Now that I’m dabbling in gaming culture, I’m seeing a common complaint by some gamers that I used to see in politics, and, indeed, in society in general. “Why do you have to bring ___________* into it? I just want to enjoy ____________** without any of that icky identity crap that goes with it!” In case you can’t guess, the people saying this are usually white guys, probably straight, and they don’t understand why they have to deal with race, gender, sexuality when all they want to do is play a damn video game! They can’t understand why we minorities have to harp on these issues. Well, let me try to explain why it’s important to us who are not in the majority.
The default for video games is to have a white, straight male as a protagonist.. Even though gamers themselves are becoming more diverse, the protagonists have remained mostly a monolith. Blah blah blah developers creativity, but as I pointed out in a previous post, if every developer churns out the same product, it’s not really creative, is it? I will say that I started gaming in the heyday of its diversity with you having the ability to choose to customize your character to varying extents in more games than ever. However, if a game gives you one protagonist, you can bet that nine out of ten times*** said protagonist would be a white male. So, those of us tired of playing straight white males are going to point this out from time to time. Not all the time as some straight, white male (SWM) gamers claim. Probably not even half the time or a quarter, but enough to make it uncomfortable to those who wish to remain oblivious of the issues. Any discussion of an issue that one would rather not face feels like too much attention given to said issue.
If you’re a SWM in gaming, you have the luxury of not having to think about race, gender, sexual identity, etc. All the games cater to you because you are the default norm. When minorities point out the rather obvious fact that they are missing from the equation, it seems like THEY are the ones who are bringing up race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., and injecting it into the conversation. The SWMs don’t see that race/gender/sexuality already play a big part because you don’t come up with that kind of uniformity by accident. No, I’m not saying it’s some kind of conspiracy – I’m saying it’s societal norm that is invisible because of its pervasiveness and acceptability.
When I was in college, I spent a year only reading Asian American female writers. When someone complained that I was being discriminatory, I said I bet I had still read more dead white men than that person had read people of color. That shut him up in a hurry. My discrimination is only obvious because it’s deliberate and it goes against the norm. Choosing to read only dead white guys doesn’t seem like discrimination because the person isn’t doing it on purpose. Very few people say, “I’m only going to read dead white guys, so there!”, but somehow, they choose to read Faulkner and Shakespeare and Hemingway and Joyce and maybe a contemporary, living white guy like Dennis Lehane. For ‘light’ reading, they might read Stephen King or John Grisham. They think of their reading tastes as varied because they aren’t limiting themselves to one genre. They can’t see that their choices are discriminatory in nature as mine are if not by intent. Again, when you choose the societal norm, you don’t have to think about the social justice implications of said choices.
To any SWM gamer who is resistant to what I’m saying here, let’s try a thought experiment. Let’s pretend we live in an alternate world where 95% of video games protagonists are females. Half of them are of color as well. Roughly the same percent are queer. In other words, SWM are 1% or less of the protagonists. In fact, the men are mostly there for eye candy with their bulging packages, burly pecs, and tiny waists. They can be seduced, but they have no agency of their own. You’re an SWM gamer, and the three big games coming out this summer had these three protagonists respectively: a Taiwanese American bi fat foul-mouthed tatted-up old grumpy woman**** who has a harem of men who must mate with her and her female cohorts who are of varying weight, races, and comeliness whenever she demands it; a trans* black woman who is a lesbian and has no interest in men other than to stud them to repopulate her world. The men of her world are sex slaves and manual laborers and have no lives outside of these two functions; a gay Latino who is married to his partner with whom he’s been for seventeen years. They have a daughter and a son, and they’re forced to go rogue when the government kidnaps their son to make them do nebulous nefarious deeds.
Be honest. Would you want to play any of those games? I’m guessing no. Then, let’s say you go to Steam’s front page because the summer sale is going on, and there’s not a single game with a SWM protagonist on sale. You check out GOG.com and a half-dozen other sites that sell games, and there’s nary a CoD or Assassin’s Creed to be found. Then, you click on Kotaku, only to be greeted by representations of male characters from recent games and their huge cocks almost visible beneath their short shorts. Disgusted, you go to Destructoid where they’re sniggering about the stud program of one of the aforementioned games. On all of these sites, there’s not a single straight white dude writing for them. And, when you go to the biggest gaming conferences in the country such as E3, most of the guys you see are hired booth babes – muscular, scantily-clad men who are happily posing in a seductive manner with the female con attenders. All the posters are of similarly-attired men in similar poses, and the women around you openly commenting on the cock size of the male attendants and how they compare to the booth babes’. If you feel uncomfortable, you’re told to just deal with it because the conference really isn’t for you, anyway. How incline would you be to stay in the gaming culture if this is what you faced on a daily basis?
