SXSW: Andrea Phillips ARGS and the hot Brunette

LIVEBLOGGED: taken during talk, so any mistakes are mine.

Andrea Phillips
ARGS and Women

A freelance game designer and writer, involved since they started. Also Chair if IGDA SIG ARG argology.org One of community moderators of Cloudmakers, one of the key moments in ARGS, when we recognised that something had happened. One of the ingredients of the community experience was the Hot Brunette, Laia Salla, the one who had a problem. Her friend, she thought was murdered. She needed your help! In context, 2001, Buffy was on air, last season of Xena, then Alias and dark Angel, with Tomb Raider. Our cultural experience led to the hot brunette. She was influenced by culture, and bin turn influenced on. Also, this year, internet use by gender was equal. In 2001, the internet did not feel completely safe, it was common to hide your agenda. In Cloudmakers, however, it was not long before we saw there were a lot of women. We wondered why there were the women, was it the format, the role, the community. Only statistic I had was 28% of the voters for a final vote were women in this fame. As the AI game was widely known and successful, it came the model for future projects; who tried to unravel that review and repeat the experience. And in marched the hot brunettes. They were young, attractive, smart, funny. The kind of girl a geek may fall a little in love in.

A difference btw the video game and a ARG, you are not the star of the show, you are not the main character. The star is usually an attractive brunette. She is not the one doing stuff, you still are, she is something between a role to achieve and someone to help. In the 2012 experience, the 2 white guys were very unusual in this genre. There is a trend, we have made a new archetype, so we need to understand who she is and what she means. So let’s tale a look at the history?

Do girls play games? Yes, of course they do, why are we even discussion. 40% of all gamers are female, 52% of PSP owners are female. Women over 25 play more games than any other group. (Neilson figures)

So why are games ‘for boys’.. why do we still have this idea that games are a boy thing. Was there something about Pong that was hypermasculine? was it the marketing. (see 1976 ad for Pong) But there are girl and boy games – lots of the over 25 games, are casual games, or social games. They are not really the big AAA titles, which are what ‘press’ call games, When we think of video games those err the games that comes to mind. Farmville with its 100m users is not what you think of when you come to a gam, not what a gamer plays.

Games are marketed towards men…straight men. The Sin to Win campaign…for Dante’s Inferno. So if you committed an act of lust at (E3) you could win an evening with 2 hot girls in a limo. There was a protest over this campaign, and the winner rejected the prize. Look at Evony -marketed with boobs. There are no girls (or characters) in the game. (Video of E3 09, lots of girls). You could say it was bad this year – and that was toned down. As a women, what E3 is telling me is that the game people don’t like me, that they don’t want my money, that I am not a real human being.

Games are Made by Men. Another cog in the machine that keeps games a boy things. there are 3 % in programming. Women in game make less money. On (Andrea) ARG teams, there have been more women on them than men. Recent results from an IGDA survey, a third of ARG builders are female.

Female Characters in games suck: classic role for female is the damsel in distress. You are supposed to rescue girlfriend wife, sister, princess etc. Often for some unknown reason. In Zelda, she knows everything, she disguises herself as a ninja – why does she need rescuing. Why isn’t Zleda a playable character. Even when playable, it does not go well. SO Super Princess Peach. Her superpower – MOOD SWINGS!!! When she is happy she flies, she drowns enemies with her tears. Bayonetta is in a category all by itself for its depiction of girls. The art director has talked at length at getting her arse correct. The ‘wins’ are ‘climaxes’. Her costume is made from her hair, that needs concentration..which falls when she is doing something. So her superpower is getting naked. One on 5 characters on a game box is female. In an industry fixated on realism, in light on water, in the action of dust. If they are after realism, they are not really getting there.

