Women Aren't Unicorns: A Response To Adrian Chmielarz

Once upon a time, I made a tweet.

As happens in social media sometimes, this tweet caught the attention of quite a few people. While the majority of responses were in support of this notion, Adrian Chmielarz wrote a long-winded justification of the status quo on Medium.

While I have an abiding and utmost respect for Chmielarz and his work, this article is a thinly veiled justification for something I'll call "bioessentialist ludology": the notion that men and women, biologically, can only enjoy certain games or game mechanics. Since this is exactly what I was speaking out against, that means it's time to deconstruct this article piece by piece.

Statistical Deception

There's a famous saying often attributed (albeit incorrectly) to Mark Twain on the nature of data: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

This quote is often taken to mean that statistics are inherently unreliable, but this isn't true. Statistics as a field is, in fact, incredibly reliable. The problem is that you can twist data around to justify pretty much anything you want to sound scientific.

Naturally, Chmielarz does this in his piece. A lot.

By all accounts, League of Legends is a “good videogame”, loved by millions. And yet most women gamers do not want to play it. 90% of LoL players are male. It’s even more severe with EVE Online: only 4% of players are female.

This is not limited to online games, where sometimes people hide their gender to not find themselves in an unpleasant company. For example, only 14% of single player, offline Mass Effect players were female. We are talking about the game the creators of which invested an extraordinary amount of resources — people, money, time — into allowing the players to choose between a male and female protagonist.

The problem with these statistical quotes is that they are taken out of the context of the communities they take place in. By divesting these statistics of the culture surrounding them, of course they appear to be damning: women simply don't like League, EVE, or Mass Effect, or so we are lead to believe. Of course, to anybody familiar with these games and communities, it becomes readily apparent why they have low populations of women players.

League of Legends, and the MOBA community in general, is notoriously bigoted. Unless you are playing in a premade group, the time to run into a bigoted insult is one, maybe two, games. Any regular player can attest to the poisonous natures of these communities, and you can even see it for yourself without ever setting foot in League; simply read the Tribunal, a collection of the worst offenses for the community to judge and expunge.

EVE Online is even more disgusting to its women. Bigoted language is rampant, and the old internet standbys for sexist and racist insults are hurled with impunity. The women who make it through this hazing process of intense sexism are deemed to be "cool enough" but must still continually justify their existence. While many of the larger alliances began to move to more inclusive spaces, it's still exceedingly common to be subjected to the same tired bigotry you get by posting on 4chan.

As for Mass Effect, that seems damning when you consider that it's primarily an offline game. Of course, no game is played in a vacuum, and Mass Effect happened to be primarily marketed to men. While Mass Effect 3 changed it up a little by putting Female Shepard front and center, the unfortunate fact is that a single game will not tear down decades of built-up social disincentives. It will require a concentrated, continual effort to dismantle this wall we built, and while a few games companies are making efforts, it will take time and vehemency before things finally change.

Some people would like you to believe that is because of the male protagonist on the box cover or in the promo videos, but that does not explain why Professor Layton has 50/50 ratio of male/female players, now does it?

Actually, it does.

Professor Layton is a puzzle game that is not explicitly marketed to a specific gender, whereas games like Call of Duty and Mass Effect were predominantly targeted towards men. While the main characters are men, there's very little mention of gender in the games themselves; they are less characters and more cartoons, iconographic representations of the professor and puzzle-solver archetypes. They could be men, women, animals, whatever. Their gender doesn't matter to the narrative or marketing, unlike other franchises or genres.

This isn't even going into how we stigmatize femininity in games, which deserves (and will get) a separate piece.

Take a look at this infographic (taken from here as this archive shows). It’s not 100% accurate but it does show trends properly: see how the female demographic shrinks when we arrive at certain type of games.

This infographic (original article) is interesting. It's the first notion of bioessentialism in the article, and looks damning when you read only the extremes. However, it's the middle we are most interested in when it comes to demographics in games; ideally, games would represent the roughly 50/50 split of men/women in modern society.

Diablo 3 - an excessively stereotypical masculine game, by modern society's standards - has approximately 30% women players. While it looks ultra-masculine, it subverts that masculinity in a lot of ways. The most powerful characters - Leah and her mother - are women. Diablo is a woman. Your player character can be a woman. The leader of the strongest mercenaries in the setting is a woman. Diablo 3 takes great pains to not bind itself to sexist tropes, and in doing so appeals to more than just guys wanting to hit stuff and gather loot.

Skyrim - another masculine game about shouting, hitting stuff with your sword, and other such silliness - also sits around 30%. It also has character creation (which is more involved than Diablo 3) and avoids hypermasculine tropes; one of the strongest companions, and the first one you get, is a woman. It encourages various ways to play and roleplay, and generally aims to be more inclusive of all sorts of players.

The lesson from this is twofold. The first is that even if you put forth herculean efforts to make your games more accessible to all genders - which BioWare, Blizzard, and Bethesda all do - you still have to struggle against the male-centric market. Even the most inclusive games, in genres that aren't as heavily stigmatized as shooters, won't have perfect ratios. The second is that it is going to take time to correct this defect. We can't expect instant results, and even the best anomalies are going to be below our expectations. That's okay, though; it means we just need to keep trying.

Understanding Your Audience

Among my other tweets on making games for women, Chmielarz pulled this tweet:

And responded to it like this:

It would be a very intriguing concept that one should not understand their audience when crafting a game in a genre that appeals to that audience and yet here we are. For some reason figuring out what women want from video games is wrong. But, as I said it earlier, businesses and creators usually respect their audience and even if they don’t, in order to make money they usually want to understand it.

The point of the tweet - and the chain it is a part of, couldn't have been missed harder.

You usually want to understand your ideal audience. Studying how players interact with games is, perhaps, the most important task of a game designer. Part systems theorist and part sociologist, game designers and leads should strive to reach the audience they want to reach.

The point is not that you should avoid understanding women. It's that you shouldn't treat women like aliens.

When we talk about games, we have a penchant for treating women as totally dissimilar to the male half of humanity. It's like they are two different species. This is bioessentialism rearing its ugly head again, and the coded implication in Chmielarz's statements. We have to strive to understand women because they are just so different!

Women do not inherently want something significantly different from a game that guys feel okay playing. They just want a game that isn't so relentlessly dismissive and disgusting to women. They want women that are powerful, self-possessed, and in control. That's not some sort of alien request. In fact, it sounds entirely reasonable.

Hidden Objects And Obvious Sexism

Of course, this bioessentialist argument becomes even more overt when Chmielarz quotes a woman CEO as saying that women are better at finding objects in environments, biologically. This is used as a justification to go on a long screed about Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure (HOPA) games being the female ideal. It ends with this:

Anyway, the point is, women like certain things, men like certain things, and although there obviously is an overlap, there are also things that work for one gender and don’t work for the other. Studying and understanding these things is not exactly a bad idea.

Women and men are, indeed, biologically different. But any differences of taste in media is almost entirely sociological and a function of the media itself, not any biological imperative to enjoy certain media.

We see this in movies. Stereotypically masculine media, such as superhero movies like Iron Man or Avengers, have relatively even demographic splits. Even Expendables, a movie about dudes blowing up other dudes with guns and being dude-like, had a better demographic split than the majority of games. These movies cater to masculinity and avoid stigmatizing femininity, leading to movies that appeal to guys but which can be watched and enjoyed by women without having to wade through overtly sexist nonsense.

This notion, that men and women have inherently different tastes because of their gender, is the core of bioessentialism. It's also totally wrong. Women can enjoy men's media in the same way that adults can enjoy kid's media. As long as there's nothing explicitly driving them away, you'll end up with better demographic percentages than an abysmal 96% men.

Videogame Segregation

Chmielarz noted that the following parts would be the most controversial of his article, and he was absolutely right.

If men and women naturally like and dislike certain genres and games, and the market seems to have solved the problem already (half of population are women, and half of gamers are women, so there’s no under-representation, if you believe in that sort of thing) and is keeping everyone busy playing, why do we keep hearing the voices asking for “games for women”, “stories that are not just for men”, “strong female protagonists”, etc? What is the reason for this push to invade the market that could be described as core? Why can’t “men games” be left alone, when we all have too many games to play anyway? And why don’t we hear men protesting the lack of male protagonists in HOPA?

There is so much wrong with this paragraph.

  • Men and women do not inherently like certain videogames (say, shooters for men and casual games for women), that's bioessentialist and absolutely wrong.
  • Misrepresenting scale - overall representation is not relevant when we're talking about making the most popular games in the world less sexist - is an overt attempt at diversion.
  • Why do we ask for more AAA games with women protagonists, strong women, women that have agency? Because that not only makes those games have wider appeal, it also makes them better games.
  • There is no invasion. The maturing of our medium is not invasion, especially when it's spearheaded by people who have been in this industry a long time.
  • Another misrepresentation of scale - we have so many games to play, so why do you care about making AAA games better? - is both relative privation and yet another diversion.
  • We don't hear men protesting the lack of male HOPA protagonists because HOPAs are a much smaller segment of the market and there is already a wealth of positive male representation in mainstream games. There's also the innate stigma for men to play casual games.

It doesn't end there though. Some more bioessentialism ensues, but the most egregious isn't bioessentialist. It's this:

There is also the question of cultural colonialists eager to conquer a new territory. We have seen that happen to comics, we have seen that happen to sci-fi, we have seen that happen to atheism — now it’s time for video games. Chances of the colonialists succeeding are slim, but bigger than previously, due to the amplification provided by the gaming media and the ideology infecting the developers themselves. We will see if the push-back from certain group(s) of gamers stops the assault, but mostly the issue will simply be decided by the public’s wallet.

The framing of our new conversation on games as cultural colonialism is appalling on just about every level. Asking for games to mature in their treatment of women and minorities is, and it's comically absurd that this even needs to be said, not colonialism.

It's like saying that every age of comic books beyond the Golden Age is cultural colonialism. It's like saying the progress of movies from bombastic musicals to complex feats of cinematography is cultural colonialism. It's like saying that every philosopher after Socrates is cultural colonialism. This isn't colonialism, it's maturation. Games aren't being colonized because everybody who is saying these things was already here.

Games are throwing off the colonialists, if anything. It is shedding the boys that came in and excluded the women and minorities that had to carve out their own small safe spaces. It is going back to the origins, the notion that games should be and can be for everybody.

This has nothing to do with wallets. It has nothing to do with the market. All of these games trying to appeal to larger crowds could be flops and we'd still see a move to more mature games. The floodgates have been opened and they can never be closed.

The future doesn't stop because one conservative game developer wants it to.

A Non-Existent War

The final stretch of the article does as much obfuscation as possible, but manages to have a cohesive thesis: that war is being waged against male-centric games.

And this is why it’s so frustrating there is a war on the currently existing franchises and genres, instead of focusing on broadening the palette. And both sides are here to blame: thick-skulled ludofundamentalists’ hatred for games like Gone Home, and radical feminists’ hatred for male fantasies that dominate the core market. As if the growth of walking simulators somehow made Call of Duty or GTA cease to exist (when data points to the opposite conclusion), or as if Call of Duty or GTA ruined humankind (when data points to the opposite conclusion).

There is no war on games. This is, in fact, an attempt to broaden gaming's palette. Characterizing it as a radical feminist attack on games is pure fiction, scaremongering for the sake of spreading panic.

Bonus points for middle ground moderacy. There is no middle ground in games because we are so absurdly far from the middle of the field that I'm not sure we can even see the middle any more. Making an appeal to both sides is misguided at best, cowardice at worst.

On top of that, some people try to pressure businesses to drop everything and risk dozens of millions of dollars to make a game that must exist “because women” — as if somehow these businesses would not do it themselves if only they knew how.

Characterizing the push for better women and more playable women in games as "pressure to drop everything" is incredibly disingenuous. It isn't hard to write decent women. Bulletstorm, a game Chmielarz was director for, has a decently-written woman, at least compared to the majority of games.

It's not a Herculean effort to write women. It's a token display. It's asking for the bare basics. If we can't meet those basics, what does that say about us, about the medium?

Businesses — publishers and developers — are listening, as businesses always do. Screaming at them might work, but if they attack the issue mislead by the vocal minority, they might end up like the guys who thought Playgirl would be as popular as Playboy. A much smarter approach is to point the businesses in the desired direction with your money. We already have enough different types of games on the market — from female-centric explorers to female-led AAA action adventures — to provide the businesses with the necessary info. But be aware, sometimes that info might not turn out to be what you personally would like to hear.

Businesses do not listen. They do what they want, and are sometimes pressured by overwhelming outrage to go in a new direction. Characterizing businesses as rational is a common mistake, especially among amateur economists and libertarians. Businesses, at least large-scale ones like EA, are completely irrational. Greed is not rational.

Rationality is creating a space where games are sustainable, where coders are treated well, where we build an industry that listens. Companies in general have no interest in rationality; they have interest in money, in prestige. Rational is not burning out players with yearly releases at $60 a game. Rational is not burning out developers by putting them on crunch for months at a time. Rational is not ignoring people asking you to be a little more sensitive to sexism.

Most of all, rational is not blaming the victim because you want to support the status quo.

No Excuses

The end result of this long, well-researched, incorrectly presented article is that it's all one big excuse for how things are.

Chmielarz lays out a very compelling - if you happen to already believe it, anyway - case for never changing games. It's built on an unstable foundation of poorly-researched statistics, misunderstood sociology, and a whole heap of sexism. The lightest reading of anybody not desperately trying to excuse sexism in games reveals this.

We can't be making these kind of excuses anymore. It's time to grow up.

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