Arkham City and Mass Effect: Why do you so rarely get to play a character that experiences sexism?

There is gender in the world of video games but it is often one-dimensional or tokenistic. Games so often include prejudice and bigotry, but won’t direct them at player characters. Why?

Ever noticed that when there is racism or sexism in a video game it is usually directed to people other than the main character? From the over the top racism in the world of Bioshock: Infinite to the sexism of Duke Nukem Forever it so often seems to avoid the character you play as. Even in games like The Saboteur or Red Faction: Guerrilla, where you are trying to rebel against oppressive hostile armies, barring an initial act that triggers a revenge story these oppressive armies don’t actually hassle you. And in The Saboteur those guys are Nazis, the biggest bunch of pricks ever assembled on the History Channel, yet even they won’t bother you until you bother them.
 
Why is it that games will so cheerfully let us watch prejudice and bigotry, but won’t direct them at player characters?
 
One answer is perhaps that the element of wish fulfilment that permeates many games will not allow players to be part of an underclass or a victim. Would playing a game where you are actually persecuted mean that the game becomes less enjoyable, or would it add some extra bite to proceedings? There are of course plenty of opportunities to kill racist characters in video games, but typically this will be done to protect others. For example in Bioshock: Infinite though the world is a very racist one you play a white guy so nobody ever sends any of that prejudice your way. The racism often displayed towards others informs us that these characters are legitimate bad guys deserving to be slaughtered in the most violent ways possible. The main character is a proxy, a third party, intervening on behalf of the downtrodden, not one of them, a Messianic outsider to fix all the things.
 
Sexism however is handled differently to racism in games and will sometimes manifest itself against a female protagonist. This poses an interesting conundrum. Should a game world be as honest as possible and treat female characters in the manner that is consistent with that world? Or should video games provide a space where female characters and women who play them are given absolute equality? And what of male players, should a female character merely provide a male player with a more interesting rear end to watch in third person view, or should it be a different, potentially more challenging experience?
 
If we compare the female Commander Shepard from the Mass Effect series with Catwoman from Batman: Arkham City then we can see these opposing approaches in action. The female commander Shepard, known to most players as Femshep, is the alternate and non-canonical female version of Manshep, the male commander Shepard and the hero of the Mass Effect series. You get to pick at the start of the game whether you want to play as the male or female version of the character and barring romantic interests the story pans out in the same way. Catwoman is a secondary protagonist in Batman: Arkham City who crosses into the main plot from time to time but also has her own objectives.
 
The Mass Effect series is set in a universe that doesn’t have much direct sexism in character interactions, but is a horrible mess nonetheless. For example the majority of alien species don’t even have females that feature in the game. In one case this is an important plot point, fair enough, but by and large the universe is a sausage fest. The exception is the Asari who are there to provide a token alien female presence and nightclub dancers, mostly the latter. The Mass Effect universe literally has all things male in one set of species and all things female bundled into their own separate species. This leaves the humans standing around awkwardly in the middle trying to explain why they installed EDI into a robotic stripper body rather than a tank. Some of us liked the tank.
 
In this world however our intrepid Femshep faces no sexism herself. She gets paid the same as Manshep, she gets promoted at the same points, she is taken as seriously, or not, by her superiors as her male counterpart. Nearly everything remains the same and the changes are purely superficial. This does mean that Femshep is a formidable protagonist in many ways, though this is undermined in some regards by knowing that the character was written male and simply treated to a change of avatar and a better voice actor.
 
Contrast this to Catwoman’s lot in Arkham City. The character of Catwoman suffers from many of the same problems as plague the Asari species in the Mass Effect games, a great deal of her role is based around titillation, which is something that depictions of female comic book characters have largely had to deal with since forever. The art style of Arkham City certainly doesn’t fight against any conventions here and indeed it largely panders to expectations. However Arkham City does do something unusual for a game with a female protagonist, it takes the sexism of its aesthetic and carries that over into the gameplay elements.
 
This makes Catwoman a very, very unusual character to play. Typically, playing a female character in a game you kind of expect that character to be treated like a male character. This does not happen with Arkham City. The villains of Arkham City fear Batman because he’s a scary guy who likes to leap out of the shadows and kick their heads in; this manifests itself as a kind of respect, even if they are trying to kill him. However the bad guys have no such respect for Catwoman. They are crude, they are sexist, they make a lot of distinctly rapey comments and generally you get the impression that the intent of these villains is not just murderous.
 
It’s not pleasant, not in the least, but it fits the game and, ultimately, as distasteful as it is, there is a certain raw honesty to it. Arkham City is a game that owns the unpleasantness of its world and drops the player right into it. Having the villains acting like such a bunch of misogynistic scumbags makes it all the sweeter to kick them around the street, where’s the fun in battering people who don’t deserve it?
 
But here’s the thing. If I was a woman, would I want to be playing a character that gets the kind of abuse thrown at her that Catwoman gets? I don’t know and I’m not going to presume to guess. Therein lies a question though, does a design choice justify itself because one person (or one demographic) likes it, and is it invalidated if it alienates or offends another? Clearly the way that Catwoman was treated in Arkham City did offend plenty of people.
 
While I would argue that the sexism of the villains in Arkham City is fitting for the characters and ultimately improves the game from my subjective point of view, that’s not an entirely comfortable position. Just because I think something improves a game does not necessarily mean that it is right to include it.
 
Does this mean that our characters in video games should be spared from bigotry and prejudice because that bigotry and prejudice might resonate with a player who experienced them in real life? Maybe sometimes they should, but maybe sometimes not. There are no easy or universal answers unfortunately.
 
Bowdlerised and unchallenging games are awful, but we have to accept that what one person finds challenging another may find objectionable. One of the greater strengths of gaming as a pastime is its inclusivity and though obviously there’s nothing wrong with a game appealing to audience having every game chasing the same audience is self-defeating all round. Games should be true to their creative visions, but if that creative vision requires a game to antagonise and alienate then it needs to have a very good reason.
 
That said of course, if you want to experience all the fun of being subjected to all the most base and bigoted abuse under the sun, a new Call of Duty just came out, fill your boots.
 
Catwoman from Batman: Arkham City.

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

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder