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Heya Space Cadets,

My writing schedule has been all messed up for a bit now, I’ve been scrambling to get a real mountain of work done before it topples over and crushes me, so I’ve had to stay away from the keys a lot more than I’d like to. That said, despite the fact this is not my usual writing day, I felt like making a short response to an article I saw elsewhere, over at GameSpot, dealing with the issue of strong female characterization in games. The article itself is interesting enough, its called “Fear of Warrior Women,” but I think the title and the ethos behind it miss part of the context. I got much more out of the linked-to article on Gamasutra by Untold Entertainment’s Ryan Creighton that dealt with troubles he’s having trying to make a game without (as he fears) coming off as anti-feminine, sexist, or racist. Basically he says that his world ended up full of white guys, with a white guy as the hero (a guy at least, I’m guessing on color) becuase its a safer path that means he’s not going to have any of his women or non-white characters raise alarm bells for their depictions.

Well crap, man! That’s an alarm bell right there!

The beginning of his article is a strong one, as has Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango) and Theodor Waern (The Journey Down) talking about their experiences working with whitebread development teams creating a game full of cultural accents that are not their own, like Grim Fandango’s Day of the Dead theme and The Journey Down’s mix of African and West Indies. Basically, they wrote the best they could, they asked the voice staff to play with the script, and made a best faith effort to present the world in a reasonable fashion.

I think the difference between this approach and Ryan’s approach was that Ryan was coming at his game as a lilly-white game that he was trying to cram some other voices and faces into, whereas Tim and Waern were making games with a specific cultural flavor from the get go. I don’t think that’s really his fault, I presume the story he’s telling is the kind of story that has been told many times before, and usually with a young male in the lead. That’s an honest mistake to make. It’s also the kind of mistake that leads to us having a lot of young males in the leads of stories, because that’s what most stories were about, except the ones about finding true love, settling down, and making babies. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there’s more than a little cultural inertia behind the assumptions we make in a Hero On Adventure story. Which of the many “We” is being spoken of, however, can be a hard thing to define.

The “we” people usually use is “we other white male game developers,” which is a big issue. When people get their anger out of the way, the real problem they have with non-white non-male characters in many games is that they aren’t written like a “person” but a stereotype. I think it’s less malign than that, but sadder. I think that white males are often written as a blank slate to which there are some things applied, such as “Lost his Family,” and “Chip on his Shoulder,” but a woman or a black guy or a black woman is going to automatically come in with a few other things on their blank slate. Even if that character is so generic that they only deliver a few stereotypical lines of dialogue before disappearing that black dude is much more likely to talk like Shaft or Mister T than an crazy old Prospector or something.

If you’ve read these kinds of articles before I can skip all the stuff about reinforcing assigned sociological roles as women as sex objects or black men as thugs being just as bad when you do it in a “positive” manner by saying “Oh, but they’re also a hero!” Multiclassing your characters into Stripper/Hero and Thug/Hero does not give the first part a pass. The fact that first part was there at all isn’t a sign that you’re a racist bad person, just that you need to really get a blank slate to work with. In many ways its not your fault, you’re handed that slate as part of being in this society. Black men are handed that slate too, and women. Reinventing a culture is not just about changing the views of white men, but changing everyone’s views about what it is that they need to be. And, honestly, the fact is that most white men don’t know their slate has a bunch of stuff on it too that they didn’t even notice.

People will often say “Oh yeah, having a woman be sexy is sexist, but all male heroes are ripped superman or pretty boys, amirite!?” AND THAT IS PART OF THE PROBLEM TOO. Your slate game with a few things on it saying that unless you’re exercising power either physically (strength) or sexually (pretty) you’ve got to have money, or your life is pretty much a crapfest to be pitied. Do you believe that? I doubt you do. But that’s because you understand that this is a stupid idea and you ignore it and probably get frustrated when someone else tries to reinforce that, especially by saying that someone like you can’t be the hero because they’re not super wealthy, or a Hollywood action hero/model, or a giant steaming hulk of roid flesh. This is the same way a woman might ignore the and be frustrated when she sees her value (in this case, consider Hero Potential to be a good thing) assessed in light of how desirable she is, how thin she is, and how she doesn’t see people “like her” in games.

