No, the Internet, YOU shut up

Anita Sarkeesian's call for more female protagonists in videogames attracted the standard level of vitriol. Here is why that's an important issue.

When I read the awful responses to Anita Sarkeesian's tweet about wanting more games with female protagonists, my heart didn't sink. It barely dipped. I'm used to the kneejerk responses from a vocal minority when you talk about women in games.

At first, I thought about responding to the points raised by the many angry gentlefolk of Twitter, thusly:

No.

Tell that to Samus Aran, GLaDOS, Chun Li, FemShep, Lara Croft . . . or Kiki Wolfkill, Siobhan Reddy, Rhianna Pratchett, Margaret Robertson . . .

Hey, could you force another human being out of your body? Don't knock it until you've tried it, buster.

No, no, sir, I insist - YOU shut up.

Yeah, maybe if you actually read the latest ESA report, you'd know that in the US women make up 47 per cent of gamers. 

Clearly you do, Patq911, if that is in fact your real name.

Are you working on a game? You seem to be Mr Opinion, and yet I somehow doubt that you are secretly Jonathan Blow.

 . . . and then I got to this one. And I thought, as fun as shooting sexist fish in a Twitter barrel is, it's probably worth laying this argument out. 

Why do games need to have female protagonists? Because women exist. Women have lives. Their experiences of life can be shaped by the things that only happen to women - pregnancy, childbirth - and by the things which happen to women more than men - being the only one of your gender in a room, rape, harassment, objectification, people being a prick to you on the internet, that sort of thing. 

We have expectations about how women behave, what being a woman in a given situation means. A great storyteller (male or female) can use that to tell more interesting stories. Tropes are not inherently bad; they are shorthand, which means they can be used lazily, or they can be used creatively, subversively, interestingly.

Let's take a couple of examples. Anita Sarkeesian has talked about the "damsel in distress" trope, and it's one that comes up a lot in games because of the format of quests and objectives. You can use that trope in a boring, unthinking way, where some slab-of-meat guy pounds across an identikit wasteland to rescue a one-dimensional princess, or you can do something with it.

Because tropes are shorthand, they rely on a sense of expectation built up by their many previous uses. That's gold dust for a creator who wants to surprise her audience. Joss Whedon's original pitch for Buffy The Vampire Slayer was to show people "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie"; except in his show, the little blonde girl and the monster would go in the dark alley, and only the little blonde girl would come out. (Incidentally, for all dudes who worry that what feminist game critics want is Joyless Dungaree Simulator, Buffy manages to be funny and sexy, as well as feminist.)

Or, to move on to videogames, how about one of the most critically acclaimed indie games of recent years, Braid? That gets its emotional punch entirely from the fact you assume that you're a gallant questing leprechaun rescuing a lovely lady, when - spoiler alert - it turns out that knight "abducting" her is actually saving her from you.

You don't even have to subvert totally the trope to make it interesting; you can also approach it knowingly. When I interviewed Ken Levine before the release of BioShock Infinite, I asked him why the "Little Sisters" of the first BioShock were female. Would the dynamic have been the same if you'd had to rescue Little Brothers?

He answered, honestly, that he'd drawn on memories of a girl he had known in real life who had died young. Replaying the game now, I can see the fact that Levine drew on personal experience makes the game richer, more affecting - no wonder I felt the desire to protect the Little Sisters so keenly. If a trope speaks to you on a personal level, and you are confident that you can make it feel fresh again, then of course you should use it. 

There is also the bonus that the depiction of Little Sisters gives Dads an adorable way to take their daughters to conventions in cosplay:

 

I'd make the same case about Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite: on the surface level, it looks as though she is "the princess in the tower", the most archetypal form of the damsel in distress. But as the game develops, not only is she bloody useful - where is she finding all that sniper ammo and cash? - but by the end, you realise that far from saving her, she is there to save you from yourself.

In the end, the argument is the same one I was making last week about the need not to "ban" rape jokes, but to ask for better rape jokes. If the only people talking about rape are male comedians relying on the premise that it's funny simply because it's a taboo, that gets tired pretty quickly. Similarly, in games, calling for more female protagonists - and more interesting female protagonists - isn't censorship, it's expansion. It's about telling more stories.

The Angry Gamer Army need to know that women aren't coming to take games away from them. First person military shooters are still incredibly popular, and companies will continue to make them. If you want men with implausible facial hair to shout about being Oscar Mike while men of whatever the current acceptable ethnicity for baddies is throw flashbangs at you, the games industry will still provide. 

But look at your record collection. I grew up listening to Radiohead, Oasis, The Beatles, Bon Jovi and more terrible Europop than I care to admit, but I also listened to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Elastica and Madonna. The latter group offered more than just a set of songs I could sing along to without feeling slightly self-conscious about the pronouns. Yes, you could read books only by male writers and never be short of a paperback, but why would you deny yourself the unique perspective on the world brought by Jane Austen, JK Rowling or Hilary Mantel?

In Portal and its sequel, GlaDOS could just have easily have been male - but the player would have missed out on the richness of her backstory as Caroline, and her relationship with Cave. We'd also have missed out on Ellen McLain's incredible performance. In those games, you barely notice that the protagonist, as well as the nemesis, is female - but Chell is a girl, because, you know, some people are girls. Maybe as many as a fifth of people, I hear.

Games are exciting because they are a relatively young medium, and no one knows exactly where they will go next. But can we all agree that the silent tortured beefcake protagonist has been pretty well explored now, and it's much harder to make a game exciting if it has one? Can we agree too, that more variety generally in protagonists and secondary characters would make games better, not worse - that Daisy Fitzroy's race and Jester's disability add more depth to those characters than yet another white, straight able-bodied man?

Games need more female protagonists not because of a quota system, or "political correctness", or because feminists want to stop you having any fun. Games need more female protagonists because that will mean we get better games. 

A Little Sister in BioShock.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The Wallets

A short story by Colin Barrett.

Doon was doing nothing, just killing time, while he waited for his mam to finish at meeting. Once she went down the steps into the basement he got out of there. The hour was too long to wait and he did not like seeing the others. There was always one freshly dire specimen hanging around outside, wrung-eyed and jitter-limbed and making a pitiable hames of trying to light up a cigarette. Sometimes he recognised the parent of some kid out of his class. He didn’t want to see the parents and he didn’t want them to see him. The meetings were another world. His mam went down there and an hour later she came back out.

He did laps of the town with his hoodie up. The drawstrings of his hoodie had little laminate tubes at the end that flailed as he walked. It was autumn, blond and ochre and umber leaves matted together and turning to slick mush underfoot. He was wearing dark olive combat boots laced tight, the ends of his combat trousers crimped into the tops of the boots. Passing an apartment block he saw something on the blue wooden slats of a bench seat. It was a wallet. He commended himself for noticing it and kept right on walking. As he walked he clenched his stomach muscles, an isometric exercise to promote definition and also a means of keeping warm.

He browsed a Men’s Fitness magazine in a newsagents, reread three times an article detailing the correct techniques for executing power cleans and deadlifts off the rack, and bought a large raspberry slushie. He’d loved slushies as a kid. Every six months or so, usually in one of the small newsagents still scattered around the town, he’d notice the plastic rotors mesmerically churning the blue- and blood-coloured ice in their transparent bins, and would buy one. Only after tasting it would he remember how nauseating they were. Three strawfuls in and there was already the sickly sensation of the syrup turning in his stomach and a bout of brainfreeze running through his head like static.

He went a few doors down, into the lobby of the Western Range Hotel. Still stubbornly sucking on the slushie, he strolled into the hotel bar. The bar was a spacious rectangle of smoked glass, carved teak and piped muzak, and went back a long way. Four men in suits were stalled by the counter, luggage cases on wheels poised beside them like immaculately behaved pets. A pair of them bid goodbye to the others, and headed towards the lobby. Doon watched the automated doors, the way they seemed to flinch before smoothly and decisively giving way. To escape the chatter of the remaining men he went and stood at the far end of the room. A recessed bank of floor-to-ceiling windows yielded a direct view on to the town’s main street, already streaming with Saturday morning shoppers. He watched the flow of bodies, the pockets of arrest within the flow. Directly across the street was the gated rear entrance to the county district court. The gating was innocuous, black bars without identifying signage, and if you did not know it led into the court, you would not have been able to tell. The gate was ajar, a concrete step leading down into the narrow mouth of an alley. In the alley a tall redheaded woman in a suit jacket was urgently conferring with a rough unit on one crutch. The man’s smashed-and-resmashed-looking face, the colour of baked clay, was tilted towards the sky. It was impossible to tell his age. He was leaning on his crutch and staring into the blazing nullity of the sky as the woman attempted to direct his attention to something in the heavy-looking black ledger she was holding tucked against her diaphragm. A page lifted up, levitated free of the ledger and fluttered down the street. The woman cursed, slammed closed the ledger, and stooped after the page as it curlicued along at shin level. The man turned his face from the sky and stared with bovine dispassion at her scooting, bobbing rump.

“You can’t eat that in here.”

Doon turned. The barman was behind him, a kid not much older than Doon with awry lugs glowing either side of his head, his black barman’s shirt squeezed over a snub-nosed paunch.

“I’m not eating anything.”

“That.” The barman pointed at the slushie. “Can’t eat that in here.”

“Don’t make me correct you again, I’m not eating anything,” Doon said, and took an emphatic suck of the slushie. From the depth of the plastic cup came a clotted suctioning noise that reminded him of being at the dentist: Snnnrgggkkk.

“C’mon man,” the barman said, his fussy little face turning the same colour as his lugs. “Just go finish it outside.”

“You get at all your potential customers like this?”

“You’re not a customer.”

