Tag Archives: gender

Maelstrom – Unscheduled, Inclusive and now with Sponsorship

There is a new gaming convention coming out soon called Maelstrom, April 4th to April 6th. I want to mention it here because as taken from the website this is something that people here would be really interested in as it’s got a focus on being unstructured and inclusive. They got a lot of attention last year with their Diana Jones Nominated play-testing convention Metatopia for being a great spot to talk about design, as well as being inclusive to their guests with lots of discussion based around queerness, mental health, and social change in games.

That said, maybe Morristown NJ is a little too far for you, and the money isn’t there? Thankfully for this new convention, the people to the IGDN are providing a sponsorship to a designer from marginalized communities whose work supports the discussion and exploration of issues that affect marginalized communities. The best thing, for those who are still worried about it, is that having published material isn’t a pre-requisite to get the sponsorship.

There are more details on the IGDN website.



Heroines in Dota 2

The following is a guest post from Max Seidman:

Max Seidman is a game designer at Tiltfactor, a game design and research lab located at Dartmouth College dedicated to developing games for meaningful social change. He posts design philosophy and game concepts on his blog.  Max lives in New Hampshire with Clementine, the Crystal Maiden to his Lycanthrope.

I love DotA.  I’ve been playing for over eight years at this point, and over that time I’ve sunk an absurd and unspeakable number of hours on the game.  I played it as a custom map for the original Warcraft III, then in the expansion Frozen Throne, then on the Garena client, and now in Valve’s standalone Dota 2.  And while I love the game, there’s one think I don’t love about it: its representation of women.  These are my thoughts on the things Dota 2 is doing poorly on this front.

Lack of Representation
A dearth of female characters is endemic to video games.  In games with a protagonist the argument is often made, “We’re marketing our game to men, so we’re going to make our main character male.”  While this is bullshit, I at least understand the argument.  However, not even this is a shield that games in the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre, games like DotA, can hide behind, as these games often have dozens of characters to choose from.

Dota 2 itself currently boasts over 100 heroes that players can play.  As you can see below, exactly 16 of them are female, identified either by their backstories, names or voices.  This is rather pathetic, and seems to imply that male players would be offended and turned off to the game by the mere presence of female characters, which I find fairly insulting.

Women: 51% of the U.S. population, 16% of the Dota 2 population. (Hero selection screen alternating all heroes, and just female ones.)

Women: 51% of the U.S. population, 16% of the Dota 2 population.
(Hero selection screen alternating all heroes, and just female ones.)

Continue reading

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

GDC Online Panel “Writing The Unsung Experiences: Gender In Game Storytelling”

A GDC Online 2012 panel entitled Writing The Unsung Experiences: Gender In Game Storytelling is now available streaming for free from the GDC Vault. The speakers–Leigh Alexander, Jenn Frank, and our own Mattie Brice–tackle the topic of gender and diversity in games by addressing it as a writing and storytelling issue. The panel gets beyond the usual issues that come up in “women in games” panels and offers ideas for expanding the kinds of stories games can tell. It’s definitely worth a listen.

Writing The Unsung Experiences: Gender In Game Storytelling — GDC Vault

“Isolated Incidents” Timeline And How You Can Help

gtz, cofounder of Fat, Ugly or Slutty, has started creating a timeline of sexism in games incidents. Sardonically titled “Just a few ‘Isolated Incidents’–Gender & Gaming,” the purpose of the timeline is to show that these are not in fact isolated incidents but a repeating pattern that exposes systemic sexism.

The timeline is already stuffed with incidents, many that have me nodding and thinking, “Oh yeah, THAT happened.” And that is just up until April! gtz has asked for help in finishing out the rest of the timeline of 2012. If you are interesting in helping out with this project, tweet @_gtz_ or email gtz@fatuglyorslutty.com. For guidelines and more information, be sure to check out gtz’s explanation on Reddit.

Just a few ‘Isolated Incidents’–Gender & Gaming” — gtz, gbitk.net

Masculinity and the Embodied Machine in Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The following is a guest post from Kaitlin Tremblay:

Kaitlin Tremblay has a Master’s in English and Film, with a specialization in gender and genre, and is currently living the fabulous life of a publishing intern. She spends most of her time playing games, painting, reading (mostly comics nowadays), watching old B-horror films, and writing a nerd-culture/feminist blog.

For my Master’s final paper I choose to focus on depictions of the masculine body as a machine and how these inevitably intersect with madness and violence, specifically with “anti-hero heroes,” like Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid. Needless to say, the moment I put on Deus Ex: Human Revolution, listened to Adam Jensen’s gruffy Christian Bale-Batman voice and watched him die, and be reconstructed/brought back to life with mechanical prostheses, my curiosity was piqued.

Adam Jensen looking down at his mechanical fist and arm.

Adam Jensen doing a damn fine Tim Tebow impersonation.

I want to talk about the male body as a machine. It’s common, but it’s a metaphor that speaks volumes about stereotypes of masculinity, especially of the “hero.” The reconstruction Adam Jensen experiences is more like a tune-up that the Impala undergoes in Supernatural than Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster. The difference is that with the Impala and Jensen, both get recreated through mechanical, not biological, upgrades.

When I had originally wrote on masculinity and the machine metaphor, I discussed it specifically in relation to violence and madness: namely, that the heroes/anti-heroes typically depicted as embodied machines are both extremely violent and extremely insane, and that the machine metaphor was the bridge between. Being a frontier cowboy like Billy the Kid, meant creating a dissonance between self and the violence necessary to survive; it is the machine metaphor that encapsulates this, holding it like a nuclear reactor.

A portrait of Malik wearing her pilot's uniform.It’s also worth noting that when Malik tries to get the angsty-Jensen to open up about how it feels to be augmented, she admits to having some neural-augs, herself. Mailk’s augmentations are discreet, hidden: they are implanted in her brain, becoming fused into her body invisibly.

Jensen’s augmentations, on the other hand, replace his biological body, literalizing the machine metaphor. This is a trope specific to masculinity because masculinity has stereotypically being defined alongside notions of physicality and violence.

In The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Ondaatje, the mechanical embodied masculinity was the answer: the frontier world Ondaatje created necessitated a machine-like response in order to survive. The mechanical embodied metaphor/representation of masculinity operates no differently. It’s a dissonance, a reconfiguring of self in terms of embodied subjectivity and violence. Non-augmented Jensen failed. But new, robot-arms Jensen will save the day, repeatedly. It’s the same narrative in Mass Effect 2: human bodies aren’t up to the gruesome job, so we create new, mechanical bodies that can not only do it, but that we can safely distance ourselves from, as well. More on ME2 in a minute, though.

So what does this mean for masculinity and gender studies? Christopher Forth, in Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization, and the Body, discusses the Industrial Revolution as the real Crisis of Masculinity (never mind Fight Club), because with the advent of technology meant the eradication of dependence on a man’s supposed strength. Julien Offray de la Mettrie wrote Man A Machine in 1748, a pretty strong indication that this time period represented a shift in attitudes about bodies and their capabilities.

Simone De Beauvoir even talks about this as levelling the playing field between genders: with technology, it doesn’t matter which sex is stronger, because that bulldozer is stronger than everyone. Okay, so she didn’t say that exactly, but she did mention how technological advancements make moot the age-old argument of who is stronger, males or females. Now, I’m saying this is a good thing (unlike Guy Garcia who, in Decline of Men thinks this is the reason why America is faltering as a nation). The more we think about embodied subjectivity in non-gendered terms, the better. The dissonance created by the machine-metaphor exposes the construction and performativity of gender. As N. Katherine Hayles says, “The computer moulds the human even as the human builds the computer” in Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers. As technology changes our conception of humans, it affects our understanding of gendered constructs.

An action shot of Adam striking out with his fist, a blade protruding from his elbow over his fist.

Deus Ex: HR falls short of this, but it’s a good place to start thinking about it. DE:HR still largely stays within the confines of the masculine machine, especially when you compare Jensen and Malik’s augmentations. Malik’s augmentations don’t change her feelings of embodiment or subjectivity, but with Jensen we’re directed specifically to think about how they shape him. Malik is still separated from machines: she’s a pilot who controls her use of technology, whereas Jensen is conflated with technology.

The Mass Effect 2 example is an apt comparison here, because the character customization available is indicative of how studying represenations of femininity, masculinity and how the machine metaphor can operate to blur the gendered notion of strength and violence. DE:HR exposes the representation of masculinity as mechanized and violent, and ME2 allows for this to be taken further (sidnenote: I’m ignoring the release dates here, but just looking at how the similar narrative is operating in both).

