Every time I see someone make the argument that representation in fiction isn’t a big issue, and that advocating for diversity is just a waste of time because audiences can identify with anyone, and anyway, trying to include a wide range of backgrounds is just tokenism, I have the overwhelming urge to grab them by the shoulders and hiss, “If you really believe that representation doesn’t matter, then why the fuck are you threatened by it? If not seeing yourself depicted in stories has no negative psychological impact – if the breakdown of who we see on screen has no bearing on wider social issues – then what would it matter if nine stories out of ten were suddenly all about queer brown women? – Foz Meadows
I would love for this to be one of my more academic posts, because I think there’s a lot to be said here in an academic manner. I think one could do some great scholarship about representation in video games, and a lot of great scholarship has already been done. But this is not going to be that. This is going to be one of those poorly organized, semi-coherent posts where I have a lot of emotions, because after my last post, I do, and I did before that.
One of the things – the many, many things – that makes writing about games and representation and isms so difficult is that it’s immensely tiring if you have any kind of stake in it. It’s tiring for all the reasons this stuff is tiring in any context: the hostile pushback, the aggressive derailing, the outright abuse. But then there’s the smaller stuff, the less overt stuff, that nonetheless wears you down to the point where you just don’t even want to anymore. The incomprehension. The general cluelessness. The unexamined privilege. The dismissal of the idea that this is even an issue, or – if there’s any admission of the idea that it might be an issue – that it’s an issue worth expending much energy dealing with.
You can spend a huge amount of time trying to engage with these responses. You hear that a few games do include playable female characters; you can point out the utter lack of marketing support those games got, or the ridiculous armor the character was put into, or the fact that a few games is completely insufficient in a market the size of the one video games occupy. You hear that women generally don’t like “violent” games anyway; you can come back with the data that approximately 30% of female-identified gamers report playing games like that, with a significant further percentage playing games like Halo and Gears of War. You hear that women tend to want games featuring romance and clothes and shopping and you can bang your head against a wall for a while. You can do all of these things, and then you’re left staring at your screen and nursing a general sense of cold despair, because it feels like you’re doing everything you can and you’re still not getting anywhere.
It’s depressing is what I’m saying.
Look, I know things are getting better. I’ve seen the figures; I know that games are slowly creeping forward regarding representation and diversity, and I’ve seen the numbers regarding women in the industry. But it’s not getting better fast enough, because it’s never getting better fast enough, because it shouldn’t have to get better at all. And what makes me most tired – what I was trying to get across in my previous post – is that this isn’t just about getting women to buy games, or playing nice with the angry feminists. It’s not about marketing or capitalism or some boogieman of “political correctness”. It’s not about some bizarre conception of “diversity” where it’s all a lot of work and the sacrifice of everything fun and suddenly we’re all slaving in the inclusivity mines.
It’s about me playing a game and not feeling slapped in the face.
This isn’t just true of games. Of course it’s not. This is true of any area where a group of people have traditionally been marginalized or excluded. It’s especially hard in any of the tech-related industries or STEM fields. No one should be surprised by this idea anymore. You walk into these rooms and have it made brutally plain to you that no one expected you to be here and most of the people already there are not comfortable with you and would rather you leave now, thanks. That these things were designed in worlds where you don’t exist, where you aren’t even an afterthought. If there’s hostility in the design, it’s an awful kind of passive hostility that comes into being not when you hate someone but when it never occurs to you that they’re real.
I feel this way all the time when I play video games. All. The. Time. It’s so constant that I’ve gotten to the point where I notice when it’s not there far more than when it is. When I play a game that doesn’t make me feel at least a little dehumanized, it’s a profoundly joyful experience. It’s almost impossible to put into words for anyone who’s never experienced this kind of near-constant dehumanization. I feel like I sound crazy when I try.
On Twitter I said that it’s like I walked into a party, and it seems like such a fun party and I really want to be there, but the more time I spend there, the more awkward and invisible I feel, and no one wants to talk to me or include me in any of their conversations, and after a while I’m just standing in a corner, feeling sad.
Okay, so leave the party. But it’s such a fun party. I just wanted to come to the party. So stop playing games. But I love games, you guys, I love them so much. Games changed my life, in almost every way for the better. I don’t want to walk away. And no, I don’t want to have to confine myself to the relatively few that aren’t going to hurt me. Believe me, I walk into this maelstrom with my eyes fully open. I know the blows are coming. That doesn’t make them hurt any less.
When I’m playing Bioshock Infinite and I’m loving it, I mean every part of it, even the stuff that’s stupid and sort of problematic, but then the female protagonist – who has been interesting and cool and fun and not objectified – makes a poorly justified wardrobe change into an extremely low-cut dress, and I – a queer person, by the way – am left sitting there, brought smack up against the fact that I’m playing yet another game that was designed pretty much solely with a very different demographic in mind. Or I’m playing Dishonored and the gameplay is so completely fun that I almost don’t notice the way in which it’s really uncomfortably rapey, except then I do and suddenly it’s not so fun anymore.
These are only a couple of examples, small ones, and I’m sure one could find a million ways to dispute them, to say I’m reading too much into things, that I shouldn’t have played those games if I didn’t want to feel that way because they weren’t designed for me because capitalism. One could do that. One might even be right. I just know that I loved those games until they hurt me. And I still love them. That love just has an asterisk next to it now.
I’m tired of asterisks. There are so many of them.
I don’t require that games cater to me. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they not make me feel less human. I’m not sure what to say to the people who think it is.
We use design to explain away a multitude of sins, in every case in which design matters. We use it as a discursive shrug, all the while neglecting the fact that design reveals so much about the biases and starting assumptions of the designers – and, perhaps even more importantly, what designers are encouraged to do and constrained from doing by the executives who control their projects. Design is not neutral. Design is not an excuse. Design is revelation. The design of our technology, whatever kind it might be, is often a way in which existing inequalities are made more starkly apparent, at least to the people who are willing to see it. A cell phone that’s too large for a woman to use it comfortably with one hand. A coffee maker with a light that’s much too bright. A console controller that’s difficult to use if you’re not able-bodied, as well as if you’re an underemployed Millennial with a tiny apartment. These are tiny details, but of course that’s where the devil always is.
Living in a world that was designed without any thought for your existence dehumanizes you. It’s that simple.
Ubisoft does not have to make a game with a playable female multiplayer character. But why shouldn’t they? And why is “we ran out of time and money and we just didn’t get to it” an acceptable reason? Why do we keep finding it an acceptable reason?
We also use the market to excuse many of the same sins we use design to explain away. Well, this is what makes money. This is what sells. This is what the public demands. Don’t be surprised if this is all you get.
But here’s a thing: My general impression is that if you keep churning out the formula, people will buy it, and often they won’t complain. But show them something different, and suddenly they’re hungry for something they didn’t realize they were missing. This is the beauty of this kind of innovation: You can create a demand by providing a supply. No, one doesn’t have to, and indeed, if the world was run by marketing people, I doubt anyone would have the imagination and the courage to make that leap.
I’m currently reading Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell, and he describes going to a gaming trade show and talking to some developers about the kinds of protagonists they’re seeing:
Short went on to explain the meaning of all this, but his point was made: (a) people like playing as people, and (b) They like playing as people that almost precisely resemble themselves. I was reminded of Anthony Burgess’s joke about his ideal reader as “a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read.” Burgess was kidding. Mr. Short was not, and his presentation left something ozonically scorched in the air. I thought of all the games I had played in which I had run some twenty-something masculine nonentity through his paces. Apparently I had even more such experiences to look forward to, all thanks to EEDAR’s findings. Never in my life had I felt more depressed about the democracy of garbage that games were at their worst.
I’m not going to pull out more data about how many women play games and what they’re playing. The data is there. Go see for yourself.
The point is that the world is not run by marketing people. Not quite. We aren’t yet in that kind of dystopia. If marketing is enough of an excuse for you, fine. If design is your kind of shrug, fine. If you’re content with oh, well, this is just how things are, fine. But this matters. Play matters, stories matter. And ultimately what I want are better stories and better play and better technology and better games. For all of us.
I don’t want to be an afterthought. I expect more from something I love.
Sarah is on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry