[eng] Juliana María Rivas Gómez - Not only princesses

 Berlin, March 2021

In March 2020, I had my long-awaited holidays, and because of the pandemic I decided to travel to Los Santos, the fictional city that simulates Los Angeles in the fifth version of GTA 5 [Grand Theft Auto]. One of the most exciting games I have ever played, with a good sense of humour, which mocks and makes a parody of life and violence. However even though I can understand the irony of the game and the overstated racist and sexist stereotypes, at least the male characters have a story and you can play them. The female characters lack wit: the wide range of characters varies from cranky women who talk about going to the beauty salon, the yoga-practising housewife and the bar dancer that by touching her you get to complete the “mission”.

I would consider video games as a social sphere that could easily be more flexible and permeable for the contribution to a less discriminatory society, one that promotes diversity and is not nourished by the dogma of gender binary. It has infinite possibilities of representing ourselves in other characters and gives us the chance to play online with people of different origins, languages and colours. There is so much imagination and there are games for everyone. 

I had the privilege of being introduced to video games at a very young age. Having a console in the early nineties was not a common thing, and I also learned everything from other women: with my older sister we ventured together to save Princess Peach, my mother excelled with her Tetris skills and my grandmother was the only person I have ever seen win the hardest stage of Dr. Mario. Although my first exposure to video games was through other women, the content of the games was totally masculinised and heteronormative. The heroes are almost always male, the female characters are either the ultimate prizes, the treasure to be saved or characters that can help you gain energy to continue the hero's exciting adventure. And I am not even mentioning lack of gender-diverse characters. 

Well, patriarchy works that way, it can either exclude us directly or lock us into narrow spaces with clear boundaries of what we can and cannot be. However, when we play video games we want to carry out the mission so, at least in our imagination, we can break through those boundaries. Sometimes we seek to identify with that character. Sure, it's not always possible; no one would want to be an alcoholic psychopath like Trevor Phillips from GTA 5, but perhaps we can empathise with other, friendlier characters like the brothers Mario and Luigi. But not many games give us a chance to feel sympathy for a female character if we see that they are completely vulnerable to the world, have no will of their own, are easily kidnapped, need to be saved or are on a mission to satisfy the pleasures of male characters. How is that going to help build up a pre-teen girl's confidence, if the men are strong and feisty and the women are weak and always in danger? As a child I was the hero, I wanted Princess Zelda to hand me the Ocarina of Time or save Princess Peach from her eternal confinement. I didn't long to be the locked-up princess, even though I was playing dressed as a princess.

Gender relations that are unbalanced in their content and plot are part of what is shown as attractive and seductive to start the game: saving the girl that is trapped. But we forget about her as soon as we start the mission. As Anita Sarkeesian would say, women are the ball, not the opponent.

At the same time, the bodies of the female characters even when they are the protagonists seem to be designed for the heterosexual macho taste. The male heroes are dressed comfortably in their adventurous attire, and the women? in short shirts, plunging necklines and ideally showing their legs. Much has been written lately about the less sexualised evolution of the famous Lara Croft, an important development in the industry.

There is also little or no representation of genders outside the binary. There are exceptions such as Overwatch, which created characters of diverse backgrounds, sexual orientation, bodies and colours. Although they have received some criticism for recently adding only white characters, they are still revolutionary in the development of their protagonists. Unfortunately, these specific efforts have not yet permeated the entire gaming community. 

The online gaming culture where you have to interact with thousands of players you don't know also supports strong sexist practices. Many people, (who do not comply with being a video-game-addict-cis-gender-male), choose to hide or disguise their gender identity during the game so that there is no risk of harassment and they can play in peace. Ideas and strategies for doing so can even be found on the web. Others prefer to avoid such games and look for safer spaces. And so a predominantly male environment continues to be sustained. In online chat rooms the experiences of women and dissidents range from insults, sexual harassment and discrimination to threats of rape and death. Moreover in Chile it was denounced the creation of an online game inciting transphobic violence. 

The video game industry is also plagued with these same problems. In this multi-billion dollar industry there have been a number of allegations of poor labour practices towards different development companies in different parts of the world. Examples include Rockstar Games being accused of not paying overtime; Telltale Games apparently shutting down without notice and without compensation for its workers; Riot Games has accumulated allegations of sexual harassment of even its CEO; Capcom has been accused of not allowing to form a union. At Electronic Arts there are accusations of employees under high stress from working more than 100 hours a week. There are also extensive reports revealing a sexist and misogynistic culture within the workplaces of these companies; showing that there is a "bro culture"; that women quit more and that management positions are merit-based. And a meritocracy without equal opportunities is rather the neoliberalism in which we live and then, at least for me, it stops making sense. And well, if video games are thought and developed in these spaces, it is to be expected what they will continue to materialise in their creations.  

Men have dominated the world of video games and unfortunately, they have carried forward macho discourses and dynamics that are replicated in the games they produce, in the behaviour of those who play them and in the companies that develop them. This idea of strong, dominant and aggressive men versus fragile, dispensable and servants of pleasure women is encouraged.

Fortunately, there has been no shortage of efforts from the gaming community to attack the issue. Such as We Play Too, an online protest against discrimination in games; Women in Games, an international organisation that promotes equal opportunities in the video game industry; or the attempts of some developers to have online referees or create platforms for complaints. These efforts are not without their problems: the experience of Gaming Ladies, an event that sought to be a safe space to promote women-only participation in video games ended up being cancelled due to a boycott by men. I am inclined to think that separatist events are one more of the actions that must be taken to forcibly redress lack of opportunities.

There is also a lot to explore in Anita Sarkeesian's initiatives which promote a more inclusive and feminist gaming culture: her analysis and reflection on video games has gained international recognition; and with her NGO Feminist Frequency they created the first video game harassment hotline. Of course, Anita has had to endure a campaign of harassment against her for her activism in denouncing sexist violence.

Little of this may come as a shock; it is rather a confirmation that in the world of video games there is also a lot of work to be done to end the deep gender inequalities that cause hatred and discrimination. I am proud not be surprised when I see that a major achievement is not a man's. I am certain that they do not concentrate all the skills and talents. I know that above all it is the lack of opportunities for others to access learning spaces, creative freedom, leadership positions; the difficulty of maintaining ourselves in those spaces while facing discrimination and violence; and to be able to enjoy those opportunities when we obtain them. We will have to continue proving that our gender identity doesn´t define our interests or skills. And faced with such a challenge I will now return to the PS4, I will probably steal a cool car, I may have to face the police and then I will choose Franklin and go on a long mission to finish the day.

* Juliana María Rivas Gómez (she/her), feminist and sociologist with a master in urban development. Currently she lives in Berlin and is forming an organization to create socio-urban development projects in Latin-America while juggling the difficulties of being a migrant in Europe during a global pandemic. She actively participates in organizations linked to emancipatory struggles mainly in Latin-America.  

No hay comentarios:

Publicar un comentario