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The pressure to get more women in videogames is finally paying off

For years, games have desperately needed to get over their addiction to tedious generic white guys as their protagonists for their own sake. Now, it finally seems to be happening.

E3 is a weird event, a mixture of a tradeshow, a party conference and religious cult’s coming together to summon its all-powerful yet perpetually indifferent Super-God. It is also, alas, the physical manifestation of all that is rotten in videogames. The blistering cynicism, the exploitation of nostalgia and the carefully nurtured groupthink designed to add more hype, more hope, to whatever products the big studios are pushing, regardless of whether said new product is anything good, new or of any genuine interest at all. You might almost say I’m not a fan.

But for all that E3 remains important, because E3 is the Fountain of Bullshit deep in the heart of the videogame jungle. It is here that the industry sets out its stall for what it considers important.

As such the signals from this year’s E3 are mixed. The first and most important positive from the show itself is that for a lot of the promotional materials shown for a surprisingly large number of games, the player characters shown were women, either as the sole protagonists or optional protagonists being given top billing at a major event. This nod to the greater inclusion of women in gaming has been a long time coming. Given the time it takes to develop videogames it feels like growing pressure to change gaming from being so overtly hostile to the women it depicts is finally starting to pay off.

This is a very good thing because, even setting aside the important issues of representation and casual sexism, games have desperately needed to get over their addiction to tedious generic white guys as their protagonists for their own sake. For years the medium has had a problem with characters seemingly created by focus groups and marketing departments looking to create heroes who will tick the boxes for optimal sales. You don’t make great art by pandering to marketing demographics and anybody claiming you can’t sell a game with a black protagonist or a bisexual protagonist needs to address their argument to the fifty million plus copies of Grand Theft Auto V that have been sold thus far.

That being said, there really is no valid reason to set aside the issues of representation and casual sexism anyway. Diversifying the characters in video games is a win-win.

The bad of E3 this year has taken a couple of forms. The most depressing on a personal level was seeing Bethesda announce Fallout 4 with an accompanying free to play, in-app purchase funded mobile game. I’ve hugely enjoyed the Fallout games over the years, but seeing the mobile game appear, and seeing it become hugely successful, has filled me with dread. I had hoped, in my naivety, that when EA released a mobile version of Dungeon Keeper that was met with an angry mob, lessons had been learned. I hoped that gamers had learned that embracing such products is helping to dig the graves of the games we love. Alas not. Apparently all it took to sell this where Dungeon Keeper failed was a slightly less cynical monetisation plan.

Meanwhile E3 also saw new kinds of shenanigans employed by Sony in exploiting Kickstarter to get money for the long-awaited Shenmue 3. There is no earthly reason why a corporation as large as Sony needs to use Kickstarter to get extra funds for a game that fans have been waiting years for and there is no need for them to use Kickstarter as a means to gauge interest in the game, they know people are interested or else they wouldn’t be talking about it during their E3 show. What we’re seeing here is Kickstarter being used to generate additional revenue during the development of a game and it is an extremely slimy precedent.

Gaming has always been an industry that pushes the boundaries of both of technology and of its culture. There is little or no sense of tradition in gaming, because it has simply not been around long enough to have one form. One unfortunate consequence of this is that there is no real sense of what is right and fair when it comes to how developers make their money from players. As a result we see an industry that seems more invested in finding new ways to squeeze money out of its customers than it is in making them something worth playing.

The highlight for me this year was the PC gaming show and seeing the sequel to Euro Truck Simulator 2, the self explanatorily titled American Truck Simulator being shown up on the big screen. It is hard to imagine a game being less at home at E3 than a detailed simulation of cargo hauling, but there it was amid the Battlefields, Tomb Raiders and Fallouts, a reminder that despite all efforts to understand games, gamers and gaming, it is all still a bit weird.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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"We’ve got things in common": why one of the EDL's original members quit

An early supporter of the group, painter-decorator Darren Carroll has had death threats since he left. But why did he change his mind about the English Defence League?

Darren Carroll is a slight man with bright blue eyes and an urgent need for redemption. A painter-decorator in his fifties, he has lived in Luton his whole life. He was one of the original members of the English Defence League (EDL), the far-right street movement founded by Carroll’s nephew Tommy Robinson.

Recently, things haven’t been easy. Four months before our meeting at a café near Luton Airport Parkway Station, Carroll had a minor stroke that affected his speech and vision. It was the delayed fallout from an attack in a pub across the road, his local. A stranger, who seemed to know a lot about him, started a conversation. “He showed me his arm. It was tattooed. There was a little bit of white skin left on the whole sleeve,” says Carroll. “He said, ‘Look at that.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘White is right.’ I said, ‘Nah, mate, I know exactly where you’re coming from. There’s nothing wrong with being white but there’s nothing right with it.’”

The man pretended to leave the pub, then walked back in and hit Carroll hard on the back of the head with his forearm. Afterwards, Carroll suffered persistent headaches. It caused a blood clot that set off the stroke. When we met, he had mostly recovered but was still unable to work.

It was not the first attack. Carroll has also had his front door kicked in. He and his children have received death threats. “This is since speaking up,” he says. “Not leaving – that’s different.”

Carroll looks uncomfortable when we discuss the early days of the EDL. “It was an organic thing,” he says. “Lots of people were involved at the very beginning for different reasons. Personally, I was not happy with the way the town was being run on a political level. Looking back, I was disenfranchised from mainstream politics.”

Luton has the dubious distinction of being a centre of both far-right and Islamist extremism. The EDL began here in 2009, in response to a demonstration organised by Anjem Choudary’s now banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun, which in turn was a reaction against an army regiment marching in Luton.

A counterprotest led to arrests and the EDL was born, with sometimes violent neo-fascist street protests spreading across the country. Robinson insisted from the outset that the EDL was not racist, but only “against the rise of radical Islam”. Carroll says it was local difficulties, rather than national issues such as immigration, that unsettled and motivated him – and he didn’t articulate the core problem as racism against white people, not even to himself. The EDL has never had a formal membership, but the think tank Demos estimated that there were between 25,000 and 35,000 active members in 2011, a loose coalition of football hooligans and far-right activists. Today, the numbers are much reduced.

Carroll’s family was closely involved and it was a while before he realised that the EDL was an extremist, racist group. He describes being at a demo in Birmingham soon after the first protest. “I looked at the other lads there and I didn’t like them. They didn’t smell right for me, as far as integrity goes. I thought, ‘I don’t want this.’” Carroll’s parents are Irish and he considers himself the child of immigrants.

It took several months for him to extricate himself from the group and stop attending demonstrations. “It’s a relationship breaker, so you’ve got to accept that things are broken for ever.” On building sites, he was known as the EDL guy. Work dried up.

Amid attempts to coerce him back into the movement, and concerned about damaging his family relationships, Carroll stayed silent for another year and a half, only starting to speak up a few years after he left the EDL. This triggered a new wave of threats. He reeled off a list of incidents: slashed tyres, smashed windows. “Last week, I got one on Facebook [saying] that I’m a ginger Muslim and I’m gonna get shot. That was someone I know privately, which I don’t take as a threat. Their particular problem seems to be that I’m on record saying I’d have a cup of tea in a mosque and sit down and talk to people.”

Carroll did so after seeing a Facebook post by a local activist, Dawood Masood. Masood had shared a video of an imam in Leicester speaking about terrorist violence, with a message saying that any EDL members were welcome to get in touch. Carroll met him and others from the Muslim community and they discussed ways to make Luton better. He told them that he wasn’t interested in religion, but invited them to what he considers his church: Luton Town FC.

“I had the idea it’s about setting precedents, because you never know who or what that affects,” he says. “I just thought, if I’m seen going to the football with them, it’s going to break a big piece of ice.”

As the EDL evolved largely from a football subculture, this was a bold step. They went to the match. “He’s Luton born and bred and he certainly don’t need his hand held. But I made him as comfortable as possible. Luton scored and he’s jumping up and down, loving it. At that point, I thought: ‘This is really Luton harmony. He’s cheering for the same thing and I’m cheering for the same thing. We’re both happy together at this moment in time. We’ve got things in common.’”

They have been to many matches since, Masood bringing his kids, Carroll his grandkids. Carroll has had a few threatening calls but remains undeterred. “The working-class Muslim lads are working-class Muslim lads. They’ve got all the same problems and social issues as us white, working-class people. It’s not just me or us. It’s everyone.” 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage