For the past several months, being a gamer has been rather a fraught experience.
Whether you’re one of the many who became suddenly Very Concerned about perceived ethics violations in the realm of game journalism right about the same time that feminist commentary about video games started gaining momentum, or whether you’re one of the women who braved the inevitable backlash and spoke her mind about feminism as it relates to video games and then weathered a storm of having your personal information broadcast online, your public speaking events cancelled due to terroristic threats, and having to leave your own home due to threats of rape and murder, or whether you have no idea what I’m talking about and clicking all of the links in this run-on sentence has been a fresh slice of dismay pie for you … it’s been tough lately.
It’s all a bit brain-bendy, though, right? I mean, when did we start looking to video games for depth of meaning and progressive gender representation?
Thing is, gaming isn’t just for kids and geeks any more. Hasn’t been for a long time. If you’re reading this, then it’s safe to assume that you, oh person with access to the internet machine, know at least one perfectly normal adult human who plays video games. It’s a billion-dollar industry that has integrated itself quite cozily into our first-world culture. The technology, and the population of creative people with the expertise to wield it, has grown to the point that games have achieved a production value so high that many of them are basically 40+-hour-long interactive movies. Seriously.
So yeah, it matters what games depict. They’re every bit as much a reflection of our society as Hollywood movies are, now, so we’re starting to care about what we see in that mirror.
Nastiness of the Gamergate response aside, the game industry itself barely seemed to twitch an eyebrow at the whole mess. One little example: when it was pointed out to Ubisoft that the vast majority of video game protagonists are male and could they maybe please try to change that with their upcoming new super mega game, they explained the lack by saying that providing both male and female protagonist player-character options was too hard and cost too much money. Drawing chicks is hard, y’all.
The whole time this was going on, while virtual battle lines were being drawn, while women’s actual lives were being threatened to prevent a discussion about the very real gender imbalance in video games, one company was quietly making it all better.
Bioware. I get the feeling that they could foresee that video games would soon be held to a higher standard, so they did their level best to set the bar sky-frickin’-high.
They’ve already earned a reputation for representing equality with their Mass Effect series that only the most nitpicky folks can find fault with (and they do, because people). In those games, the player could choose between a male or female hero to save the galaxy. Both choices had talented voice actors performing the exact same script, and the only impact that gender selection had on the story was in the romance department. This is key. It did not matter if you were a chick or a dude, you were Commander Shepard and you were gonna go kick evil alien ass till there was no more evil alien ass to kick. And by the third game in the series, they had introduced the option to have your character get involved in not just the usual hetero-normative romance, but also a homosexual relationship. Not just for sexy shock value, either; nope, this was some loving, supportive, nuanced, sexy stuff.
But that was years ago. Fast-forward to 2014, when Gamergate is chewing sour holes in the geek community and the world of gaming is awash in fear and despair, and Bioware releases Dragon Age: Inquisition.
The game is madly popular for all the right reasons. IGN named it their 2014 Game of the Year, and you can check out their video in that link that neatly encapsulates everything that makes the game part of the game fantastic. Holy wow.
As for me … I dunno, maybe it was the oppressive environment of Gamergate and all of its associated crap, but what really impressed me was how thoroughly Bioware trumped their own reputation for equality. Once again the game offers a choice between male and female protagonists. They’re voiced by not two but four voice actors who are all performing the same script, so as to give the player options. So much for voice actors being too expensive, eh Ubisoft?
During character creation, I noticed a few little details. There were options, such as adding an Adam’s apple or facial hair to a female character, or makeup to a male character, that hinted at a more fluid definition of what representing gender might mean.
Then I dove into the game itself, and found a magnificent cast of characters awaiting me. Let’s start with the core group, your character’s War Council. These are the folks who are moving all kinds of revolutionary mountains, running networks of spies and influence, leading armies and confronting ancient institutions on your behalf. Notice anything about them?
Why yes, three out of the four major central characters to your story are women. Powerful, fully-dressed women. And it’s not a thing. See that handsome fellow on the end? Not once does he mutter about being henpecked or suggest that his compatriots disagree with him because it’s That Time Of The Month. And never is he talked down to for being a silly ol’ man. Everyone has an equal stake and pulls their own weight in the story. They’re all flawed and brave, glorious and petty, smart and remarkably dumb about certain things.
You know, like people.
And really, that applies to every character you encounter throughout the game. All kinds of layers and nuance, no walking stereotypes here. The dashing knights have moments of weakness and raw emotion, the damsels are in distress but they’re handling it just fine thankyouverymuch.
I didn’t think I could be any more impressed, basking in the glow of all this mature storytelling. But then I met this guy, and talking to him wrapped my beleaguerd ladygamer brain in soothing clouds of joy and hope:
That right there is Cremisius Aclassi, the second-in-command of a group of badass mercenaries, as tough and effective a warrior as you’d ever like to meet. He’s also voiced by the lovely and talented Jennifer Hale. Because darling Krem there? He was born a woman.
Bioware has taken on the task of representing the trans community in a video game, and they have done it with grace and style and respect. Krem is accepted for who he is, and while your protagonist may have a few fumbles trying to discuss the issue with him, not once in all the hundreds of conversation options does Bioware give you a chance to choose to be hateful or disrespectful towards him. If you play this game, please do yourself a favor and chat Krem up. His backstory is sweet and sad and hopeful all at once, and absolutely worth hearing.
You don’t have to talk to him, of course. Bioware might not let a player be nasty about gender identity or sexuality, but neither will they force a player to interact with it. There are no Must Do To Win Game choices that involve having to really deal with any of the out and openly trans, gay, bi, hetero, etc characters who populate the game. You could run through the whole saga from beginning to end without once challenging your perspectives or expanding your mental horizons if you wanted to. But you’d be missing out an awful lot of really excellent characters if you did.
Kinda like in real life.
I could get into the rest of the stuff that Bioware got right with this game – like the female characters who are as fully dressed or not as they want to be and nobody objectifies them for it; or the way that a particularly virile male character makes an overt sexual pass at a female character, and then when she asks him to stop he does so instantly, and with respectful apologies; or the infinitely classy way that they handle BDSM; or how the game explicitly states that homosexuality is officially not a big deal and everyone can just be chill – but I’ve fangirled enough for one post.
Suffice it to say, in a world full of clashing voices clamoring to screech their rightness over the din, Bioware has come in with the kind of quiet confidence that silences the room … said their piece … challenged all other game developers to get on their human-rights-equality-in-video-game-representation level, and …