Earlier this month, Collie of Collie’s Bestiary posted about her experiences with Planescape: Torment.
A short while ago I started playing the computer game “Planescape: Torment,” and stumbled across this issue again, with painfully eye-opening results. Keep in mind, this game won numerous awards for its storytelling and quality in 1999, the year it was released â€” which makes me wonder in appalled horror just how awful the other games were. But to continue: I first noticed the sexual objectification of women with the game’s job/species designations, which float above the head of the graphical character on the screen. There were monsters, and men and women. As I recall, men were classified about 50% as townsmen and 50% thugs. Women were similarly classified as either townswomen… or harlots.
What?! Um, hold on. Why were there no male harlots? Why no female thugs? Is the game trying to teach us that women can only be for sale, and only men are capable of violence? I found myself bewilderedly wondering: are the creators of the game afraid of women or something, that they feel the need to so dehumanize women in the game?
My first reaction was to attempt to excuse these aspects of the game as “ignorable.” There’s no need to look at the portrait gallery to play the game, and the “harlots” don’t actually have much in-game purpose (they can improve Morte’s Curse ability; that’s about it). It seemed a waste to miss out on a game that had so much else going for it. This, of course, is precisely the wrong framing – it puts the burden on the player to put aside her own discomfort. Besides, there are other uncomfortable aspects to the game which are not so easily ignored, such as the geek-girl fetish of the Brothel of
Cartesian Dualism Slating Intellectual Lusts, or how every girl’s crazy for a gothed-out Hulk. A better way of approaching these issues is in terms of the costs and benefits of the design decisions – is it really worth alienating a sizable portion of your audience for this?
I. Penalizing Women
There’s been a lot of debate over The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion‘s character creation process, which gave different attribute bonuses based on the character’s sex, and did it in such a way that male characters were more optimized, especially for fighting classes. As tikae notes:
It’s that if you want to have a female character, you’re going to be punished if you want to be anything except for a mage – and you’re still not going to be as good at that as male characters of most races are. It’s just how the numbers work. Making it a punishment to choose a certain gender is always going to be bad game design, whether it’s political or not.
First edition AD&D had an even more unbalanced portrayal of sexual dimorphism – the maximum allowable strength for women of any “race” was significantly lower than that for men, with no attempt to balance this penalty. In other words, men were penalized for playing cross-gender characters, and women were penalized for playing same-gender characters – again, especially warrior types.
Arcanum goes even farther than that – many of the species in the game are simply only playable as male. The designers cite the extra work and storage space that would be required to include artwork representing female dwarves, gnomes, etc., and explain it away in-game by referring to Victorian convention. The upshot, though, was that players had significantly fewer options if they wished to play female characters.
II. What Is Real? How Do You Define “Real”?
In addition to simply being glossed over, all of these examples of sexism in RPGs also get defended by portraying critics as valuing “political correctness” over “realism,” a defense that’s especially pernicious because it goes outside the game to make claims about the world in general.
But what do we mean by realism in the context of gaming? I’m not talking about the tired idea that, in any story with magic or supernatural elements, there’s no need for verisimilitude – that’s just a defense of bad writing. When we speak of realism in a game, we usually mean two things: immersion and complexity.
Immersion is the believability of what Roger Giner-Sorolla calls mimesis:
As stated before, I see successful fiction as an imitation or “mimesis” of reality, be it this world’s or an alternate world’s. Well-written fiction leads the reader to temporarily enter and believe in the reality of that world. A crime against mimesis is any aspect of an IF game that breaks the coherence of its fictional world as a representation of reality.
Complexity is the depth of implementation of the game world. Immersion and complexity are often in conflict, as every additional detail is an opportunity for a crime against mimesis to be perpetrated. What we call realism, then, is the combination of the two: a world sufficiently detailed that “rings true” to the player.
I feel it is pretty safe to say that women and men have different impressions of male and female game characters in computer games. Exaggerated female body parts may fall into the category of fantasy elements that men are willing to accept, but for women, this might just be the fantasy killer that interrupts her experience of suspended disbelief. A woman knows intuitively that having to haul around an enormous rack would make, for example, Lara Croft’s acrobatics impossible. For a male playing the same game this might never arise as a conflict, and likewise enjoying the presence of such things, he may never be aware that suspension of disbelief is required to maintain his immersion in the story line.
III. Reality is Overrated
The thing is, realism alone – i.e., the combination of mimesis and complexity – is not necessarily entertaining. There are games which are perfectly consistent and coherent in their game worlds, but simply aren’t a lot of fun because those worlds aren’t very interesting to the player (for me, strategy games like Railroad Tycoon and Colonization fell into this category, as did Oregon Trail when I wasn’t trying to make my friends die of dysentery). And there are other games with interesting, believable worlds, but whose complexity bogs down the gameplay until it’s intolerable. Realms of Arkania is the classic example in PC RPG-land; Xenosaga and Star Ocean: the Second Story approached this point for me with their multiple point-advancement systems. What game designers should be asking themselves is not whether a feature will make the game more realistic, but whether it will make the game more fun.
IV. Scope is a Design Decision
The realism that’s being defended in the above examples is selective at best. Some elements get focused on while others are ignored entirely; it’s not so much that these design decisions are expected as it is that they “feel right” to the perceived core audience of male gamers. Gaming, especially fantasy role-playing, has been a “boys’ club” for so long that these little touches of sexism have become cliches that players take for granted. If an area is poor, the reasoning goes, it will have prostitution, and that will invariably take the form of female streetwalkers, no matter what the rest of society looks like. In a multi-species society like Sigil, why would all of the prostitutes be human women?
What the realism defense ignores is that any game – indeed, any narrative or documentary medium – is limited in scope. The game designer makes a conscious choice about what to model in the game world; including sexism under the guise of “realism” makes a statement that sexism is sufficiently important to be included in the world model.
V. A Misguided Attempt at Anti-Censorship
If these aspects of the game could be omitted without notice – since few people complain about the details that aren’t in the game – why does criticism of them always raise such a fuss? Aside from the general backlash against “political correctness,” I think there is a more specific backlash against perceived censorship of games a la the “Nintendo Code,” where adventurers went to cafes to drink soda pop and called each other “spoony bards.” The problem with such a response is that it conflates legitimate design decisions with “fixes” superimposed on the games – the equivalent of renaming the “harlots” to “dancers” or something and blurring the artwork, cosmetic changes that serve to break mimesis by emphasizing what’s omitted.
VI. Boys’ Club Backlash
I also think there’s a subgroup of players who are simply reacting to having their privilege challenged. The following entitlement-laden Usenet post on Planescape: Torment started a sizeable flamewar:
I also appreciate the way the women are dressed, showing much of their breasts and buttocks. To me it is not the main thing of course – who would buy a game just because some of these tiny little figures look a bit sexy, it is just not enough for any real erotic thrill, but it is a small aesthetic delight that adds to the overall thrill of the game. I think a bit of sexiness belongs within a RPG. As I understand it, it is part of the fantasy-world.
The later replies defending this mindset use all the standard arguments – it’s PC, they’re just trying to make games less enjoyable, there aren’t enough women players to matter, etc. I guess when the games are being specifically targeted to you, there’s nowhere to go but down.
Game designers would benefit from asking the following about any design decision, especially those that involve gender:
- Why am I including this feature?
- How will this decision make the game more enjoyable?
- For whom will this decision make the game more enjoyable?
- For whom will this decision make the game less enjoyable? Is there any way to minimize this?
Designers and players alike need to stop using the idea of realism – “that’s the way the world works” – as an excuse for condoning sexism in games when they’re called out on it. It’s simply passing the buck.