It seems like we, as a medium, can’t go a week without having to deal with yet another controversy revolving around women in our games or in our industry. The biggest two that are being debated heavily at the moment revolve around the latest Hitman trailer, which has the main character killing a bunch of nuns dressed in leather; and the ongoing campaign against Anita Sarkeesian, who had the utter audacity to dare to start a Kickstarter campaign that would fund videos looking into gender tropes in video games. The latest attack against Ms. Sarkeesian is a browser-based game in which the player is allowed to beat her up, showing her increasingly disfigured face.
Out of respect for our readers and utter contempt for the person behind the game, I refuse to link it or the image being passed around showing it in action.
These incidents tend to repeat themselves month after month, week after week. The main theme surrounding around both of the above mentioned incidents is an argument about how far feminism has gotten in the industry (calling it a “debate” at this point would be needlessly kind to what has dissolved into a shit-flinging contest). On the one side are people who argue that we really should be more grown up as a medium by this point, stop treating women as sex fiends to be objectified, and maybe start showing a little intellectual restraint. On the other, when they’re not calling everyone else whatever the current euphemism for a homosexual is this week, there’s the feeling that men are predominant among gamers, most women gamers are casual anyway, and it’s just entertainment.
Unfortunately, as entertaining as it’s been to watch from the outside looking in, both sides are missing the point. The fact that the debate is still occuring at all is indicative as to why we’re still having it. Simply put, the argument about sex and objectification in video games is a largely artificial one created by the very people behind the games, all of whom are laughing all the way to the bank.
If you work in marketing or advertising, kill yourself. – Bill Hicks
At its core, the games industry is about making money. This is doubly true at the AAA level, where the publishers are all publicly owned and answerable to shareholders and the laws that govern their relationships. In short, it’s the stated job of Square Enix, owners of the Hitman intellectual property, to make money by all means legally necessary. Morality means nothing in any of this. If games depicting sexual abuse in the basest, most disgusting ways draws attention and sales, they’ll be made so long as the collateral damage doesn’t reduce sales for the company as a whole. If slavery were legal, a slave trader would be discussed on the Fortune 500 stock reports as if it were a packaged goods provider; and if prostitution were legal, GameStop would be offering preorders on Koreans. Whatever moves the ticket towards the black.
If there’s one thing we learned from the way Electronic Arts markets their more controversial games, it’s that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. This isn’t an extrapolation; they said just that when talking about Bulletstorm. Yes, people who are serious about the medium decry these things, but to AAA developers, we don’t really matter. They do a stupid stunt, Fox News has a conniption, and they enjoy the mainstream publicity coverage. Sychopants hop on message boards to defend the company’s right to be offensive assholes, further turning the debate into garbage and causing pundits like us to fervently wring our hands. The more we do it, the more attention we give to the marketing equivalent of napalm.
Things like the Hitman trailer are a marketer’s wet dream because, like a lot of other controversial trailers and quotations, it lives on beyond even the game’s launch. An example of this is Dead Island‘s trailer, which shows in reverse the tragic death of a pre-teen girl. How sad! How poetic! How completely and totally unrelated to a game that was ultimately just a buggier Dead Rising that took itself more seriously. But the game did have a hidden achievement called “Feminist Whore” which got people talking, so there’s that bonus for Deep Silver! Dead Island has experienced long-lasting sales despite not being very good or actually working without crashing, so ultimately, everything worked. Marketing people don’t speak in morality; they speak in market segments and the money they bring in, and we keep feeding that beast with our purchasing decisions.
Ultimately, the majority of people buying these games can be broad-brushed into two categories: those who don’t care about the controversies and just want to have a good time, and those who feel that this is “their” market, the “market” being one of the last places untouched by the unwashed feminist hand. The latter group are the Sarkeesian haters, who decry her attempts to bring attention to some of the industry’s long-held chauvanist tropes, many of which people are unaware exist until it’s brought to their attention for that oh, yeah, huh moment.1 They’re also the ones who react in ways only man-children can deeply appropriate. These are the same people who largely believe in something laughable called the Men’s Rights movement, which can best be described as a group of people mad that true equality is slowly coming into the world and is sending their idyllic, ’50s-era ideals of what a man should be into the history books. However, this is irrelevant to the marketers who have to cater to the largest sector of the market they can, and to the executives who could care less how the proverbial sausage is made as long as the share price trends upwards. If they have to make terrible games and sell them via terrible trailers to terrible people, so be it. Money doesn’t know or care what any of those words mean.
Until we get to the crux of issues like these, they will never be rectified, and we will continue to needlessly pontificate on things that won’t be fixed with words but with money, or the lack thereof for these publishers. The words spilled to either defend or decry these actions will meet word quotas and draw hits, but they will be empty calories, easily disposable and fixing nothing. People who are truly disgusted with the direction this trend is going would do their best to ignore the byproducts of it, both with their eyeballs and with their wallets.
1 – It should be noted that I’m not exactly a fan of Ms. Sarkeesian myself. I would elaborate, but it seems Chris Carter of Destructoid did it for me. Long story short, she has a horrible habit of extrapolating, stretching arguments, and then hiding behind the feminist shield.