Elsewhere on the Internet: Representation in Games

I’ve been enjoying PBS Game/Show, a smart, engaging, and well-presented video series on gaming issues that was recommended to me by several clever friends. Perhaps I like the series particularly well because the presenter appears to share my politics on many issues–and he’s great at addressing or deflecting comments to keep the conversation inclusive and constructive.

So I was at first a little surprised when one of the recent videos called out games I like to play for the way they depict race in NPC characters. Specifically, the show called out BioWare for giving Dragon Age series background characters a diversity of complexions but not addressing human racial difference in a world where otherwise race (elves vs. dwarves vs. humans) matters a lot. Kill Screen (which was founded by the Game/Show host Jamin Warren) followed up with that idea in more detail, looking at the way DA: Inquisition party members deal with race (or not):

Yes, we recognize that Vivienne is human and Varric is a dwarf; we simultaneously recognize that she is black and he is white. Yet only one of those distinctions has any perceptible effect on these characters: each will readily offer up their experiences as a human or a dwarf, but Vivienne never comments on her blackness (at least not in my two playthroughs), nor will Varric offer any maunderings on his whiteness.

Both the video and the post made compelling arguments, but at first I was not inclined to agree. Having a game narrative explicitly address difference is one narrative decision, and certainly it can be rewarding one. For example, another DA:I character, Dorian, is often held up as an exemplary model of representation: Dorian is gay and can be romanced by male PCs, but his sexuality is also an important part of his backstory and his personal in-game quest. I haven’t played DA:I yet, but know some players see themselves in Dorian; others learn something new in getting to know him. That’s valuable.

But I’ve also longed to see oppression less represented in the games I play. In fact, that’s an element of many BioWare games that has long troubled me: despite a sort of lip service played to equality (by in-game lore or game reviews)  there is still evident discrimination against certain populations in the gameworld. In Dragon Age, Ferelden is supposedly a land where “men and women are generally equal,” yet a female Warden is met with incredulity at nearly every turn, and the country’s queen regnant is literally imprisoned in a castle by her father. Minor female characters mostly take on their usual roles in high fantasy–witches, washerwomen, noblewomen, prostitutes and brothel madams–and significantly fewer everyday roles like soldiers, messengers, shopkeepers, and crowd members. In Mass Effect, the asari are supposedly one of the most advanced races of the galaxy, yet they also just happen to be galaxy’s preferred sexual object; bars are almost exclusively staffed with svelte asari dancers. Most other alien races are depicted as predominantly male; some female aliens are introduced late in the series and weirdly designed, though there’s no reason that all these races have to be sexually dimorphic in the first place. This is high fantasy: we imagine magic and dragons, we imagine interstellar travel and aliens that live hundreds of years, so why can’t we imagine a world unburdened by the same oppressions that dog ours?

So that was my first reaction: isn’t it nice to have some diverse representation in a fantasy game without replicating racial oppression?

But I was wrong, and here is why.

First, neither Dragon Age nor any of the other games mentioned here and in the linked articles is actually racially diverse. Some games read that way, due to some cognitive bias that allows us to read “a handful of nonwhite characters” as “an equal distribution of white and nonwhite characters.” But Tanya D at BoingBoing’s newly relaunched Offworld does the count, and finds Thedas (and particularly the Free Marches) to be very white worlds indeed. How did I not notice? No doubt the usual culprit, privilege blindness, but also, like most folks, I just want to enjoy the entertainment I enjoy and I’ll voluntarily or involuntarily look past a lot of problems. Case in point: at the very same time I was reading Killscreen’s take on race in Dragon Age, I saw this piece at FemHype that examines the female characters in Skyrim. Now, Skyrim is about as close as I’ve gotten to that utopic gameworld in which femaleness is not a handicap or a special sexualized class: you can play as a woman and no NPCs give you flak for winning the game while female, and you’ll come across other female NPC adventurers who want to team up with you or kill you. But Jillian at FemHype points out how few female characters hold positions of power, the weird exceptionalism of the few fleshed-out female characters that play major roles in quests, and of course the sexual divisions of enemies. Even the rare female Draugr aren’t dressed for war.

