Update: Gen Con Wants Designs for SPA Icon!

Gen Con sent out a newsletter today that announced a contest asking for new icon designs for the SPA program! From the newsletter:

Gen Con is looking for an icon to represent its “SPA-Activities for the Better Half” program for 2011 and beyond. SPA stands for SPousal Activities and is dedicated to the “gamer widow” or “widower”. It is open to all gamers and non-gamers alike.

Submissions will be accepted starting May 24th with voting taking place onsite at Gen Con Indy. The winner will be announced after the show! Details and information about the contest can be found on our community site in the download section.

It doesn’t sound like we’ll have a new icon for this year’s convention, but they clearly heard the complaints and decided to do something about it for the future. Now hopefully some of the fantastic graphic designers and creative members of our community can come up with some good submissions! The “details and information” is in the form of a downloadable zip file and can be found in the SPA section of the Gen Con website.

WOTC Comes Out with D&D for Kids!

I have trouble with the idea that gaming is “growing up”, but it does seem like it was easier to get into it as a kid in years past than it is now. Whether that’s because rules have gotten more complicated (arguably they’ve generally gotten less complicated, if you ask me) or because companies are a lot less shy now than they used to be about including adult themes or something altogether different, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, every year I seem to encounter more and more parents at gaming conventions asking how to introduce their kids to gaming and the kids who I meet who do play seem to have trouble finding others to play with.

A few years back Wizards of the Coast hosted a session at GenCon that basically centered around asking a group of people what they thought would be good products to facilitate kid gamers – both new ones and players who already liked the activity and just needed more to work with. They got a variety of answers ranging from requests for games aimed at younger players to more modules that could be run easily for younger kids to products that took stories and worlds kids already knew and liked and brought them to the gaming table. It was a fantastic session full of great ideas. My favorite was actually the request for games and products that kids who can’t read could use (even if they require some help or a GM who can read) – which could be either younger kids or kids with disabilities or even just kids who are slow to learn to read and need a way to play that isn’t adding that extra stressor.

Wizards of the Coast didn’t do much with those ideas for a while, but they clearly didn’t forget the idea of making games for kids. They’ve had a publishing imprint that focuses on fiction for kids and teenagers for a few years now and it’s chock full of great material that could be used for gaming hooks. They even have a set of guide-like books that draw from the monster manuals and draconomicon to provide what are essentially kid-friendly field guides to the various monsters from Dungeons and Dragons. It should be obvious how this is an easy way to draw kids into the world and potentially into gaming – if they find those monsters and stories about the heroes that fight them so fascinating, maybe they’d like to try it themselves!

They finally came out with an actual honest-to-goodness gaming product for kids based on Dungeons and Dragons and on one of the fiction books from the Mirrorstone imprint. It’s a full-fledged adventure with a simplified version of fourth edition rules that’s designed for kids six and up. And best of all? It’s free. You can go to their website and download the whole thing as a PDF and be playing within minutes if you want.

So now what? Well, one adventure is awesome, but hopefully they’ll make more than that! Now that they have their simplified rules system figured out, hopefully they’ll continue to come out with adventures using it aimed at kid players. It would make a fantastic monthly feature on the website. I wouldn’t even object if they decided to actually physically publish some (perhaps a book of short adventures or a “create your own adventure” kit) and actually charged money for it, as long as the cost was reasonable. Kid players want more content just as much as adult players do and not all GMs are good at creating their own. What’s the good of getting a group of kids excited and hooked after one great adventure and then having to tell them there isn’t any more? So here’s hoping WOTC realizes this is a great opportunity to grow new and future customers and that they put some manpower and effort into producing products to service those customers now!

SPA Should Not Mean Prisoners

I’m a gamer and I’m a woman. I’m married to a gamer, too, but I’ve been gaming since long before I met my husband and got into pen and paper games playing D&D with other girls in elementary school. I’ve been going to Gen Con since, I believe, my junior or senior year in high school (1999/2000). I know a lot of other gamers. Some of their significant others game and some of them don’t. Some of those significant others are women and some are men, but there’s not actually much pattern to their gamer-ness or not. It’s a varied bunch. I enjoy Gen Con and a lot of my friends attend and enjoy it too. It’s a fun convention full of all kinds of gaming and entertainment.

But it isn’t always very friendly to women. It’s gotten dramatically better over the years. I felt out of place as a woman going ten years ago, so I can only imagine what it felt like when my friend’s mom was going thirty years ago. But every year there are more women and as more women come, the feeling of being out of place is reduced.

I was beyond thrilled a few years ago when Gen Con introduced “Activities for the Better Half” – non-gaming events aimed specifically at non-gaming significant others who came along with gamers and wanted something more amusing than walking the dealer hall for four days. The events offered vary widely and are generally a great addition to the convention. I’d love to see more of those events that are a little less specifically geared to women, since there are non-gamer guys too, but it is somewhat limited by what people want to run.

The major problem with this program is the icon used to represent it. This logo appears in the convention booklet and on the website both with the description of the program in general and with the description for each and every single event that is part of the program. It’s been the same logo since the program’s inception in 2006. You can see it portrayed above – it’s a green square (all of the icons are square) with a prison ball and chain image. I’ve hated this image from the beginning. Like a friend of mine, I complained to convention staff early on, but I was told that no one at the convention could do anything about it or even address the issue – that it was handled somewhere else by a staff that didn’t even attend the convention. I have no idea if that’s true or not and, honestly, it doesn’t matter. What prompted me to write about it now was this open letter to Gen Con about the issue and their response.

There are several problems here, but before we get to the image itself, I want to look a little at what Gen Con said in response to concern about it being raised.

Thank you all for your comments. Let’s go over some facts to set the record straight as some incorrect assumptions are being made here. Hopefully these facts will shed some light on this topic.
• Gen Con’s majority shareholders are women.
• Gen Con’s CEO is a woman and the staff is primarily made up of women.
• I picked the icon. I consider myself an independent, liberal minded woman. I picked it not because I thought it represented who or what I was or as a reflection on women, but because I thought it funny and I liked the irony. Yes it might be base, I’ll give you that, but I’m getting off point.
• The SPA icon has been around since the program began four years ago – it is not a new icon.
• Now in its fifth year, the SPA program has grown exponentially and boasts over 90 events in its offerings for 2010. Not all events are knitting or scrapbooking. The program also includes such events as wine and beer tasting, walking tours, chainmaile classes, Pilates, Irish Dancing, yoga, etc.
• SPA events are very popular with all types of people, gamers, gamer widows and widowers. A lot of the events sell-out.
• Events at Gen Con are submitted by fans for fans. While Gen Con hosts and sponsors some events, the majority are run by you. If you don’t like the offerings don’t go to that event, if you want to see something specific, host an event yourself! Simple as that.
I respect that we all have opinions, believe me I know I do … I find it ironic that the author of the open letter has his website sponsored by cougarlife.com. But I digress. I wonder if such passionate responses on such a non-starter issue might be better served on issues that really matter to women such as domestic violence, health, slavery, prostitution, the list goes on sadly.
Vanir you mentioned you were a karate instructor; it would be wonderful to have a beginning/intro to Karate class to include as part of the programming at this year’s show, SPA or otherwise. Since I’m the director of events at Gen Con you’ve come to the right spot, let me know!
Thank you all for your opinions and for calling attention to a wonderful program that Gen Con is proud to support. The process for picking the icon was not an arbitrary one; thought was put into it. It’s hard to pick one “icon” for such a diverse group of people and event types and to find one that wouldn’t be misconstrued as something else. The icon was chosen for its tongue and cheek aspect, nothing more and will remain as is for the time being.
If you want to talk to me directly about SPA or anything Event related please feel free to do so. My email address is jeannette.legault@gencon.com.
Jeannette LeGault
Director of Event Programming for Gen Con LLC

I appreciate that Ms. LeGault personally responded to the original open letter. That’s totally awesome. Unfortunately, I’m not so impressed with her response. She starts out by saying that Gen Con is run by women, which is not actually germane. Women can do sexist things just as easily as men can. We live in the same culture and internalize all sorts of messed up messages, many of which are horribly sexist. Being a woman is not a free pass. Then she says that she picked out the icon herself, which I totally give her credit for owning when the icon is coming under attack, and gives her reasons for picking it, but she also dismisses concerns about it in the same point. Then she changes the subject by giving a lot of information about the program itself and how popular it is, none of which was either in dispute or under attack.

After that, she really makes a mistake by picking on the author of the letter for the ad on the website where it was posted, which (like most online ads these days) wasn’t chosen by him but rather by whatever magic formula Google uses to determine what ads appear on what pages. And then she picks on him further stating that the issue is too small to be worth his time and that he should be worried about the big problems in the world (this is an arguement that all groups working to improve how disadvantaged portions of society are portrayed in culture hear all the time and it’s worthless – you can’t stop the big stuff if the small stuff is reinforcing it). Then she thanks him and basically states that the discussion is closed. This is very bad PR and probably should have been reconsidered before it was posted.

But what about the icon itself? Why do I think it matters? I think that it sends the absolute wrong message. I think that it’s a dated, misogynistic image and that Gen Con hasn’t really considered the message that their icon actually sends. The phrase “ball and chain” has been around for a long time. The internet isn’t sure how long (a Google search will reveal a wide range of answers for the earliest date of the phrase appearing from sometime in the 1600s to the mid 1800s and sources vary as to where it originated as well), but it’s a phrase that has been used for quite some time. The image the phrase evokes – the image in the icon – of an actual iron ball attached to a chain and manacle refers to a device used to inhibit the movement of prisoners.

At some point, the phrase began to be used to refer to wives as well (wives, it is not a phrase that was used to refer to men of any kind until very, very recently and that is still very rare – most dictionaries still say “wives” and not “husbands or wives”). Specifically, to nagging, annoying wives who deny or inhibit their husbands’ freedom.

This is not a pleasant image. It means that the icon is either suggesting that the significant others of gamers are somehow inhibiting their freedom and fun, which is insulting and downright mean (especially when you consider that these non-gamer partners are not only “letting” their SOs geek out for a weekend, but are also along for the ride at a con not really full of things they enjoy), or it’s suggesting that the people who attend SPA events are like prisoners, which is an unpleasant image at best and an upsetting image at worst.

Ms. LeGault suggests that coming up with an icon for this group of events was challenging because of the diverse group of people and event types involved. This may very well be true – the program does have an extremely wide variety of events. Still, they all fall under the same banner. Every program or section of events has an abbreviation as well. The abbreviation for this program of non-gaming activities is SPA. I think that’s great – it suggests that these are supposed to be fun, relaxing vacation events for people to just enjoy. Why not pick an icon that suggests “vacation”? A beach umbrella, a little person in a yoga pose, a palm tree, maybe even a sun or something. There’s got to be a better way to indicate that the events are there than to use an incredibly old-fashioned slur for a woman who makes her husband feel like a prisoner!

Because the slur is insulting both the non-gamer significant others who were nice enough to let their gamers spend a weekend pretending to be great heroes (and to come along with them) as well as to the other women at the convention who are going to be affected by it being one more example of misogyny in a place that already has some problems with sexism sometimes. So even if it’s too late to fix it this year (although I have trouble believing that the programs are already printed), it is something that is well worth fixing for next year.

Competition in Videogames and Gender

I read this fascinating article about testosterone and competition in games yesterday and it got me thinking about a lot of things. One of the biggest things that struck me as I read was the discussion of player behavior after a victory. The paper talks generally about how “if there is some way for winners to communicate, losers are subjected to degrading displays of status.” The author discusses how this kind of crowing about a victory makes the losers feel worse and tends to cause them to stop playing the game. That got me thinking about gender dynamics in competitive games like this where the players can communicate with each other. And realistically, there are very few competitive videogames these days where the players don’t have the ability to easily communicate either through text or voice based chat systems. I think that extrapolating from this article can help explain one of the big, and yet basically ignored, problems with bringing more women into “hardcore” gaming.

The language of smack talk itself is extremely problematic from a woman’s point of view. A lot of it is extremely gendered and sexual in nature, and women never come out on top when it comes to smack talk language (pun intended). Losers are told they are “pussies”, that they “play like a girl” and to “bend over and take it” or “suck it” (there are worse ones, but I don’t feel like filling my blog with them). Winners have any number of euphemisms for testicles, “stuck it to them/you” and are “The Man”. It’s pretty clear that being a girl is a bad thing in the culture of competitive videogames, at least metaphorically. So what happens when the player in question actually is a girl or a woman?

To begin with, it’s sometimes hard not to feel unwanted and unwelcome in a culture filled with this language. To be the woman who can push past that and play with the big boys anyway (again, pun intended), you almost have to be willing to be twice as good as anyone else and able to somehow reconcile being female with that skill. Some do this by talking as much smack as the guys, in their sexist language, thus sort of adopting the mantle of “one of the guys”. Others basically stay silent and just let the guys josh each other about being beaten by a girl. Some almost get apologetic about being female, as if they have so internalized the language that they themselves are ashamed of being women (thankfully, this seems to be more and more rare as more and more women gamers gain visibility).

Many women (although not all) play a different kind of social game in their everyday lives than most men do. Deborah Tannen has explained how for many men (although, again, not all), social interactions are about forming and negotiating a hierarchy where the most dominant reach the top and it’s not very desirable to be on the bottom. Women, on the other hand, strive for connections. It’s not that they don’t want to be or think they are better than the next person, it’s that it’s very important to at least keep up the facade of a level playing field. It’s why apologies are so vital to female relationships, they allow things to return to the status quo by (implicitly) acknowledging a wrong done or invoking empathetic feelings.

This comes into play for some women when they lose and are “subjected to degrading displays of status.” For some women, this almost violent dressing down is actually painful. Because of the impulse they have to avoid social conflict, it’s actually a very distressing experience to be so spoken to. In female relationships, women will often assume that such responses are somehow their own fault, and this reaction becomes so ingrained that it carries over into other experiences. Add to that the gendered language and such an experience can easily go from distressing to frightening.

And then you’ve probably lost that player, and rightly so. We’re taught as women to avoid frightening situations, not to fight back and to stick together. So no matter how much fun the game itself might be, if the community provides a frightening experience for the woman, every instinct she has is probably going to tell her not to stay and not to come back. And then we come to what happens when a woman sees such things happening to other people.

When a woman sees something like that happen to her friend, she’s likely to be distressed like her friend, although to a lesser extent. And she’s going to leave with the friend. They’ve learned this is a dangerous place to stay away from. When she sees it happen to someone else, there’s a good chance she’ll empathize and realize that it could easily happen to her. And then, again, you’ve lost her (and that time she didn’t even have to have the experience, just witness it).

We’re taught to avoid danger and that danger is everywhere. And for women, avoiding danger makes a lot of sense. Games may not pose a real, physical danger, but they can cause us to feel that way. And why would you want to feel that way if you don’t have to? This doesn’t mean that games shouldn’t be competitive. Competition is good and women like competition as much as men do. And it’s not to say that games that allow communication are bad. Communication adds a lot to a game’s appeal, as MMOs and Facebook games prove daily. It’s just to say that perhaps there’s more to attracting and retaining female players than just making more appealing games and marketing to them better. The attitudes of the gaming community itself also needs to change.

An Argument for Smaller Game Peripherals

I’m a small woman. In many ways I like this. I fit in airplane seats comfortably. I can buy kids’ t-shirts, which are always cheaper. But being small isn’t always easy. One problem that isn’t serious but is very annoying is that I am unable to comfortably play the vast majority of videogames for very long. Most controllers, computer mice, headsets and even keyboards are not designed for hands and heads as small as mine. My hands are not unnaturally small, either. They are proportional to my size (which means they are larger than those of most children and you can usually buy gloves that fit me without having to look too long). And my head is normal too. I can walk into a store and buy a hat that fits without a problem. Yet electronics remain an issue.

I have become increasingly convinced that more women need to be in the business of designing and creating videogame and computer hardware. I believe this about most electronics, actually. The reason I say this is that the vast majority of these things are designed for people with large hands and large heads and in our culture men tend to be larger than women. Since the vast majority of computer engineers are still men, I’m guessing that one part of the problem is that they are designing for themselves. What’s comfortable for me is usually not comfortable at all for my husband and what is comfortable for him is often either almost unusable for me or gives me hand cramps pretty quickly.

Now, this could also be fixed by the companies that market and sell these products realizing that women (and children and even smaller men) use their products as well and might buy more of them if they were more comfortable to use. I honestly believe that more women might game if it was easier to get smaller game controllers. I’m not saying that all women are little or that game controllers are sexist or even that women are consciously not playing because the controllers are too big for them, but I do know that I’ve met more than one woman who lists among her reasons for not enjoying videogames “they make my hands hurt”. I think it’s more an issue of the people creating and selling the products not thinking about it.

The most common reason I hear for not designing videogame electronics with smaller people in mind is that the core market for the videogame industry is young men, who by and large don’t have a problem with the size things come in now but would have issues if things were designed for smaller people. I find this argument to be kind of dumb because it is based on the assumption that you can only make things in one size. Console controllers, computer peripherals (mice, keyboards, controllers, etc.) and headsets can all be unplugged and interchanged without it making any difference to the system itself or to the game. So why couldn’t there be different sized peripherals to choose from?

It is possible to find smaller PC peripherals these days, but they are still very much in the minority (in a wall of mice at Best Buy I found two mice small enough for me and both were basic “laptop mice”). They are often of lower quality as well. I have yet to find a headset that fits my head that is of a higher quality than those I had with my discman in high school. This may have something to do with the fact that I have yet to find a headset priced over $25 that fits my head. But it is possible to at least find some options. When it comes to consoles it becomes nearly impossible. To find a smaller controller you must locate a third-party company that makes one, since none of the actual companies that make the consoles make smaller controllers, and then hope that it is both still being made and available somewhere. To get me a small XBox 360 controller, my husband had to go on eBay and pay more than $50 for one because only one company ever made any and they aren’t making them any more.

It may seem like this is a specialized concern, but it really isn’t. Women make up 50% of the potential market and children’s games come out on these platforms too. If it was easier and more comfortable for women to play, it’s likely that more would. It would also make family gaming more possible, since you could play games with your kids more easily on the same console you play Halo 3 or Mass Effect on. If consoles are more versatile, that makes them more marketable. I can imagine an X-Box 360 ad showing a guy playing an FPS with his buddies, shifting to the guy playing a cartoony adventure game with his kids and wife, shifting again to show the wife playing a puzzle game via X-Box Live with online friends and lastly shifting to the couple playing an RPG together. It could be a “build your own system” package that comes with a customizable group of controllers and a game chosen from a small selection or a push from Microsoft to show off the options their awesome peripherals give you. It won’t work if the controllers are only comfortable for the guy, though.

I also know that what I’m proposing costs more, but the potential gain could be huge. If the gaming industry really wants to reach a new segment of the market, a segment with incredible buying power and the willingness to spend a lot on entertainment if they feel it’s worth it, they need to do better than pink controllers and Pop-Cap game ports. Women are a huge potential market. HUGE. But even if you start making games for women (real games for women, not pink dress-up games), it’s not going to work if women can only play them for short periods of time before getting painful hand cramps. Think about how to take the basic building blocks of the industry – the very hardware the games are played on – and make it more accessible and fun for women. And that means not only getting more women to design the hardware, but getting more women in more shapes and sizes to play with it and give feedback.

Character Creators and Avatars

Blood Elf Character Creation This week over at the G.I.R.L. blog, Emily “Domino” Taylor (the brilliant woman behind a lot of the crafting in Everquest II) wrote a great piece about character creation. In conversations with Michael I’ve brought up a lot how important character creation and the appearance of avatars are to a lot of women, especially those just getting into gaming. We’ve had numerous discussions about the races in World of Warcraft and how the gender portrayals of the game bug me, which in many ways baffles him (and I understand that, it’s not obvious why it would be so irritating). We rarely even bring up games like Age of Conan, which I watched the intro to the character creator of and decided I would never play. Ever.

I believe that character creation is a fundamentally important part of any game (not just MMOs) where you have a unique avatar. I also believe that many games have very poor character creators and dreadful avatar options, but these things are important and should be treated as such. As Ms. Taylor points out:

“Humans are hardwired to draw instant and unconscious conclusions about other people based on their appearances, and if the only thing I have to represent me within a game is my character’s appearance, then I want to be absolutely sure that I’m comfortable with the way it represents me. If I am not given sufficient customization options to give me a choice that I’m comfortable with, then I’ll never really feel truly comfortable playing that game — or, as in the previous example, I won’t play it at all.”

She’s specifically talking about needing to be comfortable with the impression your avatar makes on other people, but it’s just as important that your avatar is something that you’re comfortable looking at for long periods of time. You’re playing her, if you aren’t happy with how she appears, it’s not likely that you’ll play for long. In a game where there are other people (like an MMO) it does influence how you are treated as well. I’d bet that the sexy elves and humans get harassed a lot more than the stocky dwarfs and orcs in World of Warcraft. But not everyone wants to play an orc just to escape harassment, and they shouldn’t have to.

It’s not just about having options, although having options helps. It can be ok if there’s only one body type in the game or if there’s only a couple of hair color choices. The problem is when the avatar you end up with, even when you make all the best choices you can for yourself, isn’t one your comfortable with. When it comes to videogames, the biggest issue here is often sexiness. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sex appeal, but it has limits. Women in videogames are, by and large, conventionally sexy and designed to appeal to heterosexual men. They are pretty much all pin-up worthy and often dressed like it. That can be fine, but it’s the overwhelming norm and when it’s the only option and someone isn’t comfortable presenting themselves as sexy (especially if it’s an MMO and other people will see this avatar), that becomes a real problem. In Domino’s words: “Of course, it’s good to have the option to look sexy … but to be forced to do so all the time against one’s will is an entirely different thing.”

There are a lot of different elements of an avatar, too. Yes, hair and faces are important pieces, but it doesn’t end there. Most have some kind of skin color choices (although this often presents a problem as well, since overwhelmingly the options are ten shades of Caucasian white and sometimes one or two darker skin tones). Some games have height sliders or body size sliders (which often amount to little more than “breast size” sliders). Others let you customize the outfit you wear. In all of these choices it’s important to consider the players. Yes, put in the option to make a sexy pin-up girl, but make the option to make a normal looking girl and an athletic tomboy kind of girl too. Posture is important. If I don’t want a sexy character, I’m probably going to be uncomfortable with the avatar who stands like the elf in the image above. After all, if she’s standing like that in the character creator, who knows what she’ll do once we get into the actual game?

Think about what elements get left out. It makes sense to put limits on the customization of characters. Too many body types or hair that’s too elaborate can easily become a problem when programing in armor and clothing into the game. But if you’re only going to have one body shape, consider what it will be. It’s easier for a player to sex up a small breasted avatar than to tone down one with bouncing beach balls strapped to her chest. Not all players are white and not all non-white people have the same skin tone. Not only does “black” come in a huge array of shades, but so does “Asian”, “Latino”, “Native American”, etc. So consider having more than simply ten shades of white and maybe even having some hair styles that aren’t seen on white people (or at least, not often and not without a lot of help).

“The fact remains however that the character creation options do still reflect the priorities and attitudes of the game team. At some point someone still decided, “THIS appearance option is the one we will do first, and THAT option is just not important enough that we can’t launch without it.” It may not have been maliciously intended, but it still represents what ultimate value judgments were made about what was seen as an essential feature and what wasn’t.”

If you decide to not include female avatars at all (and let’s be honest, there really aren’t many games at all – I can’t come up with any – where there are only female avatars, while games with only male avatars are pretty common), consider what that says. Not only will we notice if there aren’t any female NPCs or if they’re all stereotypes, but we’ll notice if we can’t play a girl. Fable II was hugely popular and had a huge female gamer fan base, but I have yet to meet a woman who played Fable. I’m absolutely certain they exist, but of all the many women I’ve met (me included) who played and loved Fable II, not one played or even intends to play Fable. A big reason I’ve heard given for that is that you can’t play a woman. I’m told it’s an amazing game and it was sold on the concept that you could be and do anything, but the women looking at it noticed that somehow “anything” didn’t include being female. Now, whether that was something that they just didn’t have time for or was an intentional decision I really don’t know. Fundamentally, though, it doesn’t matter. They decided that it wasn’t important enough to be necessary for the game and that tells me something about the game itself. Fable isn’t an isolated case, either (it’s just an easy example to pull out).

Character creation is hard, but avatars are so important! What the characters are going to look like is often one of the first things we are shown about a new game and how many awesome options you have for your character is frequently one of the most heavily touted benefits early on. That’s not accidental, people really care about that. It may seem like a part of the game that players will only see briefly, but what they make there is vital to their experience with the game. If I can’t make a character who feels like what I want her to, it materially damages my enjoyment of the game. I’m going to be looking at this character for a long time (assuming I stick with the game), so it needs to be something I like looking at. Remember, women aren’t heterosexual guys and thus it shouldn’t be expected that they’ll necessarily be happy with the same things. Personally, I want my characters to feel heroic in games where they are heroes, so it bothers me when they stand like teenage girls and don’t look like they have enough muscle in their arms to lift, much less swing, a sword. I’m not playing to be a sex kitten, I’m playing to be a hero and I have as much right to be a hero as the guys do. If I end up looking like a sex kitten while I’m trying to fight goblins, chances are I’m not going to play your game for very long.

OMG! Girlz Don’t Need Games or Features!

Let’s play a game! Pretend you’re a girl and you’ve decided that you want to buy a handheld gaming system. You like gaming and would really like a system that’s portable and versatile (it has to have more and better gaming options than your cell phone, anyway). Luckily for you, Sony recently came out with a special campaign and product deal aimed at girls – Girlz Play Too. This is a special website to highlight a new PSP designed with girl gamers in mind! Sounds like just what you’re looking for, right? Let’s check it out!

There are several parts to the website, which is set apart from the rest of the Sony product website and not easy to find from there (because clearly the boy part of the website needs to be kept completely unaware that this girl part even existed or the industry would collapse). To start with, there are the products themselves, which is nice since you’re here to shop. The Lilac colored PSP is only available in the “Hannah Montana PSP Entertainment Pack”, meaning you get the Hannah Montana: Rock Out the Show game and a video with three episodes from the Hannah Montana show with the system and there isn’t any way to buy a purple PSP without them. But that’s such a girly game, I certainly can’t imagine there being anyone who might not want the mediocre Hannah Montana game but still want a Lilac colored PSP, can you? Ok, so the game is cool and you’re excited about the cute color of the system, but this is a fairly major purchase so you should make sure it’s worth it before you buy.

So, you like the look of the Lilac PSP, but need a little more convincing. You probably want to be able to play more than just the Hannah Montana game, right? Not much point in buying the $200 system for only one game, anyway. So what other games are available? Well, Sony is happy to tell you! The Girlz Play Too website has a section called “Games Girlz Play”. (For some reason, “girls” is perpetually spelled with a “z” – I have no idea why, but it’s a common and annoying thing in the gaming world and seems to be a misguided attempt to seem cool to girls while really being incredibly patronizing.) Unfortunately, there are apparently only six PSP games that Sony could find in their entire PSP library that are appropriate for girls: the aforementioned Hannah Montana game, Patapon 2, LocoRoco 2, Petz Dogz Family, Ponyo Fantasy Golf and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (the movie tie-in game). No other games are listed, nor is there a link anywhere to the library of PSP games suggesting that there even might be more options.

Well, it’s starting to look like this wouldn’t be such a hot $200 investment (a library of six games, and not even six super awesome games, hardly makes it worth the price). Maybe it has other cool features, right? So you click on the tab labeled “Explore the Features of the PSP “. This page is lilac colored and draws itself out as if with pencils before resolving into photographs of a girl surrounded by PSPs doing different things. Hovering over the images one at a time tells you that your PSP can “download games, movies and more” (no details are provided), “view your photos in a cool slide show” (no idea how the photos get on the PSP in the first place), “talk to friends with Skype ” and there are some video trailers of games that play when hovered over. No details are given for any of this and, considering the pages of features listed for PSPs on the regular (for boys) site, you start to wonder if your PSP is somehow less powerful than those, because even your cell phone has a better list of features than this.

Ok, so it’s not looking good for your lilac PSP. But there are two more tabs, so maybe Sony can still convince you. It seemed like a good idea, right? The next tab is “Customize Your Very Own PSP System”. That sounds cool. If you could really design your own case for the handheld system that would be awesome! There are lots of patterns and overlay images and colors to choose from and you really can make your own design. Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean anything. All you can do with it is upload it to a gallery. The real PSPs all look the same (although supposedly they come with stickers to personalize them). So, no luck there.

One more tab, one more try. The last tab says “Which game character are you?” Um… ok. It’s a quiz full of questions like “you’re planning a weekend with your friends, what sounds like the most fun?” and “when you fill out your diary, you…” At the end, you are told what game character (from the six girl games) you are most like. So, the quiz is cute, but also really stereotyped (BFFs and shopping and all that) and seems to have no point other than to suggest a game you should play (out of the only six girl games that exist in the PSP library).

Hmm… well… ok… so as cute as the lilac PSP is (and it is pretty cute), and even though you’re a girl and you do play too, it just doesn’t seem like this is going to work. I mean, why spend the $200 on a PSP which has only six games you could play and so few features when you could spend less than $150 on a cute pink or blue or red or whatever color you want Nintendo DS which has tons of games that are good for girls? The lilac was nice, but there just isn’t enough there to make it worth it! Being a girl doesn’t mean you need fewer or less awesome games and features. Maybe if Sony makes or finds more good games or includes a more widely appealing game with the system it would be worth it, but right now it feels like they’ve aimed for a very specific target and still missed the mark. Oh well, no big loss for us since right now there are other options!

Power Fantasies

Power fantasies are a big deal these days. As much as videogames might come under attack from the media and activist groups, they also draw in new players from all around the world every year and many games are understood to be such fantasies. Tons of research has been done on power struggles in social interactions and communications (Deborah Tannen is the best writer I know of on this subject) and superheroes like Spider-Man and Superman are often seen as healthy male power fantasies. In short, we understand that men want to be strong and able to beat up bad guys and save the world. And if you think about it, the appeal is pretty easy to see. Why wouldn’t a guy want to be someone who’s able to be always in control, always able to protect the people he loves and unquestionably always on the side of right? So here’s the tricky question: what is a woman’s power fantasy?

The feminist answer would be “the same thing”, but the reality is always more complicated than that. Yes, women want those things too. That pretty much goes without saying. Except, sadly, it needs saying because many people don’t understand that a woman would want to protect her loved ones and be able to retain control of a situation and be always doing the right thing as well. So the question becomes, why do women want those things too? More than that, why do women need them?

Something that I forget a lot of times is that while women live lives always having to be somewhat on alert, always careful, men not only don’t have to do that, but they very often aren’t even aware that women do. Jennifer de Guzman wrote a brilliant post on her LiveJournal about this that really articulates it well:

As I wrote in my reply, I am kind of astounded that some men don’t see why physical empowerment would clearly be attractive for women. I think it’s intriguing to note that women often like the hot women who kick ass as much, if not more, than men do. Here’s what I think is behind that: As women, we are nearly constantly aware of physical threats. And those threats often are of being violated sexually. When I used to go to campus for night classes and people warned me to “be careful,” what they are saying was, essentially, “avoid getting raped.”

