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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle