Recently, a friend sent me this image. It had been passed on by her boyfriend; it had reminded him of me. One might expect that connection to fill me with satisfaction, that I, a game designer and writer, am instantly associated with forward thinking and feminist ideals. Instead, I felt humiliated.
The thing is, in this industry, you don't want to be "that girl." The world has communicated very thoroughly, with Anita Sarkeesian's death threats, with so many comments on Kotaku, and with comments in the hallways of the workplace and the podiums of conventions, that being "that girl" is bad. Real bad. Potentially end of career bad.
But it's not just dangerous for potential ramifications on career trajectory. There's also a social component of how "that girl" is insufferable, annoying, and should be punishable by shaming. My friend's boyfriend probably didn't mean anything bad by associating me with this image, but what he communicated to me is that I am so much "that girl" that people I barely know consider me one. And instead of pride, the painful self awareness that has been trained so well instantly turns on me and says: Ew. You're that girl.
You see, it was a straw that broke the camel's back situation. Though I have always been a fervent feminist and had stout and stubborn opinions about the gender imbalance in games, I have refrained from making a fuss about it because it was communicated that to do so it was career suicide and generally just "uncool." When I did delve into more feminist conversations, I was reprimanded for being too "intense" or with the signature "oh, this again" eye roll. Then, this happened:
Seriously. What the fuck.
"That girl" is coming the fuck out.
I posted something on Facebook exclaiming over the ridiculousness of this art. The quote was: "Congratulations, Metal Gear, at successfully taking a massive step backwards and issuing a big "fuck you" to female gamers and industry professionals alike."
I expected an outpour of supportive comments. The fact is, I am blessed to work and live in a community with a low tolerance for sexist bullshit. Yes, there are a few bad eggs, but in general, the men I work with are incredibly self aware and some are even more fervently and vocally feminist than I am. Instead, I got this:
Now, this is the kind of discourse you will find on pretty much every single internet article discussing the design on this character. The points they will hit are:
- Well, DUH it makes sense because she has camouflage skin DUH stupid
- Metal Gear has naked guys too, sometimes! It's the same thing!
- Metal Gear has always had sexy ladies in it!
- Sorry it makes girls feel bad, but guys like it so shut up about it. Games are for men.
- Sex sells. Deal with it.
None of this is new discourse in the world of gender conversations about games. There are always "good reasons" for women to be naked in games, there are always ridiculously silly attempts to equalize the gender roles, and the phrase "This is what sells" is the damning trump card used over and over to destroy potential innovation in favor of status quo.
But I don't know. This one just made me livid. So let's go through why these arguments are fucking ridiculous:
Well, DUH it makes sense because she has camouflage skin DUH stupid
OK. The argument here is essentially that she needs to be naked so she can camouflage appropriately. As a lovely game artist said to me:
"Two words: Invisible Woman. If you create a world where a character can be invisible/change colors then you certainly can be creative enough to imagine there is technology that allows her to wear clothes. Slap a sexy body suit on her if "sex sells." Either this is lazy design or ignorant/pandering design. Both are offensive."
If the priority here is really that she can essentially turn invisible or camouflage for combat, there are countless examples of characters through history that have had full cover camouflage suits. I'm pretty sure they didn't sacrifice any sexiness for it, either.
Exhibit 1: Keira on Continuum, whose awesome suit has tech built in and lets her go invisible.
And if the objective is really just to make a character that employs Metal Gear's OctoCamo, you'd expect it to be gender equal, right? It's just technology, after all. So the men should be equally naked?
Oh, yeah. No.
Wait, so if it's really just about her OctoCamo, and it's her skin that changes, then she should just be naked, right? While Mystique doesn't turn into camo, her nudity is essential to the design of her character: because it is her skin itself that changes, clothing would make no sense.
As it is, when Quiet camouflages, she'll just appear to be a wall...wearing a boob strip and a thong.
Doesn't it make more sense that this is an example of exactly what Hideo Kojima said, that he has given direction to artists to make the characters more "sexy" and "erotic"?
Which leads me to point #2
Metal Gear has naked guys too, sometimes! It's the same thing!
Ah, yes, Kojima did say that he intended this sexiness to be not just about women.
"You're going to notice [when you play,] but there's limited dialogue with the [Metal Gear Solid 5], and for that reason we really want to show the characteristic from each character," Kojima added. "Sexy could be for guys, weapons, vehicles, it's really that characteristic."
You will hear lots of exclaiming about how you have to play as naked Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2, and how Snake himself is not a bad looking man whose body is featured by skin tight suits and other form fitting outfits. OK, guys, feminism 101, here's why it's not equal: objectification of the male body does not have the same history as objectification of the female body. This design participates in a system that commodifies and objectifies women's bodies. By designing a female character that is displayed in such a "sexy" or "erotic" way, you draw attention to her body and remove all attention to her abilities or nonphysical attributes. You commodify her sexuality, making her an object rather than a human.
Without going into heavy feminist theory, this is bad because it perpetrates a trope that is extremely hurtful to real women in the world that are trying to prove that they are more valuable than a collection of pretty body parts.
While playfully reversing those roles and putting a naked male character into a game is good in that it draws attention to how rarely it is seen (as opposed to female nudity), it does not accomplish anything more than making a tongue in cheek jab at a trope. This is because there is not a hurtful system of men being distilled to only being valuable because of their looks.
For perspective, you can see that this image does not accomplish the same thing:
The reaction to this image has been mostly humorous. It's funny. That's the thing: it's funny, because men are not employed as sex objects in the same way. So, while it might make things different to allegedly "equalize" the sexiness of characters (note: I doubt we will actually see anything even vaguely equal to Quiet's outfit on a man in the game), it does not undo the damage done by the original art.
Next, Metal Gear has always had sexy ladies in it!
Yes. Tell me more about how "but this is how it has always been" is a valid argument. I'd like to show you any book on history ever.
Sorry it makes girls feel bad, but guys like it so shut up about it. Games are for men.
OK, can we get over this bullshit about games being for men?
As of our latest statistics, 45% of gamers are female. Please don't talk to me about how you think all of that 45% are just playing Candy Crush. I play console games and so do many women I know, and all of us are fucking tired of this whole "games are for men" mantra. You know what's amazing? 45% of gamers are women even while the industry is actively trying to scare them away with art like this. Imagine how many women would play games if given a chance? Imagine how many women would play games if half the games out there didn't require them to check their dignity at the door?
OK, that aside, there's this argument that this game is designed specifically for men, so women that don't like it should get out. Here's why that is problematic. First of all, seeing images like this perpetrates a stereotype that teaches men to consider women sexual objects rather than humans, as well as constructing highly unrealistic expectations about the female body. So yes, even if women don't play this game, this kind of imagery still affects them.
Secondly, if women don't play games that are designed for men...what games are we supposed to play? This argument of "this game is made for men, deal with it" might be reasonable if there was an equally large and gender damaging category of games specifically for women, but let's all be straight here: there isn't.
The choice then is to choose between games designed for men and no games at all. Unless the industry as a whole is choosing it wants to exclude 50% of the population as potential customers (they don't, I know), then this reasoning is just stupid. Sorry.
And finally, my favorite:
Sex sells. Deal with it.
Clearly none of these games sold any copies:
And while we're talking about all the unsexy games that never sold, here's the list of highest grossing games: http://www.businessinsider.com/here-are-the-t…
OK, so we've confirmed that the fact "sex sells" as a blanket statement makes zero sense, it's interesting to look at what that comes from. It's true that sex sells to some people, namely the sort of mouth breathers that are going to say, "Sex sells, deal with it." But choosing to use that line of reasoning makes a very harmful assumption: that all potential customers are men whose psyches are so underdeveloped that the only thing that will attract them is the potential of "T&A," and that those men are so completely oblivious that they can't even detect that kind of manipulation when it's present.
And as for the rest of us? Sex does not sell. I was planning on shelling out my $60+ for the new Metal Gear game, but this art has indicated to me that this game is not made for me, that I am not welcome. In this case, "sex" has actually blocked a sale.
And now, for a point I'd like to make. There are plenty of awesome female characters out there, several of which have been contributed by the Metal Gear franchise. To Kojima, I would say: Why go Quiet, when you went so Boss before?
So, hopefully at this point, we can all agree on the basic fact that there is something problematic about this character art. The sad thing about the industry is that me raising these points in a much more limited extent has been faced with genuine confusion from the men around me. A coworker yesterday asked me if the issue was that I just didn't want sexy women in games, that I just wanted to do away with fantasy. The internet is filled with baffled men that don't understand why this is a problem.
Not that I can blame them. How many times have I let remarks slip, decisions pass, and art get cleared when they shot up red flares? It's no wonder that men are so confused when something pisses us off enough to make a fuss, when we're all too scared of being "that girl" to speak our minds.
I'm ready to be that girl. I'm ready to say that it's not okay.
It's not okay that I start at a game company and instantly get put on the cooking, fashion, and home design games while the male designers work on fantasy, monster, dragon, and organized crime games.
It's not okay that I wait a year and a half to be promoted to a position where I can write something meaningful in genre while watching men get opportunities I am qualified for.
It's not okay that applying to a company, I get an informal response telling me that I'm not qualified to be a game designer but they have a secretary position open that I'd be good for.
It's not okay that I discover one of my favorite games is being featured at Comic-Con at 2012 and the writer tabling there, a man I admire, goes from happily speaking to teenage boys about the game to cold distance when I arrive. That when I ask him for advice for a young game writer, he fidgets, tries to get me to leave, tells me that I won't make it the way he did because I'm not writing in Hollywood, and then sighs dramatically when I offer to shake his hand.
It's not okay that in a game company with a massive female employee percentage, we have to fight to keep female characters wearing reasonable clothing. It is not okay that the greatest design accomplishment I have to date is getting a knight character redesigned such that she is wearing a full suit of armor (as opposed to a tiki bikini).
It is not okay that a mild, demure children's game character I design is exclaimed over for her hotness, that a executive tells me he set her as his background on his computer.
It is not okay that everywhere we turn, there are a thousand examples of failures of complex female characters and art for every example of a successful one. Not okay that to participate in the world of games, we are asked to forget about our senses of self worth, our desire to be strong women in our own lives, our hopes of combating horrible body image propaganda, and our craving for simple, non offensive fun.
And now, I think, it's not okay to be quiet because we're afraid boys won't like us or we're afraid men in power won't hire us. We need to design games for ourselves, because no one else is going to. I'm not talking about the "pink" games about baking and designing your perfect fashion studio, I'm talking about games with realistic female characters that have merit for their abilities and are portrayed as more than sex objects. I'm talking about games with female characters that are not accessories or plot devices, that are not designed to appeal sexually to men, that have conversations with other female characters about things other than men. I'm talking about getting rid of senseless and tired tropes that frame women as damsels, that glory in the torture and mistreatment of women, that label women in classic roles, and that prevent women from having agency.
The $60 I spend counts just as much as the $60 a man spends on these games. The "man's world" will only exist as long as we let it. We are entitled to raise the bar for portrayal of women in games, and for treatment of women in the industry, and our expectations are not unreasonable. Be educated about what you're buying, be an advocate for women, exercise the power that is your credit card, and support people like Anita Sarkeesian and female developers across the world that are fighting tooth and nail for the basic right to fun.
Admit it. Things are not okay, now. But they will be. With time, we will all be able to be "that girl," and be proud of it.
1. photo credit: http://bigpaw.tumblr.com