I have been an observer of numerous discussions about sexism in gaming in recent months. My plan was to write a post about the subject, but I could not decide on a specific theme for an article. I did not want to be just another male writing about the topic, but I though it would be interesting to have an in-depth discussion about sexism and the gaming culture with a person quite knowledgeable and passionate about the topic. Thankfully, Anna Kreider of Go Make Me A Sandwich agreed to spend time discussing a variety of topics related to sexism and the greater geek culture.
I first became aware of Go Make Me A Sandwich after listening to a DM Roundtable Podcast. I visited the site and was impressed with the content. Anna has supported her assertions that the gaming culture is sexist with analysis and often hilarious comparisons of how male and female characters are dressed and portrayed in games. During the past month, we had an extended conversation about sexism in the gaming culture. Specifically, I inquired about the individual gamer’s responsibility in changing the culture and how Anna continues to enjoy sexist games and continue with her blog in the face of great resistance from sects of the gaming community. We also discuss sexism in other realms of geek culture and how some games move closer and closer to a form of pornography. I believe the two of us were quite honest throughout the discussion, and encourage readers to pay close attention to the segment on cognitive dissonance, which is a subject I will return to in future posts.
Please enjoy the interview with Anna Kreider; I realize this is a topic people feel strongly about and I encourage you to keep your Comments and questions respectful.
Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. Could you please introduce yourself, and talk about how you first became interested in gaming?
Hi, there. The canned introduction I usually give goes something like: My name is Anna, though online I mostly go by Wundergeek. I write a feminist gaming blog called Go Make Me a Sandwich, in which I explore issues of sexism in gaming. In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, I am an artist, photographer, and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.
I’ve been playing video and board games pretty much my entire life, but I didn’t start roleplaying until my then-fiance (now husband) introduced me to gaming and got me started. Sadly, our tabletop group has long since fallen apart, but I still do LARP. So I guess I don’t completely fit the stereotype of the woman who didn’t start gaming until her significant other introduced her to it, but I think it’s fair to say that my husband definitely made me nerdier. (Not a bad thing.)
I first heard of your blog while listening to an episode of the DM Roundtable podcast a few months ago. I thought the conversation in the podcast about sexism and gaming was interesting and a good discussion on a difficult issue. I’d like to discuss why the topic is such a difficult subject for gamers to confront, but first, what was the genesis for Go Make Me a Sandwich?
It’s all Simon Rogers’ fault!
At last year’s GenCon, Simon Rogers asked me to write an article on sexism in gaming for his webzine. It took me all of five seconds to say yes, which I occasionally regretted in the subsequent three months of research and writing. The problem was that when the article was finished, I discovered that I couldn’t stop being aggravated by a lot of the bullshit sexism that I had previously mostly ignored. I’d always been aware of it, but either ignored it or rolled my eyes and tried to move on with my life, figuring that was part of being a gamer. It didn’t take long to decide that I was tired of being silent about my anger at sexism in gaming and started the blog as a result, though I certainly didn’t expect that people would actually read it in the numbers that they have.
As for the reason why it’s such a difficult subject for gamers to confront . . .
A lot of gamers are unable to separate criticism of a game from criticism of them as gamers. They hear criticism of a game as being sexist and assume that means that they must be sexist if they like that game, and that’s an idea that a lot of them can’t deal with. So you get defensiveness and flailing at strawmen to reduce the criticism of the game to a ridiculous position so that they don’t have to confront the idea that they might be sexist.
The thing is that I’m very careful not to judge individual people for their tastes, because really – I don’t think there is a person alive that hasn’t enjoyed some form of entertainment that was in some way problematic. (Hell, I own and frequently play Soul Calibur II, despite my complaints about the ridiculousness of Ivy, because it’s a great game.) I reserve my judgement for the developers, designers, writers, and publishers who make a living by perpetuating harmful stereotypes. So what you wind up with is a misperception of what the conversation is about.
Sometimes you can get past the defensiveness. The DM Roundtable is a good example of an interaction that started out negative and became positive once I was able to clarify that A) I don’t want to take away the games they like and B) I’m not interested in judging them or their personal tastes. But sometimes you can’t and despite my best interests I get written off as a cranky feminist.
I’m glad you brought that up, because it ties in well to how I came to contact you in the first place. I recently read your critique of Bayonetta where you wrote, “Bayonetta is hands-down my least favorite character in any type of gaming ever. I hate her more than Ivy, more than Princess Peach, more than Other M Samus put together. She is one of the most blatantly sexualized and objectified characters in all of gaming.”
I bought Bayonetta (used) a few months ago and enjoyed the gameplay. After playing the game for a few days, I wrote about using Bayonetta as inspiration for monster design in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition. In that article I wrote, “The game is bizarrely insane and entertaining! Granted, I’m only a third of the way through, but it’s basically God of War mixed in a blender with about four or five different genres of exploitation films. Throw in a knockoff of The Baroness from G.I. Joe, and you have a very fun game.”
So I very briefly acknowledged the exploitation in the game, but still referred to it as “entertaining” and “fun.” While playing the game, I was well aware of the absurd premise and obnoxious sexuality. Baynoetta is half-naked during her finishing moves, and the end of the game features two or three dance routines, including one with a stripper’s pole. (Really folks, it does) There were a few times when I felt a bit embarrassed to play the game and wondered how I would explain some of the sequences to my wife! But I finished the game and had fun with it. I enjoyed the game because the gameplay is similar to God of War and other hack-and-slash titles, but the sexuality of Bayonetta didn’t hurt the experience. As a straight male, it wasn’t a bad thing to play a game featuring a female character that is attractive and insanely flirtatious throughout the story.
So I wonder if I’m part of the problem? As I read your takedown of Bayonetta, it’s difficult not to think that your critique of the game is not a critique of me since I enjoyed it. You explained the difference well above, and appear to reserve your harshest words for the game developers, designers, writers and publishers. But is it enough for me – as a gamer – to acknowledge that a game is sexist or should I be doing more? How would you like to see gamers respond instead?
This is such a tough question. The answer I usually give when asked about why I don’t go after individual gamers is that I don’t want to judge individual people and their tastes, since it’s impossible to find anyone who has never enjoyed problematic content ever. Like, I own and play Soul Calibur II frequently – so does that make me a bad person? The developers, designers, and publishers are the people who create this stuff and make money off of perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women, so they’re the ones that I try to stick to since they’re the easy targets.
That said, I would really like it if more gamers took at least some effort to critically examine the games that they buy rather than just accepting problematic content as being an automatic part of video games. That’s not to say that I’m asking gamers to give up the games that they love. There’s always a cost-benefit analysis that needs to be made. Does problematic thing X outweigh the other enjoyable aspects of the game? If the answer is no and you derive sufficient enjoyment from the game to play it despite problematic thing X, then that’s your call to make. But gamers need to at least start being aware of the problematic content that has become a defacto part of gaming and they need to stop pretending that sexism, misogyny, racism, and homophobia don’t exist in gaming.
So are you, as someone who played and enjoyed Bayonetta, part of the problem? I wouldn’t say so. Clearly you’re cognizant of the ways in which Bayonetta is problematic, but the gameplay was compelling enough to outweigh the problematic bits for you. And that’s fine. The gamers who I would point to as being part of the problem are those who want gaming to remain as the pursuit of the privileged male majority, gamers who attack and denigrate women, gays, and minorities who dare to speak up and identify themselves as gamers. The people who lash out with hate speech against people who criticize sexism and misogyny in the gaming world, those people are part of the problem.
As gamers, more of us need to take a stand and speak out against this kind of behavior. The kind of hate speech that women endure in the gaming community on a daily basis shouldn’t be acceptable, but it is. (Yes, I do mean hate speech. Just take a look at Fat, Ugly, or Slutty for examples of what I mean.) It’s not enough to be uncomfortable and not say anything.
It is a tough question, and I personally do not feel part of the problem. But that doesn’t mean I’m part of the solution either. You brought up the notion that developers, designers and publishers are the people who are most at fault in the equation of sexism in gaming since they “make money off of perpetuating harmful stereotypes about women.” I’m trying to figure out how I feel about this, although I feel like my response below will include a lot of chicken-or-the-egg circular logic that doesn’t end.
