The Key to My Peace of Mind

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Last week, Leigh Alexander wrote an article on Gamasutra about the lack of female lead characters in games at Activision, and by extension throughout the industry. She relays the story of a development studio that was working on a game with “an Asian female assassin… modeled on actress Lucy Liu,” until an order came down from Activision to “lose the chick.” The original project was subsequently taken over by a different studio and released as the third part of an existing series. Alexander’s unnamed sources draw a connection between extensive focus-testing, a desire to repeat the biggest financial successes of previous years, the perception that there’s no market for games with anything other than male lead characters, and the under-representation of women and minorities in games.

It’s an even-handed article, but there are two pretty clear targets for criticism: focus testing and, for lack of a more convenient word, sexism. I was reminded of Alexander’s article by a post by my ex-coworker Brett Douville’s blog talking about the focus-testing aspect of the story. I don’t have much to add, there, since it’s fairly straightforward: big companies make decisions based on focus testing; making decisions based on focus-grouped metrics and sales figures is deadly to creativity and innovation; individual developers, and studios seeking publishing or buy-out agreements, need to know the extent a publisher makes decisions based on focus testing, so they can decide who to work for or who to make business deals with.

I will say a couple of things, though: first, focus testing isn’t inherently evil. (Whether Activision is, is still up for debate). It’s easy to decry it as the most obvious example of The Suits keeping down The Creatives — I’ve done plenty of decrying myself — but if used correctly, it can be extremely valuable. Back before they merged with the taint of Activision, and were still just known for making preposterously well-balanced and polished games, Blizzard touted frequent play-testing and iteration as one of the keys to their success. Same with Valve, who is, at the time of this writing, yet to make itself known as evil. “Creative control” is laudable up to the point where you’ve clung to your own personal vision at the expense of everything else — the trick is being able to distinguish when you’re getting useful feedback from when you’re getting arbitrary meddling.

And speaking of arbitrary: would focus testing and publisher interference be given so much attention if the situation had been reversed? If a studio had been developing a game with a male space marine as its lead character, and the publisher had insisted that it be switched to a woman, for no better reason than because “women are under-represented” or even “games with chicks sell better,” would that get such a negative response? I’m skeptical.

The only other bit I wanted to mention from Brett’s post was in response to this: “It’s also worth noting that this article received more than ten dozen comments, which is far more than any other news item in the last week or so… clearly this touches some sort of nerve.” And I’d say yes, it touched a nerve because it was designed to: sexism + the current Evil Giant Corporation in the minds of videogamers + creative control ripped from honest developers == instant internet indignation. But I’ve got to point out that the bulk of those ten dozen comments — at least the ones I got through before I remembered why I never read blog comments anymore — were a couple of cranks having a typical pointless internet message board argument. Whenever you’re dealing with Things People Say On The Internet, it’s important not to confuse quantity with quality, or relevance.

And hey, quality over quantity is a good lead-in to what I really wanted to talk about: the sexy, sexy business of making videogames.

Portals versus Rifles

While making the case that games with female main characters do so sell well, Alexander mentions Tomb Raider, Metroid, Mirror’s Edge, and devotes a whole paragraph to Portal [bolding mine]:

And though Portal’s first-person mechanics emphasize the game’s interface and not its jumpsuited leading woman Chell, the Valve team went one step further with GLaDOS, the female-voiced AI whose villainy stemmed from maternal instincts gone twisted. Now GLaDOS is on the fast track to becoming one of gaming’s most beloved characters, and the overwhelming reception for Portal’s originality — plus major anticipation for the sequel — demonstrate that “females don’t sell” could indeed be false logic.

This was the part that caught my attention, because it undermines the entire rest of the article. For starters, I think Alexander is conflating the critical and “mind-share” success of Portal with its financial impact. I don’t know the exact numbers, and I don’t doubt the game has done well for the company. But I can all but guarantee that the types of publishers that are looking to focus groups for their creative decisions are going to be trying to emulate Grand Theft Auto 4 and Modern Warfare before they look to a game like Portal.

Second, I would love to see the industry learn lessons from Portal and follow its example. But of all the interesting things about that game, the fact that the lead character and villain are both “female” is the least relevant. Is this really the prime example of how we can reach better representation of women in games?

The main character is a complete cipher, even more devoid of personality than Gordon Freeman. Her gender — and the use of the phrase “take your daughter to work day” — is completely arbitrary. It’s a case of favoring representation over relevance. Much like how it’s become standard practice to use “she” as the gender-neutral third-person pronoun, e.g. “If a customer wants to buy a beard trimmer, she can find one at Target.” It’s every bit as arbitrary as continuing to use “he,” no more correct but now with the false connotation of being more “respectful.”

GLaDOS is more of a character than Chell, but there’s a problem with that, too: she’s not female. She is, as pointed out, a female-voiced AI. I wouldn’t call out Bobby Hill or Bart Simpson as increased exposure for women in the media, and whenever I’m waiting for a BART train or I reach someone’s voicemail, I don’t think “Girl Power!”

As for GLaDOS’s personality, I think that the idea of “maternal instincts gone twisted” is an enormous reach. I’ve played through the game twice now, and I never once perceived any aspect of femininity in the GLaDOS character. If anything, it varies between phone-operator-neutral, and sarcastic dude in his mid-30s. That could be because I knew going in who wrote the game, or it could be because of my own bias. By the end of the game, I pictured not a female AI or even a computer, but one of my ex-bosses, and I wanted nothing more than to destroy him/it completely. But whatever the case, there’s no dialogue in the game that suggests a maternal relationship.

So the question is: are you just looking for games that have arbitrarily female characters, or have something inherently feminine? Portal is, for the most part, a non-violent game. It emphasizes problem-solving over direct violence. If you want to get Freudian with it, you have a gun that shoots holes instead of bullets. One of the main characters is a box with a heart on it. The game involves baking. At what point does this kind of analysis of a game cross the line from “equal gender representation and empowerment” to “insulting sexism?” I just know that my own take on Portal is that it’s an absolutely brilliant puzzle game that was written like an Old Man Murray post. That’s a compliment, not an insult, but it’s still the direct opposite of “feminine.”

Ciphers versus Sex Objects

So how about the other examples? Samus Arun from the Metroid series is about the worst example possible, considering that the big surprise of the first game was that she was a female at all. If your main character’s gender is secret, you can’t use it as an example of gender making a difference.

Lara Croft? Alexander delivers a good line in saying that the recent incarnations “show more spine than skin,” and I’ll have to take her word for it, since I haven’t played any Tomb Raider games since the first one. And in the first one, she was the worst kind of female character: she was female solely to titillate the predominantly male audience, and her value was measured only in how much money she’d inherited, and how she could do the same things that men can do.

I haven’t played Mirror’s Edge, either, but even on the surface I can recognize it as a step up. (Or maybe leap up followed by a backwards roll?) I never saw any press devoted to the fact that the main character was a woman — or for that matter, an Asian who isn’t a wise sage or a math genius. And it’s not completely arbitrary that she’s female, either: the game requires a lead character who’s athletic, limber and flexible, the opposite of the huge-necked Gears of War dudes.

Because it’s a fairly subtle distinction: I acknowledge that Alexander is not making the case that female characters sell games, just attempting to refute the claim that games with female characters don’t sell.

But there does have to be a stronger justification for making a character female than just “it does no harm” or even “there aren’t enough female characters in games.” I’ve seen too many cases of its being done to pander; for the sake of arbitrary tokenism; or lazy, disingenuous faux-feminism.

In my own experience, I’ve written male characters for games and been asked “why not make him a woman?” It contributes nothing, and it puts the writer on the defensive: suddenly I’m having to defend what was originally an arbitrary decision against an equally arbitrary decision, or otherwise I’m misogynist or at best, insensitive. When it’s completely arbitrary, like Chell in Portal, then there’s nothing gained or lost, so sure, why not make it a woman? But if you’re taking an existing character and insisting on the change, you need to be able to justify changing the “he” to “she” or it’s every bit as pointless and damaging as Alexander’s example of changing “she” to “he.” (Example of a valid reason for the change: if you can get Angelina Jolie-level box office).

My Soul is in the Lost and Found

I’ve got to acknowledge that everything I say is going to be immediately suspect, since I’m what Roy Blount, Jr. calls the most politically-incorrect demographic there is: a white, English-speaking, Christian male from the southern United States. But I’d like to see a game that lets me play as a well-made female character, because that’s a big part of what games are about: letting people do things they can’t do normally.

And you wouldn’t believe it after hearing how under-represented female characters are in games, but there’s actually a ton of games that let you play as a female character, many of them huge sellers: World of Warcraft. Fallout 3. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Dragon Age: Origins. The Sims 3. You don’t hear much about that, and for good reason: it’s almost purely cosmetic. Granted I haven’t played Mass Effect long enough to get to the hot hot girl-on-girl scenes, but from what I have seen, it makes no difference to the game whether Captain Shepherd is a man or a woman.

I tend to make male characters, but when you get right down to it, it’s for the same reason that a lot of guys make female characters: it’s not who they want to be, but who they want to look at for the next 10-50 hours. I don’t know how it is for female players — and I’d like to hear, in the comments — but among male players, there’s a choice between role-playing escapism and good, old-fashioned exploitation, and each aspect gets roughly equal play-time.

For a perfect example of that, look at Half-Life 2 and its episodes. I said that Chell in Portal is a cipher, and by all accounts, Gordon Freeman should be as well. But he’s definitely not — it’s one of the best-written games available, but it’s still every bit the escapist wish-fulfillment that GTA and God of War are.

Like Chell, Gordon Freeman is completely mute and very rarely (if ever) seen in the game. And let’s be honest here: Gordon Freeman is a borderline idiot. He’s constantly falling off things or running into danger. He’s ostensibly a genius physicist, but he has to be given explicit, repeated instructions on how to press buttons or walk in a straight line. Still, the other characters are constantly commenting on his genius, praising him for accomplishing the most basic tasks, or flirting with him. (I picture him as the videogame equivalent of Jon Hamm’s character on “30 Rock.”)

In a different game, Alyx Vance could be precisely the kind of strong female character that people have been clamoring for. But here, she exists only to support Gordon Freeman, both physically in the game’s combat, and emotionally by being incredibly turned on by his silence and complete absence of personality. When she’s not macking on Gordon, she’s lying unconscious waiting to be rescued by him, or she’s getting weepy about her dad. It says a lot about how well she’s written, modeled, animated, and voice-acted, that you tend not to notice that she exists solely for the benefit of men.

While we’re lamenting the fact that publishers chase after a simplistic idea of what will sell to the still-predominantly-male videogame audience, it’d be a good idea to make sure that what we’re hoping for isn’t every bit as simplistic. Nobody in good conscience is going to propose cooking games and dating sims as “see, girls can play their own games!” But do we want the distinction between male and female characters to be as superficial as hair color? Do we want to measure the quality of a female character in terms of whether she can fight and shoot as well as a man? Do we want to keep the genders completely interchangeable, and make sure that 52% of games have female lead characters and 48% have males?

I think it’d be a lot more interesting to play a game that actually has me playing as a woman, to a degree that it makes a difference. What does that mean, exactly? I dunno, since I’m not a woman — that’s why I’d need to play the game to know what it’s like. Would that game sell? I bet it would, as long as it were a good enough game. Would it sell as well as GTA4 or Modern Warfare? Probably not anytime soon — we’d have to make more games that genuinely appeal to women before there’s enough monetary incentive to make higher-budget games for women. Until then, you can just try it out, and focus test the hell out of it.

16 Comments

  1. Yeah, okay, so you’re saying it’s okay to have a female player character as long as you’ve got a good story built around that character. Yes, because most of the people who want to see more female pc’s don’t care about that at all. “Is the story terrible? Who cares! We angry feminists just want more females regardless! Institute a quota!”

    As you pointed out, the article was trying to prove that making the pc female doesn’t automatically doom a game to the bargain bin; that players of both genders can play as a woman and enjoy the game. The article was also saying that having “suits” force a team to change their entire storyline using that stupid chestnut is ridiculous. The article was specifically NOT demanding that more games switch their pc to a woman. It was decrying when publishers force developers to change their female character to a male. The article is making the point that developers are building stories and worlds around female characters, stories that they believe in and are as excited about as stories they’ve built around male characters, and then have to have their work thrown out because the publishers think chicks don’t sell.

    Isn’t that exactly what you complained about happening to you? You were forced to justify why a male character should stay male, they were forced to justify why a female character should stay female. So what if the gender is different? The situation is exactly the same. One might question whether or not this gender-bias really is endemic to Activision, and the industry as a whole, but questioning if having a female pc is really worth it does sound sexist to me.

    Why do you have to prove having a female pc is really making the most of her “femaleness”? Most video game stories and writing are crap, and most of them have male pc’s who act nothing like any of the human males I’ve met. If you switched the gender of the character, they wouldn’t be more or less crappy, they would just be crappy with a slightly different story. You say Samus and Chell aren’t “female enough” or making use of their sex or whatever, but does Master Chief? If he had been female would the game have really been so different? GTA has stories built around male gangsters, etc., but if they built one around a woman would it be a completely new direction for the series? Would it affect how you play? Would you be less likely to attack someone, steal their car and jump it off an overpass if you were playing as a woman?

    You can say that having developers forced to design a game around a female pc is a bad thing. Duh. Having developers forced to arbitrarily change the entire game is generally not a good idea, whatever the reason, but assuming the only way we’ll get games with female pc’s is by publishers forcing developers to make them to do it, is assuming that there are no developers coming up with games based around female characters on their own … even though the article proved that developers have done so in the past.

  2. While I agree making a female character just out of political correctness hasn’t much of a point, and I generally dislike quotas for the sake of quotas, I think there shouldn’t be more of a “reason why we made this character female” than a “reason why we made this character male”.
    I don’t think having to make sure the character being female is essential to the story, or even relevant, is necessarily the way to go. It might just happen to be a female, and that’s that. Doesn’t have to make it “special”, know what I mean?

    I liked how in Broken Sword 2, playing as George or Nicole was different. Even in a point and click adventure game, with specific answers to the puzzles, it showed that you’re playing as the character, and need to think like them, etc. It was nice wen playing as Nico to hear her say “That’s the kind of thing George would do. But I’m not George.”
    On the other hand, I never saw it as “you’re playing as a male at times, and as a female at times”. It was George and Nico. Could have been two females or two males, the point was that they were different characters.

    I agree gender is a relevant thing when you create a character. It’s easier to make a character taller or shorter, or to give them a different hair colour, than to change their gender. Because many things are built around it, mainly their relationships to other characters. So I don’t think it’s something that you can just shoehorn in or out.

    But I would definitely say that it’s not a matter of “would the character being female help? If so, female, if not, male”. More a matter of “what works best for this character? Are they male or female?” and if that’s the question you ask yourself, then I see no reason why, across all games, you wouldn’t end up with around half of each.

    As for playing a character… it depends for me. For games where you can create your own character, with name, physical features, etc, I tend to create characters from my own stories, so both genders would probably be equally represented. I’ve never counted how many of them were male versus females, but I assume it’s fairly balanced overall.
    For games when you have less customization, I have my phases. Sometimes I create a female because I want to picture it’s me. Sometimes I create a male because I think, I’m already female, so if I’m roleplaying, I might as well roleplay a male. In some way, it’s similar to deciding whether you play as a human or another race, if I’m making sense. I assume it’s not fundamentally different for us as it is for you guys, although the first times I was able to play as females, I did only that, because it was nice to finally be able to… But I feel like if I had been male, I would have done so as well. Just for the change.

  3. Nice post Chuck! It’s a great read.

    Gordan Freeman is indeed “the videogame equivalent of Jon Hamm’s character on 30 Rock.” 🙂

  4. @Lena_P:

    Yes, because most of the people who want to see more female pc’s don’t care about that at all. “Is the story terrible? Who cares! We angry feminists just want more females regardless! Institute a quota!” […] The article was specifically NOT demanding that more games switch their pc to a woman. […] You say Samus and Chell aren’t “female enough” or making use of their sex or whatever, but does Master Chief? If he had been female would the game have really been so different?

    “Duh, obviously NO ONE was demanding that developers arbitrarily change male player characters to female! It’s insulting to suggest that they were! But as long as you brought it up: why COULDN’T Master Chief have been female?”

    Which is pretty much how these things tend to go down, so thanks for illustrating my point. Otherwise, nobody would’ve believed me if I’d predicted an “oh no you DIDN’T!” response to “Videogames should have stronger female characters.”

    Alexander’s article doesn’t insist that developers change male characters to female. It just says that there’s a lack of diversity in games, that Activision has no female main characters in their AAA titles, and then gives examples of female main characters in successful games. Even though the gender for all but one of those characters is either completely arbitrary, or was chosen to pander to horny boys. So of course I’m not suggesting anyone be forced to make an arbitrary change, but hey as long as you can’t give a good reason not to….

    Why couldn’t Master Chief have just as easily been female? Because he wasn’t. Why couldn’t the logo have been red instead of blue? Because it isn’t. Changing that would’ve had no bearing on the game, either. Except it’d be impossible to put somebody on the defensive for not wanting to change the logo color. As long as you can get someone having to defend himself against “why not?”, then you’ve won.

    One might question whether or not this gender-bias really is endemic to Activision, and the industry as a whole, but questioning if having a female pc is really worth it does sound sexist to me.

    I’m sure it does sound sexist to you, which is probably why you wrote it like that even though I didn’t.

    I didn’t say that “Samus and Chell aren’t ‘female enough’ or making use of their sex or whatever” I said that their being female does nothing for the story. So putting them forward as notable female characters is a bad idea.

    Most video game stories and writing are crap, and most of them have male pc’s who act nothing like any of the human males I’ve met. If you switched the gender of the character, they wouldn’t be more or less crappy, they would just be crappy with a slightly different story.

    You do make a compelling argument, for more slightly different crappy games that have chicks in them.

    I’m making the sexist and offensive argument that videogames need to have stronger female characters. That game developers shouldn’t be decrying the loss of an unknown game that was reportedly progressive because it elevated the form to the level of Charlie’s Angels and Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. That you shouldn’t point to a twist ending in 1986, a big-breasted character in tight shorts who likes to shoot guns at dinosaurs and then take baths, a cipher, and a computer as advances in feminism. That game developers and players should acknowledge that a lack of female representation isn’t the real problem in diversity of games, that cosmetic changes don’t accomplish anything, and that Ms. Gears of War is a depressingly unambitious goal.

    You can say that having developers forced to design a game around a female pc is a bad thing. Duh. Having developers forced to arbitrarily change the entire game is generally not a good idea, whatever the reason, but assuming the only way we’ll get games with female pc’s is by publishers forcing developers to make them to do it, is assuming that there are no developers coming up with games based around female characters on their own … even though the article proved that developers have done so in the past.

    The article proved nothing of the sort. It gave one example of unnamed sources who worked at a studio whose project was moved to another studio, claiming that industry bad guy Activision insisted on changing the gender of the main character.

    I’m not saying that the claims are untrue or that the sources are unreliable just by virtue of being anonymous. What I am saying is that the article invites the reader to make a ton of extrapolations. That the gender of the character was the only reason the project was cancelled. That the game would’ve been positive and not, say, another Wet, if it’d only seen release. That because Activision has no female main characters, that this kind of publisher gender-swapping is happening repeatedly. And that there’s any correlation between the sex of the main character and sales or even critical reception — whether positive or negative.

    The implicit assumption through all of this is that there’s a wealth of projects with strong female characters that developers are just itching to make, but they keep getting shut down by publishers who think they won’t sell. I’m highly skeptical. From what I’ve seen, there’s no more reason to believe developers are any more adept at male/female diversity than they are at non-space-marine/elf diversity. What I believe is far more likely is for a developer to take an existing clone of GTA or Halo or God of War, make the main character a woman, and say “BOOM. Diversity.” (We already saw basically the reverse of that, with the Uncharted series, which turned out to be good games in spite of their uninspired characters, not because of them). That is where the arbitrary swap is going to come, before any game industry suit walking off the set of Mad Men into a studio and saying “Lose the chick.”

    Could you make a run-and-gun shooter with a female character instead of a male? Sure, but why would you? If you’ve already got one in the works, more power to you, as long as you don’t point to it as a breakthrough in diversity. Woman can shoot dudes as well as men — and definitely a hell of a lot better than this man — but that’s not what makes them awesome. I’m not that interested in playing that type of character, and if I were a woman, I doubt I’d be that excited about the escapism of playing a woman who acts like a man.

  5. Could you make a run-and-gun shooter with a female character instead of a male?

    Why “instead”? Isn’t “why would it be female?” on equal grounds with “why would it be male?”? Don’t all characters start as genderless, and then you decide one way or the other? Because it’s a shooter, it needs to be male unless there is a good reason? (Feel free to tell me if I misinterpreted your words).
    I don’t want to see female characters only in roles that are stereotypically female. And if I play a female who is a soldier, I don’t want a backstory saying that she became a soldier to prove she can be as strong as a man, or something. I want it to be a matter of fact, that of course females are soldiers too, why wouldn’t they be?, not even worth a mention.

    If being physically fit and strong is a “male” quality, what would be a “female” one? Being gentle and caring, maybe? Does that mean that every game in which you’re a nurse/doctor/teacher/creature breeder should have a female lead by default, and that we can ask “why did you make that character male instead of female” when they are men?
    I’m sure you can see that there is nothing wrong with gentle and caring male characters, and they don’t need a reason to be that way. And they’re not “pretending to be a woman”, either.

    We can have tough females and gentle males. I see how it’s a problem if females in video games are ALWAYS shown as needing to have stereotypically male qualities to be considered worthy. Indeed I don’t think women should need to emulate males to be as good as them. On the other hand, women with these qualities aren’t necessarily emulating men. They might just be themselves, and that’s fine too.

    There doesn’t need to be a divide. “Men do this, women do that.” Ultimately, before being a man or a woman, we’re people, and we’re our own person, with our own characteristics. No man has 100% of the “male” characteristics and 0% of the “female” ones, and no woman is the other way around, either.
    I want believable, three dimensional characters. I want to see them express feelings, I want them to be themselves. I want them to take off their armour, wipe off the blood of their friend, and cry. Whether they’re a man or a woman.

    Actually, it even annoys me when in a game males are melee and females are magic users, for instance. I want the option to be female melee or male caster, too!

  6. Why “instead”? Isn’t “why would it be female?” on equal grounds with “why would it be male?”? Don’t all characters start as genderless, and then you decide one way or the other?

    No, I would definitely hope that they don’t start as genderless. Because gender isn’t a cosmetic difference, like hair color or (for the most part) skin color.

    Everything I’ve written starts with that as a given; I didn’t make it explicit because I’d just assumed anybody who’d be reading this was already at the same point, equality-of-the-sexes-wise. I’d hope that on a nerd’s blog in 2010, we don’t need to keep asserting that women and men are equally capable of doing 90% of anything. (The rest being childbirth and asking for directions am I right fellas?!)

    The sexes are different, and that’s a very good thing. If you’ve spent any time as a guy surrounded by only guys, you understand how much that’s a good thing. I’ve heard the same from women friends after going to bachelorette parties and showers.

    And no, the difference isn’t the simple and predictable “men are physically fit and strong and men are gentle and caring.” But there are physical differences that would be foolish to ignore, and mental differences that would actually make games better if we all were to acknowledge them. Instead of insisting that men and women are interchangeable — that’s not progressive, it just brings everybody down to the same stupid lowest-common-denominator action hero level.

    Characters in so-called AAA games “default” to male because AAA games are still predominantly adolescent male fantasies. They’re made by dudes making games that they believe other dudes will enjoy. That template keeps getting repeated over and over. That’s the issue, and swapping female for male isn’t going to fix that. I’d rather see a genuine female perspective to a AAA game instead of just putting lipstick on the guy from Gears of War and saying it was progress. I thought No One Lives Forever was great, and everything I saw of Starcraft Ghost seemed like it was headed in the right direction, too. What little I’ve seen of Mirror’s Edge gives me the impression it’s enhanced by having a female character.

    Actually, it even annoys me when in a game males are melee and females are magic users, for instance. I want the option to be female melee or male caster, too!

    Among the games with that kind of class division that I’ve played, the ones that are that gender-indiscriminate are the ones that have the most shallow character development. It looks like Diablo 3 will let you choose from male or female versions of each class. Diablo 2 said that assassins and sorcerers were always female, barbarians and paladins were always male.

    Now, the Diablo games aren’t paragons of character development, but I think Diablo 3‘s method sounds like a step down. The classes in the older game felt like characters, even if they were arbitrary and shallow.

  7. No, I would definitely hope that they don’t start as genderless. Because gender isn’t a cosmetic difference, like hair color or (for the most part) skin color.

    I disagree with you.
    The way I see it, the biological differences (the obvious physical, sexual differences) are the only inborn ones. The rest is a matter of cultural upbringing.

    Yes, we live in a society where I’m looked down on for not wearing makeup, dresses or high heels, or for not shaving my body hair. But that doesn’t make any sense, and I’m glad I grew up in a country where the concept of “cooties” doesn’t even exist, so that when people ask me “why don’t you do all these stuff society says women should do”, I can answer “why would I?” instead of “Oh I’m sorry, I forgot to play the role that’s expected of me, getting back to it right now”.

    When I grew up, I played wrestling with my brothers, we played with our toy guns, and we played with our dolls and plushes, and we played videogames. All four of us grew up as completely different individuals, with different characteristics that could be considered “feminine” and different characteristics that could be considered “masculine”. My eldest brother and I are more quiet, introverted, “read-a-book-in-your-room-all-day” kind of people. My middle and younger brother are more extroverted and active. My younger brother shares my interest in collecting coins while my middle brother shares my love for cats.
    My mother is strong-willed and, if I may say so, rather bitter. My dad is much better with people, especially kids, as he is more caring and more patient. My mom enjoys playing videogames, knitting and weaving. My dad likes opera, rugby and cross-stitching. My mom cooks wonderfully while my dad is pretty bad at it. I inherited that from him (that and his stupid sense of humour. Thanks dad). Fortunately my husband is a great cook, just like his own mom, who taught him.

    Can you see where I’m getting at? We’re all people. We have characteristics and interests that are ours. I don’t really care which are considered feminine or masculine, for me they’re all neutral anyways. Why would it be weird that my dad enjoys cross-stitching, but normal that he sews up people? As he says, it’s basically the same thing (oh, right, my parents are both doctors by the way. Is that a feminine or a masculine thing? I’ve lost track at this point.)

    If you live in a society where different things are expected from males and females, then humans will develop to fit what’s expected of them, or feel out of place. Or, really, both, because the way they’re made to act doesn’t always happen to perfectly match the way they feel. If it does for you, good for you. But I’m sure any study you pick would show you that most people feel inappropriate for ridiculous things. I had a friend who thought she was malformed for years simply because breasts are always shown as erect, and hers weren’t always that way.

    So, do I feel there is a difference, nowadays, in how males and females are portrayed in the American media? Yes. But I think that’s a problem. As Lena said, most men are not tough, emotionless superhumans. It’s not more unrealistic if you make that tough, emotionless superhuman a female, because they have nothing to do with an actual human being anyways.
    And these games aren’t about being realistic. They’re about playing as someone who’s much more awesome than you are. If I want to play as someone who can make huge leaps and punch through walls, does it have to be a male?

    We’re talking about females here, but the irony is that my main concern is the other way around. That is, I want healer/support-type characters to be playable as males. Males who are sensitive, compassionate and not about brute strength. Because that’s the kind of guy I’m attracted to, and I want to be able to spend time with one. But by pushing the genders in codified categories like that, you’re saying I need to play as a female or as a tank guy, neither of which I have any interest in.
    At least I can play the female support and identify with her, so I wouldn’t be happy if the support had to be male, either. I like being able to play both. Incidentally, if I play the tank, it will probably be as a female, so I can at least win on one of the two fronts (identifying and being attracted to) rather than lose on both.

    Anyways, I feel like we have drifted from your original point here. Which I think is “since male-oriented games should have male characters as default, to have more female characters, we need more female-oriented games”.
    What would you consider “female-oriented”, though? A game that’s not about speed or fighting? A game that relies on things other than physical strength?
    Would adventure games fit that bill?
    But then, to be “balanced”, does that means adventure games should have female leads by default or have a good reason not to? Or does the “male = default” apply to all videogames?

  8. Oh god, where do I start? I’m always bad at writing these things. I guess a self introduction is in order.

    I’m a trigendered female bodied gynephile. My gender fluctuates throughout the seasons, occasionally being feminine, occasionally being masculine, and occasionally being both/neither. Currently I’m in the loop of femininity, but for the sake of saying, I’m just queer. Saying that, gender is an issue that seems to pop up a lot around me. It’s a very complicated issue and occasionally hurts my brain, but I try to make sense of it from time to time.

    That’s basically enough about me, so let’s jump right into the mix.

    To say that gender is just taught through culture is just plain erroneous. There is definitely an inbornness attached to it. As it is, a majority of peoples born with female anatomy are feminine in gender, as with male sexed individuals to masculine gender. Even those who show traits of say, flamboyantness in males and tomboyness in females show telltale signs of masculinity and femininity in their respective typical places.

    There are times when individuals are in fact genderless, both genders, something else, or trans, but to say that they were taught to be that way is simply not true. Gender defiantly isn’t a binary, but on the other hand to say that it can be determined on how the individual was raised is (beating the dead horse) just plain wrong. I grew up in a conservative environment where the expectation was for me to be as feminine as possible. Even then, I lived the first 4 years of my life thinking I was a boy.

    Womanly issues, no matter what what sex the individual is, span all women and such and I agree immensely that gender is not just a cosmetic thing. And in fact, I’m insulted to think that it has only been represented mostly as a cosmetic thing. Gender is a wonderful factor in the spice of life that is diversity, and I DO want to play more games where being a woman does come into play. Great examples of positively representing women in a positive way would be, in my opinion, Heavy Rain and Beyond Good and Evil. Bad examples would be like the aforementioned Tomb Raider and Bayonetta. Bayonetta being so ridiculous about its portrayal of women to the point of being absolutely hilarious to play.

    I find it sad that there aren’t a whole lot of games where in a female main protagonist has been portrayed realistically. And you game making folk should get on that.

    im not too good at this writing and portraying thoughts thing

  9. I would be more likely to play a game called “Ms. Gears of War” than “Gears of War.”

    And more likely to play any game with interesting characters than anything more about space marines or elves, male or female. I agree that the problem is that everything is pitched at adolescent male fantasy. Frankly, it’s less embarrassing when bad adolescent male writers write male characters than when they try to write women.

    I would rather play the video game equivalent of “Winter’s Bone” than, say, “Inception.” One of these days the technology will be cheap enough.

    But you’re wrong about GLaDOS: she’s clearly written as a passive-aggressive, smothering mother (e.g., “the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart,” or “we’ve both said a lot of things you’re going to regret”).

  10. @avistew:

    But by pushing the genders in codified categories like that, you’re saying I need to play as a female or as a tank guy, neither of which I have any interest in.

    No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that people understand that “male tank and female healer” is clumsy and simplistic, but then act like “female tank and male hunter” is something special.

    People get hung up on this idea that if you say “women are different from men,” you’re prescribing behavior. I think it’s because people like saying “nobody dares tell me what I can’t do!” and patting themselves on the back for being unconventional and defying traditional roles. But you’re never going to find anyone who fits the “traditional” definition of masculine or feminine 100% — not because it’s an invalid definition, but because it’s a generalization. It’s not supposed to apply to everyone 100%.

    Saying that there’s no difference between women and men is just another, more subtle way of saying that “different” is bad. But there are biological differences, and those extend to the brain. How much of the difference is innate and how much is defined by society? It doesn’t matter at all. Things will be a lot better once people understand that something can still be valid even if it’s not innate.

    If you’re a woman who likes to hunt or a woman who likes to bake, so what? If you’re a man who gets excited about race cars or a man who gets excited about shoes, big deal. Once you understand that, then there shouldn’t be anything controversial about saying, “you know, an awful lot of guys like to blow shit up, and an awful lot of women like to talk about their feelings.” And you should be able to say that without anyone saying “No I don’t fit that description because I think outside the box and therefore your observation is wrong and sexist.”

    Anyways, I feel like we have drifted from your original point here. Which I think is “since male-oriented games should have male characters as default, to have more female characters, we need more female-oriented games”.

    No, that’s not my point. I don’t say that male-oriented games should have male characters. I say that male characters are predominant in games because the majority of them are made by guys for guys doing what they think is guy stuff. And taking that overwhelmingly male template and just making a cosmetic change does nothing to bring genuine femininity to games.

    I’m also not saying that to have more female characters, you need more female-oriented game. That kind of segregation is basically what we have right now. I’m saying make female characters genuinely feminine, however the developer defines that, instead of just stand-ins for male characters.

    What would you consider “female-oriented”, though? A game that’s not about speed or fighting? A game that relies on things other than physical strength?
    Would adventure games fit that bill?
    But then, to be “balanced”, does that means adventure games should have female leads by default or have a good reason not to? Or does the “male = default” apply to all videogames?

    No, unless you still live in 1969 and still believe the world is that simple.

    Saying “this type of game is for men and this is for women” doesn’t make sense. Shooters don’t have anywhere near the level of variety in story that adventure games do — they are with very few exceptions all about running around shooting guys and blowing stuff up. And again, I didn’t say that shooters should have male characters, I said why they do.

    Most of the examples of good female characters have already been mentioned — Broken Sword, Beyond Good and Evil, No One Lives Forever. There should be more strong female characters in game, nobody here is arguing against that. But Portal, Metroid, and Tomb Raider don’t make the list.

    @Matt:

    But you’re wrong about GLaDOS: she’s clearly written as a passive-aggressive, smothering mother (e.g., “the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart,” or “we’ve both said a lot of things you’re going to regret”).

    You know, I might have to concede that one on account of my own bias. The beginning of the game (the part I liked) is all generic mad scientist parody. Once she develops a personality (the part where they lost me), she delivers a line that is word-for-word what a person I don’t get along with used to say all the time. Once I got that image in my head, it didn’t go away. (So I heard it as a parody of passive-aggressive smothering mothers delivered by a smug dude in his mid-30s, which is way too meta to be valid).

    So, I guess, take that, sexist publishers. We have proof that there are examples of strong female characters in best-selling games: an insane, multi-armed artificial intelligence that kills with passive aggression.

  11. @Chuck

    Thanks for repeatedly answering my comments :p It can be hard to understand each other over the Internet.

    When I read your article, I thought ‘Hey, he’s saying taking an AI and giving it a female voice shouldn’t be lauded as “look, we have female characters! It’s diversity!”. He’s got a point. And I guess it’s true that having only action heroines isn’t the way to go either.’
    But afterwards, it seemed to me you were saying “men can be anything at all for no reason, but if females are made as action heroines, there needs to be a good reason”. And I didn’t get the double standard.

    I agree that “different” doesn’t mean “one is better than the other”, I just like to think of people in general as different. There are characteristics considered male and others considered female, sure, but I find it’s so all over the place that ultimately, there isn’t really a rule, and having to go by that seems silly to me. I’d rather ask myself “Would such character do this?” than “would a male/female do this?” and a a result, I tend to leave gender per se out of the equation, it’s only a part of the character and not a major criteria.

    Would it be a problem if the only female characters were all Samuses and Lara Crofts? Yes, probably, because it would cast-type them all. However, is it a problem that these do exist? Not really. And I still don’t see why every female character ever should be completely 3-dimensional and well-written when male characters aren’t held to the same standard. Although it would be nice if all characters ever were, for sure.

    I guess what I don’t get is that you seemed to me to be saying “videogames are dominated by men” and kind of accepting that you’d have to work with it, when it seems to me in cases like that, it’s by working against it, questioning it and throwing it out of the window that changes can happen.

    @Matthew:

    I actually disagree with you :p
    I think GLaDOS is pretty much a blank canvas. A blank canvas with a woman’s voice, sure, but still a blank canvas. Passive-aggressivity certainly isn’t purely a mother or female thing. The way I see it, you can see GLaDOS as a mother, and you can see it as a boss, and you can see it as anything you want because it’s an AI. You project a character onto it, and I think Chuck and yourself have shown that by having completely different interpretations.
    So while it’s possible for GLaDOS to be a motherly-type if you see it that way, I don’t think it counts as a notable female character if the player is the one creating that character, if I’m making sense.

    @Topiary:
    What I meant is that people have characteristics that are, in my opinion, arbitrarily seen as male or female when they’re not really much more common in one sex than the other, and that everyone has a combination of these that is pretty much unique to them and can’t be sorted into two categories “male” or “female”, since there are as many combinations, and therefore categories, as there are people. It seems to me that the only thing that changes when you take someone and change their sex is how other people see them and how they see themselves. They stay the same person, not more masculine or feminine than they were before, but people will see things in a different light.
    I remember in particular an article about transsexual people, that is, post-op, and how people started treating them completely differently. And I think that sucks. I think you should treat people based on who they are and not what genitals they have.
    It just seems to me that the only difference between a male and a female is whether I’m going to be attracted to them. The fact that on the Internet I’ve been interested in females equally prior to knowing they were female, but not at all if I know they’re female, seems to point me in that direction too.

    I don’t think people are going to be raised in a way that turns them from “I like shoes” to “I like hunting” or whatever. What I think is that culture has a lot to do with what’s considered “masculine” or “feminine”, and you might very well go to a different country and realise that the conceptions are different. (For a silly example, you’re less likely play soccer as a kid if you’re a girl in France, because soccer is “a guy’s thing”. In the US it seems that it’s a girl’s thing, though, if I’m not mistaken).
    So if I can move countries, and for something people thought as tomboyish in France to become girly here in Canada, and vice-versa (and I know both have happened, I just can’t remember the specifics) then I don’t think it makes sense to say “this female character isn’t realistic enough as a female” based on “masculine” and “feminine” characteristics that might simply be switched if you change countries (or time periods).
    And certainly, if people have such a variety range, I feel that characters should, too.

  12. “Duh, obviously NO ONE was demanding that developers arbitrarily change male player characters to female! It’s insulting to suggest that they were! But as long as you brought it up: why COULDN’T Master Chief have been female?”

    So why couldn’t he have been? Why can you say, “He’s male because he is,” but can’t say, “Chell is female because she is.” If Chell being female has to “do something for the story”, why don’t you prove that Master Chief’s masculinity “does something for the story”? Point out how his masculinity is key to the story. If Chell has to justify being female, Master Chief has to justify being male.

    And don’t give me the adolescent dude fantasy line. Alien is quite popular with adolescent males, even with Sigourney Weaver starring.

    I don’t think Chell or Master Chief are great characters, but they’re fine for what they are, vessels the player inhabits to experience the story. We may not know Chell’s hometown, but we do know she’s a woman who can take care of herself and survived against a rogue A.I. that had massacred a lab’s worth of people. She’s a female character whose costume wasn’t designed to titillate, and she didn’t sit around until she was saved by a plumber. As a woman, I can verify Chell acted just as I would in that situation; she did her damnedest to get out alive. Men and women aren’t very different in that sense.

    “I didn’t say that “Samus and Chell aren’t ‘female enough’ or making use of their sex or whatever” I said that their being female does nothing for the story. So putting them forward as notable female characters is a bad idea.”

    Alexander’s point was that female pc’s aren’t detrimental to a game’s sales. Using two games with very good sales and female pc’s proves her point.

    “I’m saying make female characters genuinely feminine, however the developer defines that, instead of just stand-ins for male characters.”

    “Woman can shoot dudes as well as men — and definitely a hell of a lot better than this man — but that’s not what makes them awesome. I’m not that interested in playing that type of character, and if I were a woman, I doubt I’d be that excited about the escapism of playing a woman who acts like a man.”

    Female warriors are not stand-ins for male characters. Why can’t there be female space marines in the future when there are female marines in the present?

    Tamora Pierce, the bestselling children’s author, beloved by librarians and 10-14 year old girls (and boys) around the world has written 24 books about young women who made their first kill before they lost their virginity. Her success proves that girls (and boys) love stories about girls who fight in wars, help orchestrate a revolution, hunt down criminals and just generally kick ass. A woman who can shoot dudes as well as a man is NOT a woman who acts like a man. There are women who like martial arts, hunting and action films. They are not acting like men, they are just being themselves. Tammy got started writing because she wanted to make the books she wished she had growing up, stories about women who were just as tough and strong as women she knew, books that millions of adolescents have loved.

    I don’t understand why authors such as Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffrey and Wilkie Collins can write stories with female leads while games are “made by dudes making games that they believe other dudes will enjoy” and where “Characters in so-called AAA games ‘default’ to male because AAA games are still predominantly adolescent male fantasies.” I think the men and women of the video game industry are as capable of creating stories about women as novelists are, and I think male gamers can enjoy playing as female characters just as much as female gamers enjoy playing as male characters.

  13. @Lena_P: You keep arguing against stuff I’m not saying, for some reason.

    So why couldn’t he have been? Why can you say, “He’s male because he is,” but can’t say, “Chell is female because she is.” If Chell being female has to “do something for the story”, why don’t you prove that Master Chief’s masculinity “does something for the story”? Point out how his masculinity is key to the story. If Chell has to justify being female, Master Chief has to justify being male.

    Why do you keep interpreting this as “justification?” If someone asked “why can’t you change Chell to male,” then I would say “she’s female because she is.”

    Look: take Halo and Portal, and swap the gender of the main characters. Have you irreparably damaged the games? Almost certainly not. But have you added anything? No. It’s a zero-sum game.

    But remember, duh, nobody’s interested in just female characters for the sake of having female characters! It’s only because I’m a sexist railing against angry feminists that I would even suggest that anyone wanted a quota.

    Alexander’s point was that female pc’s aren’t detrimental to a game’s sales. Using two games with very good sales and female pc’s proves her point.

    Alexander’s list of female characters in games was immediately after a section lamenting the lack of diversity in games. To claim that there was no should implied is completely disingenuous. And should is fine; there does need to be more diversity in games.

    But female characters just for the sake of having more female characters is “diversity” in name only. “I don’t care if they’re interesting female characters, as long as they’re female.” If you call for diversity and then give examples of characters who could just as easily be male with absolutely no effect, then that’s the same as a quota. If you call for diversity and then list characters that “aren’t detrimental” by virtue of being female, then you’ve done nothing to say why they should be female. That’s a quota.

    We may not know Chell’s hometown, but we do know she’s a woman who can take care of herself and survived against a rogue A.I. that had massacred a lab’s worth of people. She’s a female character whose costume wasn’t designed to titillate, and she didn’t sit around until she was saved by a plumber.

    She’s in a cell at the beginning of the game, and forced to go through lab experiments. She didn’t survive against the odds, she sat around until released by the AI. That’s irrelevant to the topic, but whatever.

    Female warriors are not stand-ins for male characters. Why can’t there be female space marines in the future when there are female marines in the present?
    […]I don’t understand why authors such as Tamora Pierce, Anne McCaffrey and Wilkie Collins can write stories with female leads while games are “made by dudes making games that they believe other dudes will enjoy” and where “Characters in so-called AAA games ‘default’ to male because AAA games are still predominantly adolescent male fantasies.” I think the men and women of the video game industry are as capable of creating stories about women as novelists are, and I think male gamers can enjoy playing as female characters just as much as female gamers enjoy playing as male characters.

