When I say "military first person shooter" the first word that probably pops into your head is "penis.”
Well, it’s the first word that pops into MY head, anyway. These playing-war videogames are firmly entrenched in the dick-swingingest hypermasculinity I ever did see, to the extent that you might think nobody else ever plays them.
Of course, you’d be wrong. Lots of non-dudes play these games, although exact numbers can be hard to come by. This particular subgenre of games is not known for going out of its way to include women, as characters or as gamers, for the basic reason that it’s unnecessary; women don’t expect it, and men might be annoyed by it, and in most cases they will sell bazillions of dollars in games even without it.
And yet, military first-person juggernaut Call of Duty: Black Ops II seems to be doing exactly that.
According to Kirk Hamilton at Kotaku, the recent press demo he witnessed is chockablock with ladies. And not just hot chicks serving as window dressing either, but ladies who do things. Ladies flying planes! Ladies rescuing dudebros! Ladies as President, even!
I asked Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia about the game's infusion of double-X-chromosomes. "There's a female character role in the game," he confirmed. "Not just the President and the fighter pilot; as we're working on characters and stories, it's something that we wanted to do. You saw the [motion capture] demo, and while that's not [her], there is a female character role in the game. We wanted to explore that part of storytelling."
What part of storytelling is that you may ask? Why, the female part, of course. It's a whole other part. Of storytelling.
In retrospect, if any military shooter series was going to do this, it makes sense that it would be Black Ops; this is the game that brought us the lauded “There’s a soldier in all of us” commercial in 2010, which featured many players who deviate far from the expected hardcore gamer stereotype. It OPENS with a woman of color! It features several ladies -- a chubby white girl, a chick kicking down a door in Birkenstocks -- as well as a variety of men of various ages and backgrounds. (Of course, the game itself reflects none of this diversity, but it's a start.)
As a marketing move, it was straight up brilliant. I have traditionally avoided military shooters mainly because of their epic Bro Factor, but this commercial made even me want to play Black Ops, all on its own.
In my defense, most bro-friendly destruction-and-war-driven video games do not have a great history with gender diversity (with rare exceptions, like Gears of War 3), nor do they even have a history of promising to do better. Most of these games seem to be working from the assumption that women just don't play first person shooters.
I can only suppose it's never occurred to anyone that a possible reason for this might be the lack of non-bro representation, and the dudecentric culture that void creates. Or maybe it has, and nobody cares.
Last year, one such game developer patiently explained on their site forums why they chose not to make ANY female characters in a game that seriously hyped its character customization -- hyped to the point of proudly announcing that there were enough fiddly little variations to create ONE QUADRILLION unique characters in the game. Seriously. A quadrillion. Not a single non-dude among them. With apologies to Henry Ford: You can have any gender you want, so long as it’s male.
Simply put, they thought making ladies was a poor use of their limited resources. And hey, that may well have been the case, but it still sucks that gender diversity was such a low priority for this game, as it is for most games in the same genre. Including women in substantive roles, who are full-fledged characters, is just not considered to be very important.
It’d be great if we could say that this issue is simply one of visibility and representation in media, but it affects gaming culture as well -- a culture that is often as candidly misogynist and sexist as its games might suggest.
Another example: Last summer, a bunch of FPS-lovin’ bros were planning a LAN party in Austin, Texas, to coincide with the release of a military first person shooter called Battlefield 3. A LAN party, for the uninitiated, is a days-long game binge in which a group of people register (and sometimes pay a fee, in the case of very large events) for the privilege of cramming themselves and their computers into a dark room and cracking out on multiplayer matches with each other for the duration, via local area network, i.e. LAN.
This is fairly hardcore geekery, and if you’re thinking, “Uh, what about eating? Sleeping? Basic freaking hygiene?” then you’re getting the picture. Although usually the organizers of these events will make sure facilities are available, showers are ultimately optional. I’m not saying that all LAN parties invariably end in rivers of human filth and despair, but it is definitely an event where games come first, and putting down the toilet seat may not even be on list.
At any rate, this particular LAN party had a stipulation: NO GIRLS ALLOWED. Their reasoning? Some women who had attended past events had complained of... unwanted attention from other male gamers. The organizers, being smart Occam’s Razor kind of dudes, decided the solution was NOT to expect a certain standard of respectable behavior from a minority of knuckle-dragging male attendees, but to remove the women altogether. For their protection.
Score one for scraped-up knuckles! This kind of sensitive problem-solving is pretty standard in hardcore gaming circles, where if someone complains about ill treatment, the only solution they're likely to get is to stop playing.
Meanwhile, sites like Fat, Ugly or Slutty exist to spotlight the hilarious and tragic absurdity of in-game harassment of women, and how pervasive it can be, chronicling inane schoolyard taunts and scary rape threats side by side with little distinction. But even Fat, Ugly or Slutty comes across as not expecting any better than what they get, explaining on their About page:
Some players like to send creepy, disturbing, insulting, degrading and/or just plain rude messages to other online players, usually women.
We think this is funny.
…[I]nstead of getting offended, we offer a method for people to share these messages and laugh together.
There is a notable lack of outrage -- the recipients of such gross overtures are instead encouraged to shrug off hatred and abuse together, and focus on the playing. There’s nothing wrong with this, especially not when a lot of gamers just want to play without feeling angry all the time, but it is a reaction that emphasizes learning to live with the abuse, rather than expecting the abuse to eventually stop.
In most circumstances, overtly demanding a more equitable environment -- or even just one without gender-based insults -- is perceived as a sign of weakness. Games are not supposed to be fair. They are supposed to be war. Demanding fairness, or a less hostile environment, equates to sucking. And nobody, especially in the supercompetitive world of military first person shooters, wants to suck.
Putting it in context like this, I’m inclined to think that Black Ops II is trying to be part of the solution with their sudden investment in giving women characters both a spotlight and something of value to do. Maybe other games will eventually follow suit. Certainly there’s a long steep road ahead, but perhaps if gamers are forced to see female characters as valuable equals in-game, that will have a positive cultural effect in how they see real-life women as fellow players as well.
Does life ever imitate art? In this case we can only hope so.