Feminist Frequency: The Artist Is Present

So much has happened recently with regard to people being massive assholes about the Feminist Frequency videos and their presenter Anita Sarkeesian  (If you haven’t watched these videos, please do – whether or not you’re into videogames, they’re a really interesting deconstruction of a rather influential media thing.) At any rate, somewhat “in honour of” all this, I thought I might write down some thoughts about the issues Sarkeesian brings up as they apply to my own games, past, present, future, and pluperfect. This may involve me admitted to having been lame in the past with respect to gender, and it certainly involves me admitting (right now) that it may happen in the future despite my efforts to the contrary (sorry in advance), and absolutely that it’s something I’m finding challenging and that I think about.

(When I started writing this I thought I’d cover all my games in connection with gender and kind of “take care of it”, but then I wrote more than I’d expected on The Artist Is Present, so I’m going to split this up and start with just that one game.)

Queuing in The Artist is Present

Representing women in my games is something I’ve definitely thought more and more about over time. The first really defined moment I can think of was when I was making The Artist Is Present back in 2011. I was using the classic Sierra sprites for people, and I knew that I wanted the audience at MoMA to be diverse in the sense that it should just look like a bunch of people, not curated/designed. So I used random generation on things like clothes, shoes, skin colour, hair colour, etc. But then there was the “issue” of representing gender. And, yes, I have to admit that I was thinking about it in terms of “how to distinguish women” (see this video on Ms. Male Character from Feminist Frequency for analysis of that, particularly the idea that women should have to be “distinguished” from men by default).

When I turned to Police Quest (my key Sierra reference) I saw some super gross examples of early “breast physics” in their animation. A woman was a woman by having conspicuous breasts and a “womany” hair-style. I initially tried out having breasts as an option, but the resolution turned out to be a problem – there’s not a lot of subtlety in the 80×60 screens I was drawing, and it just felt totally embarrassing to make this the “it’s a woman!” signifier. So I dropped that, everyone is just straight up and down and thus, I suppose, a bit more androgynous? Does that matter? (I may have to write some other thing to think about how these things matter in the context of specific games? I don’t know!)

I did add a “long hair” option, which, again, I have to admit that I think I was thinking of as a “woman” thing, which is depressingly dumb. But I’m fairly sure that crossed my mind. But of course hair length doesn’t actually need to do that, and I did realize that pretty swiftly. So the “story” I got to with the people in the game is that any one of them could be male or female (or something else perhaps) and it was up to the player. They basically just have hairstyles. (I was also going to add dresses and skirts to the game for variety, but it was way too hard to animate and fit into my terrible code, so everyone wears pants or shorts.) Importantly, I think that when you look at the queue, it did end up looking (to me at least) like a diverse group of people, male and female, with different ethnicities, and so on. Or, and this is probably important too, it allows very easily for you to read it that way I hope.

Another key thing about the game for me was that the player would be randomly generated just like any other person at the museum. At the time the focus was just on that being another small way of emphasizing “realism” in the game – i.e. you’re not some special godlike avatar, you’re just another person – and in fact I really enjoy how easy it can be to forget which person you are when you’re in the queue for an extended period. But it does have the obvious consequence that your avatar can be read as male or female (or otherwise), which I’m glad about. The game never uses gendered pronouns (only variations of “you”) so there’s no language stuff either.

As for museum employees, well, the security guards in the game are just regular people with a uniform on, so they receive the full range of random stuff. However, in a classic “not thinking” step, I drew the person at the ticket counter directly onto the background and I drew her as a white woman wearing what I can only assume is lipstick for such red lips. That’s not “wrong” in itself, because there are people in those jobs who look like that, but I’m really disappointed that I didn’t just randomly generate that person as well so they could have whatever appearance turned up on a roll of the random() function. That would have been stupidly easy, dammit. Fortunately, that’s exactly what I did do in dMAI (the Digital Marina Abramovic Institute) last year, so that’s good at least.

Finally, the Marina sprite was obviously gendered as female because it was Marina Abramovic. She has that long braid over her shoulder and the long red dress, as per the actual performance, and it’s fairly obvious it’s her if you know about that. If not, it probably still reads as a woman because of the dress and the braid I guess. In representing Marina’s face at the end of the game I also worked from realism by drawing a Sierra-style close-up of a headshot of Marina from the performance. I particularly like the way this drawing (which most people never see) contrasts with its stylistic reference of “Helen Hots” in Police Quest, a classic sexualized woman-in-a-game who flirts with your character to try to get out of a speeding ticket (and that name! Ugh). In the close-up Marina doesn’t look glamorous or “sexy”, but she looks strong and like a woman of great endurance and focus, which she is.

27 August 2014
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