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: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496