Now, what if, what if, as a woman, you could walk around, be sexually attractive and not have to feel threatened? What if all the rage you feel about women being victimized and brutalized could be channeled into pure, righteous ass-kicking? And, because you’re a woman, you could possibly do that ass-kicking without being seen as a testosterone Steven-Seagal-esque meathead. Ass-kicking fantasies for men are more about proving and retaining power, I think. For women, they’re about finding and asserting power when they’re not expected to have any.

That’s exactly it. That’s a really big reason why women, and even little girls, need power fantasies and superheroes of their own. But as brilliant as this post was, what made me really think about this was the reaction it elicited from Michael May over at Amazon Princess:

That makes so much sense I’m ashamed I never thought of it, at least not in those terms. I’ve been operating under the hypothesis that the attraction of Wonder Woman for women has a lot to do with confidence (and argued that that also makes her attractive to men – or at least to men like me), but Jennifer’s thoughts go deeper than that and explore at least one of the reasons why Wonder Woman can afford to be so confident. She’s gorgeous and she can damn well take care of herself.

So, yes, women do want and need superheroes. Little girls need superheroes. This isn’t to say that boys don’t need them, but why can’t we have both? If there can be three ongoing comics at the same time about Batman’s adventures in Gotham, surly there can be a little more room for real superheroines! There are so few comics highlighting superheroines (and at the rate Marvel’s going, fewer all the time) and the ones that do exist often feel like the neglected side projects that either got hastily put together while the writers focus on their real stories or are assigned to second-string artists and writers and never promoted in any way, giving them no chance to gain a real following. Even flagship characters get dropped and forgotten (how many times has Spider-Girl lost her book? when was the last time one of the DC editors even mentioned Wonder Woman’s book publicly?).

Women deserve more heroes. We deserve more games with heroes we can see ourselves in (and yes, if you read the above you’ll see that we do like them beautiful, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they all have to be naked and have DD-cup breasts, beauty is more complicated than that). We deserve more comics with kick-ass heroines. We deserve heroines with real female friendships, since women do occasionally interact with each other. I’d love – *LOVE* – to read a comic that passed the Bechdel Test, but since Birds of Prey ended I haven’t found one. I’d love to see as many little girls running around pretending to be Batgirl, Spider-Girl, Wonder Woman and Supergirl as I see little boys running around pretending to be Spider-Man, Superman, the Hulk and Batman. Maybe if more guys saw that girls could be heroes, more women would actually be safer in real life too. You never know.

EA, Objectification, and Culture

I thought that there had been enough big incidents of public sexism surrounding this year’s San Diego Comic Con, but apparently it needed more. EA has a contest running to promote their upcoming game Dante’s Inferno that requires “acts of lust” against their own booth babes. Participants are asked to photograph their “acts of lust” and submit the images to EA. The prize is a “chest of booty” and “dinner and a sinful night with two hot girls”.

So, the first thing I noticed about this contest is that even though it doesn’t say women can’t enter, it’s really only designed for men (and I’ll bet all the winners are guys, even if some women do enter). So… women wouldn’t want to win their games? That’s patently untrue. And supposedly there are more women at Comic Con this year than ever before, so by not including them in this contest they are excluding a pretty big potential customer base.

Worse than making it a contest only designed for men, though, is the fact that it’s such a frightening example of misogyny gone awry. We still live in an inherently patriarchal society and women every day are forced to deal with the ramifications of the male gaze. I know that the male gaze is something that gets disputed a lot, but it really is a real thing. If you want to learn more about what it is, I recommend this great post from Gender Across Borders that explains it. To see how prevalent and scary it can be, I recommend the many, many, Holla Back blogs based in various cities around the world.

EA is not only condoning behavior that dehumanizes women, but they are encouraging and rewarding it. This is socially irresponsible and morally repugnant. I don’t bring up morals a whole lot because I think it’s kind of a dicey subject, but this one kind of pushes me over the edge. We live in a rape culture and this kind of a contest reinforces that. I know that these models likely went into this job knowing about this contest, but I also know that some of the women to take booth babe jobs really need the jobs, regardless of how degrading they are (it’s better than stripping or worse, right?) and that women are told that being objectified is good for them (when we know, scientifically, that it’s not). Saying that it’s ok because they went into it with their eyes open doesn’t make it better.

I’m disgusted by this whole thing. It’s horrifying that in 2009 this kind of thing is still happening. And with things like this going on and girls of gaming issues of Playboy and of gaming magazines and ads where the women are almost naked and posed like pin-up girls we still have the gaming industry wondering why women aren’t playing their games more. Gee… I wonder…

Seriously, the industry can do better. We deserve better. It’s hurting men as well as women and it’s things like this that make me want to stop gaming altogether (or maybe stick to just casual games with no human characters at all). If it really seems like women friendly marketing is so damn hard, try consulting with companies like Womenk!nd who specialize in not only helping marketers reach out to women, but also in tailoring their campaigns not to alienate women. The resources are out there and I’d love to see some more gaming companies using them!

Edit: Michelle from A Midwife in Training also wrote about this and she pointed out that the language on the contest includes any booth babe, not just the ones at EA’s booth. This means that even if the EA models went into this Con knowing about this contest, there are other models who did not that are still being directly affected by this. That makes this even more horrible.

EA has also issued a really pathetic response to the outcry about this contest that basically amounts to “it’s all in good fun, so why the big fuss?”

Ethics in Studying Online Videogames

A story was posted yesterday on nola.com about a recent study published by a professor from Loyola University concerning social rules in the game City of Heroes/City of Villains. Dr. David Myers has been having a character named “Twixt” play in player vs. player zones for some time on three different servers in ways that go decidedly against how the majority of the player population plays the game. I have some real problems with the ethics of his experiment. I believe that the ethics of this paper should be the real issue, so here’s a look at some of them.

Myers states in his paper, Play and Punishment: The Sad and Curious Case of Twixt, that social rule-breaking (Garfinkeling) is easier to do in an MMO because it has “rules governing behavior” that are “objective and measurable and, most importantly, uniform” (pages 3-4). He’s correct in that MMOs have rules, but I think that he’s incorrect in two ways here. First, the rules are far from “objective and measurable and, most importantly, uniform”, they are enforced by humans inconsistently and only when reported by humans. Second, he ignored the social rules of the game, even the explicit ones, and only followed the mechanical rules. The rule the Twixt broke consistently was the first one listed in the City of Heroes Rules of Conduct: “While playing City of Heroes , you must respect the rights of others and their rights to play and enjoy the game.”

Other people’s right to enjoy the game is really what Myers was infringing on in how he played Twixt. He disrupted even structured social activities like “fight clubs”. Such activities are well within the bounds of comic book lore and set up, even if not officially by the creators of the game, as environments where heroes and villains mix freely (pages 8-9). When other players objected to his ruining their enjoyment of the game, Myers seems to not understand why they object. He simply tries to point out what happened and how it’s fair and legal. Not all objections were articulated well, but that’s the reality of MMOs. Somehow even getting kicked out of his supergroup didn’t get through to him, he laughed that the other player was upset at his behavior (page 13). One player tells him “thanks for ruining the game for me” (page 14) and, again, Myers doesn’t seem to understand this.

Part of the problem seems to be that Myers appears to only see how Twixt’s actions impact Twixt. He turns off Twixt’s communications channels because of all the hatred (page 14), not thinking about the fact that other people can’t turn off his intrusions into their experiences as easily. He does quote one forum post that explains much of the problem, but other than saying it’s interesting and less confrontational than usual, he still doesn’t seem to get it.

“Twixt seems totally unable to comprehend other players as real people, and plays his own solipsistic game deliberately making others miserable.

I truly believe he simply does not understand the feelings that lay behind people shouting and screaming at him in RV, and just continues to soldier on with his mission, wondering why the other Heroes aren’t helping him rid RV of the bad guys with a sincerity that can almost make you sympathise with him.” (page 15)

He also tells us, late in the paper as he’s discussing what his study found, that “the most important negative consequence of Twixt’s behavior in the eyes of other players, then, was not his failure to achieve game goals – Twixt’s opponents “failed” this test more often than he did — but his failure to garner and sustain social connections: the most repellent consequence of Twixt’s behavior was that it made him unlikable.” (pages 19-20) That his actions made Twixt unlikeable is not their “most important negative consequence… in the eyes of other players”, however, especially since Myers doesn’t seem to care that Twixt was unlikable. The most important consequence to the players involved was that he was impeding their fun. Myers doesn’t seem to be able to see past his own experience, as the forum poster observed (and as becomes evident very early in the paper). He doesn’t talk about his fellow players as if they are real people with real feelings, simply as if they are social constructs with which to play and try to elicit responses.

While it is common to view the internet as a place of anonymity, every avatar and every screen name has a person behind it (bots notwithstanding). I was horrified by Myers’ study. He adhered to absolutely no ethical standards while conducting this study and the implications of that are very scary. Ethical standards are there for a reason. They attempt to ensure that the subjects of a study are protected from undue harm. I know how I would have felt if I had encountered a player like Twixt while playing a game and the comments of his fellow players confirm that many of them felt emotional stress, possibly to a considerable degree, from what he was doing. It certainly seems like they were in no way protected from harm.

If you think about it, what Myers was doing as Twixt was akin to cyber bullying. His victims and many of the gamers now reading about this have called him a griefer, which is a gamer bully. Is it really ok for a professor of sociology to be bullying people, even if that wasn’t his original intention, just to see what happens?

Myers also published their screen and character names in his paper, another breech of ethics, which states that a subjects’ privacy must be protected. Just because they are online doesn’t make them not a part of a person’s identity. As the internet and gaming become ever more a part of our lives, our screen names and gamertags become ever more a part of our identities. They should be protected in such a study the same way a subject’s name would be.

I absolutely believe that sociologists should be studying MMOs and Virtual Worlds, they have the potential to yield all kinds of interesting information. I firmly believe, however, that the rules of ethics still need to apply. There are still real people at stake, even if the researcher never knows anything more about them than what their avatar looks like. Real people deserve to be treated ethically, even when they are participating virtually. I think Myers committed a huge breach of ethics with this study and I think that that’s the real issue that should be discussed about this paper.

- For more information on research ethics in the social sciences and humanities, check out the resources at ResearchEthics.ca

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