Not being sexist is really not as hard as people make it out to be. Not even in the gaming world. Surprising, huh?
As a feminist, I’ve heard a lot about sexism and misogyny in the gaming world, especially through projects like Feminist Frequency. I’ve seen some of the horrific backlash and abuse that happens when feminists speak out against it, the outraged gamers who respond with anything from sexist slurs to rape and death threats. But in a way, what I find more disturbing are the people who say ‘well yes, there are elements of sexism and misogyny in most games, but you know, what else do you expect?’ Or maybe ‘that’s just part of gaming culture, you just gotta look past it and not get upset.’ Or even ‘but it’s so hard not to be sexist these days!’
As I realised the other day, it’s not actually that hard to create a game that isn’t sexist.
I’m not really a person you would call a gamer, but I do love myself some good strategy, adventure or city-building type games. As a teenager I spent most afternoons playing Age of Kings or Age of Mythology (on a monitor which was as deep as it was wide); I can spend hours on a game like Anno 1404 and I love delving into story-driven adventure games like Syberia I and II. Most action games leave me uninterested though – not a big fan of violence, which most seem to revolve around.
The most recent addition to my favourites, however, has got to be Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. It’s actually the sequel to another, older game (suitably called The Longest Journey), which I didn’t actually know beforehand, but have now also played and enjoyed. Dreamfall is mainly a classic, mouse-driven adventure game with a few action elements, and a mix of cyberpunk science fiction and traditional fantasy genres. I won’t go into much detail about the storyline (which you can look up here) because I want to focus on what makes this game so un-sexist, but the melding of both those genres works exceedingly well, and will leave you deeply invested in the story.
One of the reasons I was drawn to Dreamfall in the first place was because it had a cast of characters dominated by females: something of a rarity in the gaming industry. The primary protagonist (bear with the tautology) and the secondary protagonist are both female and well-written, complex characters. A large portion – probably the majority – of the supporting cast are also female, and women are portrayed in all sorts of positions and stages in life. The racial diversity is pretty good as well – though the game does fall short on its range of body types and shapes.
All this was quite pleasing while I was playing, but it wasn’t until three quarters through the game that I really noticed what I was enjoying the most: the lack of that casual sexism and misogyny that worms its way into so many games. Because three quarters through the game, you suddenly gain a sidekick: the obnoxious sexist sidekick, in the form of a talking crow. And then I realised how much I had been enjoying the lack of that character earlier in the game.
Luckily, Zoë and April (the protagonists) have the same feelings as I do on this matter, and I actually turned out being even more impressed after they introduced Crow to the story. Because what happens is this: Crow makes an annoying, sexist or inappropriate remark. And he gets mocked, glared at or shut down. The way it should be.
Take for instance when he condescendingly addresses Zoe as ‘doll':
Zoë: It was nice chatting with you, Crow. It’s been very informative.
Crow: Glad to help, doll.
Zoë: (Glares) ‘Doll’?
Crow: Um, I mean ‘independent and self-reliant female person who’s not an object to be ogled or used solely for my own personal amusement and pleasure’.
Lovely bit of meta right there. And it’s brilliant, because it’s funny in the right way, and it’s also a perfect reflection of what doesn’t generally happen in the gaming industry. Instead, we tend to see exactly what Crow describes: women being used and displayed, usually in a highly sexualised way, for a (usually male) viewer’s enjoyment, like an object to be consumed rather than a person.
Violence against women is another thing that the gaming industry also seems to think is ok. Again, Dreamfall consciously goes against this trend, and makes it clear that it in no way condones it:
Crow: So if we hit her on the head with a frying pan, she’ll snap out of it, right? Yes, yes, it’s called therapy. I read about it somewhere. Well, not read, more like heard. In a seedy tavern near the docks. After eleven thimbles of Merry Minstrum’s yellow fire. Just before dawn on a Monday. But I remember the fellow who told me! Big lad. Arms as thick as oak trees. A stunning collection of scars. Nice eye patch. A real therapist, he was. Or wait – maybe it was “rapist…”
(So hey, hitting someone with a frying pan doesn’t automatically make someone a rapist. But you get the gist of it – violence against women is bad and should be called out as such, and not excused or disguised by some other name.)
There is one aspect of the game that I found a bit problematic: that in one of the game’s locations (a kind of in-between place between the two main worlds), Zoë isn’t wearing anything but a white singlet and underpants. These scenes are quite brief, but I’m not sure exactly what purpose this serves, so they could be seen as objectifying. However, it is worth noting that there is also a male character in one scene who is shown stark naked (well, except for a bunch of mystical-like energy). It doesn’t exactly cancel anything out, but at least there is a bit of gender balance in (near) nakedness.
Dreamfall is a really engaging and fascinating game in itself – its story is incredibly intriguing, its characters are well fleshed-out, and it has a very satisfying sense of ethics. But what I love most is that it’s an action/adventure game that would appeal to a wide audience that proves that you can make a game without sexism and misogyny. It really isn’t that hard to do – so why does everyone act like it is?