A Brutal Landscape: Sexual Assault in Gaming Narratives

Content warning: discussion of rape in video games.

It’s like a wave is rolling in, borne of several currents: a Nightline special, an errant tweet, a sequel to a hot gaming franchise. People wondering if we’re going to “start” having this conversation of how to “tackle” rape in video games, but I don’t feel like the conversation ever has stopped. It never, ever stops for me.

Sometimes it feels like the discussions that rape and abuse victims have among themselves is significant and invisible. We pass along content and trigger warnings for shows or games we consume. We acknowledge something off to the side, just out of your line of vision, a thing that lurks in the dark. If you believe that the games industry cannot discuss or approach a conversation about rape, I believe it is because many people feel like we are set apart from this somehow. It doesn’t acknowledge that you might not know who is a victim or a survivor. You don’t know who could contribute or maybe the ways that we have been, all along.

Rape is a topic I’d be okay with striking altogether from gaming, outside of victim- or survivor-written narratives. It’s obvious that the game industry barely recognizes what counts as sexual assault, let alone acknowledging that people are victims of it. The insistence to include rape in games creates this uneasy message that someone like me doesn’t belong here. Given that sexual assault is an assertion of systemic power and violence, it is grimly ironic.

I want to ask all of these developers, writers, a simple, “Why?”

Why put this in your game? Why this and not something else? It leads me to think that many find it essential as texture, to make the world “come alive.” It creates a world that so many don’t have to live in day-by-day but can participate in, like tourism. When you make a game and use it to bolster the game’s “realism,” what you’re telling me is that you need our suffering as a fixture in your world, placed just-so, like a lamp. What is actually disruptive violence in the real world, exists as something inevitable and crucial for your fictional one.

“But rape exists in movies and comic books too!” 

When I watch a movie or read a comic book, there is a passivity there. I cannot affect the story at hand, I am not a part of it. I can either regard or turn away. The fact is that I have more control in being passive than what gaming frequently offers me. At best, a game’s interactivity absolutely positions us as a silent participant, a complicit bystander, with no ability to change course. At worst, it puts us into the position of the rapist. These are two alternatives that I cannot bear, time and time again. The fact that so many games rely on showing us these things and never center a victim or survivor in the narrative indicates that games care more about rape than those who are raped.

Rape is complex. It’s not picking the wrong item to equip or taking the wrong road. Games are focused often on player choice and it never seems to address that it is not about a victim’s choices, it is actually about a rapist’s choices. But the narrative never really reflects that, indicating that rape is just something that sort of happens. It also neglects that rape is the escalation of many more innocuous things in our culture. Rape culture, which feminists talk about often, isn’t just a buzzword – it literally describes the seemingly endless language that builds slowly to enable rape at all levels. Much like playing enough games gives you a familiar sense of inputs or consequences (jumping off a cliff often kills you, hitting D on a keyboard turns you right), rape culture is our society’s way of developing language to violate someone. We don’t value people’s personal spaces, we demand that women smile or allow us into their immediate vicinity. We overlook if someone is too drunk, we overlook if someone is uncomfortable with disagreeing, we value our own sexual desires over others needs or safety. We place certain groups above others, put people into power over others and give them the ability to enact it without culpability. We strip people’s ability to ever say “no.”

The pinnacle of this is often sexual assault, a finishing move.

“But this guy in the game is evil, that’s why he’s a rapist! It is showing us he’s bad!”

This is a lazy writing trope. It’s just as empty and useless as promoting this idea that all rapists are scary men that lurk in alleyways, that they are people you don’t know. Rapists are not always evil people that wear capes and kidnap young women. Rapists are often the hero, the friend, the family member. They are people who even might think of themselves as good, right, or justified. Many men can’t even reliably identify rape (or even would consider it) even when it is described to them, so how is an huge industry supposed to recognize it when they put it into games?

It is also laughably facile to position rapists as a villain, when it’s horribly rare that we even get to name our rapists in real life, much less bring them to justice. Many times in video games, the rapists are bad, but they are horizontal or parallel to the incredibly violent antagonist, because a victim would never be the person centered in the narrative, much less able to bring retribution on their attacker. If anything, the ability to enact revenge is only ever given to someone who is adjacent to a victim – such as a husband to a wife. Many times, victims are often people who are not even considered worthy enough to be a character. We’re dead and cast off to the side in places where it should be our story.

These are all things I’ve been trying to address in my work for a really long time, as someone who is a survivor and a feminist. The gaming industry has a long way to go because it barely understands how to see us as real people, but only cares as much as we can lend realism. The fact that most of us barely register as human beings means that it will not have the empathy or concern needed to put our stories first and foremost in a video game. The fact that games seem to value rapists over people who have been assaulted means I will always sit uneasily on the sidelines whenever this conversation comes back up, every single time.

 

take my hand

This review/post contains mild story spoilers, so please play the game first.

This post also deals with personal, violent subject matter, so if that is triggering, feel free to skip sections 2-6.

1

I mean this as no disrespect, but I don’t expect men to write women, or girls, very well. There’s just something how most men push our narratives to the very edge of their awareness, stuff us into boxes. Men don’t listen. They don’t care. They don’t have our blood in their veins, our tender flesh held together with strings and whispers. Our stories squeeze in narrowly between theirs, and if no one believes us, we stop taking up space. We lose mass.

I still don’t know what kind of magic birthed The Uncle Who Worked For Nintendo into being. It has some of the same fairy dust as Gone Home, though the latter had more time to really dig itself under my skin. Gone Home had too many nuances to not be true. It was fiction, but it was clearly true.

The Uncle Who Worked For Nintendo, for people who have not played this short Twine game, is a fictional tale that on the surface works as typical creepypasta, but underneath is made up of real stuff. Hard stuff, scary stuff.

And underneath all of that is hopefulness, optimism.

I usually do not like games that give me too many endings. There’s always a nagging feeling that I’m not making the right choices, that I didn’t get the best ending.

I think something they don’t really tell you is that there’s some points in your life that will irrevocably change you for every moment that comes after. Time travel stories work on this principle but only to hand out platitudes about being unable to change the past. It has no real teeth, and it never tells you the real truth of forking paths: that you become this different person, the potentialities dropping off your body like gangrenous limbs.

I’ve struggled for so many years to not feel like half of a person, that some essential part of me fell away back in my teen years, that I didn’t make the right choice. I am not sure what I would do if I had the ability to turn back everything until then. Would I get the best ending then? What do endings mean when you constantly have to move forward no matter what?

no, turn back, don’t go in the room, run away, run far away, he’s a monster

I ended up running anyways, later into the darkness, scared

Monsters are real, they are real. 

And part of me was left behind.

2

The Uncle, the literal uncle of the title, is a monster. We don’t know where he comes from or what he truly is but he represents that kind of terrible bargain we sometimes make, to just get by.

We become monsters to keep us safe, no one tells you that

Your friend (I chose Jennifer) relates to you the misery that is being a girl who plays videogames. You know that feeling, that shared chasm that you fall into. Kids are cruel, you know, and it sets you up for the kinds of cruelness you deal with later on in life, that cruelness becomes part of you. But for that moment, you reach out to her and remind her that you’re there. That you are both real, and both wonderful.

Your friend has changed, you can tell. The events, the ones you remember, she doesn’t.

They don’t tell you that your memory goes, utterly. Bits of time are gone. There’s only holes, and blackness. Your ability to fragment a narrative is gone. Things shift around, uncomfortably, as some details burn white-hot in your brain while others fall away. 

There were twinkly lights. It was red. The room was bathed in red light. Everything became red. There was a phone call. 

I wouldn’t be able to sleep in a bed for years.

3

The uncle comes to the house and it becomes all too apparent what your role in this game is: sacrificial.

I ran to the door on my first go, trusting.

I knew better the second time and ran to the bathroom, hiding.

Fight or flight, no one tells you that the third option is to be so quiet and so still. Holding your breath. If I do nothing, the monster will leave.

But the Uncle is too smart, he knows where I am.

There’s more endings, I know there’s more, the lines are right there, and I can’t figure out how to get there, why the story keeps repeating and I cycle back to the moment when I can change things. I keep cycling back. It’s some detail, something I’m overlooking, I keep re-tracing my steps to see if I could have done something differently, it would all make sense.

You blame yourself a lot. A lot, over and over. They don’t tell you that monsters are monsters and that’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. You can do everything right, correct, perfectly, perfect perfect perfect and there’s nothing that can stop it. It’s out of your hands. It isn’t a wrong or right thing. 

But I can’t even remember the story right.

4

It was the perfect Mew-two, that little key to your friend’s heart. The storm, the things that got changed when she made the deal with the Uncle. People started disappearing, but he made everything better, he salved the wounds.

Can you blame her? I can’t blame her. I would have made the same choice. We make these horrible concessions to ourselves, to other women, because it keeps everything copacetic. It keeps the anger at bay.

They don’t really tell you about the anger, the sticky disgusting rage that wells up in your eyes, your throat, that wishes to see him hurt, twisted, mangled like a corpse. Pushed into a compacter. Eaten alive. Stabbed with shards of glass. The anger is what is left behind when all the sadness burns away. People look at you differently, it is the darkness you run into, the monstrous hands you have. We don’t talk about it because it makes us less sympathetic, to coax a fire of hate around our hearts.

Your friend, she tells you, when you remind her that you are her friend, invited the monster because she was tired of being picked on. Even if it meant feeding everyone she cared about to him. It meant she got special gifts and attention.

It rang a little too true, for me.

I had a lot of girl friends in high school and we were inseparable. By college, I didn’t trust women, I said I never trusted them. It was a lie but I was so angry at myself, so I lashed out at other women for taking men away from me. Men, men, all the men, the ones who hurt me over and over again, but I kept hurting myself, hurting other women.

Throwing them away.

If I did that, then men would like me better. They wouldn’t hurt me anymore (yes they will) and we’d be fine.

So fine.

5

I’m stuck on this last ending. I look up a walk-through (a walk-through for a Twine game!) to help me. I see what I did wrong, I go back and fix it.

It’s okay to ask for help, they don’t tell you that. It’s always okay to ask for help, you’re not alone.

It’s safe in the kitchen.

I still eventually went back to get the failed ending. To see myself making that bargain, all over a Gameboy cartridge. It’s so easy to fall back into old habits.

Sometimes my friend dies in the fire, sometimes she moves away.  In order to save myself, I have to let her suffer.

I need to do better this time.

6

We can save each other, together, hand in hand. We just have to believe each other, to show our secret hearts.

My secret heart is a scared 16 year old girl who made all the wrong choices, I can’t go back to that room and do it over again

You take your friend’s hand (that’s how I want to remember it) and you destroy the cartridge together. You’re both free. You don’t have to hurt eachother anymore, you don’t have to hurt yourself anymore. You don’t have to blame yourself.

We can be each other’s best endings, if we give ourselves space to fight the monsters together.

Secret Ending

The Uncle Who Works For Nintendo is a game I am still amazed was made by a man. There’s a simple lesson twisted around the agape horror, and that is if you care about yourself and care about your friends, you don’t have to despair. This is especially meaningful if you pick the slightly different story with a female friend, and that is the only one I ended up playing (I believe that the ‘other side’ is non-canon, for me personally. It is not a story I need to see, I have seen it a million times.)

The idea of two little girls holding hands and destroying a monster together is so powerful, particularly in the wake of the events that made the creator, Michael Lutz, skew the story and write the passionate author’s notes that accompany the game. It thoroughly touched me somewhere very deep and personal, in light of many other things that have been dredged up over the last year or so with my interaction with gaming and it surprises me because it’s not a story that gets touched on by men, who often don’t understand the true power of healing that comes from women bonding together. It’s just not something that has weight often in the stories of men.

But I love it, and I hope you love it and I hope you play it, if you haven’t already.

 

 

 

This is How It Should Be

Adults on a concrete surface hold colored controllers in the air and move around.

Adults play Johann Sebastian Joust outdoors at BitBash Chicago.

 

The last three weeks have utterly destroyed me.

Granted, I’m not someone who had a hate campaign targeted at me, but watching women I considered to be at the forefront of games criticism being picked off, harassed, doxxed or quitting really took a number on my own sense of safety as well as my desire to be a writer in gaming. This slow-moving avalanche of misogyny reminded me of some awful things in my past and left me struggling to articulate feelings of helplessness as a woman, feminist and creative person.

In spite of all that, I was excited to be attending an indie games exhibition in Chicago called BitBash. Underscoring that excitement, however, was a touch of nervousness – what if I wasn’t “cool enough” to be there and what if there was drama? Still, I thought that getting a break from the constant misery-reinforcement on Twitter and various blogs was a good idea. I was also going to hang out with Gita, someone who’s work was incredibly enriching to me but also was a kick-ass lady to be friends with. In addition to that, she was also okay with hanging out with a weird Internet woman (me.)

We met up on Saturday and took a car over to the Threadless warehouse space in the Western Loop area of Chicago, not knowing what to really expect. We showed up and were greeted by a pretty welcoming sight: people milling around in the front parking lot playing games and having a good time. We had gotten there early enough so the food trucks hadn’t quite been set up yet, but late enough to make clear that the space was full of things to do and see. We had pushed our arrival later in general, as BitBash had warned of lines, but for the most part it was just the right amount of people and we had no problem getting in and milling around.

One of the first games I got to experience was Johann Sebastian Joust (Die Gute Fabrik), which Gita had excitedly mentioned wanting to play since we got there. When I had read the description, I was confused, having no experience with the original game, and it seemed very abstract. Watching a bunch of people play it though, made me realize how fun it was. Even though I didn’t step in (I have a really intense performance anxiety), watching everyone flail around and move to get other people to shake their controller, appropriately controlling their speed to the slowed-down or sped up orchestrations, was incredibly entertaining. Adults playing and having a good time outside is infectious and isn’t something you see often, especially since many of us focus on hobbies that keep us inside, aloof. Not to be outdone by just peers, I even saw a group of grown men attempt to compete with a tiny little girl who was just as excited as them to play.

That kind of experience was indicative of what I noticed over and over again while we were there: everyone showed up. Gaming events have always felt very overwhelmingly white and male and this didn’t. Granted, there still were a lot of white dudes there, but many more people were that didn’t fit the profile. A highlight of this was notably how many women there were. Given recent events, it made the event feel incredibly safe. Looking around, I saw tons of women: working the event, playing video games, as well as sitting around chatting with each other. In general, it was a diverse array of nerdy people with splashy t-shirts with Metal Gear Solid or Doctor Who, hipsters with knit caps and flannel, as well as people who I’d probably see in my office. It wasn’t even the typical young, single crowd either. There were older people, parents with kids, and couples of all varieties. It surprised me, even as someone who’s crowed that “gaming is for everyone.” Seeing it happen as a bunch of people coming out to have a fun time really knocked that idea home for me.

Other than attendees, Threadless itself was another high point. The space was incredibly inviting for not just play but also relaxation, which I relished. I’m someone with a chronic illness and having half of it outside with benches and grass meant that I could take breaks to sit down, read my phone or generally enjoy the nice weather. Gaming tends to present a level of stimulus for me but adding in crowds of people (and it did get crowded inside at times) meant that it becomes a touch overwhelming, so being able to take a moment was appreciated. If I had to grouse about anything, it’s only that it needs a bigger space next time. Lines for the food trucks also presented a problem, as standing for long periods of time on concrete made comfort impossible. Overall, though, it felt nice that there were spaces to chill out and socialize if you needed a break. Gaming could do well to recognize this for other events, as I know I am not the only person who might need this sort of things.

Inside the store’s floor and warehouse proper is where most of the games were being exhibited. I milled around, elbowing my way past throngs of people, as most of the cabinets or laptop setups were close together. I regret to say that I did not play most of the games that were at the exhibition, but one that caught my eye was the Choosatron by Jerry Belich. The idea of a game being a Choose Your Adventure register printer was really unassuming and creative to me. I picked a story that revolved around the machine’s assurance that I was dead. Quietly, and with satisfaction at the simplicity of it, I folded up the tape of my story and put it in my pocket. I still have it.

Most of my time was spent watching other people play the games and that was fine enough for me. Something about games is intensely private for me, whether it is putting quarters into a machine no one is playing or sitting at my computer fiddling around in Diablo 3. The idea of people leaning over, waiting their turn and watching me gave me the creeps and reinforced this idea in myself that I’m still terrible at video games. However, this was mostly my own anxiety talking. No one was being rude or aggressive at any point during the event. Dying was a mirthful moment, and messing up got the usual face-palms and backslaps from friends. I got to watch one of the game’s creators (I believe) even cheering on participants who made a point of knocking over tables in Tango in Paradise Simulator (Andy Saia) by chanting, “TABLE TABLE TABLE!” loudly. While I was a touch sad I didn’t get to play Max Gentleman (Hats Productions) or Tango in Paradise, Crypt of the Necrodancer (Brace Yourself Games), getting to be a part of the overall experience was worth it to me. Everything about the space and experience was rewarding and gave me some part of myself back that I had lost along the way in the past month.

