Monday, June 27, 2016

Race, Gender and LGBT Themes in Video Games

Do you guys like video games? I like video games. I'm not the best at them, and I have a fairly short attention span, so I rarely finish games. Back in November of last year, I was completely fixated on Fallout 4. I love all of the Fallout games, and I excitedly pre-ordered the Pip-Boy edition. I played that game for hours and days on end until I finished it. I loved it. I loved that Bethesda added the ability to explore relationships. Granted, the characters were limited romantically, but it was still cool. Being a fairly cisgendered woman, I didn't really consider the fact that the romantic options were almost completely heteronormative.

Default players--straight white couple
I read some articles and saw how the game could have been better in a romantic sense. The options could have been expanded to include more range of romantic situations and interactions. Your character was very limited in what they could say, and there were some fairly sexist comments from a few characters. Now, does every video game need to be socially and politically correct? No. Will people argue that it is unnecessary to include LGBT relationships in games? Yes. But what does it hurt? If anything, it appeals more towards a wider audience. For me, one thing I love about playing games is that I can imagine myself as the character, much like I do when reading. It's easy, when the character encounters flirtatious interactions with men, to picture it happening to me. But there are plenty of gamers who are not straight. Someone who is LGBT might want to picture themselves falling in love with their preferred sex, and it isn't like this is a very difficult thing to add in to a game. And the fun thing is, if it isn't your preferred orientation, you don't have to make your character that way either!!

The LGBT community has definitely been in the hot seat, for the past year especially. June 25th was the one year anniversary of gay marriage being legalized in the United States. More than a million people were married after the legalization, but that hasn't stopped anti-LGBT legislations from trying to be passed. Some government clerks and officials still refused to acknowledge the new law, and most recently, politicians are attempting to pass bathroom laws that affect transgender persons' ability to use the bathroom they feel most comfortable using.

The LGBT community is still not as widely accepted as they would like to be, despite laws that work in their favor. Entertainment still largely favors white cisgendered males for their lead characters. Any LGBT member, female, or minority figure (with exceptions, of course) is typically a background or secondary character, and typically weaker or offensive. And there is no shortage of gamers that identify as one of these less-included groups. The subreddit /r/gaymers  is for LGBT and straight alliance redditors, where over 43,000 users discuss all things about video games. This awesome website, the LGBTQ Video Game Archive is an on-going research project that covers all aspects of LGBTQ instances in games and lists them by decade, characters, relationships, etc. It lists examples of homophobia and transphobia, as well as any mentions of homosexuality, cross-dressing, and other such topics in video games.

Outside of the very one-dimensional relationship choices of popular characters, we struggle to accurately portray all kinds of people in our world. There are tons of female characters in games, but many of these games don't highlight women in the best light. Not only that, but women who play video games are typically not taken seriously. Most people view them as bad players and tend to think they don't really like games and are trying to be 'cool.' And in the past when women have tried to speak up and say, "hey, I like video games, and I wish there was less sexism and weak female characters," plenty of men harassed and threatened them to prove that they were mistaken about the prevalence of sexism (the irony must have been lost on them.) For more information on this, just google Gamergate.

 This awesome woman, Anita Sarkeesian, founded a website called Feminist Frequency, which discusses the roles of women in pop culture. She has a YouTube series called 'Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games' which discusses gender tropes in video games. One such trope that I think is probably the most popular is the Damsel in Distress trope. This is when a person plays as a male character in attempt to save a female character (think Mario saving Princess Peach, or Link saving Princess Zelda). Despite extreme harassment in her attempt to Kickstart this project, her channel has millions of views and subscribers.

Video games have been heavily sexist since the invention of them. Look at most fighting games and you'll see the skimpy lingerie-type outfits the 'fighters' wear. Look at Grand Theft Auto, where you can pick up prostitutes--and if you regret wasting your money on them, don't worry, you can kill them and steal it back. Look at games like WoW, Mortal Kombat, Soul Caliber, even Final Fantasy--the women have giant breasts and a lot of the armor is completely ridiculous. But not every female character is portrayed as a purely sexual object. One of the first major female protagonists in a video game was Samus Aran of the insanely popular 1986 video game Metroid. Some people didn't even recognize that she was a woman (forgive me, I didn't play Metroid a ton as a kid!!). She typically wears a Power Suit, which is a full-body powered exoskeleton--pretty much the exact opposite of the typical bikini outfits most female characters display. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, although dressed a little questionable for her exploits, was created as a strong, bad ass female protagonist. UK Developer Core Design actually created her to be the opposite of stereotypical female characters.

