Sunday 27 March 2011

Diversity, Like Beauty, Should Only Be Skin-Deep…

Ryan Clements writing on the stunning new game from Team Ico, ‘The Last Guardian’:
When I attended the Last Guardian demo at the Tokyo Game Show last year, the trailer shown was both beautiful and touching. As Director Fumito Ueda spoke, I listened closely to every word, filtered through a translator.

But during the Q&A segment of Ueda's presentation, a reasonable question was asked: Why do all of Ueda's games feature a male protagonist as opposed to a female?
And was a reasonable response proffered: ‘Why not?’..?
Ueda noted a few reasons, but seemed to settle on the idea that "girls wear skirts," and giving players camera control in this type of game could lead to inappropriate moments as the girl scampers around the environment.
I’m not sure why he felt the need to explain himself. Surely as the games designer, with a proven track record of innovative games under his belt, he can put whatever he wants into his game?
But I was confused. "Girls don't have to wear skirts," I thought to myself. "Why is this an issue?"
Because you’re making it one.

I play a lot of games. It’s never occurred to me that I ‘deserve’ to have a female character avatar. Some games allow that, some don’t. The ones that don’t aren’t any less enjoyable for it...
Ueda's other reasons were just as unsettling. He notes that girls of that age wouldn't be strong enough to traverse the environment properly, or at least in the same way a boy could.
Which instantly sets the ‘men and women are interchangeable’-indoctrinated male journalist off:
As Ueda's answers were translated, it was difficult to tell what was a serious answer and what was a jest, as soft laughter followed some of his responses.
So, thwarted, he left. But as the game’s release date approaches, he gets another bite at this cherry:
Months later, I was given the opportunity to travel back to Japan and see the first gameplay demonstration of Last Guardian, as well as sit down with Ueda for a private interview. It was a perfect opportunity to clarify Ueda's comments and put the issue to rest.
What issue? Why, the one that’s been bugging him since that last encounter, of course. No, not ‘is the game any good’, which is all you’d think might be of concern to a games journalist…
I explained to Ueda that I attended his demonstration at TGS the previous year and was confused over the "joke" he told regarding the team's choice to use a male character instead of a female character, all because of a skirt. I asked if there was a real reason that the characters in his games are male.

My question was translated, answered, and returned to me. Ueda explained: "That's one of the reasons, of course. But another reason is that -- if you particularly focus on this title -- there is a scene where the boy is on the back of the Trico, for example, or climbing the wall. If we replaced the boy with a girl of the same age, she probably wouldn't be physically strong enough to do such movements."
Why is this such a big deal to this journalist?
Ueda continued to explain that another reason was more technical in nature. This is where the translator had some difficulty conveying Ueda's answer to me, but essentially he explained that with the character so small on the screen, a "girly look" would be difficult to convey, i.e. long hair and a skirt.
Back to that again.
I'm sure my troubled expression was noticeable, and Ueda asked me a question: "Would you have preferred a girl?"

I said that I didn't, but that I was struggling to uncover a deeper reason for Ueda's choice, outside of these "technical" limitations.
Because there has to be one, you see. This journalist has to uncover the secret misogyny he is certain lurks at the heart of this decision.
I responded by noting that a girl of that age could have just as much strength as a boy, especially if she was trained or grew up in a harsh environment that required strength to survive. And a simple costume design choice would avoid the skirt issue.

After more translating, Ueda concluded, "Yes, one is a more technical reason, because it's not easy for girls to make acrobatic movements -- I think it's unrealistic. Maybe that's just my personal [opinion]. But also, many of the players are male, and it's easy for them to use the boy character."
An undoubted reality, though I suspect this game will garner more female players than the others, in spite of the lack of a female avatar. There’s something very appealing about the creature in the game - the way you need to gain its co-operation, rather than directly control it - that, I suspect, will appeal to more females than to males.

But does that put to rest all Ryan’s unanswered questions?
I left the interview feeling even more uncomfortable than before. I assume most westerners can agree that the challenges Ueda raised with introducing a female character into Last Guardian are non-issues and, more importantly, border on sexism.
They aren’t ‘non-issues’ at all. They are his issues, and he’s the games designer! If he’s wrong, the market will punish him.
There's a tremendous cultural gap between me and Ueda, who is communicating to me from within the context of his culture. In my limited experience, I've found that Japan has a much different perception of gender and gender roles than the United States. To Ueda, claiming that a girl is too weak to traverse a game world isn't an insult -- it's a natural assumption.

