BOSS (Male): Trick, I see that you have put women in this enemy gang.
TRICK (Male): Of course, there are women in this gang everywhere in the game.
BOSS (Male): But your objective here is to kill off all the gang members.
TRICK (Male): I don’t understand how that’s a problem.
BOSS (Male): It is against our policies to force players to kill women. Remove them.
I’ve been meaning to write about this for years. The issue comes up again and again in game development, but I’ve been afraid to talk about it for fear of attacks from all sides of the “Ethics” debate.
In worlds where violence is the solution to most conflicts, women must be important enough to kill.
With shooters, in particular, developers are frightened of letting players take an active role in the killing of women. It’s strange considering these very same games may force the player to commit assault against unarmed, restrained women or even have women repeatedly violated. Ignoring storyline deaths, women are rarely the targets of player-character violence. This is particularly strange in settings with large numbers of enemies with limited or no story explanation for the lack of female enemies.
In most action games, non-player characters are limited to the role of mission-givers, enemies, and objectives. Mission-givers send players off on tasks and usually have some reason to be helpless to perform the task themselves. For characters intended to be intimidating, they are usually busy doing something else. However, most mission-givers are actively made powerless to fulfill the power fantasy for players portraying the protagonist. The player character needs to be the most influential and capable character in the game universe.
Characters who act as objectives often moonlight as mission-givers, but objectives tend to be even more underpowered than the standard mission-givers. Objectives are usually in danger and need to be unable to extract themselves from this danger. They are doctors, family members, and technicians. They are, most often, completely powerless in a fight. For the purposes of this discussion, “reward” characters are objectives. Players are told that they need them, and they players take the time to collect them as they would any object.
Enemies, much like player characters, are measured in importance based on their potential for violence. They can be cannon-fodder, elite, mini-boss, or boss. Players count the bullets or strikes needed to take them down, and they carefully measure the damage the enemy can deal. They are the closest mechanical relation to the player in that their effectiveness can be measured by the same means as the player.
Often times, this makes the enemies the most player-like characters in the game.
ART LEAD (Male): We can only make one set of animations for the zombies, so we’re going to need to remove the women.
TRICK (Male): Have any animations been made?
ART LEAD (Male): No.
TRICK (Male): Then why not remove the men?
ART LEAD (Male): Won’t it be weird if there are only women?
AUDIO LEAD (Female): No more weird than if they are all men.
People talk a lot about women in the games industry. Largely this discussion happens in the press. In the office, open discussion of hiring policy are met with fearful glances. Discussions of uneven portrayals of women are “checked at the door” or responded to by saying that treating women differently than the status-quo “wouldn’t be realistic.”
One of the reasons I like working in a diverse workplace is when I get to watch a man tell a tattoo-covered woman in a UFC shirt that no one will believe that women can fight or lead. It’s pretty funny when they say this without noticing their audience. It’s funniest when they stop the statement with a sharp intake of breath.
Normally, I do my best to prevent the portrayal of violence against women in games. Women are often victimized just to spur male characters to action, and I want to have no part in this pattern. However, I make a special exception for women as enemies in games.
In the story above, the art lead became so uncomfortable with having an all-female enemy group that he had his team animate the men and the women on the same skeleton. They behaved and moved identically. The enemies became an exact even split between men and women.
For the first time in the game, players had to consider these woman enemies. Players had to predict their actions, estimate their threat, and act in response to them. Suddenly, women became more than than weak characters that tell you what to do. Women became more than screaming objects to rescue from danger. Women became worthy of consideration only when they, themselves, were dangerous.
ART LEAD (Male): We can’t have men hurting women, it’s against my religion.
TRICK (Male): We hurt women plenty. They get kidnapped or murdered all the time.
ART LEAD (Male): But the players aren’t doing that!
TRICK (Male): Are you saying that it’s against your religion to have players hurt women because the players are all men?
The men that prevent women from fighting in these games often cite religion or “chivalry” as their reasoning. They pretend that they are protecting women from harm. Some of these men are even socially progressive folk that don’t wish to normalize violence against women by forcing players to perform such violence. Generally, these same men will allow violence against women “if the story demands it”, but even then they will make that violence occur in a scripted event rather than during normal interactions.
Men – I say this as one of your own – women don’t need this kind of protection. It’s an arbitrary form of protection, and one that does not apply to real life. When you make women untouchable, you make them into alien things. You teach people to wait for prompts until some outside force tells them what to do. At its worst, you turn women into villains who cannot be punished for their poor actions. You put justice out of reach, and you make that feeling stew.
When women are just objects in a story but men are participants in the action, you’ve created unaccountable monsters. We can do better than that. The men who play our games will grow used to judging characters by their actions and acting accordingly. The women who play our games will see that they have the choice to be hero or villain: they don’t need to be passive watchers of male actions.
Brother and sister developers. Go make your hordes of faceless enemies. Let them be sacks of loot and experience. Let them cry out in anguish as they die. Don’t be afraid to let those cries be those of women fighting alongside men. Gaming will be better for it.