If we’re thinking in these terms, then ME2 shows that mechanized metaphors for the body can expose a dependence on thinking of gender as a natural product of one’s sex. The reconstruction and augmentation Commander Sheperd undergoes is not tied to a specific gender. It is open. Technology recreates our conception of ourselves by recreating how we are represented.

This is why I enjoyed specializing in gender studies: studying representations of gender, both femininity and masculinity, work to expose these categories as artificial constructs, both with the capability to oppress and empower. We’re never going to escape representation. We are steeped in a visual culture, and representation operates as a bridge for understanding and assimilating information, for both good and ill.

Why do you think you know that Taric is gay?

A skin that can be worn by League of Legends character Taric; it is very pink, features large gems and furry legwarmers, and is accessorised with a very poofy hairdo

This week, there has been discussion about whether League of Legends character Taric should come out of the closet as a gay man (by Todd Harper, Patricia Hernandez, and Kristin Bezio). It is argued that having a character be openly gay, rather than ‘wink and a nod, maybe’ gay, would represent a positive shift in the game’s diversity. From what I gather about League of Legends, I suppose it probably would; but the assumptions underlying this discussion are not at all welcoming of diverse forms of gender and sexual expression.

It’s claimed that by ‘remaining tight-lipped about his life outside of the league’, Taric as a character is furthering the idea that being gay is a hush-hush thing that should be kept out of public view and just whispered and giggled about behind closed doors. Todd Harper lists a few ways that Taric’s sexuality could be included in the game; maybe he has a boyfriend character, for example. This would, Kristin Bezio argues, positively reinforce sexual diversity, rather than simply using it as an in-joke.

I don’t disagree with the value of both fictional characters and real-life human beings coming out of the closet. I’ve benefited immensely from other people speaking and writing publicly about their identities and experiences. If there was someone like me on British TV, I would have a much easier time explaining my identity to my mother. But by assuming that Taric is gay, people are contributing to heteronormative assumptions from which I have only been able to escape in recent years, thanks to other people coming out and being public about their diverse gender identities.

Only because of other people coming out and speaking about their identities do I know that gender-variant people are not always defined by labels relating to sexual orientation. I’m not against coming out, but I am against the assumption that everybody will or should manage their social lives and personal identities in the same way. And even though I don’t play LoL, this call for an apparently feminine male character to come out as gay is deeply troubling to me as a genderqueer person.

Continue reading

Why Lim is an incredible accomplishment

A screenshot from Lim – shows a labyrinth with walls made of black squares, the protagonist as a purple square, and other characters as brown squares, against a pale magenta background.

I played Merritt Kopas’s Lim a couple of weeks ago. I was very impressed, but thought it was too obviously brilliant to be worth writing about. But now it’s been featured on Rock, Paper Shotgun and commenters are calling it ‘pretentious’, and saying it’s a bad game, and nothing more than an art exercise, and feels like a drawn-out level of Dys4ia, so I feel I have to write something. Spoilers follow, as well as triggers for bullying and gender dysphoria.

Play and strategy

Lim is a game about fitting in. It’s a metaphor constructed out of game mechanics – the playable character is a square that is able to take on the colour of the majority of surrounding squares – or it can just stay the same colour as it already is. It’s up to the player to choose. The level design takes the form of a labyrinth. When the protagonist is spotted not fitting in, it is attacked by the surrounding squares. There’s no depleting health, no chance of dying, but the attack is loud, uncomfortable (physically so, as the flashing and juttering of the screen causes motion sickness for many players) and makes it harder to move around the game space.

The answer seems simple at first – just always blend in with your surroundings – but as the game progresses it turns out that this isn’t enough. Some spaces are mixed, and in those spaces you’re bound to be attacked. Some squares notice you looking different before you have the chance to change – by then it’s too late, and they attack you anyway.

When things go wrong

I don’t know whether this happens for all players – it felt like a bug, but many commenters have mentioned it happening to them too – but at some point, the square may end up pushed out to the outside of the walls of the labyrinth. This makes it easier to get to the end, as nobody can get to you to attack you, but in the words of one commenter, “it doesn’t feel much like freedom.” It feels lonely and meaningless. Eventually you find another square just like you – in Merritt’s own words, ‘multivocal’ – and you stand on either side of an impermeable wall, both flashing in many colours, both free from having to choose one colour or another, but both isolated.

