What we talk about when we talk about female video game characters
The person on Twitter who accused me of writing about the lack of female characters in Grand Theft Auto 5 just to stir up lots of page views: Man (I’m assuming), you were so right! I got a few thousand page views with that one! (My usual peak is around 40, the majority of those people looking for pornography and being deeply disappointed to arrive here to see a dude pontificating about video games). If only I ran ads on this site, or were trying to build a career out of writing about games, or didn’t pay for web hosting and have to pay more if I use too much bandwidth, or in fact had any reason at all to be artificially inflating page views, I’d be making mad bank.
(That’s still not as hilariously stupid as the guy who said I was only calling out misogynists because I wanted to get women to have sex with me).
But it’s been interesting to see some of the discussion about it around the internet. There’s been the expected indignant drive-bys, of course, but there’s also been a ton of arguments from adults who actually know how to think and how to spell. A lot of those arguments were familiar, because they’re similar to arguments I’ve been making (and continue to make) about the topic of diversity and representation.
Similar, but still wrong. And I’m not asking anybody to do a complete 180 (since I haven’t), but instead simply to think more about it, and make an effort to separate valid arguments from knee-jerk defensiveness.
Tonight We’re Gonna Argue Like It’s 1999
Most common and easiest are the complaints about trying to insert “political correctness” into the Grand Theft Auto series. Isn’t this just a case of a bunch of over-sensitive liberals and self-described progressives trying to ruin everybody’s fun? Aren’t we just pushing an agenda on people, trying to make them feel guilty for enjoying a video game that’s not even trying to “say” anything?
After all, these games encourage and reward players for murder, theft, illegal drug use, reckless driving, torture, racism, and more murder. And people are getting all butthurt that it doesn’t have a more diverse representation of women?!
The internet’s a big place, and I’m sure there are tons of people who’d just love to get into a discussion with you about the social, ethical, and moral implications of killing imaginary people for entertainment. Who knows, it’s probably a discussion worth having, seeing as how a lot of what the games ask you to do is just plain gross. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Everybody’s well aware of how the Grand Theft Auto series works. We’re on board with the concept. Even if we weren’t clued in by the title, anybody who knows enough about video games to be writing about them is familiar with the premise. Bring on the hooker killing! And notice how I didn’t even insist that you use the more respectful and inclusive term “sex worker!” We all get how fiction works, and we’re aware that this is fiction. We’re well aware that lots of imaginary people are going to get slaughtered for the sake of our being able to drive around in imaginary cars and helicopters.
To suggest that everybody is still scandalized by the content of GTA is to suggest that we’ve all traveled here to 2013 from the past. That we’re all still interested in arguing about murder simulators with the “mainstream media.” You can get away with that for a few years, but after a decade, you’ve got to acknowledge that this is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) franchises in the industry. You’re not the scrappy underdog once you’re sinking $200 million into a game.
That’s why I bristle at the idea that it’s “satire.” Satire requires at least a little bit of risk and subversion. When you’ve got a franchise that essentially created a genre, you’re not subverting anything anymore. Once you’ve spent twelve years showing the same strip clubs and lap-dance minigames and casual objectification of women, you’re not longer making fun of Western society’s culture of misogyny. You’re just reveling in it.
And worse than that, you’re taking the coward’s way out by using the “satire” and “political incorrectness” claim to have it both ways. If anybody objects to the content, you can say “we’re making social commentary!” If anybody objects that there’s no real commentary being made, then you can say “stop taking it so seriously It’s just for laughs! Like on Top Gear! Why you gotta ruin all our fun?”
An example I saw on a message board (since I still haven’t yet played the new game): calling the iPhone an “iFruit” isn’t satire. It barely registers as parody. But having your upper-middle-class career criminal using the iPhone equivalent, your street gangster using a version of Android, and your raging psychopath using Windows Phone: that’s approaching cleverness, and it’s almost satire.
Taking pot shots at new age types and “liberals,” portraying women as shrill buzz-kills not worth much more than sex, that doesn’t offend me as a progressive. It offends me as somebody who’s often paid to write jokes for a living. It doesn’t make you look like an iconoclast so much as a hack.
Being subversive, or “politically incorrect” if you’re time traveling here from the late 90s, implies some element of risk. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not all that risky to say, “I know I’m going to catch some flak for saying this, but I don’t have any problem with the concepts presented by the most popular franchise in the entire video game industry.” If there’s no thought behind it, then all you’re doing is running around shouting “Look how naughty we are!” And then using “satire” as an easy out, so you can say “As creators of a work of art, we are entirely aware as to the actual degree of our naughtiness.”
So basically what I’m saying to the people accusing us of “political correctness:” stop being such a bunch of pussies. Whenever you get challenged on something, stop lazily trying to turn the discussion into one about “free speech.” The free speech argument isn’t even an argument; it’s just shouting “I have a right to say this!” as if that makes you impervious to any criticism about what you’re saying.
Women: How do they work?
(As hard as men for about 75% of the salary, amirite ladies?)
There’s another persistent idea that including female characters is some onerous task that requires a ton of care and deliberation. With GTA, there’s been the complaint that having a female protagonist would completely change the tone of the game: casual misogyny is baked into the franchise.
The more tactful version of this argument: “We’re not going to make a female character for its own sake. We’re not going to do it unless we can do it right.” I said something similar a few years ago. It’s all just saying basically the same thing, and it’s all pretty much nonsense.
It’s based on the idea that women are bizarre and unpredictable creatures, more alien than space marines, orcs, drug dealers and assassins, dog and rabbit detectives, and actual aliens. There’s also an undercurrent that trying to make a female character in a video game is like chasing a Roomba into a minefield: the teenage boys who buy your games don’t want to play as no chicks anyhow, and the whole process is just wrought with opportunities to mess up and get it wrong. Either way ends up with the game developer getting yelled at! Why bother?
Here’s the good news: a couple of decades of this means that the video game industry has set the bar ludicrously low. You don’t even have to introduce an interesting or well-written character; simply including a woman at all will have you praised for your diversity!
The non-sarcastic good news: it’s really not that difficult. You can just write a human character (even if that character is an alien or comic book animal) and let everything else fall from that. And even better is the fact that it’s low risk with high reward. The smallest amount of effort will make a huge difference to the people in the audience who have been excluded, and no difference to the rest.
Sure, you’ll get complaints. There’s a small but vocal contingent of boys and man-children who really do just want to say, “This is our game and you can’t play.” But is that really the audience you want to be selling your product to? Get this: the rest of us, who are actual functional adults, have a lot more money to spend on games.
And besides, any game developer who’s been working for more than a few years is inevitably going to get yelled at for something. If you’re at all public as a developer, you’re going to get harassed or dismissed. Surrounded by some people who are creepily obsequious until they perceive you’ve wronged them somehow, at which point they’ll turn abusive. And generally, fans only care about what you want so far as it helps them get the bit of fun that they want.
So see, you do know what it’s like to be a woman.
Not Being Brave
Finally, there’s the claim that people are trying to turn Grand Theft Auto into something that it’s not. That the people complaining about “representation” or “diversity” or “inclusivity” are really just imposing their own agenda on a bunch of game developers, trying to guilt them or shame them into making an entirely different type of game. Altogether.
The basics of that argument I can understand, since I’ve made a similar argument lots of times. Most recently, when when talking about Monsters University, and criticizing Manohla Dargis’s lousy non-review in the New York Times.
Dargis spends a significant portion of that review not talking about the movie itself, but criticizing it for not being Brave. The complaint has persisted for years that Pixar is a boys club with boys telling stories about boys for boys. Why shouldn’t Pixar have included more female characters? Apart from the major character of the Dean, of course. Surely there’d be room for some more strong female characters in a story that primarily deals with a fraternity?
In case it’s not clear, I think that’s a really dumb argument. So why would I give Pixar a pass but not Rockstar?
Because Pixar is telling honest stories, intended to be universal. Finding Nemo is very much a story about a father’s relationship with his son. Could it have been about a mother and/or daughter? Sure, it could have, but it wasn’t. It was, by all accounts I’ve seen, very much Andrew Stanton’s personal story, turned into a universal that’s no longer about fathers and sons, but about parents and children.
The argument isn’t that the movies, and particularly their audiences, wouldn’t benefit from more diversity in the protagonists. It’s that putting more emphasis on that diversity than on the actual content isn’t progressive; it’s just sacrificing personal stories for the sake of chasing a quota. I don’t think anyone’s claiming (at least in public) that the studio wouldn’t benefit from having more women in leadership roles. But for one thing, there’s nothing preventing men from telling good stories about women and vice versa, and for the other, audiences shouldn’t be put in charge of HR departments at movie studios. We should just care about getting good stories about people.
Part of my objection is frankly that the GTA series doesn’t have a good track record for delivering good stories. I haven’t played the new game, so I can’t say in confidence that it won’t be a landmark achievement in character development. I can say that the game’s own launch site didn’t fill me with confidence. But I’m going to be throwing my $60 to tell Rockstar “keep doing what you guys are doing so I can keep driving fake cars around fake Los Angeles,” so maybe I’ll be proven wrong. If so, I’ll be the first one to write about it on here, not out of a sense of duty to set the record straight, but because genuinely good storytelling in one of the most popular video game franchises would be huge.
Even without playing the game, though, I do know one thing: the game has three playable characters and invites the player to swap between their perspectives. When GTA 4 came out, I don’t recall seeing a huge outcry on the internet insisting that its main protagonist should’ve been female instead.
It’s not a case of arbitrarily gender-swapping existing characters, even shallow ones. It’s disappointment that the game would set itself up for something that’s actually risky and novel and then just fall back on the same lazy old thing it’s always done. If you’re actually making satire, and not just catering to adolescents and dudebros who are simultaneously horny and intimidated by women, then what better way to follow through on the satire by showing the audience what it’s like for a woman in this game world? What better way to deliver the “message” than to show what it’s like to experience such a casually misogynistic world while being cursed with tits?
That would actually be showing us something different. It’d be genuinely challenging for the audience, unlike showing a waterboarding scene and then lamely saying it’s a commentary on political torture. It’d show that the game is actually making fun of misogyny, and not just hypocritically acknowledging it while simultaneously getting off on it.
In other words, it’s not asking Grand Theft Auto to be something it’s not. It’s asking the game to be more of what it claims to be.
As it is, the game just seems like a relic. A graphical overhaul of San Andreas, but still saying the same old adolescent stuff. Way back when GTA 3 caused so much controversy, the defense of it was that the video game industry wasn’t just for kids, that the audience was actually diverse and made up of adults. Why are people so freaked out and intimidated by the idea that games really are made for adults?