It can be hard to see what your slate comes with. When people say “just write your characters like a human being, not like a fill-in-the-blank AND a human being,” they’re trying to give the best advice they can, but the problem is that we all have lenses we are TOLD to view other people through. You can take the lenses off, but it is difficult to unhinge all that accumulated cultural knowledge of what to expect from people, especially when so much of it is reinforced by other people’s behaviors too–because unless you take the lens off your OWN life, you’ll probably display a few of those stereotypical behaviors too. This is how people model their behavior. I tried to emulate John Wayne growing up, just a tiny bit, not much, but just enough at times because he was a masculine persona I could see and approved of. If I was growing up now without that kind of a more placid strength, I don’t know, I may not have been able to stick that idea on my slate. I might be a different person. We’re who we are in part because, when we were young, we had to operate with a very limited Character Building toolkit.

So backing up a bit, I think Ryan should have just written himself into a corner. If he wants to tell a story, just tell the story, and it’ll probably flow out of the same cultural gestalt that we have been working from for a long time. Nothing wrong with that, but without a lot of other “stories” to choose from its not surprising when they look similar. That’s what getting other voices in there does, people get a chance to tell stories, and you get a chance to want to make a game out of them. In truth the skin color or gender shouldn’t matter, except that it does, because people need to be able to see more people that are almost “Like Them” to model behaviors on and see all the different ways they can be. That’s one of the annoyances I have with the angry female warrior woman thing. Yeah, sure, she’s beating guys up, but it also shows her as a deranged crazy person. The angry warrior man is usually not the ideal male either. Maybe the ladies need a Jane Wayne?

But if Ryan wanted to tell a story with more women or people with non-white faces, but doesn’t know how to write them, just don’t write them like someone you don’t know how to write. Do you know how to write like a white male? Do you? How do you know? Because you ARE one? That doesn’t mean a thing. Do you write like a Earnest Hemmingway? He was a white guy. How about J.R.R. Tolkein? He was a white guy too. Or do you write like yourself from your own place in time and gender and skin according to what was on your slate?

Hm.

You will never be the characters you’re writing for. They will never be you either. The best we can do is not be afraid, and to write the characters we want to write, and be unapologetic about the failings that we have. If you’re worried about looking racist, don’t be paralyzed by fear, write the character as a character first and as their other stuff later. This isn’t a unique process, its about understanding who they are, and that should let you breathe a sigh of relief. The process for making a black guy is the same as a white guy. If you think that their skin color has an impact to the story, I’d ask why. If that character has faced discrimination in the past, okay, maybe. But that’s a character point, not a ‘given’ in the story, so ask how that effects him. Also do this to the other guys, don’t treat the hero as the ‘default’ when you make them, even if they’re as whitebread as can be. If they’re big and strong, are they big and strong because they believe (as other men in their world may) that strength is a masculine ideal? Would they treat women and other men as lesser, even in a kindly but patronizing way, because they see themselves as ‘better’? If they’re big and strong because they work in a quarry, but the ideal of men is as refined, lean gentlemen, would be embarassed and try to avoid showing his physique for fear of looking like an animal in the eyes of society?

As odd as that sounds, that actually was a thing. I was watching an episode of Poirot, a fun detective series my Fiancee and I both enjoy watching, and there was an episode where this foppish British lady commented that this one woman’s new male companion was a “gorilla,” and joked that it must have been an “animal attraction.” It was mocked more than once, and though the guy was a barely bigger than his fellow Bits in the episode, compared to me he looked like a skinny little dude. It was interesting to think about how the cultural ideal for a man of that age was very different, and when you take your own culture into your game as a ‘given,’ such as large, strong men appearing more ‘masculine’ to the world, you’re already doing yourself a disservice. I’m not saying you need to invent an inverted world where all preconceptions are challenged. I’m just saying, you’re making a lot of assumptions there. White male characters are subject to society’s expectations just like everyone else is, and if you ignore that then you’re making them the default, blank slate from which to work with, which is patently untrue.

Write them as a generic, genderless, sexless, skinless character until you have an idea what you want them to do. If they need to be rescued, don’t automatically make them female. Giant monsters the size of a dumptruck could beat an Arnold senseless as easily as an Amanda. Maybe your Muscleman McArmorpants got stuck in a hole and can’t get out. Maybe he can’t swim. Maybe he fell off a cliff and needs you to get him a rope. If you want to challenge skin and gender and sex roles because that makes you feel good, do it and enjoy it and spend the little extra time to make sure you’re not “defaulting” your characters. If you feel like you HAVE to, then don’t. Since the real goal of all this hand-wringing is to bring us to a state where you can be whatever you are without someone treating you differently for it, why not just do that? Just write your characters. Just write them and don’t worry about anything other than what their motivations are, and then give them some shapes, colors, and orientations later. You can do plenty of good just by avoiding the same tired gender/skin/sex roles without having to turn the world topsy turvy every time.

Ryan really felt like he was making his huntress into something that was different and positive for women, which is why I think it was so odd that a lot of the things he does are just shuffling around the way in which she is only a reflection on the men, rather than the building of her own unique character. His words are: “I patted myself on the back for asking our character designer to give her a small chest, and for marring her face with a big red scar to “de-beautify” her… Here was a woman who was holding her own in the apocalypse, living off the land and sustaining herself, defending her hand-built log cabin with a blunderbuss and a snarl. She isn’t in the game to be a love interest for the main character; she knows more about the game world and its creatures than anyone else, and she joins the quest to satisfy her revenge sub-plot. She makes it through the game without anyone kissing her. She does get rescued at one point, but the Spellirium is self-referential, and the characters cheekily mention how disappointing the moment is.”

I think the biggest mistake he made was thinking, first, that it really matters what her body looks like. There’s a reaction against overt sexualization in women, but my previously mentioned fiancee would be in a right fit if I was to say that busty ladies can’t fight monsters too. Small chest and a scar may make her less of a sex doll, but it doesn’t make her un-pretty, and it doesn’t really matter. It may be annoying when everyone in a fictional world is beautiful, but that really wasn’t the point here. Instead of patting yourself on the back for caring the way she looks, one should focus on how she acts.

Characters and costume are different things, and should be treated like different things. If your character is well developed then it shouldn’t really matter what they’re wearing, you can still tell their story. You don’t need to de-beautify her as if beauty were a weakness, but you also shouldn’t treat great beauty as the default and a scar as a band-aid over that. My second biggest annoyance was saying that she built and defends her own log cabin, as if I should be surprised because she’s a woman who does this, and that she does so with a snarl and lots of land-lore, again as if I should be surprised. Maybe I’m not meant to be surprised, but I think that if I saw a Woodsman character who lives in a log cabin that nobody would need to say that he built it HIMSELF and HE defends it! I’d be like “Well yeah, of course, he’s the woodsman… is there a reason why he couldn’t?”

Throwing an angry snarl onto the woman’s face, the same face you already threw a scar onto, makes it stand out. It almost makes me wonder if she’s mad because the monster managed to outwit her or because it scarred her face. She hides it afterall, behind a lock of her hair. Hiding the scar seems to imply shame, which seems to make me wonder if she feels the revenge is for the scarring of the face, which again establishes that she acknowledges herself as an object whose value is equated to beauty. Is she ashamed that the monster gave her that scar? From what was said it sounds like the monster was a real doozy. I know men show off her scar. Maybe she should show it off and be renowned in the community as that badass gal with the really awesome scar. Maybe she should be happy because she has the best scar in the area and everyone likes to hear the story? EH.

I don’t know more about her revenge plot, but unless that’s why she’s scowling, it’s just TOO MUCH BAND-AID. She ends up looking like a dark damsel to be helped on her revenge plot by a man because she lacks the “power” to do it herself… (see how I can turn it into sexism again? The “power” she lacks is man wang. Man wang slays the monster that scarred her and made her miserable! The monster is her confused sexuality! Man wang will make her happy because that’s what all women neeeeeeed! GAME SO SEXIST) …and less of a person. But, anyway, this stuff is complex. I’m not faulting Ryan much. I just thought it was interesting how people work themselves into knots when the real solution to all of these problems starts and ends with the characterization.

Spacelab Signing Out

Oh, and the angry woman conspiracy group would probably give Ryan a pass if he let her get a date at the end. You can do that without making them a lusted-after sex object for the main character all game. You’re not objectifying someone if you, ya’ know, give them a chance to get hitched. Shakespearean happy endings where everyone gets married at the end and all that.

Neil Wickman likes strong female characters too!

He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception as one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to him @LunarNeil on Twitter.