When this happened, I imagined that if this ‘bug’ hadn’t occurred, I would be able to actually be with the other multivocal square. I thought other players would experience the game without this unfair event, and I had just been unlucky. I was on the outside looking in, imagining that we could have been friends and supported each other if I wasn’t so isolated.

Being an insider

One of the charges of pretentiousness stems from the idea that you wouldn’t ‘get it’ unless you looked up information about its author. Merritt tweets publicly about the physical and social effects of coming out as trans and undergoing hormone replacement therapy. I feel uncomfortable describing someone else’s personal experience, but my understanding is that at the moment, she is sometimes read as male, sometimes as female, and can adjust her gender presentation for certain circumstances.

I knew this when I was playing the game, but I felt that the metaphor was much more broad than that – it’s not an autobiography, but a metaphor that represents a social phenomenon surrounding fitting in. I thought this was something we all struggled with.

I went through it a lot at school, because I didn’t hide the things about me that made me different – all the people I respected were telling me to be myself. It was only a couple of years later that I realised there were lots of other people who would have also stood out for the same reasons as me, but they did a better job of concealing them or re-presenting them in order to fit in. Even though people’s disapproval can’t hurt me the way it used to, adulthood has been about trying to find ways of skilfully and strategically re-presenting or concealing my idiosyncracies – and like all strategies, it doesn’t always work. That’s what Lim demonstrates for me.

Simplicity and complexity

The other charge of pretentiousness is that the message wasn’t ‘deep enough’ – commenters impatiently described it as ‘bullying is bad, be yourself.’ It’s ‘pretending’ to have a deep meaning, but it’s actually very simple. But a metaphor doesn’t have to be deep in itself. It’s the emotional and discursive domino-effect that it sets off that’s interesting.

Is the message of the game really ‘bullying is bad, be yourself?’ Is it telling people not to attack those who are different? There’s no good or bad outcome of the game from which to draw a moral conclusion. It’s just descriptive – this is what socialisation looks like.

As for the ‘be yourself’ side of it – for me, the game doesn’t say that at all. There is no ‘yourself’ to be in this game. You’re floating between states of presentation, and you settle upon them dependent on the situation. You would have a hard time finding ‘yourself’ in this. The reality presented by Lim is that you can’t just ‘be yourself’ without a social order structuring the entire problem – only when society is far away can you float again and not have to think about ‘being’ at all. ‘Being’ is a social question. The game isn’t preachy. It doesn’t even present a solution. It just describes a problem.

Beyond gender

What’s really incredible about Lim is that it elegantly uses simple game mechanics and good level design to describe a phenomenon without putting language to it. This is a phenomenon that is immediately complicated by language. If it was presented as a game about ‘being trans’ then it would immediately set that ‘multivocal body’ as one thing or another.

This game was made at a time when the entire discourse around gender variance is changing. Some people identify as one gender, find themselves in the ‘body of the wrong gender’, and are simply trying to repair that dissonance by transitioning. But within this, gender identity can still be complicated for some – “Yes, I’m a ‘he’” said one person to me this weekend, “but I’m not *that* kind of ‘he’. I’m a faggy dandy kind of ‘he’. So I’m kind of ‘they/he’”. Some people are ‘non-binary’ and may or may not experience dysphoria related to their bodies. Still others are cis-gendered but still have their gender presentation policed every day because of their career, their interests or the way they look.

There are no words to describe all of these people in a way that they would all be happy with. It’s something we struggle with at DapperQ and Saint Harridan all the time.

Lim could be about any of these people and more. And it can only be so because of the simplicity and ‘meaninglessness’ of its metaphor. How the game has been presented turns out to be just as important as the mechanics themselves – it is after all, a game about how you choose to present.

The 2006 Lara Croft reboot. She is a busty, small-waisted white woman swinging from a rope as she aims a pistol.

Lara Croft Reboot: Vulnerability Galore!

Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft on a motorcycle.

Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft on a motorcycle.

Trigger warnings: rape, violence against women.

Tomb Raider holds a fond place in my heart as a cultural icon, if only for the sexual awakening I shared with many other teen girls when I found myself infatuated with Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft.  However, I never could get into the videogames due to my own prejudice against games that screamed “boys only!”  As a teen girl, I couldn’t get past her giant tits long enough to take the game seriously.  Later, 2006, game designers acknowledged Lara was unrealistic, and responded with a redesign of supposed realism, I still snubbed Lara Croft:

As a gaming woman, I don’t find Lara Croft’s new proportions especially empowering or representative of me. It’s another message of how I ought to look so I can be sexy, confident, and poised. The consensus was that Croft was ridiculous, even from those who found her aesthetically pleasing. Now, she’s “realistic.” I could, theoretically, look like the new Lara Croft; she’s become within the realm of possibility existing. I’ve already “won” genetic lottery—I’m white, brunette, not fat—and now I just need to get breast implants, work out more, and stop eating.

If you don’t remember the 2006, here’s an image of how “realistic” the then-new Lara was:

The 2006 Lara Croft reboot.  She is a busty, small-waisted white woman swinging from a rope as she aims a pistol.

The 2006 Lara Croft reboot. She is a busty, small-waisted white woman swinging from a rope as she aims a pistol.

So game designers acknowledged that a pin-up girl was problematic, but responded with “realism” that was not so real.  Now, in 2012, Tomb Raider has another reboot that attempts to make Lara realistic through… vulnerability? Continue reading


WisCon Panel “Gender and Class in Gaming”

World of Warcraft branded Monopoly set.

The Shepard/My avatar discussion from WisCon was one of several gaming related panels this year. A section titled “Gender and Class in Gaming” had the following description:

This panel uses Dragon Age II, Mass Effect and classic tabletop games as a starting point to discuss class and gender issues that have been raised by players. We’ll discuss the ways in which class and gender are used in past and current games. How are gender and class issues used in the plot of the game? Does this detract or add to the gaming experience? Is it possible to be a feminist gamer?

It is clearly possible to be both a feminist and a gamer. I assume that line was added to get people enraged at the dismissal of such a person existing and get audience members fired up for the panel. WisCon is a feminist science fiction convention, therefore most audience members were likely feminists and gamers.


The following are my notes from the panel:


Games that discuss these issues

- Tales of Graces f

- Dragon Age series

- Dreamfall (a game that values traits that are coded as feminine)

- Sims 3 (Alice and Kev – roleplaying a homeless family)



- Seeing yourself represented in game/media is important for many people. So, games where girls/women get to be active and integral to the storyline help send the message to girls that they matter.

- It is important to look at who doesn’t get represented in games. Who do companies use their resources to represent? Who gets left out?

- There are so many more options than just a white, straight, male as the lead for games.


 Gender expectation/stereotypes

- The avatar you choose in multiplayer games often affects how other players interact with you.

- Some games impose their own stereotypes based on gender -> dexterity/agility high for women, and strength high for men. But ask any acrobat and they will tell you that strength is required along with agility.

- The characters of Sten and Shale in the Dragon Age games address gender stereotypes and expectations in their stories and dialogue.

- The more games rest on sexual dimorphism, the more stereotyping may exist.

- Even if we concede that a female and male character in a game have different strength and size, how much does that matter when the characters are using tools and magic?

- World of Warcraft had a line in the Cataclysm expansion where Garrosh Hellscream said to Sylvanas Windrunner “Watch your clever mouth, bitch!” Within the game they use a gendered slur used to silence a female character.


Fantasy class and race

- Tolkien fantasy intermingled race and class and has become part of the backdrop for much of fantasy. We see the same stereotypes repeated over time.

- Dragon Age had two different classes of elves and neither one were the high/rich elves of Tolkien fantasy. But while class and race were present, did the stories discuss either one enough to our satisfaction? The strata of dwarves allowed for a discussion of class, power, and oppression. What more could they have done? What do we want to see done next?


Board games/ Role playing games

- Monopoly was based on The Landlord’s Game, which was meant to show the negatives of monopolies. But the more popular Monopoly game is all about acquiring as much property and money as possible.

- Small World is a world conquest game that allows players to play with a mix of fantasy races but is still about world conquest and occupation.

- Puerto Rico is a game where players each run their own plantations using colonists (represented by brown pegs) as the workers.

- Eclipse Phase role playing game lets your characters play with/change genders throughout the course of the campaign. You can be gender neutral, change gender, or inhabit other characters.



The panel covered a very broad topic, but what are some of your thoughts on gender or class issues in games? What other games have discussed class issues but were missed in this discussion? What has been done well and what do we want to see done differently?