Well, my Heroes of the Storm interview ended on a strange note, didn’t it? You don’t know the half of it, either. You weren’t actually there. As I attempted to explain why designing female characters that look as empowered as their male counterparts is absolutely not about political correctness for political correctness’ sake, the room’s atmosphere seemed to me to become extremely curt. Browder seemed highly resistant to engaging on the topic, and sounded particularly severe when saying “We’re not running for President.” Because clearly, that’s the only scenario in which this sort of thing really matters. When you’re trying to make kissy faces at the camera and win hearts by pretending to care about The Real Issues.
Now, I don’t know if Browder meant for it to come across that way, and he could well have misinterpreted the bottom line of my questioning. If so, that’s fair and understandable, and I apologize for using him as an example. Also, I very much appreciate that he said he’d at least take the feedback to mind. But the attitude he seemed to express is an incredibly prevalent one both within the industry and among its closest followers, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss it in detail.
Actually, you know what? “Discuss” is too nice of a word. I want to tear this mentality limb-from-limb, leave it without even a single drop of blood to spill. I want to ruin it so thoroughly that its mere memory prompts bile to singe the back of people’s throats raw. Why? Because it’s a hurtful, sad, and above all else cynical way to view what is – more often than not – an effort to give more people a sense of belonging. Acceptance. Something everybody wants more than just about anything else.
It’s the dismissal du jour, the rhetorical backdoor exit that leads straight into a pit of spikes. “Ugh, stop being so political. It’s just a game, bruh.” But to write these issues off so flippantly causes tremendous damage on multiple levels. For one, it pre-supposes that the majority of people pleading for inclusiveness aren’t doing it for the benefit of other people or because they feel they’ve been unjustly left out, but simply because they want attention or power. Often both. They want a soapbox for their “message,” a mountain to stand on so those mean, doodie-faced boys will finally have no choice but to notice them – or those poor girls they stood up for will finally think, “TRANSACTION COMPLETED. NOW I WILL PRAISE MY WONDERFUL WHITE KNIGHT AND SLEEP WITH HIM BZZT BLEEP BLOOP.”
It’s a grossly simplified view that assumes people are nothing but screechy bundles of base desires. No nuances, no personal stories, no legitimacy. Just cold, mechanical “politics” – self-serving goals and a willingness to use other people as stepping stones to achieve them. And developers who support these “political” gamers? Cowards who are simply afraid to ruffle feathers with edgy content that reinforces antiquated beliefs and useless, boring stereotypes. It’s all so simple, isn’t it? So, so simple.
Newsflash: nothing is simple. Nothing is black and white. Especially not people. To assume otherwise is to live in a dome of willful ignorance, a pristine bubble of false safety that’s doomed to burst the second you stop reinforcing it with increasingly flimsy supporting evidence. Do people do things for the wrong reasons sometimes? Certainly. I have no doubt that some gamers do argue for better treatment of women in gaming because they want a tangible reward for their troubles. Or because they’re bitter, and they want to make life difficult for their supposed “enemies.” But to believe that’s where all – or even most – people fed up with gaming’s boy’s club mentality are coming from is to view large swathes of humanity in such a bitter, cynical light that it’s just… just…
Infuriating Gross Discouraging Misguided
Sad. Tears-welling-in-my-eyes-as-I-type-this sad. One of my greatest fears on this Earth is that I might someday sink to that level of cynical jadedness. I worry about it every day.
The second half of that original dismissal is equally damning. Countless others have cut down the “It’s just a game” argument (or variants like Browder’s “We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool”), but – even as games become more and more culturally powerful – it keeps rearing its ugly tangle of hydra-like heads.
So, briefly, let’s break this down: most of us would say games are art, yes? Or, if not whatever your entirely arbitrary definition of art is, then important. Significant. Better in some ways than TV, film, or literature. Gaming has hit the big time. Gaming is legitimate. But it’s like the most quoted dead uncle in human history once said (shortly before dying, as he was wont to do): with great power comes great responsibility.
The act of creating something and propagating it among millions of people absolutely sends a message, whether you intend to or not. Maybe you weren’t trying to express any specific viewpoint or hurt anybody’s feelings, but implicit messages still peer up from just beneath the surface. Like it or not, if someone plays games as their main hobby and they constantly see women dressed in objectifying fashions or slotted into subservient roles, that’s going to infiltrate their norm. Male or female, bodied, gendered, or whatever else, being exposed to something constantly affects people. The effect is far less impactful for some than others, but it’s always there.
To claim otherwise is to essentially strip gaming of its supposed cultural legitimacy – to go from “We are important; treat us that way, damn it” to “Haha, nope, never mind. Just a game. No biggie. Can’t be influential or thought-provoking after all. Ebert was right, hurrah!”
You take the good and the bad. Despite what some games might be (rather worrisomely) trying to teach us, you can’t always get your way.
Oh, and here’s the real kicker: this stuff matters in MOBAs. Tangibly and overtly so, no less. MOBAs like LoL and DOTA are infamous for their often toxic communities, and women – unsurprisingly though very depressingly – get the special insults. “Jokes” about their inherent inability to play well, very specific swears, crude references to body parts, “humor” about weight, propositions – all of that good stuff. And again, while scantily clad, disempowered female character designs alone aren’t going to “turn” someone sexist, they do contribute to an environment in which it feels more natural to disregard or otherwise demean women.
Some might cry afoul of “censorship,” but come on, really? A) These character designs are not at all crucial to these games’ plots or playability and B) if anything, they serve to pull people out of the moment by being so preposterous. In fairness, the biggest offender, LoL, is taking slow baby steps toward improving, and DOTA, I guess, isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. Blizzard, meanwhile, has so far offended far more in word than in deed, but even then its track record kinda speaks for itself – and not really in a good way.
So no, this stuff isn’t purely “political” – nor in many cases is it political at all, in the literal or derogatory sense of the word. To insist otherwise is to vastly undermine both gaming as a medium and, you know, your own species. This should probably go without saying, but stop that. Stop that right now. You’re not helping anyone, least of all yourself.