In a 2016 interview, Escape From Tarkov designer Pavel Dyatlov said women weren’t in the game because they ”can’t handle that amount of stress.” After renewed scrutiny of the comments earlier this week, studio Battlestate Games took to Twitter to distance themselves from Dyatlov’s statements. They noted that “game lore” and the extra production needed to implement women were what actually prevented them from doing so. Media outlets lined up to express scepticism. The Verge called the excuse “terrible.” Forbes pointed out statistics regarding enlisted female troops.
In a 2014 interview, Assassin’s Creed Unity creative director Alex Amancio said women weren’t in the game’s co-op mode because it would be “double the animations, it’s double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets.” It would be expensive, time-consuming. Media outlets lined up to express scepticism. An op-ed in PC Gamer lamented the “miserable sense” that women were optional. Time called the situation “particularly disappointing.” Even professionals at Ubisoft weren’t convinced; former Assassin’s Creed 3 animation director Jonathan Cooper suggested that the scale of the work wasn’t quite as large as claimed.
On its face, this conversation isn’t even about whether women should be represented. That’s a no-brainer. The answer is yes. But instead of tackling the question of whether games should be diverse and acting accordingly, people keep finding ways to reframe it as a question of whether they can be, minimising their own culpability. And so gaming culture circles the drain and repeats the same discussions over and over.
We have a discussion about inclusion, one way or another. We achieve some level of “awareness,” or something. But then the discussion repeats. There will always be another Tarkov, another Battlefield V, another Radical Heights. There will always be a new excuse: costs, lore, “accuracy.” The inclusion of female soldiers in Battlefield V led historical purists to lose their minds at the idea that a woman could do more in the middle of a war than faint from a sudden onset of “the vapours.” It got so bad that the game’s subreddit had to ban discussion on the topic of “historical accuracy.”
I’ve worked on games – I’m extremely sympathetic to the fact that developers require time to add new features. It’s true! But after years of the same excuses for the same foreseeable issues, it is obvious that these conversations are not all happening in good faith. Projects can and do get caught up in feature creep. Understanding your scope is important; no one begrudges developers for making sure they’re not working themselves to the bone. (Except, perhaps, if you’ve not added every Pokémon to your game.) However, Tarkov’s developers muddy the waters when they cite “lore reasons” preventing them from doing more. They create the lore! They can break it if they want.
It is a reminder to ask why so many games are planned without women in the first place. What are the baselines, and who are the presumed default players? I often disagree with Feminist Frequency’s approach to gender criticism – it’s not novel or bold to ask, *gasp,* what if the princess can save themselves – but their yearly breakdown of E3 demographics in new games is useful. For instance, 41 per cent of games at E3 2016 featured only male protagonists. 3 per cent featured women exclusively, and 49 per cent allowed players to customise their character. There have been changes since then. Women protagonists accounted for 9 per cent of games at last year’s E3, and 66 per cent allow players to customise their character. That improvement shows a change in how the industry views demographics, a willingness to allocate resources to player expression. Yet still we often see developers design for certain defaults. Tarkov is a punishing military shooter. Men are obviously the default, right? If playable women are added now, pockets of the internet would be aghast that Battlestate Games pandered to social justice warriors and women who don’t even play Tarkov. Except we do play games like Tarkov and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Insurgency. Some of us are even pretty good at it.
One way or another, there will always be the eternal question: Women, can they do things? What things can they do? As long as we keep allowing people to pretend it hasn’t been answered, they’ll keep treating it like an unsolvable problem.
In the ’70s and ’80s, video games were positioned as toys and curios. This didn’t change much in the 1990s, at which point marketers assumed two very important things: games were for kids, and those kids were boys. Those assumptions helped build the cornerstone of gaming’s subcultural identity. It was a place for fun, a place to escape from reality, and that space belonged to men. You could be cool playing games, even if those arseholes in the lunchroom or on the playground disagreed. You could have your name immortalised on the high score rankings of an arcade cab; you could beat Castlevania and brag about it to your friends. You were an expert, a hero.
But the toy-focused marketing of the early days worked too well. Lawmakers and publications talked about how playing too many games would rot your brain and turn you violent. Thus began years of cultural disagreement around games. Games and their players started to crave more than their own space to exist. Games were not toys; they were art! The craving for acknowledgement persisted for decades, through The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, a game whose grand scale exhibited true artistry; through Half-Life, which pioneered a new and active form of narrative storytelling; through Morrowind, a tale brimming with ambiguities on par with novels.
The cultural argument came to a head in Roger Ebert’s “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” a piece of writing that still weaves its way into angry rants to this day. In the essay, Ebert framed art as the deliberate product of singular creators and wondered if games could fit that framing. Players, who can interact with games in unexpected ways, complicate this definition of art. He also didn’t find critical darlings like Braid particularly impressive. As Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect 2 arrived in 2010 – the same year as Ebert’s writing – with budgets to match any film, there was still a feeling that people just didn’t understand games, god damn it.
During the days of Jack Thompson or misplaced FOX News outrage at Mass Effect sex scenes, that feeling made a little more sense. Moral panic was real; games were a target. But now, more people than ever play games. The video game industry’s revenues in 2019 were projected to reach $152.1 billion (£117 billion), far higher than that of films. Mobile gaming, a space sometimes derided by hardcore purists, is so ubiquitous that you could smack the phone out of a random person’s hand on the train and discover some type of game on it. People do understand games, because they live with games everyday. They buy games and play games, and mainstream outlets write about games. Some of those outlets have started entire verticals to specifically talk about games. But as “traditional” gamers find themselves increasingly outnumbered – by people of colour, women – there’s a cultural clash between those who want to reclaim a highly specific idea of gaming and those who want to redefine what gaming is and how it should be discussed. At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter that there is nothing left to prove when it comes to gaming’s strength as a cultural institution.
Centering the conversation around artistic merit makes it easier for people to use “historical accuracy” and “realism” as a cudgel to dismiss the continued criticism around representation in video games. Take 2018’s Kingdom Come: Deliverance. It was popular on Steam but drew criticism due to a statement from director Daniel Vávra that “there were no black people in medieval Bohemia. Period.” It was meant to excuse the lack of people of colour in the game, and although the statement was made in 2015, it followed the game into its release. But that argument has already been proven flimsy in a 2015 Polygon piece by critic Tariq Moosa. In “Colorblind: On The Witcher 3, Rust, and Gaming’s Race Problem,” he predominantly used The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt to talk about unbalanced racial visibility in games. Nearly everyone in the game was white, with the exception of monsters. Moosa did not ignore the game’s context – The Witcher is a product of Polish culture – but still concluded that “Things are not equal. We are not in a medium that features predominantly Indian men, Chinese women, or focuses on stories from Africa. We’re part of an industry that frequently tells the stories of white people and stars white people.” This was met with the kind of outrage that you might imagine, but it was prescient. It still is today.
If games are art, we must treat them that way. An essential part of that is breaking cyclical discourse, discarding the debates of yesterday and contextualising games within the new reality the media exists in. The broadening of an audience means accounting for shifting tastes and sensibilities. This means acknowledging the growing concerns of queer players, disabled persons, people of colour and other voices that were not traditionally heard within the culture’s earlier days. Did you really beat a game? Should we even care about “casuals”? Do we have our Citizen Kane? Stop, please. We don’t need to keep asking “are games art” until we all die in the upcoming Resource Wars.
The internet has a short memory. We are going to find ourselves repeating conversations from time to time, but the repetition is exacerbated with every “new” fandom controversy or forum debate. Members of the media latch on to issues, sometimes angling for soundbites and pull-quotes. That particular impulse comes from a fair enough place – usually a desire to push back against corporate talk and marketing language – but after discussing if The Division is political (it is), do we need to ask the question again every time a Tom Clancy property releases? Of course not. We’ve been there and done that, and we don’t need to relitigate that shit. Dredging up old conversations, either in the press or on forums, simply reinforces the idea that these are the only conversations to have. The mission is over, Rambo.
Some of this is simply demographics. Most of the high-profile people who make games and populate the platforms that talk about them are still white men. I’ve written about this before; part of the solution is to simply give diverse people more control of creative processes. (Please note that this article is somewhat dated, since it’s from 2016.) But another reason these debates repeat and persist is because video games is a space where a warped notion of “debate” is sacrosanct. The current idea of a civil debate leaves a lot of room for bad-faith actors – people who ask for data, get it, and then shift the goalposts. Fuelled by online debate culture and toothless journalistic “bothsidesism,” folks took the bait because they thought they could convince these people. Turns out that was impossible.
The Groundhog Day loop of games culture discussions isn’t limited to political correctness or representation. Last year’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice kicked off a discourse about easy modes and difficulty sliders that contained rhetoric similar to discussions of diversity. A familiar strawman appeared: Why should a developer be forced to do anything? Challenge is key to appreciating a game, and to cater to casual gamers would be a grand betrayal to those who overcome those challenges, those experts, those heroes. These discussions contain the same fallacious line of thought: that critics suggesting the inclusion of such modes are demanding they be included, as if they have a gun to a developer’s head and will pull the trigger unless things are made easier.
The changing demographic and material realities of gaming demand a corresponding shift in how we talk about video games themselves. Games are everywhere, and our language needs to be similarly egalitarian. That means killing off certain pieces of jargon or at the very least accepting alternatives that reach a wider audience. Our definition of “game” needs to broaden to encompass all available modes of play and not simply the ones deemed hardcore and acceptable. Was Gone Home a game? Certainly, as are Candy Crush and Mountain or whatever the target du jour might be. What we do in games has changed; what people want from games varies. Cycling through old discussions, locking ourselves behind dated terminology, is another means of arresting development. Games have grown up. The way we play them, and the way we talk about them, needs to as well.