So this is yet another late comment on a podcast that spiraled into being too big for a comment. I re-listened to the year of aliens TAF, mulled some things over... Have a few more things to say now specific to what's said in the podcast.

I don't really agree that games are doing better than most other mediums in the slightest. The biggest and best championed examples of this in games is often simply the fact that there's a cisgendered, white female character in the lead role. TO make no mention of how well handled or addressed that role is in the game itself (See: Metroid Fusion/Other M/FFXII .etc). The game industry seems to have a lot more trouble displaying a thoughtful approach to race (Let's not list off the dozens of terrible black character stereotypes and just use Prototype 2 as an example.) Just being included doesn't exactly give them a leg up on the hundreds of books/films that tackle experiences with things like, say sexual harassment/assault and racism far more seriously. However positive games like Metroid may be held up, there's still no gaming equivalent of say, The Crying Game, or Breakfast on Pluto.

And hey, to stop this post tripling in length, I'm not even going to open the can of worms that is the crap people like Mike Krahulik say and do within the gaming communities.

To bring it around to my own situation, being transgender was something I was only really able to become aware of because it was something that was not often, but tastefully and respectfully explored in TV, books, journalism and more recently there have been films (though it does have the problematic issue of men winning oscars for waxing and putting on make-up while actual trans actors go ignored.).

But as for games? In the last few years there's been a small handful of very small scale indie games like dys4ia, but very little acknowledgment of trans people in mainstream gaming, in fact the west has a trend of actively censoring out trans characters. There's a good few characters such as Poison who were canonically trans in the original Japanese, only to be retconned to be cisgendered women in the US releases.  In fact I was rather crushed to find out that one of my  FAVOURITE characters in Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door is in fact MaletoFemale Transgender in Japanese, but in the english version I'd played when I was younger and seeing such things might of genuinely be encouraging and helpful with the dysphoria I felt I had to hide, scrubbing that little detail out actually kind of hurts a lot. Now try if you can to imagine how enlightening the original subplot of Vivian's gender at first rejected but eventually acknowledged by her siblings would of been to someone struggling to hide similar feelings at that point in their life.

The majority of the few examples that exist are primarily Japanese, whether it's as simple as characters in Chrono Trigger feeling confident to defy gender norms in the behavior/appearance, and in fact in several Japanese games characters who are both genderfluid or agender completely such as Leo in Tekken 6. Characters handled as well as Dark Souls' Gwyndolin are scant few. Deadly Premonition is an odd mention since it also has semi-incestuous undertones among other things but at least bravely plants it's foot in the subject matter. Credit where credit is due, the one western game to follow Dark Souls' example would be Saints Row having gender as a spectrum slider rather than a binary option. Well, for the first two games, then it was all about letting you switch between the two whenever, if not to go between any longer.

Though I'll acknowledge Japan has also had some problematic renditions of trans people being homogenized in games such as Sega's Ryu ga Gotoku series wherein you're actively trying to avoid and sometimes fight trans characters, or in Atlus' games such as Persona outing trans people for gags or Catherine. Catherine's treatment of it's MtF trans character is rather problematic mostly because of the fact that she's punished by the same rules as "unfaithful men" simply because she can't have children. Vincent also crosses a line once or twice in his joking references to this and the act of having slept with her is handled as an act of embarrassing Toby, something the game never develops their relationship beyond. The character Kaine in Nier also sparked incredible amounts of people arguing over the vague statements made about her. Pokemon X/Y even has a trans npc, though naturally the english fandom still argues heavily that it must be a mistranslation, when the Japanese actually makes it explicitly clear.

In the end, there's simply nowhere near enough examples in western games of these characters to even begin a discussion about it in anything other than Japanese games. And Japanese cultural quirks in the implications and different views often go unnoticed. And though some games like Depression Quest manage to have pure non-exclusionary cipher characters well, they are few, and almost entirely indie games. Things like this actually give me hope when Nintendo says they want to change the meaning of games from just entertainment to anything that just improves your quality of life. Now you can try to tell me I should just be happy with the scant few examples of it being brought up at all in the west, but really, how many people even know about games that handled these topics perfectly and powerfully like Circuit's Edge or Mainichi?

If you want to see some indie games that actually do handle this though, then I'll link to some that can be played in a single sitting on the web. I'd actually quite like to hear the impressions of people from playing these.


Views: 234

Comment by Longmankind on May 3, 2014 at 4:17am
Trying to pin down why these subject matters are more thoroughly and candidly explored in literature and even movies, I keep thinking that it's about the prospect for commercial success. Clearly, books and other literature require a much smaller amount or no funding at all relative to games. The audience of movies and tv shows on the other hand is a lot more diverse, encompassing the left leaning liberal demographic that is more willing to support passion projects about social awareness issues.

Meanwhile, the core gaming community, let's face it, is still made up mainly of young males, obviously a rather immature and intolerant bunch. So, gaming companies are, from a business standpoint, (rightly) reluctant to include more obvious references to all sorts of gender and identity issues.
Yet I feel that the rise of the indie scene brought on by the easier and cheaper distribution of games over the internet will ensure that more complex and taboo issues are going to be explored in games as well. Some games like Gone Home have already moved in that direction, albeit timidly. Judging from the reaction that this game got, however, I feel like we as an audience still have some ways to go before we have created an environment that makes greenlighting a project about these issues a more viable undertaking.

Of course in the end you ought to have an even more meaningful discussion about the role of the commercial sector in all of this. Is it its duty to actively try to drive social change or is it society, the audience, the market that has to change first?
Comment by Lorin Baumgarten on May 3, 2014 at 7:05am

So first of all, while I know this is not what you are looking for, Rowan, let me applaud you for candidly discussing a personal issue that opens you up to potentially unpleasant remarks from the unenlightened.   It takes guts and I thank you. 

I would also thank the community here for creating a space that is safe for these kinds of discussions and, as always, I am so proud to be a member of such a community.

Now, as for the content of the article - @Longmankind makes some salient points, however, I might challenge the assertion that the core gaming audience is immature and intolerant.  I have no numbers on hand to back this up, but it feels as if an assertion like that is just one of those stereotypes of gamers that society has bought in to (and the reason the ESA puts out new gamer data every year).  I saw an interesting interview recently with Kelsey Grammer where he was musing on the best acting advice he had ever received and he related a story in which he heard another famous actor say "I always play up to my audience" (Woody Allen said it too)...which is to say, don't assume your audience is dumb.

Furthermore, even if that were true, not every game (nor movie) has to be made exclusively for the core to be financially successful.  What you (Longmankind) said regarding the economics of the situation, as well as the advent of the ease of creating and distributing independent games, is right on though. 

We have seen the disappearance of the 10-million dollar movie over the last 15 years, such that middle-budget films with emotional stories no longer get made by the studios. As such, many of those actors and directors have moved to cable (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective, American Horror Story, etc..).  Gaming has needed its alternative forms of funding and distribution.  Now we see them with digital distribution and Kickstarter and the like.

I agree with Rowan that gaming could do alot better.  And I agree with Longmankind that economics is a big part of that.  I also think that the development of the medium in general is a big part as well.

Gaming is just learning how to make drama (real drama, not Gears of War drama) a  viable part of a gaming experience.  We're still figuring out how narrative works in games.  I would say we are about the equivalent of the 1940's-50's in terms of movies with regard to how much we understand about the tools of the trade and their relationship to storytelling.  And I think that plays a factor.

And lastly, I think what Niamh said (I think it was her) on the show post Rowan referred to, which is the need for more representation from, for example, the LGBT community in the game design workforce will result in more content being created that is inclusionary of theses lifestyles.  As people of diversified backgrounds move into positions within the industry of power or design, they will bring with them some of their personal priorities and you will see that in games.

None of this is to excuse the lack of diversification in games, it is just meant to be a (very quick) look in to some of the reasons why it might occur.  I, personally, would like to see deeper and more complex characters, representing more diverse backgrounds, in all forms of media...and society.

PS - I will definitely check out these games.  Thanks Rowan!

Comment by Lorin Baumgarten on May 3, 2014 at 7:49am

Checked out the games.  Found Dys4ia to be the most effecting.  Very interesting.  But all were great.  I don't think I have ever played games like that before.  Those could really be tools used to teach understanding diversity.  Super-interesting.  Thanks for sharing these Rowan!

Comment by Frank Tenpenny on May 3, 2014 at 10:46am


Have you ever read any essays regarding Orientalism in M. Butterfly? I agree with much of what you have to say and I couldn't help but think of the aforementioned topic. Also, the difference between Abrahamic religions and Hindu-Buddhist may contribute to the difference in how transgenderism is acknowledged in the West and East.

Anyways, it's hard to put yourself out there like that, so thanks!

Comment by Rowan - AzureCantabile on May 3, 2014 at 11:20am

Oh, I think it's rather clear that the reluctance to explore more diverse subject matter in games is exactly why very few of these issues are candidly explored in other mediums. Right now it's so rare, that games like Gone Home are lauded merely for broaching these kinds of topics even when they don't particularly do  much ground breaking with them. Despite all the data we have to reaffirm that many gamers are in fact female, most gamers are in fact over 30, and that there are many more gamers abroad than in the US alone, games are often constrained within the perceptions and assumptions of publishers and sales forecasters. (Some I went over more specifically in my "Japanese Publishers let their developers down." blog post.). The assumption is made that only certain games CAN be successful, and duly only certain games are given the money and support to have a shot at being massively successful.

The presumption enforces the reality. And in a more mundane example, this is symptomatic even of why survival horror games, JRPGs, platformers and adventure games went away around the start of the last generation, publishers /decided/ there was no audience for them, only to be shocked that games in each of those genres could go on to sell over a million each.

It applies broadly across all issues: For Example Connor Kenway/Ratonhnhaké:ton is almost de facto the best native american character games have to point to, yet he's often overlooked for not being an outgoing romantic/charming rogue like Ezio or Edward, despite the fact that many people actually found him a fairly inspiring character that they could relate to. There's something to be said even for just having a character who is just simply more introverted and withdrawn, or not overtly romantic, Something the recent Tomb Raider actually handled well after initially cutting their Lara/Samantha romantic subplot.
What game critics who plough through games once and quickly as possible (let's take a second to shit on Kotaku and half of the time, polygon) and teenagers on GT forums .etc have to say matters less as a result. 

Every film and every book is going to have backlash for topics like homosexuality, the difference is that these films and books aren't afraid of having people actually discuss their content and promote them whether they're talking about it positively or not. Just look at Dallas Buyers Club for examples, there's plenty of people divided on their opinion of the film, yet it still grossed 11 times it's budget and won oscars for it. The fact of the matter is that these topics CANNOT be expressed in any medium without division, yet only games are outright afraid to have anyone feeling anything but positive about them. Hence why we have so many developers abusing youtube to send take-downs and shut down entire youtube channels even for saying bad things about indie games.

You can't speak about an audience for an entire medium in absolute terms, but games need to start accepting there's segments of an audience they can't and won't get, because trying to be all things to all people leaves you a jack of all trades and a master of none. This isn't about game developers feeling a responsibility to drive social change, and it isn't about audiences being nice and receptive to every concept that can be explored. It's about games allowing themselves to actually diversify and avoid stagnation, explore other genres. I don't /just/ want games to represent minorities, I want games to ignore their assumed boundaries. Most of this applies to the west, to primarily english speaking places, because simply put this is where most of the issues are actually taboo.

Comment by Rowan - AzureCantabile on May 3, 2014 at 12:04pm

Oh and to revisit a point made in the axe factor episode in question, even mass effect isn't a good metric if you look only at male shep vs female shep. The real question should be of the 80% of players who bought ME2 and played a male shepard, how many players even looked at or selected a personalized shepard face and class? Because when you look at the data really, what you see isn't that people were aversed to female shepard, it's that most of those players didn't care about role playing and selected the default/quick start face/class so they could start playing the game as soon as possible, and that most of those players never even once looked at biotic or tech powers so they could just play ME as a shooter.

It's an example that can be cherry picked to say that people don't want to play as girl, but if you look at some of the accompanying analytics bioware has released, what you really see is that they marketed ME2 at and sold it to a shooter audience who just chose the first option of every choice. What you see in Mass Effect 3 and the continued support it recieved afterwards, is Bioware interacting a lot more with their core fanbase, the people who actually care to hop on the forums, stick with the game, contribute to the community, and within there you see a lot more femshep players, particularly PoC players. AAA, spread thin marketing is always going to have a large segment who just want to hurriedly consume a game and move on. And guess what? You've got their money regardless of what's in your cutscenes, a surprising number of people for example in the gamefaqs community bought MGS4 and skipped all the cutscenes. 

And to double back to what I said about presumption creating the reality, the media is as guilty as the publishers, hence why games like bioshock had such a fuss made about things like Elizabeth being on the box, and why Naughty Dog contacted numerous magazines to ask "WHY DID YOU FEEL THE NEED TO PHOTOSHOP ELLIE OUT OF OUR PROVIDED ARTWORK?". Triple-A Gaming isn't just afraid of things like having women in them, it actively has marketing people and media outlets enforcing that fear. (That said, Social Justice Wario is an excellent/amusing blog you should check out.)

Comment by Johan - neM1_ on May 3, 2014 at 12:23pm

I realize that the majority of the following doesn't necessarily just relate to what you were saying Rowan, but is more my thoughts on everything as it relates to the focus on diversity quotas etc in general.

I think what the basic idea of what my comments on said TAF show were based on, was the notion that every possible interest group needs to be catered to in mainstream media.
I don't see anything wrong with making a movie, or a game, or writing a book, and have the plot treat the subjects of ANY special interest group, and if well made I always have and always will happily engage it - but what would having included a scene with a lesbian couple diving for cover, just for the sake of having said interest group represented, done to improve Captain America 2?
I think people should be allowed to tell the story they want to tell, without being berated for what they didn't include.

I can't really speak to the fact that someone would feel the need to cater to a specific market (by backtracking on what they clearly thought themselves taking a brave stance on in another) and altering a character. That absolutely seem cowardly to me, and I would just ask what was the reason for creating said character in the manner that they did in the first place if you can't stand up for it.
The fact still remains that games, for the most part, is in the business of having the player assume the role of a lead character - with immersion being the greatest trait of any video game, and your feelings and who you are Rowan, in no way less valid, is in the minority and out of the mainstream and would be jarring to the state of immersion to the majority of people.
You simply can't cater to everyone, and there are few things I despise as much as pandering.

As I expressed in the comments on the TAF show, to this, character customization is a fantastic thing, and something that with technological advancements is becoming easier to incorporate into more and more complex stories with cutscenes and dialogues.
In the games where I have a choice I tend to play a female character - formost by the reasons that the models tend to be better looking, the female stereotypical characteristics of slender and agile usually suits my playing style better, and male characters in most videogames strike me as dumb and/or stuckup.
I have no problem role-playing, it's the main reason why I play games - to assume the identity of whatever character is going on an adventure, but as a general rule in life: I HATE people who are trying too hard. To be cool. To be alternative. To chock (..stick to writing scripts Tarantino).
If it doesn't fit and is of no vital purpose to the story, I don't see a reason to include it. If it fits naturally - why not.

I can saw through monsters in Gears of War, and I have no problem with Mortal Kombat, but I found the violence aspect of Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite to just be vulgar.
Overdoing things, or shoe-horning something in, is in my opinion always a terrible idea.
Gordon Freeman doesn't need a sexual identity, but by the same token, I don't see why Half-Life couldn't have a character creation process as it would have zero impact of the gameplay or story - but for the obvious reason that Valve would be protective of the story that they wanted to tell.
I wholeheartedly applaud and welcome more and more games to tackle whatever possible topic of life, but I don't see any problem with a developer or writer telling whatever story they want to tell, in whatever manner they want to tell it, as well as allowing every person experiencing it to critisize it however they see fit.

Bigotry is a whole another issue, and in either direction that bigotry goes, as with leftism just as with other religions, I have no problem with preachers - but I have no patience for being told that I'm somehow worse than anyone else.

I love stories of overcoming obstacles, it's the basis for any great adventure tale, but the pandering that you are hailing, that is awarding any movie that is touching on any minority struggle with awards, I can't help but find insulting and devaluing of the fact that something might've actually been great.
As sad as I though Ellen Degeneres' joke at the 2014 Oscars was, I think it's absolutely true: "Anything can happen, so many different possibilities. Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists."
There is no question that my wife as an aspiring author of fiction would have an easier time getting published should she decide to write about "minority struggles".