So What?? Why does this matter, why is it that girls play games, boys play games, It is not an academic question, it is a real problem. I could give you pages on sexual harassment stats. instead I’d give you info on my first brush of sexism. At 13, I moved schools; in my old schools I was studying literature, in my new one, I was in a class that had to underlined verbs. I approached the teacher to ask for more advanced work…the teacher replied that I had the most beautiful blue eyes. I learnt that being pretty would not help me. So i learnt to remove the markers of being feminine, I considered myself not a real girl…they like shopping and gossiping etc. At some point, you have to ask yourself where i got the idea about. So I had to ask what was wrong was me? My daughter likes girly things, and pink etc. I had internalised the message that girl things suck, so challenged my daughters choices. She was better than that. We have stigmatised femininity. We are cool with a women surgeon, but don’t like a man that collects unicorns. Girl stuff, means soft, pretty, in a culture…Girl Stuff sucks! the message in ads often convey this. If you repeat it, it becomes the norm.

A study has said if you consume a message, even if you disagree with it) you will end up adopting it. this is about the THE SLEEPER EFFECT. once info is in your brain, even if from a distrusted source, it becomes part of your world view.

PRIMING – behaviour and performance can be affected by situation and environmental cues. If you remind a girl that she is female before she takes a maths test, her scores are worse (as girls are ‘worse’ at maths). So who are responsible. the media. But WE ARE THE MEDIA. We are the media just as much as they are. As the media, we make culture, we put ideas into peoples heads. We have to think about what we are adding to the collective consciousness. So with our collection of brunettes in the ARG, we are saying women, even smart, competent women, need help to solve their problems. But why do we use them? What makes them useful. A lot of them come from the point of wanting to put in strong characters? So why young, brown hair. Writers are very lazy, building complex characters are hard. A mass market game want smart, funny, and vulnerable, Female means vulnerable, brown hair means smart (it’s a short hand)

When you start a character, you have a neutral human. But even so, there are defaults for a human – male, white, young etc. Look at a stick character, then most people will assume male, I’d be surprised if you look at a stick figure and not think of a gender at all. We think in genders..parents can get really angry if you misjudge the gender of a 2 month infant, even though it does not really matter until puberty.

We look at stock characters. they are easy. when you want to make a mad scientists, you take an actor and put him in a white coat and mess his hair. It’s easy, but simple, predictable and very boring, ad you can get offensive very quickly. so what is a writer to do? You can’t leave it at a stock character. You end up offensive and boring and which one is worse depends who you are talking to. So to make interesting, you pick an archetype and give them atypical traits. Mix and match. You need to avoid obvious, easy and predictable.

So, there’s nothing wrong with casting cute brunette as lead. But if it just for people to look at and there is no control, that is slipping into bad territory. So here’s a list of things to think about.

1. pass the Bechdale test. 2 or more women who talk to each other about something other than men. There are few that pass this test.
2. Give her agency. Give her the power to change the world. Lack of agency is one of the places ARGS fall down; although if there is two much, the players are short changed. If you give her free will, you can drive the story. make her unreliable, keep info to herself.
3. Diversify. add other dimensions. however, if you are not careful, then you get a cast of white people with different colours of skin.

The brunette is often a guide to the game world. You could skip this, let the players decide and explore.

There are a lot of bad characters, but lets look at what works. Faith from Mirrors Edge. She is conceived a human being first, who happens to be female. The female hero in Fable 2 – although he story is the same regardless which character you play. I though they used the same body model, so the female was strong and muscular. And in Fable, when you die, you scar. and there is no way to get rid of it. I liked that remaining pretty was not one of the rules. Then you have Shel in Portal you can argue that she is not really a character, as there is little about here. But it was cool that she was a girl and it was no big deal.

STORIES ARE TRUTHS: the truths we tell ourselves as a society, crime does not pay, love conquers all. Also girls like shopping…etc. the deep truth about ARGs is not hot brunettes need help but that there is someone on the web who will help you when you need it. This culture of helping people is the one that I want to build. you need to build the culture you want to be living in.

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