A still from a Skylanders game.
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Should I be worried that my son is hooked on a game without any credible female characters?

It’s tough to be “game positive” when your son is addicted to Skylanders, a game in which a mostly male cast of fantasy heroes have to smash and bash their way through a mostly male cast of fantasy baddies.

My son is an addict.

No, it’s not crack, he’s only seven years old. Instead he’s addicted to Skylanders, a product conceived by veteran game developers Toys for Bob and published by Activision.

I’m not ashamed that my son is playing video games. We love games at our house. But it’s tough to be “game positive” when of all the ones my son could have chosen to fixate on he’s gone and picked a game that expresses all the gender problems of the games industry.

It’s not that the game is casually sexist: it’s just stupid. Plain dumb. It is lacking in plot, emotional depth and originality. Its depiction of gender, for example, is right out of the 8-bit era, and while the game has many other faults (such as compelling parents to buy overpriced plastic figurines), this fault is particularly conspicuous.

I live in a house full of games. It is a Lady Geek household after all. My son does not have to beg for the latest titles – they miraculously turn up. With the explosion in female gaming meaning women now almost equal men in terms of gaming numbers (women now account for 46 per cent of recent game purchasers), smart developers have been formulating products that appeal equally to men and women.

Last year’s reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise brought its young protagonist back to the small screen. The big-boobed, hot-panted heroine of the Nineties has been replaced with an altogether more realistic heroine.

The game’s principal writer, Rihanna Pratchett, created a credible female character who suffers and grows as she overcomes the challenges of the game. She’s not a drop-in replacement for a generic male action-hero.

The Skylanders series by comparison is an example of how to get it wrong.

The sky-lands are a man’s world, and this is a game in which a mostly male cast of fantasy heroes have to smash and bash their way through a mostly male cast of fantasy baddies. There’s almost no problem that cannot be overcome by slashing or shooting.

There are characters who are explicitly female such as Ningini. You can tell they are female because they are narrower-waisted with disproportionately large breasts and they grunt in a slightly higher-pitched tone than their male counterparts. These physical characteristics aside, they are functionally identical to the male characters – that is to say they obliterate and plunder in a broadly similar way.

For reasons of cost or lack of imagination – the female characters are merely alternative “models” – animated graphics that are loaded each time the player selects another character. The end result is a sort of PC pretence that gender differences don’t exist, since in this game everybody does exactly the same job in exactly the same way.

This is probably why Activision describe their characters as “genderless” although their marketing material would lead one to think otherwise. One thing the game is entirely lacking in, however, is the sort of self-parodying “get to the choppa” irony that might have injected it with a much-needed layer of humour. Sadly, though, this is a game whose interactive components feature almost no dialogue.

We should subject all video-games to an adapted version of the Bechdel test that applies to film and asks: do any two female characters speak about anything other than men? This game, with its voiceless, characterless cast list of “fe-male” identikits, doesn’t score highly.

My criticism of the game is not rooted in some kind of feminist crusade. Games-makers are not constrained by a moral imperative to deliver positive gender messages. But they should feel impelled to raise themselves above mediocrity. Whatever your criticisms of Grand Theft Auto, and the list is extensive,  the satirical delight it takes in depicting the very worst of humanity sets it both apart from and above Skylanders

Most of all, though, Skylanders fails for me because it’s so banal, unexceptional and uninspired. This is a game that costs so much and yet says so little, and one whose technology and fantasy setting stand in contrast to its mundane ambitions.

Women buy games, and they buy them in their masses, but I can’t see many buying into this one. Games developers need to provide its female protagonists with a voice and a personality. Because at 46 per cent of the market, personality pays.

Belinda Parmar is the founder of Little Miss Geek and the CEO of Lady Geek. She tweets @belindaparmar. Her book “The Empathy Revolution” will be published on 26 May

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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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