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

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist