At the beginning of the month, my partner and I (along with his brother and a friend of ours) participated in one of the greatest gaming geek rituals of all time: PAX Prime. For the uninitiated, PAX is a community run expo and convention for gamers and gaming culture. There are many informational panels devoted to various topics that are of importance (or are just guaranteed to give gamers a laugh or two) to the community and a gigantic exhibit floor full of game publishers, companies, and independent designers. It was my first time at such a thing, or anything even remotely like it, and it was one of the best and most fun experiences I have had in a long time.
That being said, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t dissect and analyze the gender politics and sociological implications of the expo, the exhibtors, the attendees, and the games that were being presented to us.
First the expo itself was an amazing homage to the diversity of gaming culture. Gabe and Tycho (the coordinators of the expo) put an extroadinary amount of effort and thought into ensuring that the expo was as inclusive as they could make it. There were several panels dedicated to female gamers (both their presence in gaming, how it affects the industry, and even a critque of how the industry treats its female consumers) as well as panels devoted to older gamers, parents raising children in a gaming culture, and disabled gamers. Now, that’s not to say there wasn’t still some subtle or inherent sexism or prejudice in some of the other parts of the expo, but Gabe and Tycho acknowledge that they and the gaming industry had hurdles to overcome in inclusiveness with these panels and with many of the rules of the expo, which I’ll get into in a bit.
The expo attendees were also very inclusively minded, it was one of the few times in my life that I felt like I could be just myself without worry about those around me judging for failing to live up to whatever standard they had for me. I saw men walking around in skirts, women in men’s clothing, men cosplaying as female characters, and women cosplaying as male characters, all without a singly eye being batted by the other attendees. It was a great feeling to see all of these people bending and breaking gender norms and roles and being accepted for what they were not who they should be. I also saw very little harassment of women during my time there: even when women were cosplaying in revealing or skin tight outfits, they were treated with respect and I never once saw anyone attempting to sexually harass (verbally or otherwise) someone. Which is probably a good thing as I would have had to step in and might have gotten myself thrown out for causing a ruckus :S
It is telling though, that the majority of the objectification and sexism I saw came straight from the exhibitors and gaming companies themselves. There were several games that were on display and being promoted that exuded sexually objectified women and sexist attitudes, namely Firefall, Fall of Nations, Need for Speed, and Duke Nukem. Duke Nukem makes the list just because of the content of the game… it’s about one of the most misogynistic, machismo filled games you’ll be able to find this side of a Handmaid’s Tale. Need for Speed and Fall of Nations made my list for using prototyplical booth babes (another game, Rift: Planes of Telara, also use a booth babe but I’ll get into that in a moment). PAX, bless their heart, limited booth babes in an attempt to seperate themselves from the sexist stereotype of gaming culture, only allowing cosplaying booth attendents if they were relavant to the game and had in-depth knowledge of the game. Basically there were attempting to keep companies from hiring models, sticking them in bikinis, and having them parade about so that men would drool over them and thus the game they were promoting. This worked for the most part, as the Rift booth babe was in a full cosplay get up for the main character of the story arc, and while her outfit did reveal some skin, she was wearing armor and looked appropriate for the game/circumstance. Need for Speed and Fall of Nations took advantage of the rules: their booth babes were in polyester cat-suits and thigh high boots and did not depict a certain character from the game. For Fall of Nations they were supposed to be generic hot solider/spies and for Need for Speed they were supposed to be generic hot girl racers… amazingly their outfits look similar despite being advertisement for completely different games. Which brings me to another issue with the booth babes, for Fall of Nations and Rift, the booth babes were literally given a podium to stand on and pose for hours at a time. They weren’t spokespersons, they were living, sexualized advertisements for the game. As for Firefall, that game just pissed me off to ten different kinds of hell, mostly because I got stuck watching their promos over and over again as I waited as the next booth over for a Dragon Age demonstration. Firefall is a free-to-play first person shoot massive multiplayer online game (wow that is a mouthful, but FPS MMO just seems like too many acronyms) wherein you get to play as big burly men wearing mechanized suits of armor or slender, sexy women wearing bits and pieces of mechanized suits of armor. Seriously, the men are covered from neck to toe (we get to see their faces) the women… are not. There is one woman who forgot to put on one leg of her pants and has decided that a bare midriff is definitely the way to go whist fighting in hand to hand combat with aliens with super sharp claws that could easily disembowel the unprotected.
The problem I have with games like Firefall and the advertisement tactics used by the others is that it quite clearly tells me, as a woman, that I am not the target audience for that game. Firefall screams out to me that they want young men who enjoy staring at half-naked women as their audience and that they are quite okay with possibly pissing off potentially half of their consumer base to get their preferred audience. It says in no uncertain terms that my woman money is not nearly as valuable to them as man money, and, well, that frankly just offends my feminist, capitalist, commen sense, and hell every other kind of sensibility there is.
I’d like to end on a positive note though, I really enjoyed the hell out of Rift and Dragon Age and a couple other games I demo’d while there. I know Rift was one of the booth babe as advertisement offenders, but I feel that their attempts to keep to the rules and to create a strong female character like that (I read the lore to get a background on her) kind of mitigate the offense. Also, the game is bloody awesome: it was made by several of the EQ2 devs that left after EQ2 started going downhill. It is a perfect (or seems to be from what I played) balance between WoW and EQ2, both in terms of graphics and game-play, and takes inspiration from lesser know mmo’s such as WAR online and LOTRO. I was also impressed with their character design, the humans looked pretty normal (not bodybuilder men and model waif women), the elvish races were slender and petite no matter the gender, and the barbarian type race didn’t trim down their females just to make sure they stayed pretty enough (one of my biggest pet peeves). It’s a beautiful game and I can’t wait to play more and learn more about the lore, gameplay, and characters. Also, Dragon Age: Awakening is going to rock your bloody socks off, that is all.