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The Girl Gamer Examined: An Interview with Andrea Phillips

Feature; Jul. 3, 2012; Channels: Video Games; By Kyle James Hovanec
Subtypes: Interview
OMGN sits down with the award-winning game designer to talk about women in gaming

Award-winning author Andrea Phillips has worked as a game designer and writer on titles such as Perplex City, Floating City, and America 2049. Phillips took time out of her busy schedule to talk to OMGN about women in gaming, the recent events surrounding girl gamers, and whether the industry is becoming a kinder, gentler place in which all gamers can play and enjoy.

Lara CroftOMGN: Over the past few years, gaming has become more cinematic and emphasized character development, such as Nathan Drake from the Uncharted series and Isaac Clarke from the Dead Space series. Do you think that female characters have also been getting more detailed characterization?

Phillips: It's definitely been happening, though it is true that usually the characters getting that kind of detail aren't women. That's a side effect of the fact that not many games use women as their headliners, though, and in a game where you're playing as a specific character (like Nathan Drake or Lara Croft), usually that main character is the one you learn the most about. (Portal being a very notable exception -- but that's not exactly a cinematic game, either.)

But these richer narrative games sometimes also shine that light on a wider cast, even if the headliner is a male character -- think about Bioware, which makes almost ensemble games, for example.

OMGN: Many critics seem to have a strong dislike for the female gamer movement with some claiming that special attention shouldn’t be given to gamers just because they are female. How do you feel about this?

Phillips: I'd raise my eyebrow at the idea that "attention" and "special attention" are the same thing. Right now, straight male gamers are like the birthday boy. In general, they get the power fantasies they want, an array of in-game romantic options that appeal to them, and marketing that makes it clear these games are meant for them.

The feminist agenda is to turn it from that one kid's birthday into something more like Christmas, where all of the kids get presents. Nobody is trying to take away what male gamers get -- we just want some of that for ourselves, too.

The problem isn't fundamentally that those games catering exclusively to the male taste and the male gaze exist, so much as that they're the vast sweeping majority of what exists. C'mon, we want our fair share.

OMGN: Some gamers have claimed that sexism exists toward male characters just as much as female characters. They claim that all male characters must have an incredibly fit body type or be hardened soldiers. Do you agree or disagree?

Phillips: Sexism does hurt men, and that is one of the ways -- the idea that men have to be muscular and stoic and brave is just the other side of the coin that says women need to be pretty and caring and kind. I wish we lived in a world where it was OK for men and boys to be sensitive and cry and want to be dancers and artists and wear pink frilly clothes. I want that just as much as I want it to be OK for women to shave their heads and be athletes and politicians. I want everyone to be able to pursue whatever it is they want, whatever makes them happy, without concern for whether that class of happiness is supposed to be available to people with their chromosome set.

But even that is missing a very important point about those fit, hard space marines we see so very many of. That body and that man are fundamentally a fantasy about being powerful. You play these characters not because you want to look like that in real life, but because you want to be that badass and strong and capable, to have that much control over your life.

The design of a female character with enormous boobs, on the other hand, is not about strength and power, it's about being super-hot. Those avatars are a fantasy of who the character designers most want to have sex with. Now, I've had my moments of being modestly hot, and in my experience, going through the world like that doesn't feel particularly powerful at all. It can feel a little scary and vulnerable, in fact.

But I want the power fantasy, too. I want to be strong and brave and badass. And I'd like to do it in a body that reflects my aspirations of being powerful as a woman, instead of someone else's aspiration of who they might like to have sex with. And y'know, once in a while I might like to have my own fantasies about who I might want to have sex with represented in the game, too. And that guy definitely does not look like Duke Nukem.

And note that it's actually way more OK for male characters in video games to not look super-muscular than it is for female characters to not look pretty. Think about Super Mario with his paunch. Can you think of many examples of a female playable character who's just kind of a schlumpy average Jane like Mario? Or any at all?

Felicia Day in Dragon Age IIOMGN: Another main claim toward the perspective of females in games are statements such as, “Games are meant for escapism,” or “What do you expect in a male dominated industry aimed primarily at males?” In other words, we hear a lot of, “It’s just a video game,” and “A realistic video game with realistic characters would be boring.” How would you respond to this?

Phillips: Well, and that's the point, isn't it? It's all about whose escapism is being addressed. Women want escapism, too. We want our own power fantasy. Share the presents, guys.

But there is a deeper cultural issue here, too, about the portrayal of women in media and the effect that has on the world. There's no such thing as "just a video game" or "just a movie." Culture is the sum total of all of these messages combined. If all of our cultural artifacts together don't have any variety -- if we only ever see "the only women of value are hot, and this is their only significant quality" -- over time that changes our expectations about how the world operates... and ultimately how we behave, too.

