Is gender inclusive game design important?

Q: Is gender inclusive game design important?
A: Yes.

For anyone familiar with my blog, you’ll know already that I take the above answer as a given in most of my posts. But today I got an e-mail from my sister. She’s taking an Online Games Seminar for her law degree (you know, if they had more classes like that I might be persuaded to go to law school after all…) and gave me a link to one of her required readings: Playing with Fire: When Advergaming Backfires.

Her request? That I write a short blurb on whether or not I think it’s okay to have avatars of only one sex in a game without a darn good reason. The short answer to that is, of course, is that I think it not only ruins gameplay (for women and men who like and respect women), but it also reinforces the “no girls allowed” message that we find in so many places in society.

Since I can never just be short and leave it at that, my long answer is behind the cut.

I. It’s a man’s world, baby

The article by Gonzalo Frasca primarily focuses on a game called The Intel IT Manager Game: The simulation of an IT department. The problem, of course, was that the original version did not allow you to hire women. The probable cause of this design flaw? Lack of women on staff.

In an IT and advertising company, this is not surprising in the least. The glass ceiling? Still firmly in place. (The article itself admits that “statistics on the number of women CIOs are hard to come by”. If anyone has access to any statistics on the matter, please send them my way.) In fact, according to one study [PDF], in 2004 (when the Intel game came out) women weren’t making any significant progress in IT.

From the study’s press release:

The percentage of women in the IT workforce declined from a high of 41 percent in 1996 to 32.4 percent in 2004. Meanwhile, the percentage of women in the overall workforce remained largely unchanged, from 46 to 46.5 percent, during the same period.

Even taking into account the overall decline in jobs during 2004, the study concludes that “[t]he figures represent no progress in the numbers of women in the professional or management ranks from the relatively low 25.4% mark achieved in 2002.”

In the case of the Intel game, it seems pretty straightforward that the lack of women in the field was a major contributing factor that allowed the “oversight” to the lack of female job applicants in the original version of the game. But, after all, the Intel game while an “advergame” is still, at it’s root a game so it would be wise to examine the gaming culture that advergames are a part of.

II. What’s gaming culture got to do with it?

I’ve loved to play games all my life. Starting with my Apple II GS, trucking along through the early DOS days, happily traipsing through the consoles, until today where start getting the jitters if I don’t play some sort of game every couple of weeks. In short: I am a gamer.

As such, I have a pretty good hold on what kinds of games have been made over the years. And, let me tell you, the representation of women has been dismal. There’s a reason that in the original Metroid finding out that Samus was a woman was a shock: 99% of the characters in games were men. Although games today have a much higher chance of having a female protagonist, the breakdown is far from 50/50 and the acceptable roles for women are much more limited than the roles for men.

In her book Gender Inclusive Game Design, Sheri Graner Ray explores the message behind such limitations:

By limiting the number of female-presenting characters to a fraction of those that are male-presenting, it may also appear that the female character offered is nothing more than a ‘token’ character, particularly if the character class chosen to be female is stereotypical in its appearance or its assigned occupation.

[From Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding The Market by Sheri Graner Ray, p. 101]

When it comes down to it, games are seen as the province of men and boys. This not only bears out on the type of games that are made, but also in other areas such as advertising. What this means is that women, if we’re considered at all outside of “pink” games (ie. games made based on what grown men think little girls want), are an afterthought. In that way, Intel was just following the typical trend of not considering a female audience or what the lack of women would mean to a male audience.

III. You’re just an afterthought, woman!

Which brings me to the subject of Fable and why I think that its male-only protagonist design is just as important as what happened with Intel’s game. I’m not going to waste my time debunking the “it’s just a game” claim, as I’ve already done that in another post of mine. What I do want to look at, however, was the difference in the way that the problem was handled.

I don’t know the circumstances behind Intel’s decision to fix their game. Via sites like WaterCooler Games it is clear that people took note. Was Intel made aware of these blog posts? Did they get letters from the players? Did someone in their office who wasn’t on the original team play it and point out the oversight? Without asking them, I can’t be sure. I can’t even be sure of their response time. But they did change it.

The issue of Fable is a bit trickier. It isn’t a Flash game that can have a new version go out as soon as they rectify the problem; when it ships that’s pretty much it until an expansion pack (which they had, which didn’t include the option to choose your gender) or a sequel (which is coming out, which says it will include that option). Again, I can’t be sure here of what factors contributed to the inclusion in the sequel (having the time to code the option in properly, responding to fan outcry, etc), but I do know that — contrary to Frasca’s assertion at Water Cooler Games — there was a pretty loud public response: everyone from game reviewers to women gamers mentioned the lack. There was even a petition to try and make sure that the choice was included in Fable 2.

Molyneux’s reasoning for the exclusion at first looks reassuring:

In the same year, Peter Molyneux announced at GDC that his highly-anticipated game Fable would not include female avatars as he originally intended. He explained that the decision was made because it would save a lot of production time and otherwise they would not meet their scheduled launch date.

The intention to include the option should count for something, right? Sure. It’s better than no intention at all. However, think about this: if they were building the engine with that in mind from the beginning, then why was the male storyline ready for shipping but not the female one? The simple answer to that is that the female storyline was an afterthought. It was a “if we have time, I’d love to include this,” kind of thing. Male was the default, female was the option — no matter how badly Molyneux may have wanted the choice in there, the female option just simply wasn’t given the same weight as the male default.

I’d like to suggest what the message is when a game which purports to let you be anyone and choose anything sends doesn’t let you pick something as important as your gender: only men are heroes and only men can make (important) choices.

Does that sound like a harsh conclusion? Perhaps, but let’s look at what Molyneux said in an interview with GameSpot:

You can also chat up women in the game. You know you’re a hero. I mean one of the benefits of being a hero, for god’s sake, has to be that. If you can’t chat up women, then what’s the point?

[From Peter Molyneux Q&A by GameSpot, quote by Peter Molyneux]

That quote right there says it loud and clear: men are the heroes, women are the prizes that they win for being heroes.

IV. What did you say, honey?

Creating videogames is not anymore the realm of the computer technician: it is a cultural product. As such, it can reflect ideas and values. Hopefully, those should be the ideas and values that designers actually want to convey.

What is the real life impact of the message sent by a lack of gender inclusive game design? In the above quote, Frasca hits the nail on the head: games send messages to the people who play them. He does an excellent job of connecting the disconnect in the original Intel game with the gender discrimination in the IT field, but drops the ball when it comes to Fable. To him, a fantasy environment in a for-entertainment game is enough to eradicate any message being sent.

I, of course, disagree. Even if you can’t see the connection between the attitude that Molyneux espoused in the GameSpot interview and the fact that in the game that shipped the hero had to be male, or the connection between the lack of women in the video game industry and the fact that it wasn’t considered important enough to make sure that a game all about customizing your hero included a female option, then there’s always the sexism and hostility that the male playerbase shows the female playerbase, especially those who speak out against sexism in video games.

For instance, let’s take Frasca’s assertion on the Water Cooler Games thread that “I guess women felt disappointed, but not outraged.” Well, aside from the fact that this woman felt outraged by it, a search on google didn’t yield much in the way of angry blogging on the matter (makes me wish that I had been into blogging when the game came out).

But let’s just take a look at the response to public critique of a similar game: Oblivion, which included women but crippled their base stats. First of all, Bethesda (the company who created the game) brushed off the complaint, which in my experience is a typical response to complaints of sexism brought to the attention of video game companies — in Fable‘s favour, was not the response that its company gave. The response of the male gaming community, however, was disproportionately nasty.

Kotaku (one of the most popular blogs in the online gaming community) wrote:

From the “people will complain about anything” department, this just in: female gamers are taking a break from their panty/tickle fights and making me dinner to complain about gender stereotypes in Oblivion.

I don’t think I need to point out the way that women are presented as lesser than men in that post. If you knew that was likely the response you would get if you expressed your dissent (forget outrage; the arguments on the issue up until that post had been pretty tame) would you be ready to post your critiques on gender issues in the future? I know that it makes me reticent to speak out, and I am fully aware of the importance of standing one’s ground against rampant sexism.

V. Conclusion

But what does the above have to do with the lack of gender inclusive game design? Everything.

Through catering to the idea of men as the default protagonist, video games have helped to reinforce the culture of entitlement that makes things like discrimination in the workplace so commonplace. Men are entitled to be the heroes, entitled to the IT jobs, entitled to make sexist jokes about women. Women are not, and have never been, the default in the way that men are, and thus we are not entitled to anything (not even, according to bloggers like those at Kotaku, to bring up issues that affect us). When women are at best an afterthought in the popular media that we consume in our everyday life, how can that not seep into the way we conceptualize the roles of men and women?

Gender inclusive design isn’t important just because women should see ourselves represented in roles that we can idealize and aspire to, it’s important because it allows the players — both male and female — to imagine heroes as not only men, but to open the role to women as well. If women are shown consistently to be forces worthy of respect instead of silly little things who spend our time engaging in “panty/tickle fights” then maybe people will start seeing us as such.

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This entry was posted in Discrimination, Gender issues, Popular Culture, Video Games. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Is gender inclusive game design important?

  1. Revena says:

    This is a really great post. I’ve got nothing to add, but I wanted you to know that I was doing the “right on!” head-nod the whole time I was reading.

  2. tekanji says:

    Aww thanks. Not bad for someone who is home sick with a head that feels so stuffy it could explode at any minute, eh?

  3. So, come to law school already.

    (Seriously, thanks for the thoughtful contribution.)

  4. Jona says:

    Its funny actually, the two games you mentioned, Fable and Oblivion, were both something of a disappointment for me. I didnt know they continued that annoying male/female points distribution in Oblivion, since I remember it from Morrowind. I cant fathom why they would include that anyway, I thought something along the lines of “so the female character suffers -10 strength but gains +10 personality, and Im the complete opposite? And I thought Morrowind was about freedom to do what you like?” And Fable again, something that prided itself on choices. (Ironically where I thought the game fell drastically short “OKAY! I *CHOOSE* TO LEAVE THIS LINEAR PATH IM CONSTANTLY FORCED TO WALK!”)

    That must have been pretty crushing, to discover the first choice Fable DOESNT offer is the choice of the protagonist’s gender. And what are the arguments against this? You only need to look at something like Baldurs Gate (although the second game did sell short the female aspect somewhat in one particular area) where the male/female sides of the game are practically identical, and its an absolute masterpiece (my opinion obviously). But I completely agree, this is something that is pathetic and its a shame members of the gaming community still have to put up with it.

  5. DNi says:

    You know, though I never played it, I think I can understand why Fable did not include an option to choose your gender: they wanted all your decisions to be made during the game, not in some pregame-preselection in which you completely define everything that your character is before you even take your first step with him.

    That said, that doesn’t excuse Lionhead. I remember reading an article on 1up about the first Phantasy Star game; originally, they had wanted the player character to be androgynous, and that your choices throughout the game would therein define his or her gender. They weren’t able to realize this idea due to the constraints of the technology back then. Lionhead could’ve easily done it, though. Or, if that was too much work, they could’ve just included a Ye Ol’ Magickal Sex Change Shoppe or something.

  6. Madeline says:

    Amen! I completely agree. When I got Oblivion, I was awed by how beautiful it was on my 360 and hi-def television. What I wasn’t awed by was the fact that, as a gamer who likes to play tanks, I didn’t have the option of making my female character into a tank. Well, sure, I could try. And I did. But I was crippled, very crippled, until I re-started with a character intended for ranged combat and persuasion.

