Thursday, January 10, 2013

I am not a racecar; I am not a man.

Kill Screen posted a single quotation today, and it struck me quite deeply.  From a Monopoly expert:

"It's very seldom that you see a player not care about what token represents them on the game board."

That's it. One sentence. And that sentence is about, quite literally, Monopoly game pieces.  And yet, in a certain way, it's one of the most revealing and useful things I've ever seen written about games.

The speaker, Monopoly expert Philip Orbanes, is right, of course.  Any of us who has ever played the game, particularly in childhood, knows the ritual.

"I call the thimble!"
"Dibs on the dog!"
"The racecar is mine!"
(Nobody ever wants the iron.)

The game world of Monopoly is in some ways as abstract as they come.  Its colorful painted squares represent streets, avenues, neighborhoods; they represent socioeconomic strata and an insurmountable class and economic system.  Those little pewter-toned chunks of daily life we steer in circles 'round the board are our avatars, representing us as we navigate this world.  Even in a system this abstract, avatar representation matters.

In video games, avatars run the gamut from completely abstract, as in Lim or Thomas Was Alone, to compulsively detailed, as in every AAA game of every year for the better part of two decades.  When those avatars are compulsively detailed, they are almost always white men.

It's like living in a world where the only Monopoly token one is allowed to choose is the racecar.  I don't want to be the racecar.  I took the racecar because it was the only option given to me, after everyone else involved had their say first, and decided my outlook didn't matter.

The story of the racecar has gotten boring.  I don't care how well-written a profile is; I am tired of the story of the man who wanted to find a girlfriend.  I don't care how well-written the supporting or alternate cast is; I am tired of them not being front and center.  I don't care about all of the daddy issues that show up in every damn game; I want a dramatic story about mothers.  Or women.  Or anything new at all, really.

Box art: Halo 4; Mass Effect 3; BioShock Infinite

Everyone seems to understand, instinctively, that it's okay to have strong feelings about your Monopoly piece.  From a young age, we got passionate about the dog, or the car, or the shoe (but never the iron), and that was all right.  So why does similar passion about digital avatars create such a hue and cry?  If you say you are tired of the slate of straight white men, you are a whiner.  You do not understand that "sex sells."  You are a troublemaker.  You are a "feminist bitch" and worse.

I am not a racecar.

I am not a man.

I am tired.


  1. or the hat (me). or the ship (my brother).

    One of the worst parts about it is that for the vast majority of straight white male gamers (like me), from our perspective, fixing this wouldn't change our gaming experience at all. If we don't want to play as a woman or a different race or orientation, we can ... not pick one. Boom. done.

    Sure, it would take time and effort to make real alternatives to the standard tropes ... but that would end up making the games a richer experience for more people (which would make gaming a more enjoyable experience for people who are not straight white men - yo, single dudes, we might find more women who are interested in gaming with us if they could actually, you know, play as themselves more than once every five years), and as a bonus, it would give us richer alternatives when we wanted to play as not-ourselves. And it would help to reinforce multiple choices as the standard for gaming, instead of presenting them as some kind of "added bonus": find the game that has them and win a prize!

    Of course, these are secondary reasons. The primary reason should be that straight white men share the world with a hell of a lot of people who are not like us in one or more ways. Making games only for us is stupid and selfish; trying to keep other people from being able to play as themselves is stupid and immature. It's not a zero-sum environment (aside from playing head-to-head). I will not have less fun playing my game if you have more fun playing yours.

    Gaming should never have been "our" domain. It should have been everyone's. It should be everyone's. I want to see a gaming world where all games come with 10 tokens - more than enough choices for everyone.

    Does it help to support studios that design games with wide choices for characters? Do you have examples I can watch for? I don't have any problem speaking up for what I think should be done, but I feel like more than words are necessary to effect change from outside the industry.

  2. In theory I like the ship but the damn thing always falls over, so I end up going for a stable piece.

    I actually do think that yes, the best thing to do is to support those who try to make a difference, who write compelling stories and characters, who try to break out of the mold. Breaking out of the mold gets you punished, in AAA gaming, but I'd like to see it supported more.

    And of course, there are the indies and the adventure games and the smaller titles, all breaking out of the action-movie box and telling all sorts of stories. Some are still men's stories (Papo y Yo may be a tremendous work, but it is still a father/son game), others aren't.

    It's not even just about seeing *me* in games anymore -- I'd love to play a game where the starring character was a queer woman of color, or a transman, or had some set of concerns that are different from the tropes I am used to. The tropes I am used to are now boring.

  3. I've been thinking about the relationship between story and mechanics lately, mostly in the context of violence but it is also applicable here. Monopoly itself, of course, has it easy; without narrative or characters there is no particular relationship to gender, or race, or humanity in particular really.

    In gaming it's no surprise that puzzle/strategy titles have been more popular with women, from Tetris (and before), to Civ, all the way to Angry Birds. Like Monopoly these games are great but they mostly engage us intellectually rather than emotionally. Sadly they are often branded as "casual" regardless of the skill levels involved (something that is usually more a statement of contempt against the people who play them than anything else). You might think the financial success of inclusive titles would make publishers more interested in inclusive narrative games also.

    Unfortunately narrative gaming has drawn heavy inspiration from Hollywood action films, in part because they've been the easiest to simulate using our technology. Maybe characters take breaks for talking in between shooting each other but that's about it. Along the way we've also managed to import the worst of the action film tropes, along with the same old excuses. Both industries have made a lot of money from young males who are really into shooting and competing over young women.

    Not that there's anything wrong with letting women do some shooting too. I do hope to see more progress in other areas of narrative though. Maybe someday we will be better able to simulate what it is like to have a conversation with someone, and we can add more to our stories than all-shooting-all-the-time.

  4. What happened to Kotaku? Do you not post there anymore?

  5. Nope! Kotaku and I parted ways amicably on December 1.