Samus Aran
Lara Croft through the years

Even less prevalent in video games are minority women, or just minorities in general. I liked that Fallout 4 let you adjust the faces of the characters, and even had more than just a black or white range. It's hard though, because we tend to think of race in very black and white terms (literally). But there are few instances of all kinds of minorities in video games. This article from Kotaku interviews a gamer named Ferguson Mills. One thing Mills says that I really like is,

"You turn on the TV, the main character is white. Play a game, the main character is white…You don't think about the underlying meaning of it. It's just what's going on. People really do think of it as the norm; you make a character, he's going to be white."

This article is interesting because it points out that a lot of game developers are predominately white, which means that they are likely basing games and characters off of themselves or their experiences in the world.
In a different article, author Tanya D. of Offworld says,

 "I hope these missteps simply happen because there aren't many people of color working in the games industry," she wrote. "It's not that anyone on the Dragon Age team is willfully racist or malicious to players; it's simply that someone who doesn't have the lived experience of dealing with racism as a person of color would simply not think about these things."

 This article, and another by Tauriq Moosa, both talk about how people use the excuse of 'historical accuracy' for both games and other entertainment to excuse the lack of minorities. Yet, this excuse doesn't work very well considering these games take place mostly in fantasy worlds. If there are other forms of life that aren't humans, why can't we throw in a human that is not just Caucasian? Because it wouldn't be accurate?  

A lot of people hear these concerns about the lack of diversity in games and take it as a personal insult. Saying that there aren't many strong women or positive gay men or protagonist minority characters in a game is not a slight against the developers or the players. We are not calling you individually sexist or racist or homophobic purely because of the lack of these characters. We are trying to point out the lack of choices or the blatant displays of sexism/racism/phobias and discuss how we can better appeal to people of all genders, races and orientations. Likely a lot of times, these types of characters are inadvertently left out.

Sheva, Resident Evil 5
Barret, FFVII
Not that minority characters don't exist at all. Some popular ones are Barret Wallace from Final Fantasy VII, Sergeant James Heller from Prototype 2, Vamp from Metal Gear Solid, and Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5. But finding a well-known minority character that is more than just a background/filler piece is extremely difficult. There seemed to be plenty in fighting games, and quite a few in MOBA games such as League of Legends or Dota2. And it is easier to find black secondary characters than it is to find other ethnicities, such as Hispanic or Chinese. Even games that are all in Japanese, like Final Fantasy games, all contain characters that seem to be modeled after Westernized looks and fashions. 

Gaming should be fun. It should help work out our minds by allowing us to play out situations and events that would never happen in reality. A lot of times, games do mimic real life. Considering that our society is moving more towards being accepting and tolerant in all aspects of life, we should be mimicking such differences in our games.

I thought a good way to bring awareness to the types of games that are changing the way we look at characters would be by streaming again. My plan is to choose one game at a time that highlights a hot topic in a positive way. After playing a little bit of Life is Strange, I have decided this will be my first game. It is an episodic game made by Square Enix that follows main character Maxine Caulfield, who discovers she can rewind time and change the events of her future (think Butterfly Effect in video game form). She sees an approaching storm that threatens her tiny town, and she must use her new powers to save it. The creative director for the game, Jean-Maxime Moris mentions the possibility of a blooming relationships between the two main female characters in the game,

  “There is ambiguity, but it is mostly still a friendship story before everything. It’s a friendship story and a mystery. Yeah, there is ambiguity, but what’s really driving the game is this friendship. At that age, especially – at any age – but at that age, you know, there can always be ambiguity there.”

After researching a lot about the game, a lot of people seem to recognize and appreciate the sexual ambiguity of the characters. It seems like a lot of high-school age kids especially appreciate a game that speaks to them on a personal level--they aren't quite sure what they like or who they are into yet, but they enjoy having the possibility to explore it. The game and fans of the potential relationship between the two main characters have tons of blog posts, instagram and Tumblr pages about them. Main character Max makes the list of Glaad's "Most Intriguing LGBT Characters of 2015."

You can follow my stream at I will be starting off with Life is Strange this coming Wednesday, June 29th at 6 pm. Feel free to come in and watch for a bit, or start a discussion with me. :)

Here are some cool articles to check out: