Designing a fantasy, and how devs can do it wrong


(I’ve been inactive here for a while; busy with a project, promoted to guild leader and doing guild stuff, and general summer things. Anyway, I’ve still been posting on my Tumblr where posting is a lot easier and more convenient for quickie posts, and sometimes I think the posts can go up here as well. This is one of them.)


More Extra Credits, because they do great stuff. And more that can so easily be used to explain why women so often feel unwelcome, or at least a little put off, in the gaming space.

The episode itself is rather broad, but briefly mentions something that comes up a lot in discussion: Power Fantasy. And then it advises you create every aspect of your game, but specifically the visible stuff like art and sound design, in a way that fits this fantasy. Later on, it also talks about the importance of figuring out who your audience is to better tailor your fantasy to their demands.

And here lies the problem. Devs almost never consider women as part of this target audience. At best, “women also play games”, which basically means “yeah, we make this game for men, but we’re okay with women playing, too”. And that’s bullshit. You cannot complain that your sales numbers aren’t rising for all eternity when you so steadfastly refuse to include women in your audience right from the beginning.

When you are selling a fantasy, and you want to sell it to women as well as men (which is my shorthand for “anyone but straight white cis men”, which is a rather unwieldy phrase, so forgive me for stuffing it all into the “women” bag for this piece, because while I mainly talk about women, this goes for the entire huge and hugely diverse gaming audience), then you need to create your game for men and women. I’ll tell this bit specifically to the AAA devs, though if you think it applies to you… well, if the shoe fits and all that. Anyway. Don’t just expect women to keep buying your games when you don’t care about making games for women – in this day and age, we have an entire indie market to choose from, a market that increasingly caters to us because you clearly don’t bother.

But AAA games keep creating their fantasies primarily for men, and how they design their female characters, playable and NPCs, reflects that. Women are always a little sexier, a little more conventionally attractive, a little more generally feminine than male characters. Even in a game that is expressly a power fantasy, the female characters don’t cater to the female power fantasy the same way the male characters cater to the male power fantasy. They, too, cater to the male fantasy, with the most bizarre but logical extreme being the infamous bikini armour glued onto Escher women.

This isn’t a power fantasy any more once you leave the assumed main audience of straight dudes behind. And that’s when a game starts falling apart, because when you do not look at a game in this very specific way anymore (as even a lot of straight men don’t), then the pieces don’t fit the puzzle. You can’t have a buff guy decked out in battle-worn armour and realistic-looking weapons when his absurdly busty-but-petite companion is wearing a chainmail croptop and skintight leather leggings into battle, and then expect the image of the power fantasy to hold up for everyone in the audience. When you do this, you have no right to complain about people criticising your game for lack if artistic cohesion and realism, strange design priorities and obvious sexism. When you do this, you should at least admit that this is what you wanted to make instead of cowering behind excuses and “at least we have playable women!”. If you really wanted to include women and target them in the same way you target male gamers with your product, you would give as much thought to the female fantasy as you do to the male. And since you barely seem to consider the fantasy aspect in the first place, and when you do, you do it from a purely male perspective, you shouldn’t pretend that you consider women an equal part of your audience.

Small tangent before I stop lecturing: This ties into why people have a hard time accepting video games as an art form. Art ist criticised all the time for every little thing. Creators of video games so often try to shield themselves from this kind of criticism, or have their fans do it for them. They don’t give any thought to how their product reflects the world, presents ideas and opinions through its worldbuilding, design and characters. Art has to consider this. It doesn’t exist in a bubble. Good art has to consider how it affects those that consume it, how those consumers will receive it, or it will be rightfully criticised for it. A work of art has all its parts come together as a cohesive one to express its message. Video games often lack this cohesion, and thus deliver either really mixed messages or downright problematic ones. They can and should be criticised for that.

Video games are art. So stop acting like petulant children and start acting like actual artists. Until then, you have no right to complain about not being treated like artists, and your work not being valued as such.


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