Thursday, January 3, 2013

Politically-correct gaming

Apparently, BioWare plans to add options for same-sex romance to their Star Wars: The Old Republic MMO (massively multiplayer online game):
To date, characters' romance options have been limited by class and gender. But in a blog post today, Jeff Hickman, executive producer of the BioWare/EA title, revealed that that's shifting come spring -- to an extent.

The upcoming Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion pack, he said, will make it possible for players on the new planet (called Makeb) to flirt with same-gender non-player characters, created by BioWare to give quests, sell items, and otherwise move the story forward. Players will not yet, however, be able to put the moves on same-sex companion characters, the NPCs that accompany them on their intergalactic escapades as a major plotline piece.

"I realize that we promised SGR to you guys and that many of you believed that this would be with a companion character," Hickman wrote, addressing the likely disappointment among many advocates of same-gender romance in the game. "Unfortunately, this will take a lot more work than we realized at the time and it (like some other pieces of content we talked about earlier in the year) has been delayed as we focused on the changes required to take the game free-to-play. As we have said in the past, allowing same gender romance is something we are very supportive of."

BioWare previously included same-sex relationships in games including Mass Effect 3 and Dragon Age, a move that led to some backlash.

"Some" backlash, yes - and I'll have more to say about that, shortly - but how much? Note this poll from last April:
When asked if the controversial theme of same-sex relationships has a place in games, 69% of respondents to a recent IGN survey said either ‘absolutely’ or 'why not.’ Only 9% said that same-sex relationships should “never” be in games.

Age and geography are big factors with this issue. 19% of people over 65 said ‘never’; against 6% of 21-34s. Only 2% of Swedes are dead against same-sex relationships in games, against 10% in the U.S.  29% of people living in the Philippines and 37% of respondents from Indonesia said "never" while European countries polled at around 5%.

Frankly, I was surprised that this was news at all, since it's nothing new for BioWare/EA. In fact, they've faced boycott threats. (Hardly credible, given the numbers shown above, wouldn't you say?) But this is an MMO, while the others were single-player games. Is that why?

When I watched this video Let's Play of Mass Effect 3 - Lumin is one of my YouTube favorites - homosexuality seemed to be as matter-of-fact in the game as diversity in skin color. Note that Lumin plays a woman as Commander Shepard, since that's an option, too, and she ends up in the shower scene above. Indeed, there are a variety of romance options to suit every taste.

As a gamer and as a human being, I'm glad to see progress like this, and - fair warning! - it gives me a lot to talk about here. In particular, it brings to mind an incident from my gaming past. But before I get to that particular memory...

I've played computer games - frequently role-playing games - for decades. I was always older than most gamers, but otherwise, I was probably in the majority as a straight white man. I like to play a hero-type, and I often give my character a name like "Willam" (just one 'i'), which is reminiscent of my own. My character will usually look something like me, too, if that's possible.

It was certainly never a problem to be white and male, since that was the default (if there were graphics in the game at all). Note that I'm talking about role-playing games, and not games where you play a particular historical character, either. Not all games are alike, and sometimes, no one has a choice.

Obviously, if you play Tomb Raider, you're going to be playing Lara Croft, a woman with a body that makes Barbie look realistic. (Clearly, straight men were the default, huh?) But where I could choose an image at all - to say nothing of being able to design a character - I had no problem as a straight white male.

In party-based RPGs, though, I liked to name other members of my party after family members. And since I've got three nieces, but just one nephew, I sometimes had a problem with that. It didn't take long for games to offer the option of women characters, but there were frequently fewer choices. There were always lots of character portraits for white men, but not always for women.

Sometimes, there were gender-related differences which could cause problems, too. And sure, men do tend to be bigger and stronger than women. But it's hard to make the realism argument in a game with flying dragons, isn't it? Face it, these were just fantasies. And, by and large, they were fantasies for straight white men.

And yes, I do mean white men. I used to wonder about that, because women seemed to be relatively well-represented in games - if not entirely as well as men - before racial minorities were. I remember playing a game where all of the character portraits were white, but there were "witch doctors" - black people, very dark, with bones in their noses - as monsters in the game.

I seem to remember that game as Might and Magic VI, but my memory might be faulty. The above image shows "head hunters" in that game, which isn't too far off, but I could easily be wrong about the details or even about which game it was. Still, that will work as an illustration, especially since this game was released about the right time (1998).

Note that there wasn't a game-related reason for this. It was a fantasy world, not a historical game. These weren't people from a different civilization, but simply monsters - no different from running into lions or goblins. You don't talk to monsters. You just kill them and move on.

And this wasn't that long ago, even though the graphics look ancient. It wasn't the 1950s, for chrissake! At the time, I was just astonished by it. I mean, I couldn't pick a character portrait that looked much like me - or like anyone else in my family - but they did provide some choices for both men and women. But white only. The dark-skinned people were simply monsters.

I remember commenting about this on a bulletin board online,... and igniting a firestorm of complaint about being "politically correct." Everyone was sick and tired of the "racial stuff." Yeah, imagine that - straight white men not seeing a problem that only affected minorities.