It seems to me that those who claim to value diversity really only value diversity that is skin-deep. The cherry blossom, the tea ceremony, the kimonos, the language, yes, but the culture? The real differences?

Oooh, no, not if it conflicts with our own cultural viewpoint! We don't want any of that...
Even still, I'm disappointed in Ueda's reasoning. I don't consider his words to be malicious, nor have I lost any faith in his ability to develop phenomenal games. Had he just answered with a simple "I prefer using a male character -- it's a creative choice," I would've been content. But he didn't. His answers reflect an unfortunate stagnation in Japanese game development.
But I suspect you wouldn’t have been content at all, would you?
He expected that a girl couldn't climb a wall. He expected that a girl would wear a skirt. Do I still respect the man and appreciate his good works? Absolutely. But even brilliant minds like Ueda's need to differentiate between legitimate creative decisions and ones that are informed by archaic expectations.
And I repeat – let the market decide.

If the game sinks, and the company find out (after evaluation) it’s because of the lack of a female avatar, that will resolve future issues. If not, and it’s a huge success, your assumptions have been proved groundless.

What have you got to lose, Ryan? Only your belief that you - and your culture - are right and everyone else is wrong…


Pavlov's Cat said...

Yet I doubt that he would ever write an article condeming female circumcision, or the way women are treated in Saudi or the ROP in general

No let's have a pop at a polite video game designer.

Foxy Brown said...

One of the things I love most about men is that they're much better at putting up shelves than I am. You're all so strong. Masculinity is a wonderful thing, unfortunately it's a bit of a rare quality in my north London environs. I also prefer skirts to trousers, and think Jeremy Clarkson is an extremely attractive man. Vive la difference.

Captain Haddock said...

What, in the name of sanity is a "Games Journalist" ?

And why do we need them ?

What useful purpose to the world at large, do they serve ?

Lynne said...

Back in the early 80s I spent a lot of spare time playing D&D because electronic games were in their infancy. D&Ders create their own avatars and many female players prefer to play as male characters, myself included. Why? Pure escapism.

Like Julia said, let the market decided. A good game, whatever the gender of the avatar, will sell itself. I won't be put off by a lack of female avatars.

Armour plated undies said...

I play WoW and always, as a male, choose a female character/avatar.

Reasons: a) I believe the females are just as likely to do as well as the males as in game they are, er, only pixels;

b) I prefer to look at pixels of females than males (and frankly in WoW the males look like muscular morons)

But I agree with the point being made here: if I like the game the gender of the character is of no importance. If I don't like the game they can have a hamster in a bikini coming on to me but I will not be playing it to take any notice.

"The market decides" is a phrase though that will always irk lefties, because they think they can think for us. Or on behalf of everyone.

Hexe said...

Ah, but, why is the game designer a man in the first place?

Next feminist idea on the agenda is to make a sex change mandatory for males, perhaps right after birth.


blueknight said...

Japan, see what 40 odd years of 'diversity' has done to the west? It's a slippery slope. Don't tread on it.

JuliaM said...

"No let's have a pop at a polite video game designer."

It's safer!

"Vive la difference."

Indeed. But real difference doesn't seem to be what these people want. I wonder, indeed, if they even know what they want?

"...and many female players prefer to play as male characters, myself included. Why? Pure escapism."

My brother chose mostly female avatars for 'WoW' (Possibly for the reasons Armour Plated Undies gave!). I always chose female.

I wonder what that says? Oo-er!

""The market decides" is a phrase though that will always irk lefties, because they think they can think for us. Or on behalf of everyone."

Spot on!

JuliaM said...

"Ah, but, why is the game designer a man in the first place?"

It's a VERY male dominated profession, isn't it?

"Japan, see what 40 odd years of 'diversity' has done to the west? It's a slippery slope. Don't tread on it."

I don't think there;s much danger of that!

Which is comforting, to those who really do value real diversity.

Angry Exile said...

Why do all of Ueda's games feature a male protagonist as opposed to a female?

I think it might be something to do with the fact that the world doesn't need a repeat of a crisis like the Great Kleenex Shortage of 2003 when Final Fantasy X-2 came out with not only, Yuna, Riku and Paine, three very hot girls as the lead player characters, but actually went as far as having a scene where they all have a bath together in a hot spring.

JuliaM said...

"...the Great Kleenex Shortage of 2003..."