I hate my cynisism.
I have never judged anyone by their appearance in my life, only by their actions.
And granted I can't claim to have any idea of where you're coming from Rowan, but I just don't understand what conversation people are saying need to take place, and what they would want to see come of it.

Comment by Rowan - AzureCantabile on May 3, 2014 at 1:50pm

I think the "what good does having a lesbian couple diving for over in cap 2" adresses exactly the issue I said I'm not stating. It's not that minorities aren't crammed into every mainstream title, it's that gaming right now is struggling to have anything but mainstream titles and film does just fine because there actually are films out there doing the things that hollywood blockbusters don't do, and making more than enough money to keep it up. Even within indie game development, that's still not really the case.

I'm SICK AND TIRED of the everyone should be able to tell the story they want to tell story, because when people they that, they ONLY ever give the example of not making something different. It isn't about making /every/ game have some level of "minority" content and it's insulting that so many people form the outside looking in think that's the only solution everyone wants. And it's problematic because it's that presumption that leads to the overly aggressive and defensive statements made by more  impulsive individuals. This isn't about having a gay character in every call of duty or halo, it's about having a market reality where games can come out and have things like interracial relationships or gay main characters without having to justify it or have to fight just for the right for their game to come out that way, without having to make it in your free time, off the clock while juggling a second job to pay the bills to do it yourself.

I actually think Dallas Buyers' Club is a terrible example of trans representation in film. But they didn't remove the character or subplot out of fear of doing it, and the film didn't lose money. The oscar is the academy pandering to them, not the other way around. If the film had been oscar baiting them, it would of centered on a trans character instead of just having one. But that's the difference between most games and films.

A fine example would be Deadly Premonition. That was originally meant to be a game that was just twin peaks and had 0% combat gameplay, but because of perceptions on the market they had to be retrofit in a bad third person shooting mechanic because they're not an indie game.

You don't have to play a black character to appreciate a game having a black character that isn't offensive for example. And you don't have to have character customisation in every game to have some that do. The problem is that people try to tackle this by saying something isn't feasible for all games therefore it's not feasible at all. Who ever suggested that every game ever should have character customisation? I enjoy the Last of Us not because I think I am Joel but because I am seeing his and Ellie's story. (Something that angered a lot of people saying "I wouldn't of killed that doctor!" Well duh, it's Joel's story, not yours.)

What I'm saying is, not every game needs to become one way or the other. But gaming needs to grow to show that it REALLY is a wide enough medium for all kinds of different stories to sit in it, stories about bald white guy space marines included. Nobody is actually suggesting to stop making games the way they are now. What people want when they ask for is for games that represent them AS WELL, rather than INSTEAD.

The bitesize digest version of this is: You've got it wrong if you think people are suggesting to change every game to force inclusion of minorities. The only issue is that there are barriers that stop games that would of anyway.

We want newer, inclusive games as well as what we have now, not instead of what we have now.

Comment by Lance Latham on May 3, 2014 at 2:11pm

I really don't have anything of depth or value to say at the moment, though I find the topic and discussion... well, there's no appropriate adjective I can find. Just let me say I am so proud to be part of this community and that this is why I love gaming: it does so much more than merely entertain.

Comment by Johan - neM1_ on May 3, 2014 at 2:25pm

I agree with you. I find it incredibly insulting that minorities are so often shoe-horned in, often as a stereotype, to fill a quota in all of media.

I guess my entire take on the issue is not that there necessarily has to be more of it crammed down peoples throats, but that developers and movie makers and authors etc would take a more "Yes, so what if our main character is transgendered?" approach to the whole thing.

I wish for it not to be sensationalized. I DESPISE BioWare for beating their chest for being super progressive.

So many people nowadays get their identity from assuming the role of a white knight by looking for situations that they can interperate as injustices that they themselves then have shown a light upon, and yet more people compete for being the most accomodating and jump on whatever the knights come up with.

Hollywood celebrities that say things like they "wish to have a gay kid".

I have no problem with minorities being represented more in games or movies etc, I just think that the way to go about being more inclusive is not by sensationalizing it.

...I can't think of many things more insulting than the PAX Diversity Lounges... but then again it wouldn't affect me, and I would be really interested to hear if anyone a woman, person of color, disabled or LGBTQ thinks it's a good idea.


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