Dice and D-Pads: Default Is Another Word for Fail
By Robyn Fleming
12 September 2011
In my last column, I talked about box art and how it can reflect—or not—the level of inclusiveness of a game. What I mean by inclusiveness is whether or not a wide variety of players—not just the stereotypical audience of young, white, heterosexual males—will be able to see themselves represented at least a little bit as they play. Obviously, there's a lot more to that than one piece of art, including all the other art in the game, the characters, the setting, and so on.
Now, a lot of the time, a game being transparently designed for a particular audience is a good thing. Players often have preferred genres, and being able to sort out whether any given game is going to be a first-person shooter or a puzzle game or whatever before you play is definitely a plus. One of my biggest frustrations when browsing game racks at a brick and mortar store is that sometimes it's not obvious whether a particular title is an adventure game, which I love, or a platformer, which I . . . don't love, or what.
But another thing I don't love is when I pick out a new game in a genre I like, take it home, and discover that the creators don't consider me to be part of their audience after all—that they've made a game that excludes me not because I'm not a fan of the genre, but because I'm not the assumed default gender. I'm all for aiming a product at an audience of players who enjoy that type of game. What gets to me is when creators and marketers don't seem to realize—or care—how diverse their potential audience actually is.
It doesn't help that while a lot of this stuff is blatant and easy to point out and then avoid (which doesn't make it less frustrating, but it's something, anyway), some of it is really subtle. In fact, it's sometimes in the construction and development of the game rather than in the actual play. What I'm talking about here are foundational elements like the rules and instructions, which carry implicit assumptions about who the game's players are, as well as bits of world-building that the creators might not have intended to include at all. For computer and video games, this stuff shows up when, for example, rules and tips assume that the player will have chosen to play a male character (if there's an option), and when advertising materials feature only male (usually white, and able-bodied, too) players. For tabletop games, it's often much more deeply embedded.
A few years ago, LiveJournal user peaseblossom wrote about Spirit of the Century, a tabletop role-playing game that she found disappointing in the way it handled gender. She pointed out that of the twelve character idea suggestions, four had "guy" or "man" or similar in the title, four were written about using male pronouns, and pronouns for the other four weren't used at all. And when it came to example characters:
Four are protagonists and four are antagonists. Six are men, two are women. Of the two women, one of them has, as her concept 'Femme Fatale.' Fabulous. She's also the only one who has Sex Appeal as an Aspect. By way of contrast, Mack Silver, the closest thing to a sexy male character, has A Girl in Every Port.
Peaseblossom's post was pretty widely linked, and one of the creators of the game, Fred Hicks, showed up in the comments (actually, three of them did, but Hicks was the most vocal). There was some discussion that I don't really want to go into (if you've seen a creator arguing with a critic before, you can imagine the details), but what's relevant here is that Hicks was very clear about how his team's intentions during the creation process had been deliberately inclusive. Even so, the disparity peaseblossom noticed—one can argue about whether art is cheesecakey, but "no female pronouns in character examples" or "only character with Sex Appeal is a woman" is either true or not, and Hicks acknowledged the validity of peaseblossom's numbers—still cropped up.
The accidental use of male-as-default logic in the game contributed to a prospective female player feeling too excluded to enjoy herself. And this was when the creators of the title in question were even actively watching out for potentially sexist elements in the design of their game. The disparate representation of male and female characters is more often something that creators either aren't aware of at all or don't care about addressing.
John Kim used methodology similar to peaseblossom's when he did a survey of five randomly selected role-playing games from his collection and two specifically chosen titles and found that the flavor text and examples tended to focus on men, and that when women were present they were often treated as weaker, more sexualized, or both. His observations about a Star Trek game were particularly disappointing, in light of the franchise's attempts at inclusive world-building:
This game ostensibly portrays a future society where equality for all races and sexes has come about. The game at least mechanically supports such equality. However, there are signs that this is not so in the designer's eyes. For example, there are 15 one-page sections of fiction: one at the start of each chapter. In those, about a dozen Starfleet characters appear. Of these, two are women. . . . [M]ale characters have lots of heroic action beating aliens and so forth, while the females shiver with fright and nervousness when asked to open communication channels.
He states in his conclusion that he was surprised by the results of his survey. I wasn't.
One method that some recommend as a way of avoiding writing male and female characters with significantly divergent and stereotypically gendered traits is to assign gender only after the character has been written. The version of this approach that often crops up in computer and video games is to write the character as male (which, since our cultural default is male, is pretty likely to happen even if you think you're writing a character sans gender), then just change the avatar and pronouns. And sometimes that works out just fine. Other times, it can ping someone playing as a woman as subtly but persistently off.
Jenn Frank talked about experiencing this when playing Fallout 3:
Like, in the story, when another little girl comforted me during my botched birthday party, I suspiciously felt as if she were coyly putting the moves on my (ten-year-old?) "self." And I think I was supposed to like her, at least in the context of the game, and instead I just felt sort of weird, a dissonance, an artificial and completely fabricated gender dysphoria.
I've been there myself, many times.
But this leads on to one of the most difficult parts of very basic (well, relatively), assumptions-about-the-world-of-the-game level inclusiveness—the thing that bothered Frank might well be something that another woman playing a female character adores about Fallout 3. Patrick Weekes, a writer at BioWare, hosted an informal conversation on his LiveJournal in May, asking players to weigh in on whether they preferred for the female version of a particular character to be treated exactly the same as the male version, or whether the two versions should have different lines on occasion or garner different reactions from NPCs.
In a follow-up post a couple hundred comments later, Weekes summed up some of the most common responses. Unsurprisingly, on the question of whether the character should be treated differently by NPCs based on gender, people had very divided opinions:
Some people (including posters who I know to be women) liked getting the chance to have someone be sexist to them and have Shepard pull a gun or snap off a good comeback. Other people (including some whom I believe to be women based on the context of their comments) found that to be an uncomfortable reminder of real life that they'd rather not have to deal with in a video game. Other people had a "good for the gander" opinion and wanted to see the same happen to MaleShep.
The thing about being inclusive of more than a very narrow range of potential players is that, as it turns out, a wide range of people are going to have a wide range of needs and desires. I haven't talked about race, age, weight, disability, sexual orientation, or any number of other identities that can belong to gamers—or that gender isn't actually binary, for that matter. Is it even possible to make a game that is inclusive of everyone?
Probably not. But it's possible to strive for it. And it's definitely possible for creators to make more games that are inclusive of more than one identity, and fewer that aggressively exclude potential players. Right now, the choices can be pretty sparse. More variety of product can only be a good thing for players who want to see themselves represented in their games and aren't—and it can't hurt the lucky few who have so often been the focus market to have some different things to explore, either.