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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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.