For the science, look at topics like priming, Michael Bruter's time bomb effect, and even the book Information Diet. Every piece of media we consume changes our brain. Even when it's not a message you agree with ... it seeps into you, whether you like it or not. It becomes a part of who you are.

OMGN: One recent controversy dealt with the upcoming Tomb Raider title and an apparent scene in the game involving rape. The developers claimed that this was a crucial step toward her evolution as a character. There was an outcry, and eventually the rape claim was downplayed. Critics saw this as the developers caving to feminist outcries and asked why it was not acceptable to show rape when other mediums feature it. What would your response be?

Phillips: I think they didn't quite know what they were getting into, to be honest.

There are a number of issues here that have been conflated. There's the question of whether rape should be a taboo topic in a video game, a separate question of whether this is lazy storytelling, and a third question about whether this was appropriate or in keeping with Lara Croft specifically, and what people admire her for.

So I don't think rape is a topic that should absolutely never come up in games; I tend to hate making anything off-limits in art, and games are definitely an art form. I think there could be something powerful, in fact, about creating that feeling of helplessness and lack of agency in the player. But it wouldn't be something to do lightly.

I do think it is lazy storytelling, though. There's a great article by John Perich about the "three fates" of women in entertainment. When something dramatic and character-building happens to a man, it could be that they lose a job, get framed or arrested, etc., etc. But for women, that kind of gritty characterization often comes down to three things: They can get pregnant; they can get kidnapped; and they can be raped or sexually assaulted. It's just so been done. Dig a little deeper! Tell more interesting stories! Let the diversity of female experience match the diversity of male experience because the reality of women's lives is so much bigger than that. Fantasy should reflect that, too.

I think the outcry regarding this new Tomb Raider title, though, is about something a little more complex. Lara Croft, for all that she was rendered with gigantic breasts, was something close to that power fantasy for women. She was competent and powerful and brave, and that was wonderful.

So to women who were fans of Lara all along, suddenly adding rape into the mix feels like a betrayal. Because now they have to figure out how to fit a history of rape into their power fantasy, and that just doesn't work -- especially for women who actually have been raped and for whom it winds up being a little too close to home.

Rape isn't an obstacle that you must overcome on the path to greatness. It's not something that motivates you to be a world-famous explorer. It does not set up the character of Lara Croft to become the woman we might secretly want to be; instead it erases her history of being so badass. It diminishes our perception of what she's all about. If Lara Croft -- EVEN LARA CROFT -- was powerless in this horrible, traumatic situation, then ... why exactly did we want to be her, again?

Female Shepard from Mass Effect 3OMGN: Another criticism toward female gamers is that they are too sensitive toward issues. Claims go as far to say that male gamers face just as much homophobia, xenophobia, and ill will toward them both off and online and that female gamers just need to toughen up. One comment I read from the website The Mary Sue, said, “If you are this easily offended by something that is purely fantasy, then you must have an incredibly difficult time surviving in the real world.” What would your response be?

Phillips: That "real world" statement is ludicrous on the face of it. In the real world, I can walk down the street without anyone telling me I'm fat, ugly, or slutty. By the same token, in the real world, it's generally not OK to call someone a religious or racial slur. In fact, that kind of behavior can get you fired or suspended or escorted from the premises in many cases. Any kind of intentionally hurtful speech isn't OK by my books, whether it's in a gaming context or not.

Just because something exists doesn't mean it's OK, and even if bigger problems exist, that doesn't mean that mine don't count. It's OK to complain about how much it hurt to stub your toe, even if someone else broke their foot. It's OK to be unhappy that you need to replace your worn tires even if someone else was T-boned by a delivery truck.

This isn't a zero-sum game, either. It's not like only one problem can be addressed. Being human to women doesn't mean you have to keep hurling gay and racial slurs. Ideally we could fix all of the things and make everything better for everyone.

It all comes down to one whopping big question, really. What kind of world do you want to live in? I'd like to live in a world where people treat each other with respect and consideration across the board. Is that really such a terrible thing to want?

OMGN: Another claim says that if girl gamers want to be treated with equal footing, then they need to accept that fact that they are a “gamer” and not a “girl gamer.” The question goes, "I am not called a guy gamer, what do genders have to do with anything.” How do you feel about this?

Phillips: That's the thing; women want to be just gamers. But we can't remove "I'm a woman" from our identities just because we happen to be playing games. And the games on offer and the culture of multiplayer keep throwing the desire just to be accepted as gamers right back in our faces. Seriously, take a look at "Fat, Ugly or Slutty" and see what it's like.

