Female Representation in Gaming: Why GamerGate can change it for the better

It’s been a whirlwind couple of months as the GamerGate debacle has morphed into a beast that I don’t think any of us quite foresaw. Depending on your point of view, it’s done a lot of good, a lot of bad or both. But it’s undeniable that it’s cast a lot of light and a lot of mainstream attention onto issues within the gaming community that though they might not have been the initial intention of the movement, are still important issues nonetheless and issues that have been quite prominent with other artistic mediums. One such issue is that of sexism within gaming, though at this stage, I don’t want to focus on the issue of female gamers and how they are treated or represented. That’s another important issue for another time. What I want to focus on is the representation of female characters within video games.

Film has long struggled with the idea of prominently featuring female characters and for a while, the film community and the general public has been wrapped up with the idea of “strong female characters”, without realising that this was a fallacy in itself (when’s the last time someone’s called for a “strong male character?) and became a trope that allowed for bland, stereotypical representations. We don’t want “strong female characters”, we want good ones. It’s a trap that the video game industry has fallen into more often than not. There’s been a lot of bad with female representation in gaming, especially considering that the primary audience for a long time has been young adult males. There’s been a lot of over sexualisation and a lot of bland female characters that exist solely as accessories for the male protagonist. Even female protagonists such as Lara Croft were by and large devoid of personality and hyper sexualised. But fear not loyal reader, things HAVE been improving.

In recent years, there have been a number of female characters who are not just some of the most complex, compelling and endearing characters in gaming, but in recent fiction in general. Characters like Ellie from the Last of Us and Elizabeth from Bioshock are characters who have their own motivations, strengths, weaknesses, fears, aspirations, emotional nuances and character journeys. They’re strong but also vulnerable, they have their own important place and arc within the story and do not exist solely to provide support or emotional baggage for the male protagonist. Even characters like Lara Croft have been given a major update. Croft now has an actual personality besides being an unstoppable bad ass. She’s an actual character now and that’s wonderful. As games become more recognised as art, things are improving at a rapid pace. It’s no coincidence that some of the most artistic games in the last few years are the ones with this kind of diverse and effective representation. That’s not to say there’s not still bad with the good, but female representation is certainly evolving and it’s on the upswing.

Which is why all of this debate and controversy brought about inadvertently by GamerGate and the criticism of sexism is a good thing. Art is ever changing and art is controversial. This debate gets eyes on the issue in both the mainstream and from developers and players. It can shine light on the good that has happened and also the issues that still need to be improved. Sure, things might get ugly, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

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Depression Quest: Forget the Controversy and GamerGate. Is it art?

There’s been a lot of ugliness surrounding this game and its creator due to all of this GamerGate controversy. But there’s a million voices already sounding off on that debate and that’s not what I want to address in this blog. Sometimes when we get all caught up in social and cultural rhetoric, we forget to look at the games themselves.

Depression Quest was released in 2013 and has split the gaming community down the middle. Some reviews have been overwhelmingly positive with gaming critics leaping to praise it, while others have been crushingly negative with many not even considering it a game at all. Zoe Quinn created Depression Quest as a way to tackle the subject of depression head on and try to build understanding of the issue through an interactive narrative. The player is presented with descriptions of a variety of situations and decisions to make based on those descriptions which lead to five different endings. These are constructed in a way that attempts to bridge the gap between sufferers of depression and those who have never experienced the affliction before by putting them in a depression sufferers shoes. The decisions they are faced with are often illogical and often aren’t decisions at all, as many options are crossed off depending on prior decisions made. This is supposed to convey the idea that depression often robs the sufferer of choice. It’s a very clever narrative device and one that can only be done through gaming.

Many have said that it is not a game. They have criticised Depression Quest for being boring, repetitive, unintuitive and just an all around poor gaming experience. In many ways, they are right. This is gaming used as a social tool, gaming used as education rather than entertainment. It’s making a statement and all of the GamerGate ugliness aside, it’s trying to use the medium in a creative way to try to instigate positive change and alter perceptions. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.

Art affects people, art changes perceptions and makes a statement about culture or life in a creative way. Depression Quest does this in a way that only a game can. Is it perfect? Certainly not. It’s rudimentary, clunky and ¬†downright clumsy at times. But it’s bold and it’s different. For gaming to move forward as a medium and be recognised as a legitimate art form, this type of experimentation is welcome and needed. The hardcore games will always be around, but there’s certainly room for this sort of experimentation and I’m excited to see more in the future.