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Interactions in the Industry: The Status Quo on Gender Equality?

During the multiplayer press release for Infinity Ward’s newest game “Call of Duty: Ghosts”, many of the changes planned for the tenth installment in the Call of Duty franchise were revealed.  Dozens of new weapons, multiple new game modes, perks and killstreaks, and increased player interaction with the map were all outed in the three minute video.  However, the tiny tidbit that consistently seems to be getting the most attention is the increased ability for customization; primarily, the option to play as a female soldier.  This is the first playable female in Call of Duty in quite a few games, but rather than focusing on the implications for unique characters in multiplayer matches, some people seem to be chalking this up as a victory for gender equality.  Or, at the very least, a technical step forward.

While great for customization, I feel like the importance of this addition is being artificially and improperly inflated.  Don’t get me wrong: I love customizing characters.  I’m the guy who spends a good 15-30 minutes trying to get a character to look just like the mental image trapped in his mind’s eye.  But, from a purely practical point-of-view, you will never see the face you lovingly, or hurriedly, sculpted and everyone else will likely only see it for a split-second before turning it into “that new bloody mess lined up in my crosshairs”.  As much as some might want to congratulate Call of Duty(sarcastically or not) for finally catching up to modern customization options, this announcement can’t seem to escape the larger issue of gender equality in games.

The Status Quo?

Some time has progressed since games have started travelling from the discrete shadowlands of the hobbyist into the general population’s attention.  And, as games became more well-established, they were forced to conform more and more.  Conformity isn’t always a bad thing because it often tempers the unpleasant extremes.  But in many cases they end up censoring themselves in order to remain politically correct or to cater to every possible demographic.  Specifically, AAA games can’t seem to settle for approaching a single, niche consumer demographic; the time and/or money that is funneled into production doesn’t afford publishers the leisure of avoiding untapped wells of profit.

So we now run into an increasing amount of cliches almost as if entire elements of a game are simply points on a checklist.  Does it have: a female character people can associate with, a strong male character that satisfies power fantasies, an online component, and a world-spanning conflict?  As much as gender equality, and really all social issues, should have a chance to be fairly and appropriately represented, its inclusion should not come at the cost of a cohesively developed game.  This may not be a problem specifically in the case of the new Call of Duty game (the game isn’t out yet; how the heck would I know how it plays?) but it is a problem that still afflicts most mainstream media.  It goes beyond the fear of improperly representing a sensitive topic to just a fear of even approaching sensitivity.  We, gaming as an industry, have come so far but now we are just treading tepid waters; swimming just enough past the shallows that our feet aren’t on the ground but afraid to move further.  Like children who can’t swim daring each other to travel a little further into dangerous waters, we always dart back to the shallows, to safety because we don’t know how to swim.  Because we haven’t yet consistently learned, despite all our years of technological and narrative progress, how to broach the topic.

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Things would have been both better and worse, if this had been the case.


What Were You Aiming For?

Everyone “knows” that video games started as a predominantly male hobby.  Not by design I’d imagine, as much as by the simple fact that women were contending with other issues more pertinent to them at the time, such as the second wave of feminism in the ’80s.  By the time cultural and economic gender equality had progressed to a more reasonable degree, gaming had already been born and grown into its own.  Gaming had gathered up its fans and started the trek from esoteric oddity to publicly accepted entertainment.  All of that without a care to women.

And because women weren’t considered a factor when developing games, the people lobbying against any stereotypical depictions had to be somewhere between “few” and “none”.  Surprising as it might seem, it is rather difficult to hear a complaint from someone without a voice.

In the end, the problem lies entirely with the way that some people perceive it.  For the most part, social issues are still checkpoints on the secure road to the army base of game design (wow, that metaphor was really ham-fisted; deliciously, deliciously ham-fisted).  They aren’t included because they serve to better the game they’re included in but because it is expected.  It’s just jamming a stick of dynamite into a square hole will holding the square peg in your other hand: it’ll get rid of the immediate problem (along with a good part of your lower body) and it looks like it’ll be easier in the long run.  I mean, you’d have to take out the dynamite, put it away, then twist your arm so the square peg is in place and- wait, no.  It’s not difficult, is it?  It’s been successfully and tastefully done before, so you don’t have to worry about breaking new ground anymore.  The ground has been trod already, just keep walking it.