It’s never “just a joke”

I wrote about The Last of Us Part 2 the other day, and one of the things I mentioned was its portrayal of LGBT+ characters. One thing I didn’t mention was that their very existence was enough to rouse an army of entitled man-babies to scream about political correctness destroying video games, as they have with many other video games that had the temerity to centre characters who weren’t straight white male “bros”.

I also didn’t mention the way LGBT+ characters are portrayed in other video games. This is from the marketing around GTA V, a very popular title that will be re-released for next-generation consoles next year. It’s considered one of the jewels in gaming’s crown.

It’s nighttime in the game and the streamer, playing as a middle-aged man, approaches a group of people standing outside of a club. They’re all broad-shouldered with cut biceps, and they’re wearing an assortment of wigs, crop tops, mini skirts, lace stockings and bikini bottoms. Chest hair pokes out from some of their shirts, and under layers of dramatic makeup, a few jawlines are dusted with stubble. The tight clothing highlights obvious crotch-level bulges.

The streamer’s character walks up to one of these NPCs and says, “Hello, sir. I mean, madam. I mean, whatever.” He turns to another and says, “Well, hello, mid-op.” And then a third: “Hey, you need to keep taking your hormones!” And then he pulls out a crowbar and beats one of them to death.

The defence? It’s satire. Just a joke. And anyway, the game doesn’t discriminate: you can beat cisgender sex workers to death too.

Let’s see how the audience responds to such clever satire.

…there are dozens of videos featuring GTA V players happily hunting down and killing trans characters, because they are trans.

What you see on screen is a reflection of the lack of diversity behind the scenes. The games industry is largely male (over 70% of employees are men), and the Scottish developer of GTA is no exception. Engadget reports that in 2019, women who worked for GTA V’s developer earned 29.3% less than their male colleagues for similar jobs and 91.2% of senior positions were held by men. Those figures were significant improvements over previous years.

When the only perspective you have belongs to straight white guys, the only perspective that matters to you is that of straight white guys. So your co-founder isn’t being ironic when he says GTA V tells “nuanced stories” and doesn’t trade in “archetypes”. There are nuanced stories, but only for the characters that are straight, white, cisgender and male.

The focus on such a narrow demographic doesn’t just affect what you see on screen. It affects who gets hired, who is valued, and who can get away with toxic behaviour.

Gaming has a problem with toxic men. Women have been trying to speak out about sexual harassment and abuse in and around the gaming industry for many years, and they were met with horrific online abuse as a result. Here’s Vox:

In the fall of 2014, under the premise that they were angry at “unethical” games journalists — a lie that persists today — thousands of people in the games community began to systematically harass, heckle, threaten, and dox several outspoken feminist women in their midst, few of whom were journalists. The harassment occurred under the social media hashtag “Gamergate,” which is still a hotbed of debate and anti-feminist resentment today.

…One of the most frustrating things about watching Gamergate unfold is that the seeds of it had been in place for years. Targeted online harassment against women had been occurring for years, across numerous communities, from men who spent years harassing one woman who complained of getting hit on at a professional conference to harassment of actors for playing unlikable women.

Here’s the New York Times on the latest attempts to detoxify the industry:

More than 70 people in the gaming industry, most of them women, have come forward with allegations of gender-based discrimination, harassment and sexual assault since Friday. They have shared their stories in statements posted to Twitter, YouTube, Twitch and the blogging platform TwitLonger.

…This isn’t the first time gaming has been said to be having its #MeToo moment. Last summer, several game developers went public with accusations of sexual assault, harassment and abuse, and were met with a swift backlash from the gaming community.

The article quotes researcher Kenzie Gordon:

The gaming industry is particularly conducive to a culture of misogyny and sexual harassment, Ms. Gordon said, because straight white men have “created the identity of the gamer as this exclusive property.” When women, people of color or L.G.B.T.Q. people try to break into the industry, she said, the “toxic geek masculinity” pushes back in ways that often lead to sexual abuse and bullying.

Gaming studios are often reluctant to defy those fans, Ms. Gordon said, but recently it has become clear that there is a demand for a variety of video games that appeal to all types of people, which requires more diversity among game designers and could necessitate changes in the industry.