So one issue is that you can’t really have a post-racial, post-feminist, post-anything fantasy world if the world’s population defaults to white and male. If you only have a handful of characters to represent other kinds of players who might like to see themselves in the game, then those few characters end up working overtime as tokens, burdened with representing ideas or whole populations instead of existing as unique characters in their own right. Case in point: Vivienne in DA:I. Vivienne seems like a great character: she’s powerful, beautiful, and gets a lot of the good lines. She is undeniably black, and as Game/Show’s rundown demonstrates, there aren’t too many black characters in contemporary games that aren’t nameless enemies or horrifying stereotypes. Vivienne is her own person; her story is that she is a BAMF. When I was first mulling over the argument set forth by Game/Show and KillScreeen, I thought that I’d be interested in a backstory about Vivienne becoming a BAMF despite structural racism, but I wouldn’t be interested in such a story done badly or lazily. (I mean, Bioshock Infinite is free this week on Xbox Live, so I’ve had my fill of lazy writing and white savior narrative.)

Instead what happens with Vivienne, according to N.K. Jemisin, is that she has very little story at all.

Vivienne is affiliated with many groups but few of them seem to have contributed anything to who she’s become. She’s the only playable black woman seen in the entire trilogy of games so far, and she is cultureless, rootless, and quintessentially raceless.

Jemisin’s argument–and y’all, this is my favorite argument I’ve read on this topic so far, although everything I’ve linked is well done–is not that we need more racism in our fantasy worlds, but that our fantasy worlds have erased people of color so completely for so long that it does no good to simply drop one or two people of color into the game with no context or acknowledgement. “It’s nigh-impossible to get fantasy readers just to acknowledge that people of color even existed in medieval Europe,” she writes. “The reality is, and has always been, diverse. Denial of this reality is the modern — racist — addition to the pot.” Rather than simulating racial diversity without approaching equality and without context, Jemisin would prefer to see Vivienne’s lived experience as a dark-skinned woman in an overwhelmingly white world given more depth and connection, even just with party banter details that fill in the holes of her backstory.

I’d still like to see a game one day in which racial diversity and gender parity is so much a given that the plot does not reenact the micro and major aggressions we live with in the real world. But in the meantime, why don’t we create stories and worlds that depict difference with the depth, range, and detail that have been missing in fantasy for so long?


Note: Many of these links came to my attention via Critical Distance, always a great resource for critical issues in gaming; others I saw on MedievalPOC, a great tumblr which catalogs art from the Middle Ages that depicts people of color just hanging out and being European, despite our modern day insistence on the implacable whiteness of medieval Europe as well as medievalish fantasy realms.

Elsewhere on the Internet: Dames in Games

You’ve heard, probably, that 48% of gamers these days are female. (Source: the Entertainment Software Association. Also, every news source like this one that reposted the ESA’s stats, paying special attention to the fact that adult female gamers outnumber young male gamers.) You might also have noticed that the percentage of female playable characters in games is much, much smaller than that. In 2009, less than 10% of playable characters were female; hopefully that number has increased in the last five years, but obviously we’re nowhere near equity on that point.

But it’s been an exciting summer for the visibility of women’s issues in games. In June, when a representative from Ubisoft said that it would be too costly to include female playable characters in the next Assassin’s Creed, the internet fairly exploded with derision. Critical Distance, as always, has a good selection of links on the topic (June 15 and June 22); of them, I particularly liked this post from Hellmode talking about the female playable characters we had in games from the 90s and early aughts. The inference I make is that there is a bit of backlash in game development, a hyperfocus on hypermasculinity among some top-selling titles, but it hasn’t always been that way and it certainly won’t continue to be going forward. The gamer stats make it clear that the “majority male demographic” argument doesn’t hold water.

