Every few months, a new survey tells us in no uncertain terms exactly what the past few similar surveys have told us previously - that the majority of people playing videogames are female. Every few months, wise heads in the industry nod sagely at this revelation, and then come up with reasons to ignore - or quietly disbelieve - it. Zynga's games skew the figures, they say. Women are only interested in very specific genres that are outside the core markets. There's no point thinking about catering to a female audience with games like shooters or RPGs - it's just not their thing.
Such nonsensical excuses to continue ignoring a vast segment of the audience are exasperating but unsurprising. After all, it looks okay to shareholders and investors if you're sucking at your teeth and saying, "yes, that's a very exciting market but it's not really relevant to our business plan". It's less okay to confess that you've been catering to nothing but adolescent boys and marginally-less-adolescent adult men for twenty years and that accepting that actually, women want to play your games too and this creates new considerations for the design process puts you so far outside your comfort zone that it's borderline panic-inducing.
For the most part, we muddle through. Sometimes, developers earnestly and with the finest of intentions end up being nothing short of patronising, ignoring the fact that the female audience for videogames actually likes videogames, rather than having bought an Xbox in the vague hope that someone might someday build shopping and make-up modes into their games. Other times, they slip up - "slip up" being the charitable interpretation - and forget entirely that their audience doesn't consist entirely of braying misogynist hordes demanding to have their prejudices pandered to.
This week has been a bad week for examples of the latter, and as such, not a terribly good week for our medium's relationship with its female audience. In Britain, we've had the unfortunate spectacle of games retail chain Gamestation running an advertising campaign featuring the slogan "Cheaper than your girlfriend", and not even having the good grace to admit the mis-step when confronted.
Nonsensical excuses to continue ignoring a vast segment of the audience are exasperating but unsurprising
This, the chain claims, is part of Gamestation's "edgy" image. The claim was made by a PR person apparently oblivious to the fact that this kind of rubbish stopped being "edgy" in media or comedy about twenty years ago, unless you're a knuckle-dragging guffawing idiot who nods along appreciatively to Richard Littlejohn columns and likes saying things like "it's PC gone mad innit", but not in reference to Steam's sales figures. I assume (or at least hope) Gamestation doesn't believe all of its customers to fit this stereotype.
Gamestation's advertisement, at least, has the sense of an isolated mistake, even if it's compounded by failure to acknowledge the problem (and a truly forehead-slap inducing reference to the "traditional male core gamer" as its customer base - a customer base which, on this showing, it has absolutely no interest in expanding). On the other side of the pond, however, we've seen a rather more ugly and much more vociferously defended example of sexism raising its head, from an unlikely source.
Gearbox is a developer for which I have an immense amount of affection. I've only visited their offices in Dallas once, but they were hospitable, pleasant and obviously deeply passionate about what they were doing. Company boss Randy Pitchford is, quite honestly, one of the nicest men in an industry which is (often to the surprise of the mainstream media) stuffed to the gills with softly spoken, intelligent, pleasant people.
All of which makes it all the more mind-boggling that the company's forthcoming Duke Nukem Forever title is set to feature a multiplayer mode called "Capture the Babe", a variant on Capture the Flag in which you'll carry off a squirming young woman who, occasionally on your point-scoring trip back to base, will "freak out", requiring the administration of a slap on the buttocks to calm her down.
Look, I know Duke Nukem's history. I was a teenager when it came out, and I played it and loved it, and even now his various off-colour remarks and the pauses in the carnage to quickly offer some cash to a nearby stripper raise a smile. It's unquestionably the product of a slightly dafter and less intelligent time, but equally, it's easy to class under the heading of "mostly harmless". I don't want to be all right-on over this issue, but the extent of the discomfort I feel at what Gearbox have implemented here is immense.
The defence, already mooted very publicly by hugely popular webcomic and arbitrator of gaming taste Penny-Arcade, is that hey - in Call of Duty you slaughter thousands, so how is slapping a girl to calm her down in Duke Nukem Forever "offensive"?
It's a persuasive argument. It's also stupid and disingenuous. The slaughter of thousands by an improbable super-soldier is pretty blatantly within the realms of utter fantasy. Slapping women? That's something which, sadly, happens every day in countless households around the world. There's no funny, goofy way to give a player - playing as an all-American hero - a button which slaps a woman to calm her down, because there's no way to do it without reinforcing the basic and sadly still widely held view that this is an acceptable thing to do.
We, meaning the media and gamers on the whole, defend this medium from allegations of promoting violence because we know that the distinguishing line between fantasy and reality is clear to all but an extraordinarily tiny minority of people - and those people have psychological and social problems that are bluntly unrelated to their videogame consumption. What Penny-Arcade and other defenders of Gearbox' woman-slapping action button have done is to confuse the false allegation of inspiring violent behaviour with the altogether more likely and insidious action of reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices.
The vast, vast majority of gamers are not murderers. However, a few evenings on Xbox Live or World of Warcraft or any other online environment will show you beyond the shadow of a doubt that at the very least, a significant minority of gamers most certainly are loud-mouthed misogynists. The anecdotal experience of female core gamer friends, many of whom have had to hide their gender in order to have good experiences on Xbox Live or in MMORPGs, backs this up entirely.
Sexism remains part and parcel of interactive entertainment, because by and large the core games industry is still a boys' treehouse to which girls are only grudgingly invited
Should Gearbox, a respected and well-liked company in its field, be debasing itself by pandering those people? Sure, they're the audience - at least, they're part of the audience - but even commercially, will the number of thick-browed cretins who decide to buy Duke Nukem Forever because you can slap women really outnumber the number of people who are utterly repelled from going anywhere near the game as a consequence? And, if those numbers really do fall down on the side of the sexist neanderthals, is Gearbox going to sleep soundly over a job well done?
Sexism remains part and parcel of interactive entertainment, because by and large the core games industry is still a boys' treehouse to which girls are only grudgingly invited. That being said, things have improved immensely - there are more and more prominent females in the industry, and an increasingly wide understanding of the fact that there is a big audience out there to whom a girl in a metal bikini is the basis for rolled eyes rather than opened wallets. Yet I believe that it's still important to challenge the most utterly shameful examples of sexism, and homophobia, and yes, even racism in gaming, because a reminder every now and then that the audience isn't entirely made up of white American 17 year old straight males doesn't go amiss.
Moreover, this isn't about censorship - to which I remain implacably opposed (although not to age ratings, which are an entirely different issue). Rather, it's about game companies, particularly those with excellent reputations and those entrusted with well-known franchises and brands, simply having the maturity to remember that they're part of an ecosystem, part of a wider entertainment medium that's still finding its way in the world - and part of a wider society in which women, and many minority groups, are still discriminated against (sometimes violently) every day. It's important sometimes to stand back from what you're making and ask, is this cheap and slightly uncomfortable laugh really worth it? Does it add so much value that it's worth making light of domestic violence, of misogyny? In this case, the balance is clear. For Gearbox to recognise this and drop the feature wouldn't be censorship, it would be maturity.