Recently the journalist Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency – an education non-profit organization advocating for an inclusive and representative media landscape – has been giving talks in Malmö and Copenhagen. Sarkeesian is well-known for her online talks Tropes vs. Women from 2013, where she looked into the poor representation of female characters in games.
I listened to her speaking at STUDIO Malmö on the 8th of December, on the topic “Diversity Is Not a Checklist: Taking Game Representations to the Next Level”. The talk is described like this (description taken from Sarkeesians talk at Spilbar, Copenhagen, on the 23d of February):
“Only a few years ago, white men were the undisputed rulers of the video game realm. Female characters were often plot devices rather than actual characters. While there has been some progress in the industry, the effects and reach of that progress should not be overstated. At times it can feel like a case of ‘one step forward, two steps back.’ In this talk, Anita Sarkeesian will explore some of the recent growth and evolution in the field, while discussing ways in which video games and video game culture resist change.”
Sarkeesian talked about the state of games, about presentation and representation, but also about taking the next steps towards a better inclusion and diversity in games. I interpreted this as that it’s time to address what worldviews that gets represented and passed on through games, and that the next steps include questioning the actual stories told, as well as the logic that builds game worlds, since that has an even greater impact than representation (although representation is very important). It struck me I was actually sitting in a crowd of two hundred people, who in that moment became part of a discussion that’s formed my thinking around games for the last couple of years! Sarkeesian ended her talk by putting the challenge into the hands of game creators and game studios, starting to find new ways of thinking about and designing games.
There has of course been some discussion leading up to this point. Two prominent voices advocating diversity in games are Anna Anthropy and Avery Alder (previously mcDaldno). Anna Anthropy’s 2012 book “Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form” (Seven Stories Press) is a passionate call for people to start making games telling their own personal stories – because that is of utmost importance. But why is that?
In the book, Anthropy says:
“Games tell stories that communicate the values of their creators in a unique way: not just through their explicit content but through the logic of their design, and the systems they choose to model. And if games communicate the values of their creators in a unique way, then it’s absolutely essential that there be more creators passing on more values, more perspectives. Games must become more personal.”
I think there are two sides to this: both that game creators have to start taking responsibility for what kind of worldviews they present through their games, and that more perspectives have to be passed on, by having more people telling their stories through games. I think somehow, that game creators have been able to address the medium itself as responsible for the outcome, as if there were some innate qualities to games that leads to them being the way they are today. This view, I think, is an error in thinking, and an evasion of responsibility.
In her talk “Imagining ourselves: Queer Mechanics and Queer Games” at Proud & Nerdy, Malmö Pride, 2014, Game Designer Avery Alder puts it like this:
“Games aren’t slideshows. Games are systems. Systems aren’t objective or neutral. Games present us with the designers’ biases. All mechanics reinforce worldviews & politics. We’ve been playing straight games.”
Alder also takes it a bit further by presenting six actual possibilities for queering games: Mechanics or approaches that can be used to challenge the way we think about and design games. They span how characters are presented (for example as static och fluent), how many different perspectives the player is presented to (one or many), as well as how game mechanics can be used to implicitly convey a certain experience, and the emotions connected to it. For those of you who, as us, are interested in challenging the norms of games and their construction, Alder’s talk can be a great starting point. Personally, I return to those six possibilities again and again, finding inspiration and also that same feeling of hope I felt listening to Sarkeesian.
View Alder’s talk here:
On the 29th of March we have initiated a panel discussion at Boost Hbg, about using feminist strategies when writing for games. Read more about it here!
A slide from Sarkeesians presentation:
Tropes vs Women: