As some of you may have noticed in my bio that Jill posted, I’m a self proclaimed geek. One thing that I’m particularly passionate about is video gaming. I’ve been a huge gamer for almost as long as I can remember. My father purchased one of our first gaming systems, waaay back in the 2600 days. I can still remember the first computer that my folks had- it used a cassette tape as data storage- and the games I used to play on it (basically, a really primitive version of Space Invaders… only, with a single enemy). I still remember the sense of excitement and wonder when my parents brought home the ol’ Tandy computer- it had color graphics and a floppy drive. That was a big deal. Twenty plus years, multiple computers, and over ten platforms later, I’m still an avid gamer.
In the over two decades that I’ve been playing, gaming has changed tremendously- systems are more powerful, the graphics are prettier, the controls are better, and the stories they can tell are more involved and interesting. Lately, I’ve been particularly interested in the stories. As a feminist, and a philosophy student, I’m particularly interested in the intersection of gaming and morality/ethics. Not in a casual “games are corrupting our society” sort of way- but in the ways that games contribute to and are effected by our society, and the ways that we can explore and learn about complicated moral issues through the use of games.
For all that games have the ability to raise interesting and challenging moral and ethical issues, I’m forced to admit that a lot of them have a long way to go. Sexism and racism are still really common in games- and not just in the really explicit Grand Theft Auto sense. Honestly, Grand Theft Auto is almost the least of my concerns- it’s so blatantly sexist and racist, that it’s easy to avoid it, and it’s really easy to criticize and make a case for why I object to it. The problem with video gaming is that some of the sexism and racism is harder to make people grasp. For me, the problem becomes: how do I reconcile my progressive values with the undercurrent (and overcurrent) of sexism and racism that surround gaming? How do I help change things?
For a long time, one of the major complaints about gaming was the inability to play as a woman. That is: The majority of the playable characters in video games have been men. That’s been the case since gaming became popular. There are a few exceptions, of course- Samus from Metroid, for example- but the bulk of the heroes in games are men. As gaming has matured, the option to play as a woman has become more common. Fighting games might have been the first genre to make ready use of playable female characters. I think that every major fighting game has at least a handful of playable women. Of course, men still outnumber the women, and whites dominate racially.
Even when you do get the option to play as a woman, though, you’re still hard pressed to escape from some pretty sexist depictions. Consider this article on the case of World of Warcraft- the most popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). I’m not much of a RPG fan, but Moira, over at Feminist Gamers took a look at the Final Fantasy games’ portrayal of women, and it doesn’t look like they’re much better, despite being, arguably, the most popular RPG series ever made.
Women in fighting games are often even worse- the popular fighting game series Dead or Alive thrives on the blatantly sexual way that the women are presented. The makers of the DoA series take pride in the “breast physics” of the game, and the myriad of hyper sexualized costume choices that the game offers for the female characters. Looking across the multitude of fighting games, and you’ll find that the majority of them feature women in costumes that hypersexualize them while the men tend to be dressed more appropriately for whatever role they’re in.
In terms of race, a lot of games don’t do any better. When I took a look through the games I own- in excess of 100 titles- I could only find a couple of games that feature non-white or non-Asian playable characters. The majority of the games I own featured white heroes, with a few games about Samurai or Ninja featuring Japanese characters. The only games that featured black or Hispanic players were fighting games, and even those were, sadly, rare. According to microscopiq, there have been all of eleven black main characters.
Five of those are either games based on black characters from movie properties, or black celebs. And one- Jade, from Beyond Good and Evil- is pretty racially ambiguous.
The problem is how to make people realize that there’s a problem, when there are so many vocal gaming fans who argue that this isn’t a problem. Browse through some of the more popular gaming sites and you’re likely to find that, when it comes up at all, feminist or anti-racist concerns about gaming are met with the same dismissals as most feminist concerns are. The criticisms are dismissed with a wave of the hand and a “games are made by men for men, so of course women are sexualized- we like looking at naked/mostly naked women,” or some other all too common justification. They point to the few games that do feature strong female characters as though that excuses the rampant misogyny of other games. Voices condemning the racism withing games are all but absent from mainstream conversations.
Add to that the fact that the most vocal critics of video games tend to be people like Jack Thompson or NIMF (the National Institute on Media and the Family) who accuse video games of being murder simulators or promoting cannibalism- and you’ll find that a lot of gamers are particularly hostile towards criticism of gaming, even from fellow gamers. Women and feminists are made unwelcome in many gaming circles, and concerns about sexism and racism in games go unheard, ignored, or mocked.
I’m not sure what the solution is, yet, but I know that it’s not silence.
What do we do about a game like, say, Soul Calibur 3?
On the one hand, most of the women are moderately to extremely sexualized, and there’s a distinct lack of racial variety. On the other, the game includes a fairly robust character creation mode. In it, the player can make a woman who looks awesome, but is appropriately outfitted for combat- wearing armor that looks like armor, and not just a chain mail bikini. The women created by the company are rather lacking, but the ability to make your own is fantastic. Should they be rewarded for the creation mode, or punished for the sexist characters they start the player with?
And what form does that even take? Does not buying the game count as punishment? Do we write letters?
And, I think it’s important to note, this is just a tiny slice of the bigotry that permeates video gaming. This doesn’t touch on the transphobia and homophobia within games and that seems to be rampant amongst gamers, or the ways that online gamers harass women gamers, for example. This doesn’t touch on the blatant sexism that many gaming magazines encourage and participate in when they publish pin-ups of various female characters, or when game manufacturers put their characters in Playboy.
As someone who is extremely invested in gaming culture, it’s not easy for me to so harshly criticize my hobby. It’s hard to admit that something I’m so involved with and have spent so much time, money, and energy in has so many problems, and is so hostile towards so many groups.
I guess I’m wondering- for gamers: what do you do to reconcile your love of gaming with the problems that exist in the gaming community? Do you do anything to try to change things or to fight the sexism/racism/homophobia that’s so common, for example, in online gaming? And, what games would you suggest to feminist and anti-racist gamers?
For the non-gamers on here (if you’ve read this far): is there anything in particular about gaming that’s kept you away? Were you aware of these issues? Is there something that would get you interested in gaming? What do you think can be done to help fight the bigotry in the gaming community?
Finally: I think that one of the most bothersome aspects of the conversation is how to make other gamers realize that criticisms of the sexism/racism/homophobia/transphobia within the games and within the culture surrounding the games is not the same as a criticism of gaming in general. That is: How do we convince other gamers that we want to improve games, not take them away? It seems like any time I’ve raised an objection or asked people to consider sexism or racism in games, there are people who think that I’m suggesting that games should be censored or that gaming as a hobby is wrong. There must be a way to get people to realize that a complaint about the problems is not a call to abolish gaming, right?