More recently, a new installment of Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women is now up: Women as Background Decoration Part 2. (Here is Part 1.) Anita Sarkeesian has gotten waves of hostile attention online (and, unfortunately, offline) since even before the first video in this series was up, but I’ve been intrigued to see a number of male voices in gaming media speak up in support of her critiques recently. I like this post from Kotaku that recaps her argument and then demonstrates some of the ways Sarkeesian and even the men who support her come under attack simply for suggesting that we could stand to break out of some boring habits of mangling female characters.

For what it’s worth, I think that this most recent installment of Tropes vs. Women is one of the most clear and cogent to date, and I’ve been a follower of Feminist Frequency for some time. One of the most effective tools of the series–for both her film and game critiques–is a visual representation of the astonishing ubiquity and repetition of certain representations of women. Parts 1 and 2 of “Women as Background” reveal horrifying homogenous landscape of casual cruelty toward women, used mainly as window dressing for a supposedly edgy, gritty universe, meant to be simultaneously shocking and appealing. Part 2 does a particular good job of demonstrating that the disposable female characters in numerous games exist for no other reason than to be sexualized and then assaulted, and that even when such scenes are not crucial to the plot, gameplay will frequently compel the player to observe or overhear gruesome treatment of women with no means of opting out. Likewise, Sarkeesian takes particular care to show how violence against disposable female characters is staged in a completely different (i.e. sexualized) way than that against disposable male characters. That’s two points I often see made by detractors–that violence against female characters is crucial to certain games or that it’s no different than violence against male characters–already refuted.

I also appreciated her stance (seconded by the Kotaku author) that using sexual violence as shorthand for evil or horror is straight-up lazy writing. Perhaps that’s one reason this episode really gelled for me: I’ve made this argument myself in reference to the (ahem) climax of The Magician King and I’ve heard it in reference to certain media that seem to exploit women’s bodies in this way–Game of Thrones is the obvious example.

AND YET. I’m always a little shocked when I see a game I love in the Feminist Frequency slideshows of shame. Surely that game is not like the rest of the games with disposal women! I hardly even remember that little rape joke in a game that is otherwise touted as a triumph for gender and sexual diversity! And I feel a bit hurt and defensive. So I get it, gamer bros. But of course that’s precisely her point: the objectification and violence toward women in games is so ubiquitous that one may well not notice, or unconsciously choose to overlook it because it’s still such a rare treat to enjoy interactive media with minimal violence or objectification toward women.

Tangent: I’ve been thinking about the way I can really lose myself in a good book or a good movie, giving a good story the kind of engagement where I might cancel plans just to immerse myself in a fictional world, the kind of commitment where I will look up everything I can find online in order to find threads of that experience elsewhere in the world. The books, films, and TV shows that lead me into this depth tend to be exceptional in craft: they are incredibly well-made, well-told, or well-thought-out stories in their genre. I favor stories that allow women and minorities to be well-drawn characters in part because that is a sign of craft. Sure it’s social justice, but it’s also style.

I can really lose myself in a video game, too, and become a voracious consumer and loyal customer. But the bar is much lower. Many of the games I love have severe lapses in narrative craft, from painful dialogue (Skyrim) to egregious treatment of women to gameplay that encourages players to act out oppression instead of against it (et tu, Bioware). And I lose myself in them anyway, because of the nature of interactive media: you have some influence over the outcome, you are explicitly complicit in the storytelling, and it doesn’t take much to become invested. Gaming is severely underestimated and underutilized as a narrative vehicle that way. Imagine what the experience of gaming could be like if games required the same level of narrative craft in building nuanced, diverse characters and worlds we’ve come to expect from good television, movies, and books!

On that note, this is not strictly a gaming link, but this essay is so good that I’ve been dying to link to it on this blog forever: We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome, by Tasha Robinson. Robinson laments the number of female characters that are brought into mainstream film and TV to kick ass, and who indeed get some extremely kickass representation of their strength and talent and complexity, but who in terms of plot have nothing to do. Who lose their nerve at the last minute to make room for a hero to come in and triumph, who are taken out of the action (often kidnapped or trapped by the villain) so that her strength and talents do not contribute to the plot resolution, whose primary contribution may in fact be as nurturer or sexual reward or other traditionally female role. She’s got some great examples and a delightfully scathing checklist:


  • Is a fundamental point of your plot that your Strong Female Character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest, or most experienced character in the story—until the protagonist arrives?

  • …or worse, does he enter the story as a bumbling fuck-up, but spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her, while she stays entirely static, and even cheers him on? Does your Strong Female Character exist primarily so the protagonist can impress her?

Now, this test is only for storytellers and developers who have graduated past 101: Are All Your Female Characters Sex Workers? but I look forward to what the extra credit might look like.


Elsewhere on the Internet: Game stories

I have a post up at The Ontological Geek as part of their romance series this month (which Critical Distance kindly linked and quoted as well). I’m writing about a pattern I’ve noticed in the Bioware video games I love to play: a fantasy race (elves in Dragon Age, asari in Mass Effect) whose people possess great power or wisdom yet occupy an oppressed and/or objectified position in their fantasy universe. Sometimes the game storytelling explores that dynamic, permitting the sexualized characters some optional dialogue for expressing individuality and agency, but more often it exploits the dynamic.

If you, like me, favor games that focus on character-building to the extent that you can opt to pursue a nonplayable character romantically, you’ll enjoy the rest of Romance Month at OG. I was particularly entertained by a post about a game in which romance was the main quest, not a side quest–designed “for women,” naturally. I kept thinking of Adrienne Rich: “Heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure.”

Lastly on the subject of romance plots in video games: this series reminded me of one of my favorite gaming posts of all time, mostly about Alistair but dipping into the stories of other Dragon Age characters and plot choices. It’s one of a series styled after the hilaritragic 80s board game Girl Talk, all of which have some great commentary from fellow ladygamers.

 The Millions had a post recently discussing the intersection between game storytelling and literary storytelling. There’s a fun recap of some major video games of the last decade and the novels to which they partly owe their design, and eventually the article turns to contemporary discussions among game developers about how they can attract better writing talent. There’s a conscious movement in gaming to employ literary devices, the author suggests, though there isn’t a parallel movement in literature to incorporate elements of gaming. But for many kids, video games will be their first contact with storytelling; the author suggests that we should be making literature that builds on game storytelling just as we make games that build on literary device.
Intriguing theory, though I have a hard time imagining how it would look in practice. Certainly there are a few books and films that consciously play on video game visual or structural elements–Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World is an obvious one. The Magician King by Lev Grossman incorporates the gaming trope of leveling up (and its companion activity, level grinding), and it’s fairly seamlessly worked in–you might not recognize it as a callout to gaming if you’re not in the habit of gaming. Those are the only examples of gaming devices in non-game media that come to mind, but if you know of more, I’m curious.

Via Critical Distance, I fell into a rabbit hole of reading “How Not to Fail at Writing Inclusive Games and Game Settings” at Go Make Me a Sandwich: Parts 1 (Overview)2 (gender and sexuality), and 3 (race and culture). These posts are long reads, but cathartic if you enjoy fantasy games except for the hamhanded characterization of fantasy races, and invaluable if you create fantasy media of any sort. I really wish I had read the series before submitting my OG piece, honestly: I would have linked to it in case readers wanted more detail about what’s wrong with the deeply powerful/deeply objectified “sex alien” race.

On the subject of race in fantasy worlds: “You’re a Wizard, Negro” isn’t exactly a gaming post but is certainly relevant to the racial representation you tend to see. The author points out that the archetypal wizard is an old white guy, then goes on to describe what kind of wizards you might get in fantasy writing if magical power and presentation were informed by black culture. I was reminded of two things: on the one hand, poor defensive Trayvond in Oblivion, possibly the only Redguard mage in all of Tamriel; on the other hand, Akata Witch, a gorgeous novel set in a magical school in Nigeria which draws on the fantasy fiction tropes I’m familiar with as well as magical stories and ideas specific to Nigeria.