We're constantly being reminded that we're second-class through marketing that makes it clear we are not the intended customers; through design choices in which we don't exist or exist only as sexual objects; and through a culture in which it's OK to say you're going to rape someone because they happen to be better than them with a smoke bomb.

Queen of Blades from Starcraft IIOMGN: Female gamers have recently come under fire for trying to start creative projects including Anita Sarkeesian from Feminist Frequency whose Kickstarter project to fund a new video series was met with harsh criticism, extremely sexist comments, and the hacking of her wiki page to display pornography and profanity. In your opinion, was this surprising? Do you feel that a female interested in making a mark in the gaming industry should expect to come under this much abuse? What does this say about the gaming population as a whole?

Phillips: It's disappointing but not ultimately surprising. There's a long history of trolling and hateful comments throughout the feminist blogosphere. Frankly, I'm surprised I've never caught much of that myself. (Knock on wood!) A woman coming into the games industry will have to expect some abuse; it's the ugly reality.

But I do think there's a sea of change in progress, and the hate is coming mostly from a loud minority of gamers who happen to be feeling very threatened right now. By and large, gamer culture is made up of great people who either haven't had the fight in them to try to make it better for everyone, or hadn't cottoned to the idea that maybe there really is something there worth fighting for. And now that there is this broader awareness, men and women both are increasingly starting to speak up when something happens that just isn't cool.

Change is hard, even change for the better. But I do think change is happening.

OMGN: In regard to insensitive characters and stereotypes toward females, where does the responsibility fall to the developers? Is this something that they need to change or rather an expression of creativity that should be protected?

Phillips: Artists can't operate in a vacuum; they have to understand the context in which they're working and the impact they have on the world. That's simply a part of making art.

So look, I'm not saying that every game developer suddenly needs to start making games with only women and minorities in them. Obviously that would never happen, anyhow. But I do think a game developer has a responsibility to look over their body of work and the messages that it's conveying, and think very hard about how they're shaping our shared culture. Do all of your games have only men in them? Only white people? Only straight people? Do the not-white-male-straight people ever get the leading role?

If so, it's probably not on purpose, but just because you never thought about it before. And now that you think about it, maybe as an artist and creator, it might be more fulfilling to break out of the formula and see what else you can make. Question every part of your design to make sure you're not just going along with a bunch of defaults. Its better storytelling, better game design, better art.

And as a businessperson, it behooves you to intentionally try to attract the broadest audiences you can. Gamers tend to follow studios and franchises. Look at the new Vita game for Assassin's Creed -- you're not going to see many fans skipping it because it happens to have a woman of color in the starring role. (Though it may sell poorly just because it's a Vita game, heh.) But you will yet see people pick up the game who wouldn't have touched the franchise before, just because of Aveline. Expanding the audience through diversity. Everybody wins.

Lightning from Final Fantasy XIIIOMGN: I asked you two years ago about your favorite characters in video games. Has this list changed?

Phillips: I'm always adding on! Since last we spoke I've become a big Dragon Age fan. I have an enormous and extremely embarrassing crush on Alistair. The casts of Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 had a lot of great hits and a couple of misses: Origins was by and large magnificent, and even in 2, Aveline, Varric, and Fenris were all very finely drawn.

Portal 2 wound up being a gorgeous character piece about GladOS -- very nuanced. They did a fantastic job with her. I've unfortunately been spending a lot of time with games with only mediocre characterization lately, though ... Amalur and Skyrim were both pretty weak on that front, for example.

OMGN: In light of the recent issues of sexism in gaming, what can we as gamers do to make things better? What can developers do?

Phillips: I actually think this sound and fury is a very good sign. It means these concerns are being taken seriously. They're entering the mainstream of gamer consciousness.

You see sites like Kotaku starting to engage in the conversation over gender representation. You see male gamers wading into the topic thoughtfully. You see a dawning realization across the industry that maybe there are some issues, and maybe it wouldn't ruin gaming forever to see them addressed. You see studios like Bioware and Ubisoft releasing games with women, with people of color, with options for gay romances, and the best part is, you see straight white male gamers playing those games, too. And liking them just fine!

So progress is definitely being made. But to keep the ball moving toward the goal, we have to keep talking about it. Demanding better behavior from other gamers, and calling out all of the -isms when you see them. Developers need to take more creative risks -- but honestly they should be doing that anyway, simply to further the progress of games as an art form.

I honestly haven't been this optimistic about the state of gamer culture ever, ever before. And that's because there is a conversation now, and it isn't just women having it. That's a beautiful thing. Now we just all need to keep talking.

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