Sarkeesian on the 2019 E3 Representation

I’ve talked about them before, but Anita Sarkeesian has done another analysis of the representation of women at E3 shortly after dissolving “Feminist Frequency” as a non-profit and for the most part stopping doing videos. I’m not going to talk much about the latter — at least not here — but I do want to talk about the E3 analysis because this year the analysis is quite telling.

The first thing she points out is that she’s been doing this since 2015 and not much has changed. If 2015, the number of games that had only a female protagonist was 9 percent, and this year the number of games that had only a female protagonist was 5 percent. However, from the numbers, the percentage of games that only had a male protagonist also dropped, from 32 percent in 2015 to 21 percent in 2019. The big gain — and this has been consistent over those 5 years — has been for player choice, as the “multiple options” category has leaped from 46 percent in 2015 to 66 percent in 2019. So, game companies seem to have decided to be more inclusive by letting players play what they want to play more often. Thus, if women want to play as women in a game they have the option to do so and so aren’t forced to play as a male character. This seems like a good move.

So, of course, Sarkeesian doesn’t like it:

It’s true that the number of games in which you either control characters of different genders or get to choose the gender of your hero character significantly outstrip those with established male or female protagonists. And of course, as a general trend, the freedom to choose or create your own character is a welcome one. However, it’s fundamentally different from being asked by a game to take on the role and experiences of a specific character. A male player who is more comfortable with experiences that center men can and will simply play as men in games that offer him the choice. On the other hand, every player who comes to a game such as Wolfenstein: Youngblood must step into the shoes of a female character in order to play.

Why this is interesting is that the typical rationale — even from Sarkeesian — for including female protagonists was always so that women could play as the character they identify with instead of always having to play as a male character, often accompanied by comments that since women had so often had to play games with a male protagonist men could do the same. Allowing the choice of protagonist seems to do just that while allowing men who have difficulty identifying with characters that are not like them the ability to still enjoy the game by simply selecting the male protagonist. But, here, Sarkeesian makes it abundantly clear that that isn’t her goal. She doesn’t want and here seems uninterested in allowing women to play as women in a game. No, here, it’s all about forcing me to play as women and thus be forced to identify with them or participate in narratives that center women. In short, Sarkeesian wants to force male players to play as female characters for some reason. Assuming that she’d accept that not all games will be female-protagonist-only, I fail to see how raising that percentage will achieve that goal. After all, men will still have the option to forgo experiencing things from the female perspective, only instead of simply creating the character they prefer and going on to play a good game, they will instead simply decide to forgo those games themselves. Any male player who is comfortable enough with playing from the female perspective to buy and play a game that only has a female protagonist is also likely to choose to play as a female character at least some of the time if given the choice. And men who aren’t comfortable with that are more likely to just not play the game than to buy it and play it regardless.

This puts this analysis in sharp perspective: Sarkeesian is not overly interested in ensuring that women — and potentially other minorities — can play as a character they identify with, but is instead more interested in ensuring that the supposed dominant group is forced to identify with the supposed oppressed group. She isn’t as clear on why that is … but we can probably guess (although I won’t here).

She also says something odd about RPGs earlier in the article:

(When you consider that we place role-playing games in which you control a party of heroes in our “multiple options” category, the numbers are even more dire, since a significant number of these games, including the Final Fantasy VII remake, Final Fantasy VIII, Dragon Quest XI, The Last Remnant Remastered, and others, clearly center male heroes.)

Note that three out of those four games are, in fact, remakes from much earlier times, and so wouldn’t make a good comparison regardless as they would have been made before things started changing, and again unless Sarkeesian wants to make all games female-centered remaking classic games that were male-centered would seem reasonable (she could complain that they weren’t remaking and remastering games that were female-centered if she ever acknowledged that such games existed in any meaningful form). Also, if she counted those party-based RPGs as multiple options, how come she’s always had so much trouble finding female characters to talk about, and has never mentioned the Persona games?

I’m not going to talk about the ratio of male to female presenters, so let me finish with the comments on violence again:

Finally, a note on combat and violence in games. During Ubisoft’s presentation, a trailer for their upcoming game, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Breakpoint, featured actor Jon Bernthal utter the line, “The only test of a man’s worth is battle,” unwittingly distilling what seems to be a widespread perception among both players and game designers. This year, of the 126 games we surveyed, 107 featured combat of some form as a gameplay mechanic, while only 19 games, or about 15 percent, did not. Of course, not all combat is the same: the endearing sword-swinging of Link in Nintendo’s adorable upcoming remake of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is a far cry from the grisly demon-slaying of Doom: Eternal. However, we believe that there remains a vast range of unexplored potential for games as a medium, and continue to advocate for a greater percentage of games that explore the possibilities of nonviolent gameplay mechanics.

As usual, this suffers from vagueness as well as an inability to take those games and come up with suggestions for replacement mechanics. Here, she at least tries to distinguish the types of violence and combat but doesn’t give a criteria for that or why one is harmful and one isn’t or is less harmful. I’d like to see different game mechanics because, well, they’re different, but for example I can’t tell whether Catherine’s gameplay mechanic would count as violent or non-violent from what she’s said in the past and she rarely if ever gives examples of what would count so I have no idea what she wants. And if I don’t know, likely neither does anyone else, so if she wants her articles to have an impact on gaming she probably needs to flesh that out a bit.

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