    Speaking of which, Final Fantasy has a similar problem for me. I’m thinking particularly of X — Rikku, the thief; Yuna, the healer; Lulu, the witch. None of them are at all suited for hand-to-hand combat. As a chick with a black belt, that really bothered me. I wanted to have a character that I could identify with, a character that was like me. Why weren’t any of the girls like me? Why were they all, well, wilting flowers who couldn’t stand up to close combat?

    It honestly doesn’t bother me if men want to make the female characters in their game have bodacious ta-tas, or bouncing buttocks, or whatever else will move copies off shelves and into consoles. But even when games do bother to include female characters, they are crippled and not suitable for all styles of gameplay. I don’t want to be forced to play a man, just because I want to play a tank!

  7. Guilded Lily says:

    Very nice post Tekanji – I was just thinking (and blogging) about feeling that the subtle shift toward inclusiveness for women gamers is underway. Thanks for reminding me that it isn’t over yet, by re-visiting the “Kotaku / Oblivion Gender Stat Debacle of Aught Six” – not so long ago, was it? Thanks for keeping a sharp eye out, and here’s to a brighter future.

  8. tekanji says:

    Everyone, thanks for the praise! I really do appreciate it, especially ’cause as of late my gaming-related posts haven’t been all that well received ^^;;

  9. Beste says:

    Tekanji,

    Have you ever played Star Trek: Elite Force?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elite_Force

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elite_Force_II

    The first game is a gender inclusive game. The sequel dropped the option to select a female version of the character.

  10. Robin says:

    Hi, I’ve been a reader (but a non-poster) for a while now, and I just wanted to let you know I really enjoy reading your thoughts *particularly* on gaming. Smart, geeky women blogs have been my addiction as of late, and your posts on games are some of the most intelligent and well-written. So I hope you keep going!! Sorry to gush… -.-

  11. tekanji says:

    Beste: I haven’t seen it before, no. I actually clicked on the links before reading your text beneath. I was reading the synopsis for the first game and was all like, “That sounds really cool!” and then I got to the second one and the disappointment set in.

    Translation of the change: Continue your character’s journey through space… BUT ONLY IF YOU PLAYED THE BOY! Girls just aren’t worth the extra time it takes to put them into the plot!

    Robin: You aren’t gushing! Or, rather, if you are, it’s not in a bad way :) Hearing from someone that they think my posts are “intelligent and well-written” warms my frigid little heart ^_^ So thanks for letting me know!

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  14. bellatrys says:

    men are the heroes, women are the prizes that they win for being heroes.

    This theme is what made me struggle mightily with my principle that one does not throw library books across the room no matter how offensive or wretchedly-written, when I encountered it in Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With A Thousand Faces”.

    Fortunately I was already *very* familiar with the use of tortuous sophistry and evidence distortion to justify male privilege (IRL as well as books), so I wasn’t at all *convinced* by the fool, but the fact that so many other people seemed to think he was God and had the Last Word on epics, quests, fantasy, myths, fables and folklore made me want to sic Bradamante on him…

  15. Godless Heathen says:

    This actually ties into the previous discussion on race and video game avatars. The content creators, and frequently the advertisers they court, cling to this idea that the “target audience” of 18-35 year old white males will not consume media that doesn’t feature key/central characters who share their race, ethnicity, and gender. (This concept ties back into the misconception that media and goods consumption isn’t divided more or less equally between the genders.) This means that goods that are created specifically with the 18-35 year old white male in mind tend to be created with a rather dim view of the core audience’s tolerances and prejudices.