“Could’ve been a case I was about to be.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“Even if you want something, you’ve to finish that outside first.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“So no one’s allowed just stand here for five minutes, make their mind up on giving you their custom.”

“Not no one,” the barman said, “but you’re you. You’ve to take that outside.”

“Nah.”

“C’mon.”

“This is profiling, lad,” Doon said.

The two men remaining at the bar were watching this exchange. The older, a tall lean man with grey hair, laughed, then cut the air with his hand, like enough.

“Lad’s got a point,” the grey-haired man said to the barman, indicating Doon with a nod of his head.

“We have a policy,” the barman croaked.

“What’s that?” The man went on, “Harass the kid with the skint head and hoodie? So he’s eating a slushie, so what? I worked in a bar myself when I was a young buck. Just let the shift see itself out if it’s going quiet, lad and don’t give patrons grief that aren’t giving you grief.”

Snnnrgggkkk.

“See, listen to the oul fella,” Doon said and grinned at the man.

The man grinned back.

“Let’s resolve this simply,” the man said, taking out his wallet. “I’ll get him something, so then he counts as a customer, and we can all let him finish his drink in peace. Do you want a Coke or a coffee, lad?”

“Pint of Guinness, fella,” Doon said.

“Ha, now, lad. What age are you? I’ll buy you a coffee but I’m not buying a minor a pint on a Saturday morning.”

Doon took an extended, convulsive suck of the slushie’s remnants as the barman beetled in behind the counter. When it was empty, Doon placed the cup on the bartop.

“You’re alright so then. Coffee’s worse for you than drink,” Doon said. He considered the two men again, and grinned. “You boys are in a savagely dapper condition for this town, even of a Saturday afternoon. Is there a wedding in or something?”

The men smiled at each other. The younger one, who had a V-shaped hairline with a bald patch spreading out from his crown, like Zinedine Zidane, shook his head. “We were in for a convention. Sales conference for the NorthWest Connaught Regional Estate Agents Association.”

“Christ, I lost interest halfway through that sentence,” Doon said.

The grey-haired man grinned again.

“So,” the barman interjected, but talking to the man, not Doon. “Did you want a coffee then, or?”

“You heard me decline the fella, didn’t you?” Doon sneered. Now he turned his back on the men, to focus his ire squarely upon the barman. “Congratulations, son, three souls in your dying-on-it’s-hole bar and you’re successfully chasing a third of them off. Profiling is what you were doing.”

Doon began walking backwards towards the lobby, his face bright with contempt.

“Your mam’ll be well proud. Speaking of which, tell her I said hello,” Doon said, and stuck his raspberry-coated tongue all the way out.

He heard the two men behind him chuckle again and his leading heel struck something. “Watch,” he heard the grey-haired man say as he swung his other heel into place alongside the first. He turned, knocking over the carry cases. “Jesus,” Doon said, stepping across the two men at the exact moment they stepped forward to right their luggage. “Sorry,” he said, feinting to step one way, then another, but somehow ending up still between them and the cases. He faced the grey-haired man and grabbed hold of his forearms, as if balancing or restraining him. The man stepped back and Doon stepped with him, like a dance partner.

“Sorry, lads, sorry,” he said to the man. He was close to the man’s face. The man’s face was indrawn and baffled. Then Doon stepped off him. He turned, picked up and righted the man’s case.

“I’m all of a daze with the harassment,” he said, gripping the case’s handle and yanking it twice to extend it out, before offering the handle to the man. The man looked at it, looked at Doon, and took it. Doon was already walking straight towards the automated doors.

He went through the lobby and out on to the street. He looked left and right, because that’s what people do. He checked the wallet, took the nice big fifty, left the two tens and a fiver. He went back in, said, “Found that outside, doll,” to the best-looking receptionist, dropped the wallet on the counter and went straight back out again.

 

***

 

His mother, as usual, was one of the first ones out. She came straight up the steps with her head facing forward and did not look back. She handed him the car keys and they walked towards the car park. They passed the apartment block. The wallet was still there, on the bench, and the instant Doon knew his mother would see it, she did. She stopped. “Look at that wallet some eejit’s after leaving there.”

“Come on,” Doon said.

“Check it to see if it says whose it is,” she said, nudging him.

Doon stayed in place. “Leave it. It’s not our concern.”

His mam looked at Doon and smiled. “‘Not our concern,’” she repeated. “Christ lad, where you get your talk from sometimes. You sound like a policeman.”

“A policeman’d be over there rooting through it with his big snout.”

“I don’t mean the sentiment,” his mam said, “I mean the tone.”

“Feck off,” Doon said.

“Now, now, don’t be regressing to sewer-mouthery just cos I’ve hit a nerve.”

“You’ve NOT touched a nerve,” Doon snapped.

She placed her hand on his neck.

“I mean you’ve got this authority to you,” she said. “It’s just your way. My lad. Soul of a policeman.”

Colin Barrett’s debut short story collection, “Young Skins” (Vintage), won the Guardian First Book Award and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge