Monday, October 6, 2014

BrokenFolx - sexual discrimination discussion in games

This is a tricky subject to talk about. Inevitably whenever a straight guy voices an opinion about sexuality someone is along shortly to yell at him. This post will offend some, but read it to the end. I'm not a bigot. I simply don't see gender roles/sexuality as a reason to discriminate. I don't see a reason to react to it at all. On that note I am going to dive straight on into:


I played Brokenfolx recently, a small game about sexual discrimination made by Arielle Grimes. I guess it succeeded in its mission, because it got me thinking. It's a game where you are presented four examples of stressful situations from a queer persons life. Three of the four options were legit. Abuse from the family for coming out, the internal turmoil that gay people feel about themselves and the general lack of acceptance they feel in society. The fourth one struck me as pure misinterpretation. It involves a 'chat' between a gay employee (the protagonist) and a 'boss'. The subject of the chat is that the employee isn't pulling their weight. The protagonists response to this allegation is immediate upset and "you just hate me because I'm gay". This is the part that slapped me in the face.

I think everyone has the right to express how they feel about anything. No one has the right to tell them otherwise. In this case, the boss felt that the employee was not performing up to scratch. Common issue, no reason to assume it's a baseless accusation. The protagonist then drops into "You're just doing this because I'm gay, I'm going to sue you" almost immediately. This surprised me. Based on the conversation I just witnessed, I would say this has nothing to with sexuality. It has to do with the low standard of work being produced. BUT! Maybe sexual discrimination is still the problem regardless of whether or not the boss means it to be.

Pressure and Stress

Straight people don't realise the issues presented to queer people. We go about our lives - pay rent, find work, feed the kids etc - with our own levels of stress. And we all just love to complain about how hard it is. Queer people have these exact same issues (yes, even the kids) but on top of that is the constant pressure of discrimination that we don't need to deal with.

I want to head off on a tangent here to talk about my mate Daz. Daz is a bloke I know with red hair. Red as it comes. Daz is a big guy, plays rugby, lifts weights and that, he's confident, boisterous and has a great sense of humour. You'd never guess it, but calling him carrot top is a bad idea. He doesn't get angry, he doesn't get sad, he gets quiet.

You see, Daz has had to deal with people calling him blood nut all his life. When he was a kid he copped it every day in school. Blokes at work joke about it all the time. It's okay with friends - he gives as good as he gets - but in a social situation, especially when new relationships are being formed, it cuts him deep for someone to point it out to everyone.

To me this makes no sense. How the hell did we teach each other to make someone feel bad because of their hair? I saw Daz hold some dude up against a wall by the neck with one arm because he overheard him say "that bloody ranga". How does a human being feel that reaction is justified? Because it's not a reaction to that one comment. It's a reaction to the several thousand that came before. It's the product of the pressure he has felt for his entire life.

I hope I don't have to illustrate why this is relevant to the LBGT debate.

Back to Misinterpretation

So the boss presents a quandary to his queer employee: I feel you are not pulling your weight. The employee jumps straight to their sexuality. The boss is perplexed. When did they mention that? However, the employee has finally opened the tap and they aren't stopping now. It feels good to yell about it, it's what humans do. The situation escalates. The boss is a straight dude, he doesn't know where all this came from, he doesn't even care that the employee is queer. He feels this is a baseless retaliation aimed to scare him down from mentioning the employees bad conduct. The situation escalates. It's a positive feedback loop that happens all too often.

The problem is that it all comes down to misinterpretation. What if sexual discrimination was never the issue here? What if the employee was actually not pulling their weight? No one likes to be told they aren't performing well enough, and some people are more reluctant to accept that kind of criticism than others. I'm going to risk a whole lot of hate here and say that in some situations the boss is in the right. Some people are gay AND lazy. If I had an employee that didn't produce work of an acceptable quality I'd fire their ass, gay or straight. That's an employers perogative. You want your business to do well, you need good people. Hovering around (or forcing others to hover around) the issue of sexuality to avoid getting sued is just another version of sexual discrimination and only serves to perpetuate the issue.

The only way sexual discrimination will become a thing of the past is if people totally forget it ever existed. But that's a surprisingly hard thing for us humans to do. None of my actions are based on sexual shame and yet I have had them interpreted as such. As a straight guy in my mid 20s I feel misinterpreted. I don't even factor sexual identity into my thought process and yet it has been thrown in my face (a couple of times) as if I am the worst bigot that ever existed. In situations similar to that presented in BrokenFolx.

The solution (at least in this situation) is Daz. If you can't relate to the queer community, surely you can relate to Daz. Don't be that asshole who tipped him over the edge. Be the friends that can joke about his hair colour in confidence and comfort. Be the friend that 'gets it' and doesn't care.

Militant Overreactionists

This is the part I get yelled at for. The more vocal members of the more extreme queer communities often irk me. It's got nothing to do with their personal choices, they're just loud and obnoxious. I have been called a bigot for not embracing furries at games conventions. This makes me angry. I don't hang around with the furries because I don't fucking like them. Every time I have talked with people from that particular identity group they have been over-excited, loud, immature and ignorant. I don't want your fluffy dust mite and cat hair covered costume all up in my nostrils ok? I pushed you away because you fucking swamped me and I don't like being swamped. I don't deserve a tumblr dedicated to hating me because you don't know how to behave acceptably in a social situation. /rant.

So this is the ugly face of anti-discrimination, and it's just as bad as discrimination. The most vocal LGBT/pan/fur/fat/whatever seem to spew catchwords at 'everyone else' like we're all just one big group too. Sure, I'm male mid 20s but that doesn't mean I'm in the same basket as the bigot mechanic who charged you extra because you're loud and proud. Or the labourer who threw a bucket of water at you for wearing a hot pink latex jacket and matching pumps. Sweeping generalisations are what got us here in the first place.

The Militant Overreactionist minority are ruining sexual acceptance. Anti discrimination is a slow-uptake item that is hitting critical mass. The youth of today, with the avenues of the internet and mass media, are becoming more informed and more accepting of sexual diversity. When the youth of today is 40 years old, how accepting will their kids be? Sexual discrimination is becoming a minority vote, just like cigarettes. It disheartens me to see people as ignorant on the pro side as they are on the against.

So what's all this got to do with the vidya?

In particular, the Militant Overreactionists are infiltrating the way we design games and, I argue, having a negative effect on it. To illustrate, I recently made this character, 'Bomber', for Double Action: Boogaloo. She went through several iterations before I landed on this design, and a lot of my choices were based on a fine balance of androgyny and making sure she still looked like a girl. I payed particular attention to the hip/waist/bust ratio in an attempt to make a character that was decidedly a lady, but not a sexual icon.

But I have since been told that she looks 'highly sexualised'. Her ass is too big, boobs are (and I quote) 'all over the place'. I implore you, don't make me wrap my female characters up in a carpet. The human form is there to be eploited in creative media, male or female. Yes games have a history of over sexualizing their female characters (thanks Soul Caliber) but that doesn't make every game character over-sexualised by default. I'll admit, the criticism of Bomber came from an exTREME source, but sources like that exist, and perpetuate themselves throughout our medium and design choices.

LGBT in games development

I'm living in Toronto right now and there is a big push up here for sexual acceptance in video games, in the development scene especially. It's great, but I don't want it to become a cornerstone up here. I recall when global warming was a buzzword science firms would use to secure funding. Let's not allow sexuality to become that bugbear for games. Don't get me wrong, media to discuss the issue is great and the more the merrier, but we should think smart about how we create it.

A lot of indie developers develop in their own time and on their own budgets. Often this results in very broke developers clutching at very greasy straws (not unlike yours truly). There is a lot of institutional interest in anti-discrimination as a subject in games, and I'm hoping it will not be abused. Discrimination definitely needs to be discussed and I think games are a great way to start that discussion, but I don't want to see indies trying to get a name purely by making a game about sexual discrimination. I want to see games from the heart that invoke emotions and thoughts in the player, and I want to see them delivered in a method that won't shoo away the archetype that would benefit the most from that discussion - the bigot.

BrokenFolx is a good example of both sides of that coin. It is a heartfelt game and I feel like the creator has bared their throat by releasing it. It made me think about the situations presented (enough to write this whole post) and it made me feel for the protagonist in less than 30 seconds. That's a great acheivement. It's a perfect example of media discussing anti discrimination. However, the game is conceptually solely about discrimination and is presented in a medium that will only attract queer communities or those partial.

Games have a unique way of getting inside your head. The interactive nature of them means the player has to engage in the world presented, and this gives us an opportunity to present concepts like sexuality and discrimination softly to the consumer public. What if Elizabeth of BioShock Infinite (one of the most endearing characters I have recently connected with) was struggling with inner turmoil about her own sexuality? What if one of your companions in Baldurs Gate had come to you to ask your help with their sexual identity?

There are already plenty of examples of soft introductions to discrimination in games. In the Oddworld series Mudokons are racially discriminated against by Glukkons and ultimately almost wiped out. Did you play the recent Tomb Raider? An early quicktime event has you fend off rape before shooting the guy in the dick (it pretty much forces you to) and then blowing his brains out! The Last of Us shows a similar scene with everyones favourite Ellie. These few examples present the issue to players, and show it happening to characters they already relate to, thus making the action more despicable to the player.

It's yours and it's mine

I think this is what the institutional interest in discussing discrimination in games is based on. The concept that we can present the issue to the public in new ways that haven't been done before, and in ways that a politician simply can't. Governing bodies have already been formed to curate anti-discrimination legislation. There are support networks and companies based around the concept. But games are different. Games are grass roots, home grown and effective. We have a medium that is not only targeted at the demographic we need to impact, but that demographic is SCREAMING for more.

But the gov has a good track record of being so far removed from reality it's a joke. Peter Costello can have a peer effect on '==L33tG4m3r69==' the same as I can have an effect on his dinner choices. But this isn't politics, it's games. WE hold the cards. WE have the medium. WE shape thoughts and influence social debate. Lets not become that touring school yo-yo show that spouts 'Say no to drugs!' in an attempt to "connect with the youth"

There is a few more reams I could write about this but I've waffled on enough already so I'll leave you with one final paragraph

Indies have the power of creative control over their properties. I want to see this modern conciousness of presenting discrimination in games used properly and for good. Games can be a quiet tool for us to use in the war against bigotry, but they need to be well thought out and precisely injected into the public phsyche to have a proper effect. We're on a track, but let's make sure it's the right one before we get any further down it.

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