I’m exaggerating, but not by much. It’s hard to feel a part of a community when you’re not reflected in it anywhere. I’m an Asian American bi woman, which is like a unicorn in the gaming world, and the teeny-tiny steps that are being taken to make gamers like me feel less alienated shouldn’t be threatening to SWM gamers, but they are. I get it. If ninety-five percent of the gaming industry reflects you, then any diminishing of that percentage feels like a loss. I mean, it is a loss, but it feels greater than it really is because the SWM gamer is used to finding himself reflected in every aspect of the gaming world. The guys at retsupurae nailed it with this video about the flap over a Mega Man Kickstarter because the (female) community manager dared to say the protagonist might be a female:
That’s why I wrote that fantasy world above. I’m trying to get these SWM gamers to realize that how they feel about situations like this — “If I can’t pretend to be the protagonist, then it hurts my immersion!” — is how minorities feel all the damn time. Speaking for myself, I’m used to it because that’s my world (I live in Minnesota), but I’m not inured to the frustration that yet another game came out starring a chisel-jawed white straight dude. I buy any game that has an Asian female character (except anime because I don’t care for it), and if a game came out with a bi Taiwanese American fat woman as the protagonist, I would buy stock in that company and have the developer’s babies.
There are four women who are game journalists whom I follow on Twitter. They are frank about their frustrations at being women who are trying to work in the gaming industry, and they get a lot of shit for it. I’ve seen people comment in their articles that these women should keep politics out of games. If you look at an article written by one of these women (Jenn Frank) on the topic of more inclusive hiring in gaming, you’ll see the comments littered with dudes strenuously defending the status quo. Take a look at the picture at the top of this post. It’s the staff for Respawn Entertainment, who made Titanfall, Notice how many women or people of color are in the picture. Hiring on meritocracy is a lovely idea in an egalitarian world – we don’t live in such a world. Errant Signal, a YouTuber, addressed the criticism of mixing politics and video games in his video, Keep Your Politics Out of my Video Games. He makes a very valid point that gamers want their hobby to be taken seriously and considered an art, but when games are criticized as an art, they backpedal and say, “It’s just a game. Lighten up!”
By the way, it’s telling that it’s men who are taken seriously when they talk about the problem of race/gender/social representation in video games. Women are brushed off or worse yet, subjected to rape and death threats, whereas a man who says the same thing is at least listened to.***** I’m not mad at Jim Sterling or John Walker or Rami Ismail or Ian Miles Cheong for being prominent voices on these issues, indeed, I’m glad they’re speaking up – I just wish a queer woman of color could be afforded the same courtesy. OK, I’ll settle for a white woman being taken seriously when she’s talking about these issues – that’s a much more reasonable goal.
So, TL;DR: SWM gamers, I feel your pain. The panic and anger you’re experiencing at losing the one inch in the acre you own really hurts my heart. You feel that there’s no place for you and that if games become more diverse, you won’t get to be comfortable and represented all the time. You fear that one day, there will be no place for you in gaming. We minorities know that feeling because we already experience it. But, that doesn’t matter does it? As the client in the retsupurae video above at the end says when asked if women having to play male protagonists hurts their immersion, “Yeah, but they’re not me!”
That’s what it boils down to, though it’s not usually so blatant in real life. The SWM gamers who complain about politics in their games or who get furious when Anita Sarkesian dares to talk about gender and gaming don’t want their cozy little world shook. Mass Effect 3 stirred up a controversy when they included the option to come out as gay/lesbian. The very fact that MascShep****** could romance a dude caused some of these assholes to clutch their pearls and their sphincters very tightly. Keep in mind, you don’t have to choose this option, but some of the gamer dudebros couldn’t stand even the thought of the possibility.
These guys can’t see that diversity broadens and enriches experiences because they view it as a zero-sum game. If diversity and minorities win, then they lose. You’d think they’d be OK with having, say, merely 80% of the gaming world reflecting them instead of 95% or more. But, no. They want a bubble around them protecting them from the elements of life that they find undesirable and to have all their preconceived notions coddled. I was being snarky when I said I felt for them, but I do feel some compassion and sadness because what a small, small life that would be. Still, My compassion ends when they issue death & rape threats to women and other minorities who dare to speak up. Look, there is enough room in gaming for all of us. Even after the social justice warriors are done, there will be plenty of games featuring white, straight male protagonists for them to play. It’d be nice if they joined us as we move into the future of gaming which will be diversified in spite of itself, but I’m not holding my breath.
*Gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.
**The game, the book, the movie, etc. In politics, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but essentially, the same. They want to focus on, say, healthcare, without worrying about DADT because in their eyes, the former affects everyone and is therefore more important. But, another post, another day.
***Ass number, as in, I pulled it out of mine. I would maintain that I low-balled the actual number.
****What else would you expect in my fantasy world?
*****Never mind a person of color or a queer person.
******Tongue-in-cheek poke at FemShep.