I, like many gamers, remember quite fondly the first time I caught a glimpse of myself in Portal. The revelation that the character I was playing was a woman and that this fact was treated as such a casual, nonchalant part of the game was an amazing moment for me. I had the biggest grin on my face and for one brief and shining moment I felt unconditionally accepted in the gaming world. It was a special moment for me, as a woman, to feel like I had finally been included under the title ‘gamer’ instead of being shoved off into the a sub-category of ‘female gamer’ or ‘gamer girl’. Of course, all that specialness went away as soon as I turned off Portal and logged into other games like WoW where my femaleness and femininity undeniably labeled me as different from the norm, as some form of ‘other’. So, imagine my surprise and delight, when a few years later, I came across a similar moment in Portal 2: the Project Lil commentary in which Valve discussed their stance on inclusivity.
Project Lil, for those who haven’t heard of it yet, is Valve’s codename for attempts to be more inclusive, in regards to gender, when recording the commentary for their games. It was prompted by an email from a fan named Lil who felt left out as a woman by all the “he”s and “his”s in the commentaries. Here is the full text of developer Marc Laidlaw describing the project:
“Project Lil is our codename for an internal push to make our comments more accessible to the whole Valve community. It was pointed out to us in mail from a fan that in some of our previous commentary, the designers referred unfailingly to the gamer as a ‘he.’ Although in natural speech, most of us normally tend to say “they” and “their” rather than “he” and “his,” some stuffy overactive minion of the grammar police went through and revised all those usages to make them conform to an oppressive gender-biased rule. However, research shows that “they” and “their” is a perfectly acceptable and even older form, and we are happy to fall back on it and let people talk the way they normally talk, and screw the so-called rules that alienate our fans. Thanks, Lil.”
That right there is a whole lot of awesome. It spells out the idea behind inclusivity really well, namely that it’s just about not alienating people by using exclusionary language or themes. That can mean anything from something as simple as saying ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ (or not using mankind/man/men to mean humankind, humanity, or people) to something as complex as adding in characters and themes that under-represented minorities can identify with. While the latter is more preferable because it means we, the audience, get more diverse and better stories in our games, examples like the former are also important because at the very least they don’t disappear the existence of many gamers in the audience.
Valve was already off to a great start in the Portal series with their handling of Chell’s character. Having a female character that just was a woman without making a big fuss about it, either through sexualizing her or hyping up the fact that she was a woman, let female gamers experience the (sadly) revolutionary idea that female characters could just be normal, default characters. For once, the person holding the gun wasn’t some random white guy (like it is in almost every other FPS game), it was some random chick, and she was even non-white to boot! Add to this Project Lil and Valve has taken the (again, sadly) revolutionary step of being the first major game company to explicitly include women in the same ways that men get by default. I know these both seem like small things, maybe even insignificant in the bigger picture, but really taking these first, small steps is how we bring the gaming culture to a place of more equality and quality.
Sadly, though, some of this awesome inclusivity was undermined by a few of the choices they made within the dialogue of the game itself by using sizeist and ableist jokes and using adoption as an insult. These all go directly against the inclusivity message in Project Lil. Imagine how alienating it could be to be playing along, enjoying thinking with portals, and suddenly be confronted with someone telling you that you are inherently less than because you’re not the proper size, were adopted, use a wheelchair, etc. To add insult to injury, you’re supposed to find this little piece of humiliation funny because it was a joke. I can tell you, from experience, that hearing someone joke about how I’m supposedly inferior because of some inherent trait certainly does not strike me as funny, nor does it fill me with the warm fuzzies that should come from enjoying the game I’m playing. I understand that the jokes are in the game to characterize GlaDOS, Wheatley, and Cave Johnson as antagonists, but these jokes don’t just insult Chell, they have the side effect of shaming the player on the other end of the controller and potentially alienating them from the game. It may not happen to most players, or even all of the ones that fall into the categories that are the focus of these one-liners, but it does affect some of them and ruins their enjoyment of the game and sours their experience of gamer culture. There are plenty of ways to be insulting, humorous, and humorously insulting without having to stray into these exclusionary territories and that’s plenty visible throughout most of the Portal series. GlaDOS has a plethora of scathing and hilarious comments that don’t rely on deriding Chell (and inadvertently the player) for innate traits. Relying on fat jokes and the like as shorthand for ‘ooh this robot is mean’ or ‘Cave Johnson is a bad man’ is lazy writing and shows a lack of respect for the players that these pot shots get aimed at. I’m not trying to say that these jokes shouldn’t be in Portal or any other games, but that having them in there goes directly against the progressive ideals behind Project Lil.
These sorts of exclusionary jokes alienate fans not just from the game they’re playing, but as they add up in game after game, it alienates the players from gaming as a whole. And that really is a loss for gamers because we lose out on the diversity of human experience to both draw upon for story ideas and to share our enthusiasm for our beloved hobby with. Hopefully, in their next venture, be it Portal 3 or some other game, Valve will continue in the inclusive spirit of Project Lil and expand upon it to include more than just gender. I would love to see them, and other game companies, bring the ideals of inclusivity to the forefront of their development process and use it to give us, the gaming audience, characters, dialogue, stories, and commentary that aren’t exclusionary. It will make our games better as a whole and, more importantly, it will also make the gaming culture more welcoming to more gamers.
This was cross-posted at Nightmare Mode.