    I’m so glad you reminded me of that, because this whole time I’ve been saying that women don’t make good marines, that there shouldn’t be female characters in games, that women shouldn’t be making games, and that I wouldn’t want to play as one.

    When anyone tries to turn any argument of nuance into an argument of “women are every bit as capable as men,” that’s a huge part of what I call lazy in-name-only feminism. It would’ve been a reasonable argument back in 1976, but most of us have moved on since then. Anyone who says “women can’t do this” or “chicks don’t sell” isn’t worth arguing against, and you’re not going to convince them anyway. And when you try to argue that with people who already accept that as a given, you haven’t accomplished anything.

    If you want to claim that female leads are the norm in combat-oriented fantasy and science fiction stories, good luck with that. I don’t tend to read those, so for all I know, they may be. But I know it’s damn well not the norm in movies or comic books. (Just as male leads aren’t the norm in romantic comedies). Male lead characters are the most common in AAA videogames. You can rail against a strawman and say that it’s a case of rampant sexism throughout the industry, that the “chicks don’t sell” mentality is endemic instead of the one example Alexander gives. Or, you could say that it’s because AAA games are predominantly testosterone-driven shooters made by men trying to appeal to men. It’s as simple as that. Don’t assume widespread discrimination and sexist publisher interference when there’s a much more obvious explanation staring you right in the face.

    Anyone who wants to argue that women could just as easily be the main characters in testosterone-driven shooters, have fun arguing that against someone who disagrees. I’d rather get past the notion that “as good as” is acceptable, and instead acknowledge the differences between the genders, and celebrate them.

    And don’t give me the adolescent dude fantasy line. Alien is quite popular with adolescent males, even with Sigourney Weaver starring.

    The Alien series almost perfectly illustrates my point. If I remember my movie history correctly, Ripley was originally written as a man. Obvious sexism! Or, maybe, it seemed perfectly natural that in an R-rated science fiction horror movie, the crew of space truckers would be men. But Sigourney Weaver campaigned for the part, she impressed the filmmakers, and they changed the character to a woman.

    The movie benefited a lot from having a Sigourney Weaver in it, because she brought a lot to the part. But did the change from male to female make any difference to Ripley’s character? I say no. In the first movie, the character’s basically gender-agnostic, and I can’t think of a single scene or line of dialogue that would’ve changed appreciably had it been played by a man. (She probably wouldn’t have spent so much of the movie walking around in her underwear).

    (Like movies, videogames can be improved by a great performance. But unlike movies, it’s extremely rare for a character to be written with a specific actor in mind, and the choice of actor is usually made late in the process.)

    When it came time to make Aliens, though, they knew that Sigourney Weaver was going to be playing the part. Just as importantly, it was made by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, who made a career out of making movies emphasizing strong female characters. And with Aliens, Ripley’s gender suddenly makes a huge difference. The maternal relationship between Ripley & Newt, and the contrast of that with Ripley and the Alien Queen — it’s all fantastic stuff that adds a ton of depth to what could otherwise have been a straightforward action movie.

    (They contrast Ripley with Vasquez, too, the woman who’s not just every bit as capable as a man, she’s better than most of the male marines. I still wouldn’t want to watch a movie with Vasquez as the main character).

    So among AAA games these days, we get the Alien situation at best. People keep telling slight variations on the same stories. Occasionally someone gets the idea to “increase diversity,” so they treat gender as a purely cosmetic difference and let the player choose whether their personality-devoid character has breasts or not. Or they take their existing male character and make it a woman who does exactly the same things.

    What the industry needs more of is the Aliens situation: the game is conceived from the start to have a woman as the main character and really make that meaningful and relevant.

    I fail to see what is so damn contentious about that.

  14. Chuck, I really enjoy your posts — long, and detailed, and providing provocative arguments. I have gotten behind on the Internet again, but I’m just catching up on a bunch of posts here now 🙂

    I thoroughly agree with the points you’re putting forth here as far as female characters. Mostly, my original post was just pointing out that Leigh’s original piece was news and not opinion, and of value to those who might consider getting into bed with Activision.

    But I definitely must agree here — clearly, the characters she puts forth as examples are not the best ones. NOLF is an interesting case because that character actually started as a man as well, which provides some interesting parallels with Ripley. I have considered for some time returning to NOLF 2 (I seem to remember NOLF 1 having some pretty tedious bits) — I wonder if there are bits in there that make Cate Archer the more inspired choice.

  15. Brett, I think it was clear what your intent was, even if I didn’t make it clear in this post — you were getting at the industry perspective (which is supposed to be Gamasutra’s thing, as you point out). Ultimately I think this post could’ve used some editing, since it sounds more argumentative than I meant it to, or like I’m making claims that I wasn’t.

    That’s really surprising to me to hear that No One Lives Forever started with a male character, since that’s always been one of the standout games to me as having a well-rounded female lead. There’s the predictable surface stuff, of course, like the skin-tight jacket and the spy lipstick, but more than that I really felt like it was playing as a female character. She was a capable-and-sexy female agent, not just a re-cast of James Bond or Our Man Flint. Maybe the difference is that the switch came very early in the development?

    Or maybe it’s easier to do it with comedy than with something that’s claiming to be serious, like Perfect Dark or Tomb Raider? I know that I have a hard enough time getting over my dude-ness to be comfortable writing women characters even for comedy; I’m too self-conscious that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I don’t know that I’d even attempt it in a serious game.

  16. You know, I think it was actually quite far along when they made the switch — they had an “Our Man Flint” kind of character, very tongue-in-cheek, but apparently they were drawing a lot of comparisons with GoldenEye, which was totally not what they were going for (they had exploding cats or something at that point). I can remember reading a PC Gamer when it was first revealed, and still be really interested in it, but the game was vastly improved by changing the character — it actually happened quite late, maybe only about a year before ship.

    I would say I’d never attempt something similar, but of course, we rewrote all of Republic Commando in the last *six* months of development.

    As for writing women… just impossible for me to say. I have given it some thought, and in fact, I have a game tucked away in the back of my brain that features a female character, but to me that was just how the idea formed and I’m not sure that her being female is necessary. But it’s the way I’ve always thought about it, so if I ever attempted it, that’s the way I’d go. But I have yet to write a single line of dialogue for a game, so maybe I should be extra careful 🙂

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