Talking about Women in Games

There has been a major stir in the gaming world recently, caused by the reaction to some opinion and analysis pieces about the treatment and depiction of women. There is a problem not just how women are depicted in video games, but how women are treated in the industry, especially when they try to call attention to the issue. There is a lot of crossover between boardgames and video games, and because many of the same issues apply in the boardgaming world, it’s an issue that everyone should take seriously. As a fan of boardgames, video games, and women (not necessarily in that order), I have a duty to myself to join in the fight to defend them.

First and foremost, disrespectful discourse cannot be tolerated. People will argue that if they are being asked to tolerate something they don’t like, then people should have to tolerate their opinions as well. That’s not how it works. Tolerance is not a universal right. If you disagree with something being presented reasonably, you have the right to respond to the issue reasonably. When you start to attack someone personally for their opinions, to the extent of threatening or describing violence, you leave the realm of civilization and lose your rights in the matter. This is especially true if the things you say are the exact same things that complaints are being raised about. That’s why I’m not writing this using sarcasm, so that it can’t be mistaken for a personal attack.

Now to the matter at hand. I haven’t really followed much of the original writing at the heart of this, so I can’t and won’t directly defend it. Fortunately, I can still respond to what people are saying about it, because it is an issue of equality. Women are underrepresented in all parts of the hobby. The creation side (publishers, designers, developers) is still male dominated, especially in the upper management levels, meaning that when women are involved in the development process, their work is always subject to the approval of a man. Many people have their decisions moderated by someone with a different perspective, so women are not alone in this. But the goal should be for balance. The more different perspectives you get on something, the more likely it will represent people from all perspectives.

That breadth of perspective is important for both creators and players. Most games are centered around male protagonists. Including a broader array of characters for players to control can provide an extra experience to games. We should encourage games to present the broadest range of experience possible, not limit ourselves to a single slice. And if you are unhappy that there will be fewer games in which you can identify with the character, that is the exact complaint many women have now. “White male” is the default, and the existence of a default at all is evidence of a problem. If there isn’t a specific plot-driven need, or mechanic-driven need in boardgames, for a player to have a specific identity, then it should be the choice of the player, barring technical limitations. Notice that I stipulate a plot- or mechanic-driven need, because “that’s the way it was” is not an excuse, especially in a game in which other representations of the real world have been made arbitrarily. This doesn’t even say anything about the way women are portrayed in games. I just read a great piece rebutting the argument (and I use the term loosely) of the typical representation of women for the sake of “realism”.

Finally, this all comes around to games journalism. We, as a community, need to recognize these issues and address them in order to grow and thrive. You don’t have to agree with opinions (like “women are too slutty in games”), but you can’t argue facts (like “women are portrayed as sexualized in games much more frequently than men”). Saying a fact isn’t true doesn’t make it so, and ignoring an issue you don’t want to hear about doesn’t make it go away. And when the issue is that someone’s perspective is being ignored, telling that person not to talk about it proves them right. You effectively say “from my perspective, you’re wrong about your perspective.” You are telling someone outside in the cold that they cannot be cold because you are inside and warm.

After struggling to understand why so many people are vehemently opposed to these issues being raised, let alone addressing and correcting them, I can only think it comes down to fear. It is difficult to be told that what you think you know is wrong. It is hard to deal with the idea of something you love being changed. These things are especially difficult when they go to the heart of something that you consider a large part of your identity. Part of the fear seems to be of loss of power. Men have a lot of control over what video games get made, men typically hold the positions of power in video games, and men have power over their own opinions over games. It is no wonder that so many are afraid of losing some of that agency to women telling them what to play, portraying women in positions of power, and women telling them their current opinions are wrong. But changing your perspective to incorporate those things doesn’t mean you lose any of your identity, in fact it makes your identity stronger. You can show how your identity is separate from those around you, in a way you couldn’t before.

As awareness of my upcoming game New Bedford grows, I am starting to encounter people who dislike the game, simply due to the theme. This was a concern the publisher and I both had, and it’s not something we want to ignore or push under the rug. Even though the game presents whaling in an historical context, it still puts players in the role of someone who hunts whales for a living. It strikes me that some of the reactions to articles about women in gaming see the subject in the same light as whaling, that is, a subject so horrible that to even mention it is worthy of insult and violence. Instead of retreating from the issue, we should use the opportunity to learn more. By pretending it doesn’t exist at all, you negate all the work done to right the wrong. If the issue has truly been solved, then there is no harm in discussing it. And if it hasn’t been solved yet, learning about it and talking about it are the only ways it will get solved. Anna contributed some thoughts on women in boardgaming a while ago, and I felt a need to say something now, and add my own personal experience. Every voice that contributes to raising awareness of this issue helps. With enough voices of reason speaking calmly, we can drown out even the loudest of irrational voices.

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