In thinking about sexism in the games and the gaming community, it seems like there is a blurred line between games and pornography. The line is nothing new; I grew up in the 80s with games like Leisure Suit Larry. Those old Sierra games were great fun, but the Leisure Suit Larry games were unique because it was the first time I recall sex being a crucial component to the game. Granted, there were sketchy Commodore 64 titles that featured sexual content, but nothing like the Leisure Suit Larry games. I still have a fondness for the early Larry games, and felt like the writers of the game were “in” on the joke. If anything, the women were typically much smarter than Larry and his woes were comical as he tried to find “love.” So when they revived the series a few years ago, I was hopeful the game would capture that same spirit. It did not on pretty much every level. Sure, it had a lot of breasts and skin, but the gameplay was terrible (I’ve never played a game with such a limited amount of minigames that cycle over and over and OVER again). It didn’t have the same spirit of the original Larry games. Or perhaps I’m older and wiser now?
I also played the first Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball game. The gameplay is laughable, and really the only reason to play it is to earn enough in-game money to dress up the girls like Barbie Dolls and ogle them, which I admittedly did for a few weeks before my roommate and I got bored with the game. Games like Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball and more recently Bayonetta flirt (no pun intended) with the pornography line. Another example is Heavy Rain, which is a unique game that I suggest you play. Avoid the next paragraph if you don’t want spoilers though.
One of the four main characters is a female and during her introductory scene, she wakes up in her apartment and immediately has to take a shower. One of the game’s selling points is the graphical capabilities of the PS3, and he female character is in all of her naked glory in the shower and in other sequences in the game. Near the end of the game, there is a sequence when she has to “whore herself up” in a night club to reach her goal. She has to unbutton her blouse, rip off her skirt so it’s shorter and apply more makeup so she can attract the attention of an important NPC. Depending on your choices, there is a later sex scene that is nothing too dramatic for primetime television, but certainly noticeable for a videogame.
Is the sexual content in these games acceptable? I played DOA Beach Volleyball but I knew I was doing so for the “wrong” reasons. The game fed into my childhood memories of seeing things I really shouldn’t on a computer/video game. However, Heavy Rain is a more adult-oriented game and plays like an episode of Law & Order half the time. One of the males is also naked in the game (from behind), so there is a bit of equality there; it’s not only the female that is naked during the game. And getting back to Bayonetta, her flirtatious attitude is one thing, but her being half-naked during a good chunk of the gameplay is silly. I can recognize that, and I imagine the developers are quite aware of the silliness as well.
I think the market speaks and games that are solely geared to T&A and skirt the pornography-for-pornography’s-sake line do not sell well. I think gamers do use the cost-benefit analysis you suggested above. The reboot of Leisure Suit Larry was a flop, and other games that have marketed themselves with, “Hey, we have breasts you can see!” don’t sell if that’s all they have. But games like Bayonetta have sold pretty well because the game itself is compelling and enjoyable. If you removed Bayonetta and inserted a male protagonist, then the game would likely sell. I think her overt sexuality helps sell more copies, but if the game was terrible, it wouldn’t be as popular.
Which finally brings be back to the question about who is more to blame for sexism in gaming. In looking at the pornography industry, do you blame the studios that produce such content or the people who consume pornography? Obviously, the characters in videogame do not have a choice to participate in how they are treated in the game whereas (in theory) actors and actresses in pornography have made a conscious choice to be portrayed in such a fashion. Since the videogame characters – like Bayonetta – cannot speak for themselves, are pornography-ish videogames in some ways a worse form of sexism than pornography? I don’t wish to shift this into a discussion of pornography, but the line between game and pornography is certainly blurred. Especially now with advanced graphical capabilities.
I mentioned some of the more blatant examples of sexual content in games. I realize a great deal of the problem is the subtle sexism in games, and we can cover that in the future as well.
There’s very, very few games that I will flat out declare unacceptable, and those are mainly rape games like RapeLay. While games like Dead or Alive are incredibly problematic in that their sexual content presents women solely as objects, my goal has never been see such games go away. To use a pie analogy (because everyone likes pie), I’m not trying to take away anyone’s pie. There are people who like ridiculous breast and objectification of women-flavored pie, and whatever. That’s not going to change. What I want is a bigger overall pie, pie that doesn’t tell me to show tits or get the f**k out. I can live with games like DoA Beach Volleyball, but I want the gaming industry to recognize that women account for 40% of their customers and start making games-that-don’t-treat-women-like-shit flavored pie.
As for pornography, I really try to stay away from the debate of whether porn is sexist. I personally don’t care for porn, but there’s heated feelings both for and against porn, and it’s not a slam-dunk as far as feminism goes either. Still, pornography is at least honest and up-front about what it’s for, which can’t be said for some highly sexual games like Bayonetta. Studios and gamers like to point to Bayonetta and say EMPOWERMENT! It seems pretty disingenuous, considering that the comments of her creator make it pretty clear that she exists so that the gamer can have his violence with a side of tits and ass. No one looks at porn and says EMPOWERMENT! For that matter, no one looks at DoA Beach Volleyball and says EMPOWERMENT! They look at porn/DoA and say ‘heh, boobs’. So in a weird way, I actually prefer DoA to Bayonetta in that it’s at least honest about what its goal is and who is its intended audience.
If I’m ascribing blame, I’m going to maintain that the lion’s share needs to be ascribed to studios, developers, and designers. They’re the ones creating the games and characters, and they’re the ones deciding to market their games in an aggressively sexual manner. Look at games like Duke Nukem Forever – one of their press conferences prior to release was a party in a rented out strip club. Someone in a studio marketing department had to sign off on that being a good idea. So sure, some gamers behave badly. But given that women represent an increasingly large share of gamers, the studios are the ones deciding to keep producing aggressively sexist content aimed at the 18-24 year old male and his penis. They’re the ones primarily responsible for perpetuating the idea that women aren’t real gamers, because it’s pretty hard to argue that games like DoA, Bayonetta, Duke Nukem, etc – they’re just not designed for us.
That seems a fine line to toe in a way. You do not want to “take away anyone’s pie,” but you are outspoken about sexism in the gaming community and present thoughts on how to change the culture. What I’m hearing you say is that you want gamers to be more aware of and acknowledge sexism in games, but you do not want to take those gaming options away (except for the very few games you deem “unacceptable”). At the same time, you wish to change the industry, which is more focused on the developers and designers. You seem resigned to the “ridiculous breasts and objectification of women-flavored pie” always being around, but hope to have more gaming options for women and others that want a different experience. Is that right?
I also think there are plenty of men that find the over-the-top sexual content in games a bit distasteful. As I mentioned, it’s not a bad thing to play a game featuring attractive women, but much of the sexism involved in games and other media is so unnecessary. That is the word I keep coming back to when I think about this subject – unnecessary. I recently read an article at The Dread Gazebo, Booth Babe Culture, I Abhor You, and he outlines why he finds the booth-babe convention culture to be troubling and unwarranted. I agree with many of his thoughts on the subject; it is becoming an outdated method to “reach” gamers, and certainly a turn-off to women that play games. I mean, the restaurant Hooters has it’s target audience and that is their niche, “Come eat here and you can stare at the waitresses breasts and legs.” It seems to be a marketing strategy that works for them, but they are very likely not drawing female customers. It seems that the gaming industry could easily welcome more women and men to the party if they abandoned some of the hackneyed sexual marketing and content.
This issue isn’t limited to videogames. Returning to the word unnecessary, my wife and I went to see X-Men: First Class a few weeks ago. It was a fantastic movie that we both really enjoyed. Most of the acting was solid and the plot was engaging, but a scene early in the movie just left me scratching my head. (Potential spoilers if you continue this paragraph, but nothing major) Moria MacTaggert, played by Rose Byrne, is a CIA operative investigating a nightclub in Las Vegas, which the US government believes is a front for Communist activity. After staking out the club from a vehicle for a few minutes, she decides to sneak into the club with a group of other female dancers (prostitutes?) by taking off her trench coat to reveal lingerie. How her partner didn’t know she wasn’t wearing any clothes underneath her trench coat for the entire night is beyond me, but that’s not even the worse part. The next five minutes or so of the movie feature her and multiple other women moving around the club in lingerie. She has to sneak and hide around in a variety of rooms and the fact that she is wearing lingerie is extremely out of place. I get that Emma Frost is meant to be eye candy in the movie, but the sequence with Moira MacTaggert and the other girls practically naked was completely unnecessary.
It’s X-Men: First Class; I’m going to see the movie anyway! I’m all for looking at attractive women, but I don’t need a bunch of ladies prancing around in lingerie for no reason. There are 100s of ways to accomplish the same plot device in the film without the sexual content. Perhaps other people didn’t think twice about that part of the movie, but it stood out to me. I think so much of the sexism in gaming is already pervasive in the greater media culture that it can be overlooked or brushed aside as not a big deal. But I can certainly see how it would cause women (and some men) to get frustrated and feel like, “This isn’t meant for me.”
I know it seems a little contradictory, but you have to remember that we live in the real world. Stuff like DoA and Bayonetta is always going to exist, because there’s always going to be at least some market for it. But do games that hyper-sexualize women and present them as objects need to be so dominant? No. As the gender split in gaming approaches gaming, game studios would do very well to start creating games that aren’t rampantly sexist and that don’t treat women as sex objects. There’s a lot of money to be made should companies start taking that approach, but the studios seem determined to pander to their “safe” market rather than trying to expand their market – which is silly.
I can support the right of games like DoA to exist (even if I hate them) and still be against all of the other bullshit sexism that happens in the gaming world. The fact that booth babes are still so prominent at every gaming convention is abhorrent. Not only does it send the message that the studios only value their (straight) male customers, it also tells women that the only value they have to real (read: male) gamers is the titillation that their bits can provide. The fact that sexual harassment is so commonplace and acceptable is even more horrific. Why do we have an expectation that women who want to be gamers should have to put up with this nonsense? In any other arena, the sorts of harassment that women face would be met with restraining orders, and yet in the gaming world most people just handwave and say ‘well games are for men, you have to expect that’, and that’s bullshit.
It’s the culture that’s broken, the culture that treats women as sub-human. Game studios need to wake up and stop perpetuating this mindless misogyny. They need to crack down on the sexual harassment that prevents a lot of women from going into game development, and they need to start treating women like humans and valued customers rather than just walking fap material. Dead or Alive isn’t the problem, it’s just a symptom.
Also, regarding X-Men: First Class, that part was slightly cringe-worthy, but the part I had a bigger problem with was the fact that Mystique’s whole character arc was her angsting about being beautiful. And yes she’s addressing the idea that non-whiteness can be beautiful and yadda yadda, but it’s pretty bullshit that you have Magneto angsting about being the product of torture and murder and Xavier angsting about stopping the coming war between humans and mutants and Mystique’s quandary is NO ONE THINKS I’M PRETTY. It was even more bullshit that the implication was pretty fucking clear that Hank could have “fixed” her by sleeping with her. And of course that ignores the fact that all of the chosen mutants were white, except for the black girl who turns evil and the black dude who dies. Way to stereotype, guys.
But lest people nerd rage on me I still did think it was a great movie and loved the development of the relationship between Xavier and Magneto, just all of the privileged bullshit detracted from my enjoyment.
I know you are fighting up uphill battle. And I’m sure the resistance you run into is not enjoyable. One of your most recent posts presents some of the hateful messages you receive in response to you articles. As we discussed earlier, I think gamers feel judged when someone else labels a game they play as sexist. No one likes to be judged, especially if it is something they enjoy. The dynamics of online communication also contribute to people flaming each other with terrible messages that they wouldn’t likely speak to someone’s face. It happens with any topic and is one of the reasons I stopped using message boards years ago. The same pattern plays out in every message board I’ve ever used, and it’s not worth my time. But arguing about the merits of those that defend (or hate) the Star Wars Prequels or whether Pearl Jam or Nirvana is the “better” band is much different from the topic you are championing. I think your comments cut readers deeper because it does not only question their consumption of sexism in the games we play, but their view of treatment of women in our culture as a whole. That is a lot of mental and moral gymnastics to execute when all the reader wants to do is play their game and have fun.
I think the responses you get are predictable. People are going to defend themselves when they feel judged/attacked. They are going to “kill the messenger” or defend their hobby. I’ve always thought of videogames as a form of self-medication. We play games to feel better – whether it’s to connect on a social level by playing with others, experience single-player gaming mechanics and stories that are interesting, or get a rush from winning the game. I find that many people play games when they are stressed out or depressed by “real-world” problems. I certainly have done that. Playing Madden against a computer opponent gets really lame after half a season, but I know when I play Madden, I am assured of winning the game. I can control the outcome of the game. For example, I could play SSX Tricky for hours because I had mastery over the game; it was a way to relax after dealing with many things I couldn’t control during the day.
So you’re basically telling gamers, “Your medicine is harmful, and you should stop taking it. Or at the very least, allow for the development of other medicines that can treat a different set of people.” But that second part is going to get lost in the discussion because the first reaction is likely, “F**k you, leave my medicine alone!” You are attacking a coping mechanism for a lot of people, and in some cases perhaps one of the few they have that is effective. So you get a lot of defensiveness or rationalization:
It’s just a game, get over it.
