Yahtzee Croshaw not only does hilarious animated reviews of video games, he writes columns too, did you know?  His latest column is about gender diversity in video games, and it’s an excruciating near-miss.

All games do need a fatness slider

All games do need a fatness slider

The problems start with the title: “Should every game allow you to choose your gender?” Which is a straw man (and not a straw woman). No one has asked for that.  Many games are telling a story about a particular character– Batman, Chell, Sam & Max, Jade, Corvo, Lara– and it’s OK for particular characters to have a gender.  It’s when the character is Generic Space Marine or Generic Spaceship Captain or Generic Zombie Hunter or Generic Swordsperson that there is no reason to limit the player to one gender.

But it hardly matters if a choice of gender is merely aesthetic and means nothing to the game, because it can still mean something to the audience.

Here’s where Yahtzee almost gets it.  Yes, Skyrim doesn’t care if your adventurer is male or female, but it means something to the player. And you don’t have to have AAA studio resources to handle this; games as simple as Dungeons of Dredmor and Don’t Starve allow it.

…it might not be possible to separate a character from their gender. James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2 springs to mind, as a central theme of that game is frustrated male sexuality.

Ah, the GTAIV excuse– they had to have three male characters because they were “exploring masculinity”. Like just about every other damn game.  It’s not horrible to have one more male fantasy hero– it’s just extremely well trodden ground. And trying to use the game to subvert the standard male fantasy hero does not really work as well as some designers think. Your game is what the player spends 90% of their time doing, not whatever contrary thematic material you add at the end or in cutscenes. If what the player is doing is shooting, you’ve made a shooter, not a clever deconstruction of shooters.

Perhaps this confirms the existence of a lack of diversity, but I’m not sure how to fix that. Game developers do remain predominantly male through no fault of their own, and asking them, from a male perspective, to make games about a female perspective, would probably produce something rather disingenuous.

This is what we might call a Chestertonian objection… Yahtzee is being clever, but it’s still a silly rationalization. For one thing, it’s hardly a weird radical idea for men to write female characters.  They’ve been doing it for three thousand years.  It’s something an artist should be able to do. And many games do it very well!  No one complains that FemShep, or Portal 2‘s Glados, or  Ragnar Tørnquist‘s April Ryan, are grotesquely unbelievable; quite the opposite.

Plus, you don’t know how to fix it? How about hiring female developers? Kim Swift led the team that created the well-beloved Portal; Rhianna Pratchett was the key writer on Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider; Roberta Williams created the King’s Quest games.

I know that it’s very easy for me, a white dude, to say that about a white-dude-dominated industry. But I don’t buy the argument that biological similarities like race or gender strongly affect whether or not the player identifies with a character.

I’m a white dude too, which is why I defer to non-whites and non-dudes on whether they identify with white dude characters. And what they report is pretty consistent: if you’re not a white dude, you have to identify with white dude characters, but you’d like to not always have to.

Yahtzee reports that he identifies more with Lara Croft than with Kratos. That’s lovely, but Lara is still a rarity– Yahtzee is not often called upon, as a gamer, to trot out his empathy skills. Non-white or non-male gamers have to do it all the time, and it gets tiring.

Plus, many of us like to see the world from other people’s perspective. I like playing female characters, and I’ve argued that they make better player characters anyway.

I don’t think that hero-damsel enforces misogyny. After all, the protagonist, the male, is the one who has it worst. He’s the one who has to put himself at pain, and even die, over and over again, in an endless cycle of torment, for the benefit of the women.

Another Chestertonian paradox. But Yahtzee seems to have forgotten that he’s talking about games— there is no pain and no death involved, he is not sacrificing himself for the pixels arranged to form a female NPC. If you’re not trying to make cute arguments, it’s obvious that the hero-damsel trope is a male power fantasy. It’s designed to make males happy; females, not so much. And that’s precisely the problem: it’s a trope that alienates half your audience.

It’s not hard to understand that people like to enact a fantasy of being the rescuer. But it shouldn’t take Boddhisatva levels of empathy to understand that being rescued feels very different, and isn’t much of a fantasy at all. Plus, how many times in your life, past toddlerhood, have you had to be rescued? It’s really tone deaf of Yahtzee to imagine that this trope is somehow doing women a favor.

And if I object to that, it’s because it’s lazy, and tired […]. Hero-damsel isn’t trying, it’s too easy.

This is where he almost gets it. Yes, it’s a tired, lazy old trope. But so is, say, red meaning “stop” or “blood”, or tutorial dungeons having giant rats and goblins, or a reversal at the end of Act I. Some tropes are old and good; some are shallow but extremely narratively convenient; some should be shaken up now and then to add variety. But some are past their sell-by date– they’re narrative survivals from a time when attitudes were much more regressive. It’s good to reject them for being hackneyed; it’s also good to reject them because they’re insulting and offensive.

I do think it’s true that games could use more diversity. But when I say that, I mean diversity of ideas, thoughtfulness, and perspectives. And that takes a whole lot more than just numerically equalizing the ham sandwiches to the sausage rolls.

Another almost-gets-it moment, followed by another straw man.

Where do you think diversity of perspectives come from? From diverse people. Put a bunch of white dudes in a room, and you’ll get some variation, but you’ll get more if you add people from other genders, races, and cultures. It’s strange and frustrating to see Yahtzee take this position, when half his reviews are scathing rants about the sameness of most games. Put it together, man. Put the same white dudes in the same room all the time, and what do you think will come out?

Of course, diversity in the HR sense isn’t the only way to get new ideas. But it’s a pretty good way to start, and if you take it seriously, it’s an excellent corrective to the groupthink and conventionalism that produce cookie-cutter games.