    To the point, I’m not sure that game designers (show creators) don’t actively shy away from having a choice/variety of gender, race, or ethnicity for fear of losing their golden “target audience” because of misogyny or racism. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I continue to contemplate science fiction on television, and the never-ending phenomenon of white dudes saving the universe/world. (Yes, yes, Buffy, I know. Blonde white girl who saves the world. Yay diversity. /snark)

    Then, as you pointed out with Fable, there’s the idea of designing a game to revolve around the creator’s love-interest driven story. Letting the player choose to make a female character would completely wreck this (un)original tale of love! The girl is there to be won, not to be the active person, or even *gasp* to pursue her own romantic interests! More and more I come to find that these bland tales of romance are written solely to make the games more palatable to men, sort of like Harlequin Romances with big dragons in them. Nobody ever thinks to ask the princess how she feels about having to marry the first schlubb who manages to skewer the rampaging dragon.

    Catering to a demographic percieved to be racist, homophobic, and sexist and then using that perception of the demographic to defend your choices is the lazy way out for too many content creators and advertisers. Any other way might involve thinking or writing skills.

  16. arielladrake says:

    Catering to a demographic percieved to be racist, homophobic, and sexist and then using that perception of the demographic to defend your choices is the lazy way out for too many content creators and advertisers.

    Not to mention it’s pretty damn insulting to the demographic, when you get down to it. This is something that I think it can be really important for allies to point out, particularly. And really, as I think we’ve all noticed at various points, it’s just downright telling that we’re the so-called man-haters, when anti-feminists and non-feminists are often much better at it than we are.

  17. Malachi says:

    Yeah, Final Fantasy has really weird gender dynamics. There are little flashes of insight in the games, moments that make the feminist in me smile– but that’s lots of pointless gender roles and objectification too.

    I often think there’s some internal conflict in the company– I suspect at elast one of their writers is moderately feminist, but their marketers won’t stand for it, or something.

    I think I’ll need to blog on Final Fantasy at some point. In the meantime, let me just say that towards the end of the game, it’s quite possible to make Rikku into a kick-ass fighter. Godhand is one of my favortie weapons, and since she starts with huge agility, all you need are a few strength spheres and you’re in business.

  18. Malachi says:

    And, of course, in FFX-2, they all can do anything.

  19. Godless Heathen says:

    Sorry for another post, but I found out about this yesterday. Tangent but related would be the question: Is racially inclusive game design important?

    The Shadows of Angmar game just went into open stress-test beta, and last night my eye caught this phrase in the character customization blurb: “select region-appropriate color palettes for skin, hair, eye color, and more”.

    What does region-appropriate skin color boil down to you ask? Well, if you happen to want to play an elf with dark skin, you’re out of luck. Right now I’m in the process of downloading and installing it, but I’ve played with the character creation widget on my boyfriend’s system.

    I’ve been trying to explain to him why I think it’s wrong to have skin tone linked to the game designers’ ideas of what would “fit in”. Yes, Tolkien’s fantasy world was as whitewashed as they come, sticking to his original vision would imply limiting the available skin-tones to shades of Caucasian. Tolkien’s world even implied that the whiter you were, the more erudite, the more artistic, the more soulful, as he often praised the shining-pale Eldar elves as the world’s most perfect creation. All the beautiful women in his books were white of skin.

    But here’s the thing, Tolkien was a white dude, someone who rode the road of white privillege his entire life and never had to worry about a thing. Admitting that his vision was limited, and very culturally inappropriate, should be the logical decision for creating a game in line with modern values. Perhaps no other white players may wonder why the most advanced race of beings in Middle Earth goes no darker than “slightly sunburnt”, but I worry about the messages the game designers are sending to people of color. ‘Sorry mate, you don’t fit in here.’

    As soon as this three gigabite (!) download finishes I’ll be pushing to see if I can get my human characters into the major human cities to look around. While about half of the human regions feature dark skintones, I want to see how many NPCs were rolled up in shades other than lily and dear-Gawd-he’s-pale. Some days, I wish for Earthsea Online, then I remember how badly the Sci-Fi channel botched that one. *sigh*

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