No one says you have to play it.
I know girls that play the game and don’t agree with you.
I don’t know how you break through that. I think with so many gamers dismissing the idea that sexism in gaming is pervasive, it forces you to raise the volume on your opinions. But that results in more defensiveness from gamers and the cycle continues. What is it like for you to constantly go through this cycle?
While I think there might be something to games as self-medication, let’s not overthink things. People do, after all, tend to play games that they think are fun. People that play games that infuriate them are usually called “critics”. (Or perverse. Or both.) I think that’s a bigger factor in the defensiveness that I see a lot of the time. The stuff I’m criticizing is stuff people like, stuff people think is fun. It’s hard wrestling with that cognitive dissonance, and a lot of people don’t even try. Nuanced positions take effort and introspection, which is just too much work for a lot of people.
Some days the defensiveness and personal attacks are easier to deal with than others. Sometimes I’m able to roll my eyes and move on with my life, but other times I find myself getting really angry. I’ve pulled back from butting heads with people who are obviously trolls on my blog, and I’ve had to moderate my initial “I won’t block anyone” stance somewhat. (I did wind up blocking one persistent troll just to retain sanity.) Generally I try not to expend too much mental energy on trolls. It’s made easier by the fact that the vast majority of trolls are practically reading from anti-feminist bingo. I remind myself as much as possible that it’s not really me that they’re attacking so much as the radical idea that women are people and most days that works.
I think cognitive dissonance is a great way to think about the reactions you are getting from gamers. However, that term is sometimes thrown around without people really knowing what it means. Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. There are infinite example, but I’ll use a trivial personal example to illustrate. Cognitive dissonance can happen in sports quite often when a player you “hate” gets traded to a team you “love.”
I think the biggest sports-related example of cognitive dissonance for me recently was my enjoyment of Tiger Woods. It was so much fun to follow him for a decade as a golfer. It was appointment television, including the early-morning British Open tee times. But then he made an absolute wreck of his life and his more “dickish” qualities, which were always there, became too much to reconcile. So in the one hand, I enjoy the excitement and entertainment he brings to golf; but in the other hand, I do not respect someone who is so thoroughly cruel to his own wife and family.
The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. So my options are to change my opinion or make excuses for Tiger still being a “good guy.” Or, I could shift in the other direction and decide that I really do not enjoy watching him golf any longer. Having both thoughts simultaneously – Tiger is awesome to watch. Tiger is a complete jackass. – is difficult to manage. That’s cognitive dissonance.
So when someone is playing a game they really enjoy, and you come along to say, “That’s sexist,” it presents this puzzle to the gamer. As you mentioned, delving into that dissonance takes effort and introspection. But many do not want to be bothered with that, although I do not believe the vast majority of gamers respond by “attacking . . . the radical idea that women are people.” I sometimes think they do not know how they should react. The anti-feminist bingo card seems to hit on all the notes you must hear so often. I’m curious, what would a pro-feminist bingo card look like for gamers that want to have a dialogue about sexism in the gaming culture?
Oh, man. I suppose I should get around to making a pro-feminist bingo card specific to the gaming world, but that would take a little more brainpower than I have right now. What I would recommend for gamers looking to have a dialogue about sexism in gaming culture, or even just for people to educate themselves, would be to do some reading. The Border House and Geek Feminism are both great blogs to check out, and Geek Feminism Wiki has a lot of great articles explaining issues specific to gaming as well as providing instances of particularly notorious incidents within the gaming world.
Great suggestions! You’ve been very kind with your time, but I wanted to ask you about a couple of things. First, sexism in roleplaying games. Specifically, what are the issues you see for players and dungeon masters regarding sexism at the gaming table? We’ve talked about videogames quite a bit, but what concerns do you have regarding roleplaying games? What tips or suggestions would you have for DMs who are running a table with a mixed composition of males and females, or a table of all females or all males?
While this is, of course, a generalization, it’s been my experience that sexism in tabletop gaming tends to not be “as bad” as it is in video gaming. It’s honestly pretty rare that you encounter someone genuinely unwilling to let women play in their campaign, and while I’ve encountered a few fail-worthy DMs, they have proved the exception to the rule. For DMs who have women in their game and are worried about stepping on toes, it’s really just as easy as listening to what your female players think. If there’s anything they’re unhappy about, be willing to change it.
Sometimes even very small changes can be enough to make them happy. Case in point, I played in a D&D campaign where the male players used to mock opponents they defeated handily by calling them girls. I suggested “lady” as an alternative, since ladies aren’t supposed to hit things with swords, and they instead mocked weak opponents by calling them ladies and I was happy because I didn’t feel insulted all the time. Only once have I ever encountered sexism egregious enough to make me leave a game (though that was a doozy); in general I really think that while a lot of guys in tabletop wouldn’t identify as feminist, they’re also pretty willing to do what it takes to make female players enjoy the game.
One thing I have attempted is to feature in my D&D campaign is more prominent and compelling female NPCs. I realized that the first three or four major NPCs in my game were males, so I purposely created more female characters to populate the world. You bring up an excellent point that it’s important for a DM to talk to his group and find out if there are any lingering problems that are making one (or more) players uncomfortable.
We started the interview discussing a female character that you dislike, Bayonetta. But I wanted to end by turning the attention to a female character you enjoy; your thoughts on the female Commander Shepherd (FemShep) in the Mass Effect series are outstanding. You’ve written:
“In a way, it feels to me like FemShep is the realization of the wasted potential found in so many ass-kicking video game women like Samus and Lara Croft. FemShep is not Barbie-fied supermodel who kicks ass in revealing clothing so that male gamers can have their violence with a side of tits and ass. And while the option exists for her to have sexy moments if you pursue a romance, that romance is still on her term . . .
With all of this in FemShep’s favor, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever play Male Shepard. Male Shepard is such a stereotyped character – the white space marine messiah figure with a buzz cut and a chiseled jaw. Yawn. That trope is just so tired these days. Give me a female messiah figure who manages to be feminine and still save the universe – way more interesting. The comparison is even more lopsided when you start comparing voice acting. Jennifer Hale’s performance as female Shepard is amazing. Mark Meer is totally bland and uninspiring.”
I agree with these feelings 100%! I was just talking to a male gamer friend and we were discussing Mass Effect 2, which he was about to play for the first time. We talked about the first game and I asked him, “You’re playing as female Shepherd, right?” There was an obvious edge to my voice and it was clear there was only one acceptable answer to the question. He responded, “Oh yeah, there’s no way I’d play with the guy. She’s fantastic.” So while FemShep appeals to you as a female gamer, she also appeals to male gamers who want a different experience from the stereotypical buff dude blowing shit up. And the voice of FemShep, Jennifer Hale, deserves so much praise.
Would you point people to FemShep first in terms of how to sell games to women?
Yes! A thousand times yes! FemShep is exactly the sort of character that we need more of in gaming. She is the only female character that I can think of that is 1) in charge 2) not sexualized 3) the main character (and 4) not a robot. If characters like her were the norm in gaming, I think that there would be a lot less of a gender imbalance in gaming. And really, FemShep is the sort of character that other studios should be emulating when they look at how they want to write their flagship female characters. Mass Effect is a perfect example of a series that doesn’t exploit its flagship female character and still manages to sell a shit-ton of copies. And while a lot of people do play as MaleShep, the huge popularity of FemShep proves that it’s possible for a game to do well without the main character having to show lots of skin all the time.
The thing I find interesting is when you talk to female gamers you can see just how many of us have played Mass Effect. It seems like a game that has a broader market appeal because of the awesome female protagonist, which I hope is something that other studios will take away from the success of the Mass Effect series. Female gamers want to play games with awesome female characters; it seems to me that studios who craft games with well-written, non-sexualized female characters would probably do well for themselves – assuming that the game itself is good and the gameplay is solid and whatnot.
Thank you so much for your time. It was very beneficial for me to spend this time thinking about sexism in gaming. I wonder what this was like for you? And finally, where can we find more of your work? What do you have in store for Go Make Me A Sandwich into the future?
I’m not too sure what the future of Go Make Me A Sandwich holds. I’ve never thought of this as a project without an end date – it always seemed to me that I’d reach a point where I’ve run out of things to say. I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet, though – not by any stretch of the imagination. In the future I might try to turn GMMaS into a book – the blog was originally started as a way to prevent myself from writing a book in the first place, but we’ll see. For now, though, my other projects remain under wraps. I have hopes in the future that I might successfully publish a fantasy novel, but that’s still a project in progress.
Thank you for your time. I’ve enjoyed the conversation too. It’s been very thought-provoking and you’ve asked some challenging questions, which I appreciate.