Thursday, 12 August 2010

Rainbow flags at the ready...

It is with great pride and not a little excitement that I present my first article for www.womengamers.com.

It contains points I have touched upon several times before (most recently in my letter to Edge Magazine), but it's all original so you might want to give it a read.


Here it is.

7 comments:

  1. Great article Mary, very interesting. I take it this is the article you were referring to a few blogs ago?

    Also I am wondering which video game genre you think would be best suited to a gay/lesbian video game character?

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  2. This is indeed the article to which I was referring.

    And as to your second point. As someone who a) is not a developer b)isn't nearly as adept as creating narratives as she is at critiquing them (like a eunuch at an orgy), it's difficult to say.

    I will attempt to answer in two parts.

    The first part, the "cop-out" section of my response is as follows:

    A book I read once but cannot remember the title of (good start) spoke about creative thinking in an advertising context.

    An advertising executive needed to come up with an anti-smoking campaign. He brought his best team of about ten people together and gave them the brief. He asked if they could all go home and come back the next day having all come up with ONE idea for a campaign.

    The next morning the team reassembled. The members of the team who had managed to produce an idea lacked confidence in it and were apologetic throughout their presentations. Several people had failed to come up with an idea altogther.

    The executive thought for a bit and then told them all to go home and come back the next day with not one but TWENTY ideas for the campaign.

    The next morning, everyone came back with at least fifteen ideas, some as many as thirty, and each were able to speak confidently and enthusiastically about their ideas.

    You see, once the concept of a "right" answer or a "best" solution has been taken away, we realise that there are actually countless solutions to almost any problem we might have.

    If we are under pressure to find the "right" solution, we can become plagued with self doubt: what if we have missed something? Once this burden is taken away, we are free to view ideas purely on their own merits.

    In answer to your question...

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  3. ... I will point out that I am in no way proposing that the ideas I have here are the best, merely that they are some ideas that I like that I came up with over a cup of tea.

    On one hand I would like to see a lead character in a narrative-focussed game as strongly written as (say) Nathan Drake or April Ryan who is gay. Just like those characters' relationships affect their motivations for better or worse, so I'd quite like to see a gay character whose relationship affects the decisions they make regarding a wider story/adventure. In Beyond Good and Evil, it's Jade's relationship with and responsibility for her adoped family that leads her to go out searching for ways to earn money to fund their electricty which in turn leads her to discover the conspiracy at the heart of the game. And it's when those relationships are threatened that the game's most powerful moments occur.

    I am all for linear narrative when it's done that well! I'd really like to see a gay character whose romantic relationship is as pivotal to the plot as the one in Prince of Peria, for example. Maybe the fact that they have to keep it secret is important? Maybe they need to marry someone else? Cue adventures and hijinks. A deftly-written puzzle/action/platformer can deliver story exceptionally well. You could argue that to have a sci-fi/fantasy action/platformer with an apocalyptic plot alongside a gay relationship would be confusing things, but I disagree. A gay relationship is a relationship, and if we can set a rom-com/drama in amongst time-travelling zombie sandpeople (or something) we can goshdarnit have a couple of space marines sharing lingering looks over a short-circuiting robot.

    Or something.

    I'm conscious of the fact that the games I've mentioned feature an NPC who stays with the protagonist, affecting the relationships (romantic or otherwise) between them. (I am really looking forward to Enslaved - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRnr4T-9sYs - for this reason). This is an exceptionally good method for presenting relationships that only video games can really do well, if at all. Come on developers, use the vast narrative power that you wield! (I have just had a coffee).

    That's just one answer really.

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  4. Good article and an interesting subject.

    Do we just assume characters are straight just because they are usually played as such by the majority audience of straight 18-34 males? Couldn’t Gordon Freeman be gay? Just because JC Denton wanders around the screen grunting with a voice that makes Barry White sound like a voice actor from The Chipmunks, could he not be gay?

    Of course, yes, probably they are supposed to be straight, too straight in fact – Chiselled representations of a heterosexual male. But what is the alternative? Just as most straight men are not rippling killing machines with gun fetishes, most gay men don’t spend their days mincing around the place and talking about shoes. I fear the game developer that tries this will begin with the same broad stereotypes. ‘Laurence Llewelyn Bowen’s Design Challenge’ or ‘Liberace vs Predator’ anyone?

    Sex and sexuality are also still rarely touched upon in games. I think a lot of this is due to many people still see gaming as something for children. Go to GAME on any weekend and watch as the parents happily buy little Tarquin ‘Death Kill 4000’, the same parents who will bother the Daily Mail at a moments notice if they see half a nipple in a shower gel advert. The point is, violence is ok and nobody seems to care. Anything remotely sexual and we get into GTA hot coffee scandal territory. Rightly or wrongly, the danger in making obviously gay main characters would be that it would be perceived as a game about being gay and therefore about sexuality. This would miss the point completely.

    An industry that has not really done many great jobs of developing realistic straight characters is probably going to struggle with the development of a realistic gay lead character. I am not sure games have the subtlety to do this yet - at least not without alienating the bulk of their audience and/or horribly offending the entire LGBT community.

    Change has to start somewhere though, and if gaming is to be allowed into the same entertainment bracket as movies etc, it needs to diversify. I for one will be do my part and be the first in line when Liberace vs Predator is released.

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  5. Hi Luke,

    Firstly, I too would dearly love to see "Liberace vs Predator".

    I'm not being entirely facetious. Just because a character is overblown doesn't make them not worth exploring. There are a lot of excellent explorations in various media of stereotypes because more extreme examples of demographics do exist alongside in real life alongside more complex characters. I am a big fan of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (amongst others) for this reason.

    But in a practical sense, I do agree that developers would have to be careful in their portrayal of a gay protagonist.

    That said, the blatant use of Hana and Rain for marketing was about as cheap as it gets (even though the actual game wasn't bad). And Makoto really was a screaching stereotype, so it's not like the games industry hasn't already created some pretty bad gay characters.

    I'm of the opinion that a "complex and well-rounded" depiction of ANY character trumps a "positive" depiction of any given minority, but you're right in that the first major gay character (which is what I am arguing for after all) needs to be carefully pitched.

    We're not looking for the gay equivilent of Disney's "The Frog Princess" approach to racial equality, which is just patronising. It needs to be first and foremost a story worth telling.

    * * *

    And yes, Gordon Freeman can be anything you want really, which is why Half Life's narrative works so well. Superficial things (male, white, scientist) are in place, but anything else is up to you. Is he attracted to Alyx or does he find her annoying?

    Same with any number of gruff blokes such as JC Denton and Marcus Fenix (although he's never had a girlfriend and Gears of War 3 is out soon so watch this space). But leaving something open to interpretation is not the same as exploring it. It doesn't matter, in these stories we don't need to know about the chilselled lead's sexuality.

    And as for what you say about controversy, you are right, but then providing the game clearly labels age restrictions on the cover, all Daily Mail bluster does is drive sales up. Witness the horror over what consequently bestselling game of 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Same with Fox News' idiotic wheeling out of Cooper "All About Guys!" Laurence to attack Mass Effect, which did very nicely thank you.

    TO BE CONTINUED SHORTLY

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  6. CONTINUING...

    I still stand by everything I said, but I actually wrote the article months ago, and in the intervening time the general impracticalities of what I propsed have come to my attention.

    And I ignored those impracticalities at the time of writing because I really do have a bee on my shoulder and a chip in my bonnet about this kind of inclusion. Or exclusion.

    When you're white, straight, young, Western and male, it's sometimes difficult to understand what it must feel like to be unrepresented.

    I tick several of these boxes myself, so I'm often guilty of viewing the world with rosy glasses. If someone makes a sexist comment to me, I can tell the person in question where he can stick his opinions. But because I can, it's easy to forget that many women don't have that luxury. How must it feel to be one of those women? If I don't want to think about that, I don't have to.

    Lucky old me, eh?

    I would also be wise to bear in mind how I felt when I saw Terminator 2, or Alien, or played Tomb Raider. I know these are all fantasy characters and Lara doesn't really make any sense and none of them are really "role models" (I'm a bit wary about the significance of role models in general), but just seeing a WOMAN saving the day was so exciting to me, and left me exhilerated in ways that similar stories with a male hero never did. Not because they were better stories, but because they had female heroes.

    Not to say for a minute that before I saw those things I didn't think women *could* do those things (I mean really, I grew up in the 90s wanting to be an astronaut... and oh, and all three of those franchises are sci-fi fantasy, so men can't technically do them either but whatevs) but the feeling in the pit of my stomach when I saw them is hard to express.

    Sure a gay person can be moved by a straight love story. And sure a straight person can be moved by a gay love story, but the feeling of never seeing yourself (or a part of your identity such as race/gender/sexuality) represented in a narrative medium you love leaves a bit of a hole, one that you might not even notice until it is filled.

    I know there's no such thing as a completely average human being and that we are not defined by our demographics.

    But the thrill people find when they first see something they are or something that they care about woven into a story is too important to be dismissed as not "safe". I'm sure developers will make mistakes. Lara's full of mistakes, bless her, but look what she spawned!

    I'm not sure if I've made myself clear, it's Friday, after all...

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  7. Important to clarify:

    "seeing a WOMAN saving the day was so exciting to me, and left me exhilerated in ways that similar stories with a male hero never did"

    True, but I don't mean MORE exhilerated or that I like these things more than stories with male heroes just because they star women.

    It is a different kind of exhileration. Quality and execution of narrative is far more important than demographic, but being represented on screen activates different happyadrenaline centres of the brain/heart/guts to anything else and it's hugely important.

    Can we marry the two please developers?

    Thanks.

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