Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts


Prompt Thoughts: E3 and Women

Posted on June 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM

Busy couple of weeks. E3. Lots of movies. Lots to ponder. Here's the first "smaller" blog instead of the massive ones.

But let's remember to have fun, ok?

E3 Kind of Lays it All Out There

It was about 5PM on a Wednesday afternoon at the Los Angeles Convention Center. E3 was winding down for the day. My feet in my sneakers were beginning to feel a little numb, kind of like my eyes and ears by the over-saturated auditory and visual stimuli all around me. Plus it smelled funny.

I leaned against a wall in the Sony booth, one of few walls to really lean against, and just took a look around. I wasn't the only one that was tired. I was in the midst of an enjoyable day of videogame watching and playing and enjoying all the new fancy consoles and controllers and games that the videogame industry would be shoving out on shelves by the fall.  I also realized that smell was probably coming from me.

Then there were the people. It kind of goes unnoticed when you're actually there, I think, but they all began to look alike, kind of like how that orchestral hit in video number one playing on the wall sounds just like the other three you just heard as it ran pomos of upcoming games. Nearly all were men, and by "nearly" all I mean, at the very least, a ratio of 30 to 1 - the one being women on the show floor. No, not the still-payed-to-smile ones that are hired by marketing departments of companies to look cute and be sexy in their booths (and even that is lessened the past few years as there's been far more men infused in to handing out game demos and keeping people in lines at E3) but women who are there playing the games. Writing about games. Observing. Testing. Enjoying them.

While all this was going on, and I had made the decision that I really needed to buy new shoes before I go to another one of these things, I was reading blogs and tweets all about women in videogames. Here I am, looking out to a sea of unwashed male masses while someone is saying that videogames not appealing to women or representing women in a good light is wrong.

They're right on the latter part, but not making videogames appealing to women makes me wonder if they realize what the videogame industry is. More importantly, it makes me wonder if they realize they're arguing the right way, but for the wrong things.

There's been a lot written and said about the role of women in videogames in the past few months and especially around E3, many noting the lack of female protagonists or female-driven games (whatever that means) and a lack of female presence at the press conferences and on the show floor that didn't consist of skimpy outfits and those paid-to-be-here smiles.

So, here's a thing that will probably piss people off by me saying it. Anyone who says that there's not enough women in videogames, not the industry but in representation in the games themselves, or that the women in videogames aren't good enough for one reason or another (objectified, which I would agree with, or too "manly" which I don't) should really go to an E3. Just for five minutes, because it's right there in the open: this is a male-dominated industry. I'm sorry, but it is.

It's not an excuse for poor actions, it's simply an observation.

That's not me trying to make excuses, of course, on the bad representation of women in games. There's two "bads" working here: the over objectifying and shallow representation is certainly a bad one, but the other - that there's not enough female characters or lead heroes that are women - I don't necessarily see as bad. Yes, there are female gamers, but they are the minority and those that are vocal about the lack of women as heroes or protagonists of any sort are even more a minority than that. Of course, the way the internet works, when someone says something "controversial" it explodes, usually with hate and immaturity and suddenly that minor voice is made louder for better or for worse.

Not to go off on a rant, but there are things that are male-dominated and there are things that women-dominated. Simply put, men like things, women like things, that's just the difference of the sexes. I can get behind being against the objectification of women, but in terms of representation...well there's a disparity in the consumer demographic as well as those involved in the industry press itself. Is that a bad thing? Or is it simply a reflection of the demographic and people are simply trying to be as hyperbolic as possible to get noticed? I think sexism is a bigger issue than whether or not there are female leads in videogames.  The issue of sexism in videogames is not about disparity, it's about representation.

It's shouldn't be about a lead character's sex, or even how many women are in a given game given the disparity of demographic, but it should be about how the sexes are written, lead or otherwise, in what's already there.

I think we all could agree that women are over-objectified in male-dominated industries to begin with (film is another) and that men really have no clue what that feels like. As I've stated before, when men are "objectified" they're put on a pedestal and are only there for male ego fantasy of being "cool," or "suave" or "overly muscular" or "carrying big guns that, we swear, are not compensating for something."  When women are objectified, they're not there for objectification by other women and to be a fantasy representation of an avatar for them, they're still there for male fantasy. See the problem? So when an industry is dominated by one particular sex, that fantasy is there to cater to the majority, hence the objectification as well as the lack of desire or creativity to not objectify towards that minority.

By calling out the lack of female-oriented videogames is just a drop in a bucket of a bigger issue. It's a small voice against thousands and its that for a reason. While I would never condone the vitriol that someone like Anita Sarkassian gets, at the same time I acknowledge that it's a male-dominated industry that's pandering to its male-dominated demographic, so when there's not a strong emphasis on the quantity of heroines in games, I kind of just accept that. I don't think that's the argument that she and others should be making. While I accept the lack of quantity, I don't think anyone should accept the lack of quality. Not in 2013, folks.

I'm probably not qualified either way, I'm just a guy with a blog too, but what I do know is that as is the case with the internet, hyperbole and exaggeration and the desire to make points without really saying anything meaningful runs rampant and good points get lost in all that. At E3, it really showed what the gaming industry is. Men outnumbered the women, that's excluding the hired "booth babes" by the way which are there solely to cater to that 30 to 1 ratio. I feel that those claiming that women in videogames are misrepresented have failed to really look at the fact that they're critiquing a male-dominated industry that will probably always be a male-dominated industry. Not dominated in the "only men make this shit" kind of way, but in that "this shit is made for men" kind of way. It's the same reason you don't see women front and center in beer commercials. It's always there to cater to that male fantasy, and last I checked women like beer too, but it's not strongly associated with women as it is men. Videogames are the same way and, like beer, it comes down to that almighty dollar.

Here's what needs to be done. The trick isn't to try to "change" the industry to suddenly shift to appeal to a minority. That won't happen and simply pointing out the obvious is...well it's just pointing out the obvious.  The only thing that developers can hope to do is to approach representing women in a better fashion first. Who is lead, how many are represented, trying to play the numbers game to get to an equality - that's not seeing the forest through the trees. It's not about who is the "hero" or "villain" or who you play as, it's about ensuring that whoever it is, especially women, is written without trying to be derogatory, objectified, overly sexualized and written for the sole, single archaic purpose to stroke that male-ego fantasy. In other words - fucking write a woman as a character, not as a "thing"

Me either, probably.

Do you know what's strange? While games are made for the male demographic, there's a strong contention of creative women behind the scenes working on a hell of a lot of them. Not just animation and art, but we're talking big-league producers and writers of some of your favorite games. Hey, like those Uncharted games (which incidentally have pretty solid women as characters)? Well Amy Hennig is arguably the best in the business right now, writing all of them and being one of those video game creators that I fully consider an "auteur." How does she approach story writing? By writing, not just designing, fully-realized characters that have personality and purpose and fit in with the game's world.

Then you have WIGI - a great organization bringing out the notion that there are women involved across the board in gaming - showing that the industry is more than "boys with toys." That's real progress, not demanding sudden changes in what we're seeing on a superficial level. At the birth of gaming, it was almost entirely men, now we have creative and talented women involved and an organization like this brings awareness to that fact. It's people getting together and actually doing something...not going on Twitter or writing blogs saying there aren't enough women lead characters or complaining about booth babes. If we can improve elements of writing and presenting women in games, then that's the best end to this. It will always be a male-dominated industry, both creativity and through consumer spending, so asking for an equal representation in numbers isn't what should be asked for. Asking for good, sensible representation as a whole to not feed the male ego is the direction the whole argument should be going.

I think I bring all this up because I've been enjoying the utterly incredible The Last of Us, which has a good share of well-written, believable female characters even though you play as the male "hero." (I use that term loosely for him) Now I know in the case of this game, it is creatively capable of taking a different approach to character writing over something like a Bayonetta, but in a game full of distinct and memorable and well written characters, and to have a good chunk of them be women, I see the kind of steps that game developers need to take. I'm not going to call out an industry to put a woman as a lead character or demand there be games made "for women," at least for the foreseeable future I don't see that 30 to 1 ratio changing, but I sure as hell think the industry should be talented and creative enough to not spend millions on goddamn "jiggle physics."

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