As Gita and I took a car back to her apartment, both of us remarked how positive the day had been. Both of us had felt a need for something like that and we had gotten it in spades. It was an enriching event that felt like the way games should be: fun and for everyone. Everyone from adults to kids had a good time, including two little girls that had just come from tap recitals and someone’s grandmother watching the Joust.

It was a renewing Saturday. It would have been even if in the wee hours of the night, Zoe Quinn hadn’t revealed that this feverish nightmare had been online misogynist brigades actually conspiring. It washed away a lot of the perpetually sour, negative feelings I’d had over the past couple of weeks and gave me at least one bright spot amid all of the rubbish. In the larger aspect, it felt like this is how I imagined things. I know it’s a little high-minded to wish for a utopian world where gaming could be for everyone, without harassment or guile or oppression, but for a few hours in a warehouse, maybe it was.

 

Ninja Pizza Girl and The Thorny Tangle of Girlhood

As far as indie games go, Ninja Pizza Girl has been on my radar for a while. I saw a video with the creators a while back and it seemed quirky, in a fun sort of way. The idea of an entire family starting their own indie development house is cute, especially with the father’s daughters pitching in to help with story and art. So when Polygon had an op-ed from the creator about the game, I took notice.

The crux of it is Jason Stark, the head of Disparity Games, relating precisely how and why Ninja Pizza Girl came to be. He talks about how the concept came straight from his childrens’ mouths but more importantly he  also describes the stumbles in his own assumptions about not only game design but also about his daughters’ growing vulnerability as they move into teen-hood and beyond. It was a bit of insight that I found intriguing, not so much as a gamer, but rather as a woman. It’s incredibly commonplace that men in the world, even ones closest to us, do not realize that women have these hidden narratives that they’ve never stopped to consider. It never occurs to them that our lives are in any way unique or different from theirs. The idea of relating this back to game design and story development is a smart one. Video games are one of the avenues of interactive media that could do so much better at peeking into the kinds of stories women navigate and centralizing them as important. We’ve seen so much discussion lately about the lack of women protagonists in games as well as a lack of women in the game industry. Allowing more women to be game creators as well as seeing ourselves represented not only reinforces the notion that we are human to the world, but lifts the veil on how our experiences might differ.

It is in this vein that I welcome Ninja Pizza Girl into the world – I believe that teen girls are one of the pockets of womanhood most needing of stories to be told (though I still feel the market is only making baby steps and still trends towards white, affluent and the like). It’s the father’s own admission of fault in taking his wife and children for granted and not listening enough that reminds me of the interview that we did on Justice Points with Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja. Steve said that one of the things he took the most care to do when crafting Gone Home‘s narrative was interviewing queer women about being teens, as it was not something he had personal experience with. Jason not taking this tactic from the start is something he admits fault to and through the course of the article, outlines his own steps to rectify this. This is good – men realizing that they need to listen to the women in their lives in order to actually understand them.

It was this listening that informed Jason’s decision to turn the enemy of the story from rival pizza ninjas that you kill to something far scarier – other teens working for a pizza corporation that would tease and humiliate you. The bullying and how you deal with it is what determines how much of the game you spend in a more gray, colorless world of your own depression or in a world full of joy and brighter hues. I find this mechanic, as well as some of the ways the game rewards you for handling it (running away is definitely an option) really interesting. As someone who was very viciously bullied from middle school onward, the idea of centering a game around bullying as not only a narrative struggle but a combat mechanic seems a very unexplored but necessary “hook.” What really woke me up to the fact that being a teen girl now was significantly different than my experience was the mention of the protagonist, Gemma, having to fend off bullies phone-cam recording one of her ultimate embarrassing moments. The cultural touchstone of recording video with your phone is not lost on me, but it shook me out of my own reminiscing. I never, ever had to deal with other people, people who were seeking to hurt me, recording things without my knowledge and distributing them to a very, very large audience. With the recent news of Jada and looking back to something like Steubenville, it’s on my mind that teen girls being brutalized is aided and immortalized by the advent of digital technology. It was literally not something I had to deal with when I was a teen. It feels like more so now than ever, we need to start seeing young women as people and less as props for tormenting.

