December 15, 2011

A short discussion on biases in video game production

I was bad and I didn't write every day.  I'm sorry, I'll make it up to you somehow.

In the meantime, let's briefly talk about something that has been on my mind for a while. is a great source for amusing articles that make you think.  One that got me thinking was this one about prejudices that still exist in mainstream movies.  It got me thinking about video games, namely because the two are always compared to each other.  To be honest I don't think it's a fair comparison, but that's a different essay for a different day.

My first thought is that video games are better than movies when it comes to some of those stereotypes.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that video games tend to have their own problems, for different reasons.

One of the things that has been pointed out before (and of course as I write this I can't find the image I'm thinking of) is that many modern video game heroes look the same:  Well built Caucasian male with brunette hair and dashing good looks.  Unfortunately, like most of the opinions I'll be sharing, here, I'm not able to determine anything with any research.  But my assumption would be that it's because many of the people who have started in the video game industry, and many of the people who work in the cvdeo game industry, are white males.  Even if you have the marketing demographics in intense details saying that he demographic is leaning toward another audience, it's hard for someone creating something to create something that he or she would never be interested in.  And with video games, the appeal is that you are the hero.  If the "you" is a white guy, you're going to idolize what you can relate to--a  more handsome white guy.

I will say though, that a lot of good video games have been good at letting the player decide who they are idolizing.  I have never played a "white" character in any bioware game because I haven't had to play one.  I made the hero to whatever specifications I wanted.  Hell, I had Barack Obama Shepard save the universe in ME2.  This doesn't, however, mean that the developers are forward thinking.  This merely means they are willing to have their audience shape their own experience, and even then to a small extent compared to everything that they have shaped for their audience that won't change.  This isn't necessarily a sign of forward thinking.  This is however, a sign of acceptance that different people, for whatever reasons, want something different out of their gameplay experience.

Even then, sometimes games that mean well can use stereotypes and old ideas to shape the stories they tell.  Or they don't realize exactly what they're doing and what horrible history they're tapping into.  I've spoken about this a couple years ago when I was belatedly addressing the Resident Evil 5 objections.  It's not the only game to have touched upon that either.  I'm not real pleased that the evil Karma side to Cole in inFamous 2 is black swamp tribal lady Nix.  I can tell they tried to make a complex character in Nix, but the problem is that she plays to many of the stereotypes that western society has had for centuries about black people, and stereotypes that people still play to this day.  I'm not going to say these developers are inherently racist, that would seem unfair to label a whole team of people like that.  But I do think they are unaware of the societal norms they've played into, and how best to fight them for the betterment of mutual understanding among every human being.  It makes breaking stereotypes hard when they are validated over and over again in the media.

Speaking of stereotypes, lets not just pick on racial issues.  Gender is also something that video games has a hard time dealing with in a neutral way.  Again, I'm not trying to say the whole industry is (intentionally) sexist.  There is a lot of stuff that is buried in our societal norms that are going to be hard to fight.  Like the severe attraction to waify women who in reality are not strong enough to hold huge dense metal swords or traverse in caverns with arms that have no upper body strength. I have no problem with women being able to do these things.  It's just these women have arms like me, and I know I can't do that stuff.  Maybe a woman built like this could do all that stuff, but they're not idolized in these games.  We're still going for the frail frame build when women are in video games, because in video games women are sexualized 95% of the time.  The kind of sexualization process that mass media will do is making women weaker and more frail, something that you still want to protect from something.  Games do that stuff because it helps sell the game to their mostly male demographic.  In fact, you'll find in some games when they don't intentionally do that to the character, there is a fanbase who will.  Dont' believe me?  Talimancers.

Tali'Zorah vas Neema nar Rayya, now in the cannon Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, is probably one of the strongest, independent female characters in the video game industry, possibly up there with Jade and Alyx Vance with female characters who were not put in just to be sexual objects to oggle at while teen boys killed things.  Okay, maybe not that revolutionary, but she's up there.  When you meet here in Mass Effect, she is a pilgram looking for something that would help her people in fighting the geth, willing to take big risks on her own.  She's nerdy, sleeping in the engine room and able to hack AI from a mile away.  And by Mass Effect 2, you find her confidence and her duty has only grown.  You first meet her young and hopeful, then you find her again determined and steadfast.  She grows up to be an independent woman who chooses to help humanity fight the reapers merely because Shepard is a good friend.  Sure, you can romance her, but it's a mutual respect, a love that grows out of admiration that Tali and Shepard have for each other.  It's not all about allure, it's about deep feelings.  It has to be when you can't even see her friggin face!

Seriously, are you automatically attracted to a space suit?  Because you may want to speak to a professional about that.
On top of that, when her family's honor is on the line she has not problem cursing out her elders while in court.  She a tough, smart woman.

But that is not what you get when you read through some of the posts of her most "loyal" fans, the talimancers.   They talk about how they want to protect her, how she's shy, how she needs to be comforted.  Excuse me?  This girl has fought the geth off on her own and you think YOU can protect her because she occasionally stutters?  It's like they only are attracted to this intelligent woman if she's socially awkward and needs to be nurtured.  Don't worry, Bioware boys, you got you wish, just in a different universe.

No need to project on Tali, Merril will help you with your insecurities.
It's frustrating.  The archetypes of what makes a woman attractive have become so ingrained that if we can't find on that fits it in our preferred fictional universe, we project what we want on one of those characters that would seem to fit it the most. Why wouldn't the industry cater to that if it gets them money?

This is one where even the choices still don't affect the build of the character.  You can have a different look in the hair, skin tone, and face, but the body will always be the same, and it will always appeal to the male demographic, or what the developers will feel appeal to that demographic.  I know that not all men want to oggle at small waists and big boobs, and it's not a crime to like that.  I'm merely asking for some better variety and support complex characters.

Like movies, video games have their tropes that they stick to, some of them prejudiced.  However, because of the custom aspects that games have introduced, and how it's more integrated with feedback from the fanbase, it'll be easier for games to evolve past these things in some respects.  Then again, it's hard to fight industry norms, especially when you're in an industry ruled by giants (console and developer-wise).  What's really going to matter is what we, the gamers, enjoy over time and end up going back to.  If we don't like what's become the standard, we'll just have to gravitate to games that break that standard.  Video games have thrived in a capitalist structure, and we'll have to choose what we want in that structure.  

With that in mind, support all kinds of games, the big and the small.  Choose the big production games carefully, and sing praises to the indie developers who are doing something you love.  This is true for all aspects of video games, not just the prejudice issues I've just discussed.  It's the only way the industry is going to have what you want to play.


  1. I response to the Talimancer comment, I would think she would stink like some one who has been wearing the same cloths for years, and her skin would be all soggy like when you have been in the bath to long. lol.
    I enjoyed all the female leads in Mass effect, mostly because lots of them were strong determent folks, And yes a few of them were pretty under built for the jobs they did. And I don't know if its just me, but I actually wound up hateing the Merril character in Dragoon Age, She was weak, never learned from her mistakes, and I was always having to bail her out of problems of her own making. She reminded me of a junky, always heading back for just one more fix.

  2. You need to play you some Trollbabe.

  3. Totally agree with your sentiment. It of course could apply to the RPG and comic hobbies as well. I for one believe there's a desire to see more varied protagonists than you currently find in modern offerings.

    Odd to see a mention of Trollbabe, which is both obscure and not a videogame!(A Big Gal fetish is not widely found in RPGs, it seems...) A weird turn in the Narrative perhaps? ;-)

    Excellent post.