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Interview: Women Gamers Speak Out

interview

You know what the gaming community needs? More male perspective (said nobody ever). There’s been a lot of talk and debate about women’s issues on the internet in recent days and precious little of it seems to come from the most vital source of all: women gamers. At Unreality, there happen to be two individuals who not only fit this description, but own it.

So my idea was this: we get two of that site’s finest together to give us their thoughts on gaming and the industry, and on women’s representation and place in them.  So with promises of cake (sorry, ladies, you know what they say about the cake) I managed to lure gaming bloggers Sara Clemens and Benny Bedlam into an email exchange so that their knowledge could become our knowledge. The conversation was as follows:

NV:  Let’s begin with something easy. A source of a lot of discontent with the industry among women is the rarity of strong, relatable female protagonists. But some of the ones we have gotten have been pretty memorable so let’s start positive. Could you name some of your all-time favorite female characters from video games and which one you personally identify with the most?

SC:  This one is extra easy since I did a post about it earlier this year. I like Samus Aran in most of the Metroid titles, Lara Croft, Chell, and Bayonetta, which is the one that gets me into trouble with other ladies. I just can’t help it; she’s such a snarky badass. I also catch flack for liking Chell because she’s a silent protagonist with no personality. Except she’s me, so she has the best personality, and one gamer’s silence is another’s stoicism.

The female character I most identify with would have to be Commander Shepard. The reason why is best expressed by Jennifer Hale, who provides her voice: “Paragon Shepard is who I wish I was and Renegade Shepard is what I want to say.” I like to play as a paragon with a dash of renegade.

BB: This is a really challenging question since I have played a lot of games in the past. Everybody knows I love Miranda Lawson from the Mass Effect series. She was one of the few love interests who didn’t fall for Shepard’s charms right away. She can stand on her own, which is what I love about her.

My other favorite would have to be Anora from Dragon Age and I identify with her the most. Other players tend to see her as cold and manipulative but I see her as a fighter. Her methods might not be pure, but she’s not evil and I can see that she truly wishes to be a good ruler for Ferelden.

NV: Those are some very interesting picks, ladies. I’m glad you both brought up Bioware titles because I’d like to expand on that a little. I think that particular company has done more than any other in the past two console cycles to push individualized storytelling forward while being as all-inclusive as possible with character and romance options.

But in spite of Bioware’s attempts at representation, even gay and feminist gamers have joined in the massive backlash against the company. What do you think they need to do at this point and are there any other games or franchises you would suggest to discerning female gamers looking for proper representation and empowerment?     

SC: Hmm, I’m not sure what Bioware can do to win people over. I think a lot of the Bioware backlash is undeserved, really. And I’m including all of it, including the rage over the ME3 endings. That level of vitriol really speaks to how well Bioware told Shepard’s story, and how well they were able to make the player feel like were really a part of that story.

Everyone’s Shepard is theirs, and it would be really impossible to create an ending that completely satisfied everyone. Of course, I’m speaking as a person who played with the extended cut the first time, so I don’t have the same experience as everyone who beat ME3 shortly after it came out. My glasses might be rosier than others.

As far as other female-centric games, I think Beyond Good and Evil and Mirror’s Edge are good choices. I’m hopeful for Remember Me, too. As far as franchises go, I’ll probably catch hell for it, but I like the Fable games. Now, the first one doesn’t count, since you can only play as a dude, and the third one is admittedly a step backward for the whole franchise, but I really dug the second. That’s one of the games I’m always happy to revisit. I’m cautiously optimistic for Fable 4, especially since Peter Molyneux’s off the project. I’m not a Molyneux hater or anything, but I think sometimes he has a tendency to overreach. I’m looking forward to seeing what the franchise’s inheritors do with it.

BB: I don’t think BioWare needs to do anything. I really loved what they did with Traynor and Cortez in Mass Effect 3, plus the Dragon Age series has its share of gay and bisexual love interests. I don’t think it’s enough reason to include characters such as these for the sake of diversifying or just because. You could have an all-straight, all gay, or a mixed cast as long as it fits the narrative.

People also complained about Miranda’s physical appearance because of how it objectified women. I’ve heard feminists complaint that it’s not realistic for her to fight in a tight suit like that and in high heels. For them, it makes her look like a sex object. I actually think Miranda is one hell of a woman for still being an exceptional fighter despite the outfit restrictions. Lastly, there are a lot of fans like myself that appreciate her character from inside and out.
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NV: Looks like three biodrones are we. Benny’s comments about Miranda bring up a very interesting point that I’d like to expand on regarding representation. Take a series like Dead or Alive. About half of the fighters in any of the main games (I’m discounting the DOAX oglefests, here) are kickass women with strong, diverse, independent personalities. But they are also really damn hot and exude a kind of tongue-in-cheek sexuality that sets off alarms with a lot of people. The borderline-fetishistic downloadable costume packs probably don’t help either. What are your thoughts on the balance between female representation and their portrayal as objects of male desire?    

BB: If you’re talking about just that franchise in particular, I think people should take a step back and realize that Tecmo isn’t aiming to paint a realistic approach to their video games. Japan is also known for its anime and Lolita fashion, so I believe that it’s hard for to answer that question from a general standpoint since it pretty much varies depending on the culture you were raised. For example, Americans might find it erotic to see women in French maid outfits walking around the streets but in another culture like in Japan… it’s completely normal.

I think it’s fair to have games like Lollipop Chainsaw, DOA: Xtreme Beach Volleyball, and the like because they are made simply for entertainment and humor. It’s not realistic. We have games like Tomb Raider and Beyond: Two Souls for that. Plus, I’m seeing more and more serious themed games like that being developed at present. While I believe that we will always have “sex-object” themed games, I think that there’s a positive balance of female portrayal in the industry.

SC:  I always struggle a bit when criticizing portrayals of women in media, and that goes for all forms, not just games. You’re actually hitting on a common theme within the ways women are portrayed across the board, be it video games, film, television, or literature. A lot of female characters are still very clearly designed to appeal to the male gaze while simultaneously possessing complex personalities.

Sometimes I’m crestfallen because it seems like despite these complex personalities, their real value still lies in how screwable they are. Other times I kick myself for judging too harshly, or worse, participating in slut-shaming. I don’t want to be the clothing police. Demanding women cover themselves up only serves to demonize and hypersexualize female bodies even further. Adding to all that internal struggle, some male characters in fighting games have ridiculous costumes that also aren’t conducive to fighting, and I’m way more apt to just accept them as they are.

I think the real problem stems from the fact that there just isn’t as diverse of a spectrum when it comes to female characters in media. Often we’re left judging one or two female characters in a male-dominated group so they end up bearing more than a fair share of the burden of representation. We need to work towards a place where we’ve got all sorts of women crowding the stage—sexual and not, physically tough and not, mentally tough and not, feminine and not, etc.

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NV: Speaking of representation, let me get back to Mass Effect for just a second.  It has been stated by Bioware that only 18% of gamers chose to play as a female Commander Shepherd, which I find rather troubling since FemShep is the best Shep. This may have to do with the fact that the Wii reportedly has an 80% share of female console gamers.

But console preferences aside, according to available statistics, overall only 15% of playable characters are female to go with 47% of gamers being of the fairer sex, which is a large discrepancy, to say the least.In spite of the success of series’ like Metroid and Tomb Raider, the industry maintains that heroines don’t sell as well as their male counterparts, even with nearly half of players being of the feminine persuasion. Why do you think that is and what can be done about it?

SC: I actually think the industry is starting to renege on that stance, especially coupled with those new statistics showing gaming is approaching more of a real-world demographic breakdown. With the recent reboot of Tomb Raider and titles like Remember Me and Transistor on the horizon, I think we’re seeing a move towards equilibrium when it comes to game protagonists. Well, the beginnings of a move, anyway.

We’ve just got to make sure we don’t stop moving forward, and a good way to ensure forward momentum is for women to keep making moves towards working within the industry itself. I’m raising my glass to lady developers, programmers, writers, and artists. Here’s hoping more are on the way.

BB: I don’t know the exact reason why that’s happening, but I do have an opinion about it. Well, we’ve been living in a society that’s been dominated by males for various centuries. If I’m not mistaken, I believe that it was only after the 60′s or the mad men era women were liberated from their submissive roles. This might not be related to video games, but I do believe it’s important to consider.

So, I think that men and even women are still trying to adjust to the latter being represented as dominant and strong. For example, my female friends and myself like using a male protagonist and have no qualms with rescuing damsels in distress. Why? Well, blame it on the pop culture we grew up on. At the same time, I don’t think that it’s only about picking the ‘stronger’ sex. Like Nick, I sometimes play the opposite sex for narrative purposes because RPG video games give us the power to craft our own stories.

Anyway, I do believe that we’ll have more pop culture icons like Tomb Raider for the next years to come because times are changing. A recent Forbes report noted that women are now the new breadwinners, so it’s only a matter of time. However, I don’t think we should just sit on our butts and wait for this happen. Continue the dialogue for women empowerment in a positive and constructive manner.

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Definitions of “constructive” may vary.

NV: Hear, hear. Alright, these questions are clearly too easy for you two. Let’s have a tough one now.  A lot of people are actually pointing at popular culture such as video games as being a source of sexism or general feminine depowerment due to their near-constant portrayals of weak and static tropes and stereotypes. But when someone suggests a similar correlation regarding the ubiquitous violence of the same mediums, they bristle. Do you think the two opinions are reconcilable?     

BB:  I have my thoughts on it, but I really wouldn’t know because we can only answer this question without any bias through conducting a formal study. Anyway, I’ll try my best to convey my opinion on it without confusing anyone. I don’t believe that sexism in video games cause men to treat women badly. I mean I don’t even call games like Lollipop Chainsaw or Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball sexist, but let’s just use that as an example cause it uses ‘sex appeal.’

I believe the same for violence, and I’d like to give credit to prolific FBI criminal profiler John Douglas for saying that the media cannot turn a law-abiding or moral individual into a violent criminal. Sure, it can give us methods on how to make a bomb, harass a woman, or shoot someone but that’s it. You’d have to be emotionally or mentally troubled to follow through with those ideas.

However, I do think that there’s an exception with some extremely violent games that are purely malevolent. Grand Theft Auto lets you kill civilians and commit crimes, but that’s just a part of it. Players are immersed by the story and can do other non-criminal stuff too. DOA: XBV glorifies boobs and skimpy outfits, but players also look forward to playing the volleyball campaign and mini games. The exception I’m talking about is games like Rapelay wherein the main objective is to rape a mother and her two daughters. There’s even gang rape. That’s all there is to it. I’m sure there’s also a game out there where the main objective or focus is just to hurt or torture someone.

I believe that if you have games focused purely on violent acts (without a reasonable contextual narrative to support it) such as this, I do believe that it can negatively impact our perceptions during our formative years because it cements the idea that violence is okay. I don’t think it’ll have the same impact if we are older though. Lastly, going back to Douglas… I wouldn’t even be interested in or have the need to play these types of games. Perhaps for curiosity, but that’s it.

SC:  Oh Jesus Christ this is such a great question. I’ve actually been turning this one over in my head for a while now. I don’t know if I’m ready to come down definitively on one side or the other, but that’s mostly because I keep leaning towards no, these two opinions are not reconcilable. Certainly I can see that if one makes an argument that video games contribute to misogynistic and sexist views and/or the depowerment of women, then one can also make an argument that video games contribute to the desensitizing of violence in our society.

Do I think media creates misogynists or sexists out of otherwise upstanding citizens? No. Do I think media creates perpetrators of violence out of otherwise upstanding citizens? No. Do I think misogynistic or sexist tropes in media reinforce misogynistic or sexist beliefs in people who already hold them? Yes. Do I think graphic and/or relentless violence in media reinforces violent thoughts and tendencies in individuals who already have a propensity for violence? Yes. At the very least, it reinforces the idea that violence equals power, and that’s dangerous for someone in the wrong state of mind.

However, the cultures surrounding misogyny/sexism and violence are quite different. When a shooting or any other major act of violence occurs in this country, everyone agrees it’s a tragedy. Most people, strangers even, will try to stop a minor act of violence occurring (a bar fight, etc.). But a girl gets filmed getting raped, and the evidence is suppressed. A hacker brings the evidence back to light, and he’s tried for a longer sentence than the rapists. I realize they’re minors, so their sentences will obviously be lesser, but Deric Lostutter shouldn’t be tried at all. The rapists are also the scum of the earth, so there’s that. Then CNN expresses sympathy for the rapists’ ruined futures.

On a more minor level, I write an article about how Kaidan Alenko is dumb, and people write me emails with very female-centric threats of violence. Maybe they’ve been playing too many video games. The bottom line is that it’s okay to view women as either objects or subhuman. And yes, negative media tropes contribute to that viewpoint, just like they contribute to the idea that violence is cool or powerful, or drugs are glamorous. So while I admit it might be self-serving of me, I’d rather spend my time focusing on ways to balance media portrayals of women.

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NV:  Wow. I threw you a fastball and you both hit it out of the park. Well, since it looks like I’ve gone and gotten you in the mood for a rant, let’s go with that. Online gaming culture can be a hostile place for women. There are entire websites dedicated to the displays of misogyny that spew forth from the virtual mouths of immature assholes. Both of you appear to be social gamers so surely you have some stories to share. What is the most hateful or ridiculous thing a male gamer has ever said to you?

SC: Ha ha, I assure you I was quite calm throughout the composition of my last response, thank you very much! As for war stories, I actually don’t have many good ones. I played some multiplayer games of Halo in college on occasion, but never wore a headset. Nowadays I only play online with real-life friends, so no one’s being a jerk because I know where they live. And also they’re not jerks.

I play a medieval fantasy MUD, but everyone’s too busy role-playing to actually do anything untoward on a player-to-player level. The few times I have dropped in to a multiplayer match and gotten lip from men were nothing unique. I’ve been called a c*nt and bitch, obviously, and I’ve gotten the usual untoward requests for oral sex, along with general inquiries as to the specific characteristics of my anatomy.

I talked about this here on Unreality a couple weeks ago, but I recently wrote a piece about Mass Effect for another site and received some terrible responses that were actually somewhat creative. Someone said they wished I’d get raped by a reaper. I get that reapers are really huge so the idea is that it would hurt SO MUCH, but the truth is that it’s just physically impossible. Aside from the fact that reapers aren’t things that exist in this world, it’s a lot like that SNL sketch with Christopher Walken, Ana Gasteyer, Will Ferrell, and Rachel Dratch where they talk about shinshi shinshi. That’s when Ana Gasteyer was “willing to accept her lover’s body in places no one had ever trespassed. Specifically, the ear canal.” Hilariously absurd.

 BB: Well, I was threatened to be “raped” or “ass f***ed” during multiplayer matches for FPS games. However, I don’t think it’s because I’m a woman since my username “cdrbedlam” doesn’t really say anything about my gender. Plus, I’ve heard them use it to address or threaten other male players too. Usually when someone fires obscenities at me, I shoot back some of my own. Oh, I swear like a sailor when I play video games. I was insulted and disgusted when someone propositioned me right after a game. My reaction can be encapsulated in this meme:

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NV: Hey, I never get any untoward requests for oral sex! Now I just feel unloved. You women have it sooooo good. No seriously, I think we’ve about covered it. Ms. Clemens and Ms. Bedlam, you’ve done the gaming community a great service by sharing your perspective, experiences, and insight and I thank you for it. It’s only fair in an interview about female empowerment that the ladies get the last word, so let’s have some closing thoughts and final words of wisdom from each of you.   

BB: I think it’s great that we are seeing more video games that promote female empowerment, and it will only be a matter of time when new clichés or stereotypes are formed. You never know.  Perhaps, men will be the next generation’s “damsels” in distress. It won’t happen, by waiting though because I think we should actively continue the dialogue about proper female representation.

Lastly, I think that people shouldn’t crucify every joke or game like DOAX: Beach Volleyball so quickly. There are times when a joke is simply just that. Examine the context, relationship, and culture behind what you’re criticizing because sometimes it only spreads hate instead of empowerment. Thanks, that is all.

SC:  Hopefully I’ve given you a window into one woman’s experience with the industry she loves. And I do love it, in case that’s at all questionable. Video games have given me some of the more profound experiences of my life, including facilitating some deep interpersonal interactions (as in, I was gaming with a real person in the room and we had a moment or two), and no immature dorkbot on the internet will ever take that away from me. However, I don’t think it would hurt the industry to strive to be more representative of the diversity of its ever-growing fan base, close to half of which are women. It would be nice to see less white-dude avatars in general, for that matter.

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About Nick Verboon

I am a guy on the internet who writes stuff sometimes. Try and keep up. I used to write reviews Amazon and other sites under the moniker trashcanman before semi-retiring from my unpaid career for a while. But now I'm back in action writing columns for Unreality and Gamemoir. Enjoy. I

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