions for it exist, there is no structure of cathexis that explains why Drow women would have any kind of attachment to skimpy and enfeebling clothing when they ostensibly rule and why the sex-class system of our own real-world patriarchy is reiterated here. The skyhook, in this case, is the desire to create both a male fantasy and a male nightmare through the use of patriarchal tropes that allow for the presumed-default-male player to roleplay a conquest of domineering women. Although it makes next to no sense for a true matriarchy to allow the subordinate class any access to weapons and spellcasting, this is done to ensure that male players have an avenue to power.

All patriarchies, regardless of their individual differences, allow for cultural release-valves for women as well as celebration of some particular aspect of womanhood that is then used to create a system of pedestalisation. The most popular form of this is the celebration of motherhood as a vital and important role, and this has been embodied in the cosmology of a given society’s gender. Hera, among the Greeks, or the Virgin Mary among Christians. Societies will write their gender order into the stars. Often, patriarchies have included women in those cosmologies, but in subordinate, conquered, or instructive roles. It might have been interesting to see the same done for men in the Underdark, for them to be given a patron Drow god who was subordinate to Llolth, perhaps an avatar of sacred masculinity and hearth-based fatherhood.

Or might male players have considered that emasculating?

Whether some do or some don’t, however, is almost immaterial. If one wishes to create a society with a particular division of gender labour, one shouldn’t call it a matriarchy if men are given so much power. Whatever it is, it’s something besides a matriarchy in many respects; any pretension that it is seems to be held up by next to nothing. It seems to suggest that a matriarchy is present whenever women have any power beyond the prescribed norms of our own society. The Drow, as I said in my comment, appear as almost a sinister parody of henpecking housewives who would be a joy for men to conquer.

A Galaxy of Unequal Representation

In my last article I talked about Admiral Natasi Daala, a powerful woman and officer in the Imperial Navy of the Star Wars EU. In critiquing a good deal of the nonsense in her portrayal—as a hyper-competent woman who is nevertheless forever tarred, even among fans, as someone who ‘slept her way to the top’—I missed something that appeared in fairly recent Star Wars novels surrounding the work of an older, wiser Admiral Daala:

She had some changes to make to the Moff Council as well. The new council would be composed of an equal amount of females as males, something still unheard of decades after Emperor Palpatine’s death.

I just like this picture, can you tell? ( A light skinned human woman with braided red hair wearing an Imperial uniform, part of her face shadowed as she stares ahead intently. )

Four decades after the events of Return of the Jedi we find it ‘unheard of’ for a democratically elected body to have an equal number of men and women. But what social structure is holding this up? As I already explored in my last article, such a thing makes no sense in a galaxy with trillions of people from a diversity of cultures. One could argue that the overt patriarchy of the Galactic Empire had ensured a world similar to our own where forty years of progress would not ensure measurable equality (our own world is a fair enough example of this: in the forty years since 1970 most countries have singularly failed on most indicies of gender equality). But the Empire’s cliché patriarchy, itself a crass mockery of our own, is held up by a skyhook: in this case, a desire to make the Empire as moustache-twirlingly evil looking as possible.

Admiral Daala is a controversial character in the Star Wars fan community, and doubtless her feminist leanings are a significant part of that. That the writers of the latest EU novels sought to make her a gender reformer of some kind was an interesting manoeuvre indeed. But it again occurs against a social backdrop that is impossible to think of as anything other than a chrome plated version of our own relations of ruling.

Using the Skyhook to Build a Real Structure

The problem with all of this is not only related to the question of poor portrayals of women and other marginalised peoples; it is also the fact that our desire to use fantasy as a validating vehicle for justifying a golden age hidden somewhere in the past. Particularly inherent to the defensive trope about how all high fantasy is akin to the “Middle Ages” is the idea that this golden age is desirable because it allows the present status quo without the presence of all the objectors. None of those nattering feminazis or PC policing anti-racist, trans, or disability activists can get you if you hearken back to the distant past.

That fear should be abandoned. Under the guise of thinking that, say, tired jokes about trans people are still funny, we lose genuine opportunities to do interesting and unique things with the possibilities that lay before us. Most writers and game developers do want to stand out from the crowd, they do not truly wake up every day thinking that they merely wish to ape all that have come before. One can do this by thinking about how one’s society actually works.

Ask yourself about structure: if you wish to create a patriarchy, what social forces create and sustain it? How do women confront and navigate that patriarchy? Where are the exceptions to hegemony and who’s there, when, and why? What sorts of emotional attachments are formed in this gender order? What, in other words, do people fancy or hate and why? All of these types of questions that require a sociological explanation for one’s gender order actually create creative opportunities. Characters may arise out of the answers to these questions. Places, quests, religions, flavourful dialogue, entries for the game encyclopaedia, or any number of other outlets for creative structural explication (Morrowind and Oblivion’s books were a famous example of this) can flow from questions like this. The point of such questions is to not take one’s world for granted.

A large tower crane. To continue with the metaphor, a skyhook attached to an actual crane might well build something.

Ask yourself critical questions about the division of labour, ethnicity, and gender. Ask yourself if heterosexuality needs to operate in your world exactly the same way it operates in ours. Ask yourself if your culture needs to be an appropriating parody of a human culture, or if every human in your world must be white. Demand of yourself explanations for these things. What you will be weaving in the process is a proper social structure that can hold up your world, one that will almost automatically make it notably different from our own. It will put your world’s various power dynamics at a tantalising remove from our own, making it feel all the more creatively alien and unique. The most interesting fantasy worlds I’ve seen are ones that do make some kind of accounting for their social systems, that possess identifiable structure, rather than unsupported mirroring of the real world.

Trust your readers, gamers, and viewers to not need the crutch of patriarchal and white-supremacist familiarity. Amazing worlds can exist without those two things being present, without taking their presence and ineluctability for granted.

The consequence of this will not only be a world that is less problematic, but one where there is actually a better story being told. A story that fulfils video games’ promise as artwork.