on Oct 16, 2012
You might remember a couple of weeks ago I wrote the column Tropes vs. Women Protagonists. This led to a lot of interesting discussions. It’s a fractally huge subject that creeps into gender politics, marketing, game funding, game design, writing, and platform / market demographics. You could write about this for months and still wind up with uncharted areas of discussion. With this in mind, I posed a few questions at the end of my column, asking, basically, what women wanted.
I was happy to see that Becky Chambers took up the conversation and answered the questions in detail. I thought her answers were very illuminating. (For example, I had no idea Bayonetta was so divisive.) You can read her thoughts here: The Mary Sue: What Women Want (In Videogame Protagonists).
In addition to the thread at the Escapist, we also had a thread burning here on my site, which stopped just short of 300 comments. In that thread, a lot of people suggested that doing what Chambers did – clearly defining what they want to see in videogame protagonists – is a bit of a mug’s game. Since people are different, you’ll get a different answer from every woman. Then Bob Developer can point to the confusion and declare, “See! Women have no idea what they want!” and go back to designing the next Marcus Fenix.
The sad thing is, there’s some truth to this notion of it being a mug’s game. Yes, those guys exist and yes, they can and will make that very argument. But those guys were a lost cause from the start. Bob is not obligated to make his protagonist a female, and it would probably end in disaster if he tried. But like the murlocs in the Sarkeesian debate, it’s actually disastrous if you let those guys set the direction and tone of the discussion.
I gather this discussion has been going on for a long time in the feminist circles. To be honest, I don’t read those sites or follow those authors. More to the point, I don’t think most game developers do, either. Like any sufficiently complex movement, there are factions and groups and long-standing debates, within feminism, to the point where it could take months of study just to bring you up to speed on just how much you have to learn. And to be perfectly honest, it’s mostly opaque to me. It’s not in my area of expertise or interest.
This is why I was delighted when the Mary Sue picked up the story. I really want to take this conversation out of the Gender Studies Building and drag it out into the street. It’s easy enough to miss out on what academics are saying, but when passionate and engaged members of your audience stand up and say, “We want X!” it might actually give Bob a reason to stop and think, “Yeah. Why not X?” Instead of a circle of authors and professors discussing “Western Culture Gender Norms as Expressed in Electronic Gaming Culture”, we have a large group of enthusiastic gamers saying, “Give us some goddamn variety in our protagonists!”
The more we talk about it, the more obvious it is that this is something the audience wants. It’s true that it’s impossible to write a single female protagonist that all women will love. The same thing is true of male protagonists. But if someone takes the time to listen they can probably learn to avoid the most obvious pitfalls or repeating the mistakes of the past.
One final note: I realize it’s a bit unfair to repeatedly bring up these issues on the periphery of gender politics when I have such a staunch no-politics rule in the comment threads. I apologize for that. I’m not planning on making this a regular topic on the site. I just wanted to nod some approval and encourage this sort of thing. I suppose I’ve been emboldened by the recent XCOM game. The gaming community spoke, and developers listened. I can’t help but hope that lightning might strike a few dozen more times.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.