The Leaderboard: Who's the Bad Guy?

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Paste has long believed that videogames are a vital part of pop culture. We’ve expanded our games coverage with a new essay column called The Leaderboard. Twice a month we’ll be running an essay or editorial from a rotating crew of writers with a wide breadth of expertise and experience within the industry. From critics to designers to academics, The Leaderboard will highlight a variety of insightful voices. Today’s column is written by Border House staff writer Mattie Brice.

Manchild. It’s one of those dirty, fighting words, meant to initiate confrontation with an embarrassing truth. My first memory of hearing the word was in response to talking about my favorite hobby: “Aren’t gamers really just a bunch of manchildren?” This echoed when I began to talk about my work writing on games, and how it devalued my passions. Being a woman in games often requires defending your legitimacy, claiming it an art and a compelling form of entertainment. I have to explain why I love a culture where works such as Girl Fight, which crassly sells itself on the back of manchild tendencies, are predominant. During a demo of Girl Fight at GDC I was told to look past the marketing, to just enjoy the game. The sentiment still hurts my brain, as it’s the most clumsy “We don’t care about you” I’ve heard in a while. There I am, a writer in the middle of the Game Developers Conference, hearing I don’t matter because I’m not a dude. Not a manchild.

Exploiting women’s bodies as eye candy isn’t shocking. It’s just part of the scenery now, so common and pervasive that many don’t even notice it. There’s an expectation that women will display themselves for a certain audience while the developers and publications that feature respectable depictions of minorities expect a golden star. Then we act shocked when we hear someone say sexual harassment is a part of gaming culture. And while that is a bold and extreme situation, seeing proper representation of minorities is also bold and extreme. Its designers described Girl Fight as a game aimed for casual-fighting-game players looking to get more into the genre. I fit squarely into this demographic, feeling alienated by many of the fighters I’ve tried out and always weary of the community surrounding them. When I questioned about the dissonance I felt with the sexualized appeal, the response was that the developers wanted to make a game for themselves. In a sense, they deemed an entire genre as existing specifically for a certain demographic, and expect others outside that demographic to just deal with it. I was playing in someone else’s playground. It reminded me of the recent incidents surrounding the fighting-game culture, how women and other minorities negotiate their hobby with a sense of self-respect. I wonder if the developers of Girl Fight are comfortable knowing that they contribute to the self-deprecating culture of videogames that makes people like me ashamed of the medium I love most.

Girl Fight isn’t responsible for everything that’s wrong in videogames. It’s the system in place that encourages such tactics. Both in game development and videogame media, advances in diversity issues suffer from the idea that they will hurt profits. Besides being utterly fallacious, it outright stinks when “they need to make money” is a weak argument for everything but social justice. Girl Fight exists because a game about non-sexualized women, people of color, and queer identities of all sorts is a risky move for publishers to make, and appealing to heterosexual men’s basest (and assumed) proclivities is a conservative one. There’s an assumption that someone is to be blamed, but if we’re aware that companies react to what they think their audience wants, then who’s actually the bad guy, or, really, bad people? This topic is never fun, and it shows; we often still don’t know how to deal with claims of sexism and other forms of discrimination. That is, the developers of Girl Fight most likely aren’t sexist, and neither are AAA studios nor most gamers. Rather, these exploitative games are a product of a discriminatory culture that makes exploring minority issues either an added bonus or the exclusive province of politically charged works. Because we often pander to the interests of the loudest critics, the game industry and surrounding media partake in a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more the audience is treated like the stereotype of 16-24-year-old boys, the more the community is going to hyperbolize said behavior. In a sense, developers and media are doing a disservice to the community by only allowing a safe and developed space centered on this identity, instead of a diverse one for everyone to explore themselves.

We need to deal with the prevailing effects of homogony in videogames. It’s not just the whitewashed, bro-tastic makeup of development teams and media outlets, but also the identity we think of when we create our content. “Gamer” isn’t a neutral term, but laden with that dominant demographic. Games like Girl Fight only stand a chance to impress an audience when they focus solely on this one audience, as its appeal hinges primarily on its exploitative aesthetic. And this isn’t a huge leap of faith, considering SoulCalibur V’s ad campaign featured a poster of little more than Ivy’s breasts and attracted relatively uncritical media attention. Manchild is an insult, not just to heterosexual men, but to me as well. Videogames are hypocritical to demand recognition as a mature art form without dealing with this issue, and the industry only stands to benefit from the advantages that come with encouraging a diverse community.

Mattie Brice writes game criticism focusing on diversity issues, narrative design, and sexuality. Currently studies how players interact with games and how it likens to theatre. Staff writer at The Border House and found on Twitter as @xMattieBrice.

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