Imagine you just logged into your favorite MMORPG. Your beloved brawler, built up over many years, is still functionally the same. But its model has been replaced! It’s no longer obvious that it’s a formidable warrior.
It’s become the perfect model of the perfect man in the eyes of a teenage girl. Your character would fit right into a boy band.
You hide in a room in a building that sees little traffic, hoping this glitch is reversible. You have your friend come to your location. You would go to her, but someone might see you.
She walks in and sees what you’ve become. Silence on voice chat. Silence in game. After a while she speaks.
She’s empathetic—you can tell because she’s trying hard to suppress a laugh as she tells you “Welcome to my life.” You head out to the game’s message board. The top thread’s title acted as a barometer for the discussion. The title read, simply and irritatingly: “WTF WHY DO I LOOK GAY.”
You cringe at how decades of social progress skipped the thread’s creator, and click to see how deep the hole goes. The thread follows a course familiar to anyone who’s visited a game’s message board after something big happens. As you skim, you’re unsurprised: gaybashing, misogyny, people warning of a takeover by misandrists at the developer’s office. Someone’s edited a photo of the lead developer to have a wig and dress.
The developers chime in around page 500 telling everyone it’s a bug, but it’ll take a month to work through the jumble of code responsible.
One side is willing to give the change a try. Another threatens to quit. Most are quiet, hoping this all blows over soon. You see drop parties in all the major towns as people decide they’ve had enough of the game, and this was the last straw.
Some women find the new look attractive. Others think it’s horrid. But overnight, it’s the only sort of look that’s available for male character models in the game. At least until the developers fix it.
Some are convinced the developers have no plan to ‘fix’ it because it’s secretly a patronizing attempt by the developers to attract more women to the game.
Back to reality
This bit of fiction isn’t much different from the real world of gaming. We’ve all dealt with a character that didn’t fit us in any way, and had no way to customize it.
My ideal character is modest, but is capable and has a well-developed personality. I can’t stand over the top musclemen with big guns, and it was the only option I had in many types of games for a long time.
I think most of you understand where I’m going with this. Just as many guys don’t mind the gruff beast, many women don’t mind busty, scantily-clad vixens. But quite a few do, and they’re still waiting for options. A dearth of options makes the unappealing models harder to stomach.
You’ve probably heard friends lamenting games where the only characters are magic-wielding child prodigies, and heard them tell you how not being able to play a character around their own age diminished their enjoyment of the game.
And it’s not limited to the characters. I want interesting mechanics that let me beat the game in strange new ways. I want to win in a FPS with interesting new weapons that push the limits of creativity, not by finding a bigger gun. I want RPGs to give me clever puzzles to solve.
Some games provide this. The Legend of Zelda always puts the tools you find in the game to use in unusual ways, usually to solve a puzzle. Metroid Prime, the last FPS I played, gives you an array of creative weapons and visors to use for solving puzzles.
Things are improving, and recent events put new force behind the calls for more diversity in gaming. But we still have a long way to go.
I want my hobby to grow up and take its rightful place among world-changing media, right next to the terrifying dystopias, political thrillers, and clandestine escapades of books and film.
This won’t solve the rampant sexism in gaming and in the broader culture, but it’ll give all people, men and women alike, more options when they need a break from the world.
Michael Robinson writes about video games and technology at his blog.