They were white themselves, so they couldn't imagine why this was a problem. They were the default for game developers everywhere - indeed, they were the default for American society - and they had no problem with that. Indeed, they were sick and tired of minorities making such a big deal about the privileges they'd always enjoyed.

Frankly, I was astonished by the response. OK, it wasn't a huge problem, but it was still wrong. Heck, I'm a straight white guy myself, but it doesn't blind me to my own advantages.

And this was almost into the 21st Century, among people who were all, I suspect, younger than me. Wasn't society supposed to be changing? All I was asking was why the game didn't include a few character portraits showing a diversity of race.

Now, maybe this is because I am a minority, though it doesn't show. I'm an atheist in an overwhelmingly Christian country, so maybe I just notice things like this? Maybe I can better empathize with other minorities?

But I'm not sure that's the reason, either. Are straight black people more likely to support gay rights? Are black Christians more likely to support the strict separation of church and state, or black men more likely to support feminists? Maybe. Historically, though, different minorities haven't tended to support each other.

And unfortunately, we're seeing that in the atheist community right now. Atheist women have been speaking out about situations at conventions which make them uncomfortable, and there's been a lot of backlash from atheist men - not from the majority of us, certainly, but from an embarrassingly large - or, at least, vocal - minority. I don't get it, I really don't.

And that's why this struck me, I guess. Look at that poll again. Man, those are good numbers, don't you think? Heck, women are still fighting against misogyny! Racial minorities are still fighting against bigotry! In comparison, gay rights seems to be positively flying. Yeah, it probably doesn't seem that way to gay people, but I'm certainly encouraged by it, myself.

I noted that BioWare had heard complaints after allowing same-sex relationships in some of their previous games. Well, do you want to know how they responded to that? (This is an excerpt from David Gaider's post, at Bioware, but the emphasis was added.)
The romances in the game are not for “the straight male gamer”. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention. We have good numbers, after all, on the number of people who actually used similar sorts of content in DAO [Dragon Age: Origins] and thus don’t need to resort to anecdotal evidence to support our idea that their numbers are not insignificant… and that’s ignoring the idea that they don’t have just as much right to play the kind of game they wish as anyone else. The “rights” of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority. The majority has no inherent “right” to get more options than anyone else.

More than that, I would question anyone deciding they speak for “the straight male gamer” just as much as someone claiming they speak for “all RPG fans”, “all female fans” or even “all gay fans”. You don’t. If you wish to express your personal desires, then do so. I have no doubt that any opinion expressed on these forums is shared by many others, but since none of them have elected a spokesperson you’re better off not trying to be one. If your attempt is to convince BioWare developers, I can tell you that you do in fact make your opinion less convincing by doing so.

And if there is any doubt why such an opinion might be met with hostility, it has to do with privilege. You can write it off as “political correctness” if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They’re so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance. They don’t see anything wrong with having things set up to suit them, what’s everyone’s fuss all about? That’s the way it should be, and everyone else should be used to not getting what they want. ...

Romances are never one-size-fits-all, and even for those who don’t mind the sexuality issue there’s no guarantee they’ll find a character they even want to romance. That’s why romances are optional content. It’s such a personal issue that we’ll never be able to please everyone. The very best we can do is give everyone a little bit of choice, and that’s what we tried here.

And the person who says that the only way to please them is to restrict options for others is, if you ask me, the one who deserves it least. And that’s my opinion, expressed as politely as possible.

Awesome, isn't it? What a great reply! Now, that was almost two years ago, but I don't see any sign they've backed off from that. (And yeah, note that BioWare is a Canadian company, though they're owned by Electronic Arts now.) This is all about choice. What's wrong with choice?

The fact is, I don't usually involve my character in romance when I'm busy trying to save the world. But I still think it's neat that the option is there. And I'm especially glad that it's available to everyone.

Let me repeat this part of Gaider's comment: "You can write it off as “political correctness” if you wish, but the truth is that privilege always lies with the majority. They’re so used to being catered to that they see the lack of catering as an imbalance."

I'm a straight white man. I'm not a Christian, but other than that, I'm solidly in the privileged majority here in America. I can see that. If you can't, maybe you just don't play enough computer games. Games are educational, you know. :)


Chimeradave said...

I don't know if you ever got that far in Skyrim but you could marry same sex people or opposite sex people in that game too.

WCG said...

I encountered a romance quest in Skyrim, John, but I wasn't particularly interested in following it up (not past the first couple I helped, at least).

I really didn't get too far in the game, anyway. I got tired of it a lot quicker than I'm getting tired of Fallout: New Vegas. (The story is much better in the latter game, too.) Or maybe it just seems that way, since Skyrim is so enormous. I feel like I've hardly made a dent in exploring it.

But yeah, same-sex relationships aren't that unusual anymore in computer games, and I must say that I'm surprised at how quickly things are changing. But if that poll is even close to being accurate, it's no wonder, huh? That's reason for optimism - and I can't say that we have too many of those these days!