It was these types of things, along with the story of a parent humiliating a teen girl to suicide on Facebook, that hung around my head as I read. I was wondering if Stark would talk about mens’ role in being both abusers and harassers to teen girls, especially given the opening anecdote, but it never came. It seems the idea of bullies in the game (as well as the article) stops at a generic “other teens” but specifically mentions his own daughters dealing with the politics of other teen girls. This quote specifically jumped out at me:

Little girls start learning psychological games at the age of eight and master them by the age of fifteen.

It specifically refers to his youngest daughter losing some of her female friends due to internal politics, something I think a lot of us can relate to, but Jason lacking an understanding that many of us have now. It was this quote in particular that made me somewhat skeptical of his ability to grasp the subject matter that he was building his game upon.  While he may recognize that the things his daughters are going through actually happen, the larger context for them is missing. It’s a pretty common narrative that women are intensely catty, psychological torturers and “girl bullying” is a phrase I’ve oft heard over the years. With the aid of the Internet, there’s been a lot of scare stories about a bunch of girls smearing the reputation of another girl for some real or imagined slight. What I never heard was recognition of is why this stuff happens; to truly understand why girls bullying each other, you have to admit that sexism is real and is internalized in women from a very early age. When girls hit puberty,  we suck the light out of them. They lose enthusiasm for math, science and just about anything else. They have the world’s sexual expectations thrust upon them without being asked if they want it or understand it. Girls become increasingly hostile and political among each other but it’s for reasons that Stark didn’t note, which implied a well-worn narrative. Girls tear each other down due to internalizing the messages that we as a society tell them every day from the moment we decide they are girls: that they suck. Not only that, but that every other girl is an enemy because there is a valuable and finite resource called “men’s attention.” We reinforce notions that women are catty, will steal your “man” and cause you not to trust them. We teach them to be docile, to not speak up and that their problems aren’t worth hearing about, let alone resolving in a straightforward or assertive manner.  We break them apart because it keeps them compliant and without a support network.

All of these things are why, despite chipping into Ninja Pizza Girl‘s funding, I will be keeping a close eye on how the game will play. Because for all of the things I think it could do right, Jason Stark’s good intentions but ultimate lack of experience with the narrative of growing up as a girl still will be lingering there. I don’t think ill of him for this, but it makes me wonder how this could have been done by someone who had to jump and fly away from her own bullies way back when.

 

Draenor Rock City: The Exclusionary Nature of Nerd Cool

Tzufit and Apple Cider look forlornly at the Dark Portal.

Written by Apple Cider Mage and Tzufit

If you had asked us last week what sorts of things Blizzard could do that might make us feel like World of Warcraft isn’t a game for us, we might have made some comment about treatment of female characters or perhaps the ongoing sexism that women face from other players. We probably wouldn’t have said, “They could make a show about middle-aged men designing motorcycles.” So when Blizzard dropped the announcement that they were partnering with American Choppers for a strange web-series that would document a competition to design a sick motorcycle as an in-game mount (what, another one?), we were glad that we weren’t the only ones going, “huh?”

The more we thought about it, this confused us because it was yet another tone-deaf offering that pushed us farther and farther away from World of Warcraft. Jokes about mid-life crises aside, it’s hard to be excited about the upcoming Warlords of Draenor expansion and WoW in general when you feel like you don’t belong there.

Because WoW is an MMORPG, feeling as if you belong in the world is exceptionally important, arguably more so than in any other genre of video game. In years past, we have drawn our excitement for new expansions by thinking about the things that our characters will do and see, the places they will explore, and the new challenges that we, as players, will experience. In recent weeks, people who used to see themselves as curious about the world we are about to inhabit now have a hard time picturing themselves there. We find ourselves traveling to an alien world, and yet the alienation we feel comes not from Draenor but instead from the people who have created it.

While we cannot know precisely who has their hands in every pie at Blizzard, it seems like the public faces and taste-makers of World of Warcraft often gravitate around fairly similar themes that they consider “cool.” Draenor, more so than any other expansion, feels saturated in these ideas, despite protests to the contrary. The particular rally point in this case has indubitably been Y’rel, a strong Alliance Joan of Arc-type. Yet, everything we’ve seen thus far, from new extra beefy mob models to some alpha dialogue is oriented around a hyper-masculine world that is brutal, savage (as we have been told ad nauseum) and inexplicably full of rock star pyrotechnics. When we saw the art piece of all of the warlords lined up like a gruesome metal band, there was an emotional distance between Chris Metzen eagerly throwing up the horns and us looking on in confusion. We’ve seen fun and goofy inclusion of these ideas before, but the tone now feels very serious; it’s a weaponized barrage of these concepts to the exclusion of everything else.

This nerdy (but still male) idea of “coolness” isn’t a unique problem to Blizzard. Big creator names in nerd culture are still predominantly male, which has been true since long before “nerd” and “geek” were a persistent cultural identity. You have Tolkien, Lucas, Martin, Whedon and, for our purposes, Metzen. Nerd-dom has been retconned into a male space, a refuge for the those who did not fit the traditional image of masculinity, but who enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons and got thrown into lockers because of it. The duality of this background is that for all of the underdog position that nerd men have had most of their lives, many of them still enjoy the benefits of a patriarchal culture that nurtures and comforts their tastes and desires, often to the tune of millions of dollars. For a group of outcasts, loners and misfits, they have, especially in the 2000s, enjoyed a renaissance period. When you combine that with a fairly critical ignorance (or even outright hostility) to other people who are not considered the marketable norm, your fantasy world, much less are suddenly devoid of people outside of that nerd paradigm.

The problem with nerd culture and the belief that only men are considered creators is that it reinforces that the only stories worth caring about are for men, by men, and in a way that is cool to other men. It’s a rigid set of interests that tends to not consider much else outside of it. The worlds themselves sometimes involve a realism and grittiness that is at best, voyeuristic – it’s easy to insert things into a fantasy world to make it more real when it’s not a reality you have to confront on a regular basis. All of this is nerd men and their creations revolving around power and cachet – the stoic, grizzly hero flanked by compatriots and female love interests. In the case of Blizzard, a lot of it looks like muscular brutes, heroes of light and rock guitars.

What seems apparent to us is that some of Blizzard’s content creators are still finding the same things cool at 40 that they did at 15, and though their customer base has matured, their interests are showing their age. No one faults content creators for having inspirations, but when you achieve a level of success that allows you to create content for literally millions of people all over the world, isn’t it reasonable to ask that your inspirations grow to reflect the diversity of your audience? It seems equally reasonable to expect that this is not only something Blizzard should consider but rather something they for which should actively strive.

How we’ve seen people typify this cultural problem within Blizzard and throughout Warlords of Draenor is one of marketing, and we don’t believe that that’s entirely the case. Marketing is a symptom of the problem. The primary issue is a concept and an atmosphere that people are struggling to see themselves in. Is it so terrible to ask for inclusion? Is it so terrible to be afforded even a fraction of the same consideration that a particular segment of nerds have enjoyed for years in WoW? Our standards are not unreasonable; in fact, we might go so far as to call them incredibly low. While active inclusion of diverse women in Warcraft’s story may be the ideal, in the past we have at least been able to say that WoW does not actively exclude us. Recently, that seems to be less and less true. It feels like WoW has been moving backwards (now quite literally) in some places with how women are characterized or talked about, those failures buoyed by the few small successes we’ve enjoyed since then. For every five minutes Jaina is allowed to be a competent leader, we have many more moments of women being killed, hurt, married off or otherwise left behind.

There’s such a spectrum of problems that surround both the women in the story and the audience that it’s hard to list them all. The problem now is how to deal with these revelations about Blizzard and the game we’ve been enjoying for so many years. Loud, vociferous criticism only works when we are able to make headway, and the road to Warlords has so far been littered with increasingly insurmountable obstacles.

Much is still unknown about the new expansion at this point. Alpha and beta often provide key contextual clues to the overall direction an expansion is headed and we acknowledge that there have been exceptionally long dry spells in between updates since Blizzcon. It’s easy to feel like small, select issues make up a larger percentage of future content than may prove to be the case. Historically, alpha and beta have been periods when we’ve seen that critical analysis can and does create change and improvement in Warcraft. Yet, for the moment, we don’t know how to align ourselves with Blizzard’s visionaries because their ideas don’t seem to include us.

Warlords of Draenor: Building Female Models

Orc female showing off new model and expressions.

Orc models and screenshot courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.

One of the features in the upcoming expansion I’ve been looking forward to the most is the long-awaited model revamps. While we have no confirmation that these models will be ready by the start or even middle of the expansion, what we’ve been shown so far has been promising. Through their new Artcraft series on World of Warcraft’s front page blog, we’ve been able to see a continuation of the promises they made about updating models at Blizzcon last year. Today’s offering of an orc female is no different and comes hot on the heels of the recent debut of the human female model.

It’s no secret that I take female model designs seriously – gaming culture is plagued with representations of women’s bodies that are problematic and World of Warcraft has long had a problem with a lack of customization. While I’ve enjoyed that at least WoW makes a decent effort to vary its’ silhouettes, it is still a game running on a graphics engine that’s severely outdated. These model revamps have been fun to watch as they happen; it is clear that they want to keep the overall visual fidelity to the old models but at the same time fix a lot of the problems that come with having them be a far lower resolution. Also nice to see is the time and care taken with some of the musculature and anatomy. Seeing game models that finally sit the breasts on the chest wall in a realistic manner is heartening, as well as egregious postures being smoothed out and relaxed.

I have to admit I’m a bit blown away with how much personality and life they’ve injected into the models. The postures looking more natural, as well as improved muscles and facial expressions makes me feel I’m playing a “real” person. The new orc female models are no exception – there’s life there now beyond just a blank, doe-eyed expression.

“We want a strong female counterpart to the male, equally battle-ready in appearance, yet still feminine.” — Character Artist, Dusty Nolting

I think the most heartening part of this process, seeing the models unveiled, is that it feels like the design ethic with the female models is steered in a direction that I feel comfortable with. What designers sometimes seem to lack understanding is that women’s bodies are so fraught with politics but they are ultimately our own and come in a variety of shapes, sizes and ability. Designing characters that show a little of this variety, particularly if there’s no sliders to customize, is what is going to keep many of your customers enjoying the characters they play is in your game. Dusty’s quote from the Artcraft about the orc models also reveals another part of the ethic that was very frustrating in the past: dimorphism and the tug and pull between feminine and masculine.

Design often requires visual shorthand to convey a lot of information in a very short amount of time. This often means exaggerating many different things – gendered traits are one of those things. What determines “male” and “female” visually falls on pretty essentialist tropes like muscle groups, facial hair and secondary sex characteristics like bust. Women are often designed to be sexy or sexual and men are power fantasies. This is due to who gaming still believes it the core audience – straight men. Men are given huge muscular bodies and women have very similar hourglass figures with giant racks. This is how the nuance between feminine and masculine gets hammered out as well. With the orc women, I was really troubled by the idea that they would not be able to strike a core balance between the more battle-ready nature of the orcs and the fact that orc women are still women in their own right. How do women in orc culture look and how does this compare to women of other races? Creating identity and unique versions of femininity among all the races of Azeroth is key here. It’s no secret that some race’s women are coded much more traditionally feminine than others: see draenei, night elves and blood elves. It’s necessary to allow every race to have elements of both hardness and softness in their visual identity. With the orcs, I was worried that she would swing too hard in either direction and it’d feel like a joke or cheap. The fact that the screenshots we got convey both that hardened nature as well as mirth and beauty makes me feel more at ease. Now, if I could only get some of the orc women’s hairstyles on my female humans or even my draenei would make me feel able to feel slightly more butch even on a heavily feminized body.

Between the orc woman’s kissy face and the gnome lady’s legendary side-eye, I do feel that one of the things about Warlords of Draenor I won’t have to worry about is how all the models look visually. Blizzard has done a great job so far giving us a peek behind the curtain about how we are going to look in the not-so-distant (alternate) future (in the past) and I look forward to seeing all the models.

Update: Blizzard quietly dropped a full render of the dwarven female model on their Warlords of Draenor site just an hour. Go look!

Some my quick thoughts are mostly that while I love her body, I wish she had a bit more meat on her thighs. Some of the screenshots of her face look a bit wonky but I would bet they look better when actually in game. Yay!