A still from a Skylanders game.
Show Hide image

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

SIPA PRESS/REX
Show Hide image

"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

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