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You know, I really didn’t want to have to write this. I really, really didn’t want to have to sit down and explain that games are media and that media socializes us and hey, that’s shaping our society.
Apparently, though, I do. The above is the TL;DR version. Below, well… I’m long-winded and the proof is in this blog post.
Hi, my name is Kurn. I’m a woman in my 30s who has a Bachelor of Arts, Specialization Sociology. I have been a gamer since I got my first gaming console, an Atari 2600, at the age of five. Today, I want to talk to you about something called socialization.
Socializing someone, according to the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is when you “teach (someone) to behave in a way that is acceptable in society“. We are all socialized. We all learn various rules and customs and norms applicable to our respective societies. These run the gamut from “primary socialization” (where kids learn, for example, not to pick their noses in public) through to gender and racial socialization. (More on those here at Wikipedia.)
There are countless ways in which we are taught what is acceptable and preferred in our lives and these ways can be divided into “social institutions” (more here on Wikipedia). The family is the first social institution we encounter and this is where a lot of our ideals and beliefs are first acquired. Religion, schools, our friends and peers, all of these further help to socialize us.
Then there are some more “formal” norms we adopt through legal systems. In North America, we drive on the right-hand side of the road. This is a learned, socialized behaviour that is the norm here. In the United Kingdom, though, one drives on the left-hand side. Both are backed up by various legal systems, meaning that if you drive on the wrong side of the road, you’re going to be subject to fines or other punishments from the legal system in that particular country.
Mass Media and Socialization
Another way of being taught what society accepts is through mass media. Things like newspapers, radio, comics, books, television, the Internet… and yes, video games are part of it.
In my mind, the thing that is problematic about media is that, far too often, media just reflects society’s status quo back at us. That’s not to say that there aren’t amazing books and shows and movies and games out there that dare to think outside the box, because there are, but the majority of them seem to take the status quo and reflect it back at us. Why? Presumably because it’s what’s already accepted by society. Presumably because it’s “safe” and will have “mass appeal”. Remember, so much of today’s mass media is produced in order to make a profit. Network television shows want lots of viewers to charge advertisers more money. Movies want lots of viewers to pay for their trip to the movies (even more than once) to make more money, so that they can earn their studios more money than just breaking even.
To me, this is problematic because, well, it’s unoriginal, but more importantly, because there are a lot of things about current (North American) society that I don’t think really should be reflected. These things include, but are not limited to, sexism, racism and homophobia. And yet, these concepts are reflected to us in a vast majority of media to which we’re exposed.
You want examples? Awesome. I’ve got examples.
Let’s look at Star Wars. I’m talking about the original one, Episode IV – A New Hope. I would imagine that many, many, many people have seen this. So let me ask you this: how many women (with a line of dialogue!) are in that movie?
Well, obviously, there’s Princess Leia. And… hm. Aunt Beru? Yeah, she had a few lines.
Any others? Not that I can think of. Now, I could be wrong, but there’s no way that there’s another woman in the movie who has even close to the amount of dialogue Leia has.
So for prominent male characters, you’ve got: Luke, Uncle Owen, Han Solo, Obi-Wan, Vader, C-3PO, Chewie and various generals and rebel pilots.
For women, you have: Leia and Aunt Beru.
… see a problem there? It’s certainly imbalanced in favour of men having more important (or, at least, more prominent) roles than women. (I won’t even get into the whole “I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you” bit, which puts Leia in danger and needing to be rescued by men.)
This is not to say that Star Wars is a terrible movie. I loved it as a kid and still enjoy the occasional viewing. However, it helps to reinforces the societal belief that men are supposed to be more important than women. (This societal belief is shown by a variety of things in real life, including, but not limited to, the fact that in the United States in 2013, women earned, on average, only about 82.1% of what men did.)
There are dozens of other examples of sexism, but I figured that was a pretty basic one that we could all agree on. Again, it’s not to say the movie is bad, just that it’s lacking in at least one area. It was also released in 1977, so maybe you would think that, perhaps, movies have made a lot of progress in showing women as being equals in the intervening 37 years.
Apparently not. There’s this test for media out there called “The Bechdel Test“. In short, the media must have:
1) Two or more women in it
2) Who talk to each other…
3) … about something other than a man.
It’s absolutely shocking to see how few pieces of contemporary media actually pass the Bechdel Test.
Let’s look at Star Trek: Into Darkness, just because it (like Star Wars) is also a science-fiction movie, with a huge franchise following. Guess what? It doesn’t pass the test. You have Uhura and Dr. Marcus who are the only really prominent women in it and they don’t interact.
Again, it doesn’t mean that the movies are bad, just that they are lacking in certain areas.
Racism in media is something similar. While I was growing up, the overwhelming majority of characters on basic American cable TV shows were white. The exception was The Cosby Show and its spinoff, A Different World, both of which had largely African-American casts. (Later, Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air would also showcase a primarily African-American cast.) This reinforces the idea that Caucasians are the most “important” ethnic group in the US. While it’s true they’re the most numerous, does that mean that it’s okay to completely exclude visible minorities from media? Of course not. But when one introduces visible minorities to a TV show or movie or what-have-you, one needs to be careful not to fall into the trap of reinforcing damaging racial and ethnic stereotypes. Not having racially diverse casts is bad enough, but reinforcing stereotypes would be even worse.
The Top 10 ranked TV shows in the US for the week of May 12th, 2014, not including the unscripted shows (which have changing casts), we have:
- NCIS: 1 African-American actor listed in the main cast page at IMDB.
- The Big Bang Theory: 1 Indian actor listed in the main cast page at IMDB.
- NCIS: Los Angeles: 1 African-American actor listed in the main cast page at IMDB.
- Criminal Minds: 1 African-American actor listed in the main cast page at IMDB.
- Person of Interest: 1 African-American actor listed in the main cast page at IMDB.
- Castle: 3 African-American actors, 1 Hispanic actor listed in the main cast page at IMDB.
- The Blacklist: 2 African-American actors, 1 Indian actor, 1 Middle Eastern actor, 1 Asian actor listed in the main cast page at IMDB.
(Bear in mind I only watch a couple of those shows, which is why I settled on listed cast on IMDB to help me figure out how diverse the main cast was. Also bear in mind that this was just a quick overview and I apologize if my summaries are 100% accurate. (I know, for example, that Castle only has two active African-American actors in their main cast, but they list three on the page.))
With the exception of Castle and The Blacklist, those aren’t very diverse casts. (I was sincerely impressed by The Blacklist‘s diversity.) While the other shows have some diversity by virtue of having at least one visible minority character, most of these top TV shows can be viewed as still implying that Caucasians are more important than visible minorities. While I’m pretty sure it’s not their intent, how do visible minorities feel about a single visible minority being shown on, say, The Big Bang Theory?
As to homophobia, it’s apparent in ways that are similar to both sexism and racism. Many times, LGBTQ characters are missing entirely. Other times, there are token LGBTQ characters who perpetuate harmful stereotypes or, additionally, through mocking and teasing about “being gay” for having interests and opinions that aren’t stereotypically male. (See: early Chandler on Friends, Raj on The Big Bang Theory. Also, see the Jack Tripper character from Three’s Company, and be agog at what actually aired on television in the late 70s and early 80s.)
Lack of Visibility and Reinforcing Stereotypes
In all three types of discrimination, the number one problem is a lack of visibility. The number two problem is reinforcing stereotypes.
The lack of visibility leads to reinforcing the idea that men who are white and straight are the ideal to which we should all aspire. They’re the ones who get the majority of the screentime, the majority of the stories, the majority of, well, everything. People can argue that the original Star Wars trilogy is Luke Skywalker’s story. Why isn’t it Leia’s? They’re twins and the Force is strong in her, too, no? Alternatively, why isn’t Luke African-American? How would the story substantially change if Luke were African-American? Would the story substantially change? What if Leia took on the role that Luke had and Luke was Prince Luke Organa who needed to be rescued from Vader? Does that change the story? How? Food for thought, no?
Back to the reinforcement of stereotypes — it’s damaging because it prevents people from really understanding people who are different from them. Yet, to look at television, you’d think that African-Americans are thugs and criminals, Hispanics are lazy, women are objects to be desired and won. In the meantime, you’d think that gay men are universally interested in shopping and have lisps while lesbians all present as “butch” or, importantly, are all waiting to have a threesome with another woman and a guy because, of course, all lesbians are really just bisexuals who are only too happy to include a guy in their beds, right? Well, most television representations would have you believe that.
One of the reasons that society is so slow to change things, in terms of these various types of discrimination, is that we’re seeing the same stories on TV and in movies and other forms of media. While socialization of acceptance is happening (slowly) in other areas, one of the best ways to speed this up is through various forms of media.
For example, while same-sex marriage is becoming legal across more and more of the United States, most shows don’t have a LGBTQ character in them. Looking at that same list of shows, how many of them have a character that is LGBTQ?
There are no out LGBTQ main characters on The Big Bang Theory or Castle. I couldn’t find NCIS, NCIS: LA, Criminal Minds, Person of Interest or The Blacklist on this list at Wikipedia, either. (That said, I would hope I’m wrong and that there are at least some out characters on those shows.)
The Importance of Visibility
Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in the late 1990s. Michael Sam, an African-American football player, just recently came out. Both are trailblazers, in their own way. Ellen is one because not only did she come out, but her character came out. On network television. And then the show was promptly cancelled. But now she’s very successful with a hit talk show, complete with Emmy awards. She just hosted the Oscars. Ellen is a great example of a successful gay woman, inspiring young gay women just by being visible on television every weekday. She doesn’t use her show as a platform for gay rights very often, she just talks about her life and her wife (Portia de Rossi) and this constant exposure helps to show people, who may not know any other gay people, that LGBTQ people are people, just like anyone else.
Similarly, Michael Sam came out and became the first openly-gay football player to be drafted by an NFL team. I don’t know enough about football to say whether or not he’ll play in the NFL, but the St. Louis Rams drafted him and now, some scared kid out there, who’s being bullied or who isn’t sure if he can be gay and be an athlete, can look to Sam and go “wow, people like me are able to play in pro sports!”
In another example, there was a short-lived television show during the 2005-2006 US TV season called Commander in Chief where Geena Davis played the first female President of the United States. There were only 18 episodes. But it introduced the idea of a female president. Did it pave the way for Hillary Clinton to run for the Democratic nomination? Probably not, but it introduced the idea. It gave the idea of a female president visibility. While it wasn’t solely (or even mostly) responsible for Clinton’s good run for her party’s nomination, it’s likely that it at least softened up the American public even a bit to be open to the possibility of a female candidate. (Bear in mind I’m Canadian and my American political history is lacking, at best, but the point is that every bit of positive visibility helps to change real attitudes.)
Blizzard Entertainment, World of Warcraft & Hearthstone
And now, nearly 2500 words into this post, I am ready to talk about video games. Specifically, I want to talk about Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft game and will touch upon their Hearthstone title as well.
Race isn’t so much of a factor in fantasy video games like World of Warcraft because, well, there are actual other species to play aside from human. There are dwarves, night elves, gnomes, worgen, blood elves, tauren, orcs, trolls, goblins and pandaren. That said, the human skin tones range from a dark brown to very pale. So if you want your character to be African-American, you can do so. That’s great. You can approximate Indian/South-Eastern Asian skin tones, too. You can’t actually change the physical attributes of the characters, though — everything about the model is based on Caucasian features. Nor can you change the height or weight of a character. Avatar customization in World of Warcraft is really lacking in comparison to some other, newer games.
Gender representation, on the other hand, wouldn’t seem to be a problem at first glance. Every race has models for males and females. (For now, I’ll leave out the fact that binary gender options in a fantasy game is kind of silly.) So that means that World of Warcraft at least has equal female representation going for it, right?
All you have to do is look at how various armor pieces fit differently based on the model’s gender, which I talk about a little bit in this previous blog post. You can see that some armor pieces are designed to be revealing for the female models, while if worn on a male model, they fully cover the appropriate area of the body.
But even ignoring the armor pieces, the models themselves (and their animations) are very different. The female night elf model, for example, bounces up and down (breasts heaving, too!) as her “idle” animation. That’s to say that if you’re not moving your character or using its abilities, it will, by default, do its idle animation. Do the male night elves bounce? Nope. They shrug and rotate their shoulders.
Okay, so some models and animations are problematic in that they emphasize the sexuality of the female models. That’s not SO bad, right? Certainly, there are other games that are worse?
Well, yes, some other games are worse, without question, but the fact is that Blizzard is continually reinforcing these kinds of sexist stereotypes: that women are eye-candy for men, that they exist to support men, that they are not as strong as men. Take, for example, the in-game dungeon and raid bosses. Most are male. A major exception is, of course, Onyxia, a female dragon (whose human identity was Lady Katrana Prestor). In the original World of Warcraft game, all of the bosses in Molten Core were male. Same with Blackwing Lair. The Temple of Ahn’Qiraj had female representation in three of nine boss encounters, which was a step up. The original Naxxramas had Grand Widow Faerlina, Lady Blaumeux and you can possibly count Maexxna (although this is a freaking huge spider, it’s unclear whether or not this is a female spider). I could go on, but we’ll leave it at this: males make up the majority of the bosses in World of Warcraft and when there are females, well, they can end up looking like this.
Then, there are the actual stories being told in World of Warcraft. Let me just say that I’m not someone who is terribly into the “lore” (or the story and narrative) behind World of Warcraft. I’ve always cared more about killing internet dragons (and figuring out how to do so) than who the dragon is and where they came from.
But when Chris Metzen, who is basically the story guy at Blizzard, says that the upcoming expansion, Warlords of Draenor, “[...] is more of a boy’s trip,” I get a bit concerned. When Jaina Proudmoore (who is arguably the strongest woman for the Alliance faction in the game) gets her home of Theramore destroyed and her hair turns white, I get a bit concerned. Her hair colour change is supposedly because she’s radiating with magical energy, but many people who saw this interpreted it as aging and there are even some reactions that have people joking that Jaina is going through menopause! And we’re not just talking about the trolls leaving comments in various places. Included in this silliness is a well-respected podcast like Convert to Raid. In Episode 50 of CTR, at about the 24 minute mark, they start discussing Jaina’s hair and blaming it on menopause.
While the comments about why Jaina’s hair has suddenly changed do reflect those making the comments more than those who have made the change to the hair in the first place (and, by the way, let’s be clear — I think Pat Krane and Koltrane and the rest of the CTR gang are good people who probably didn’t mean any harm by these comments), one has to say to themselves “they didn’t make “getting old” jokes about Arthas when his hair went white.”
To me, the major difference in the two examples of characters whose hair turns white is in the framing of the characters. The designers and developers and writers decide on something and that’s coming from their background and their experiences. Then it’s interpreted by their players, who are going to interpret these things in a way that’s unique to them, based on their background and their experiences.
Arthas Menethil is framed as the feared Lich King. He was the end-boss of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, for crying out loud. We saw him become a darker character by going back in time and seeing the culling of the city of Stratholme, deciding to kill everyone in the city due to plagued grain having made its way there. This was the major step towards darkness for Arthas. I was glad to get to experience it, but throughout the entire expansion, Arthas is viewed as strong, as powerful, albeit capable of making “evil” choices.
Jaina’s a bad-ass mage, no one’s going to argue with that, but she’s not framed that way. We’re always put in situations where we must protect Jaina. Outside of Theramore, my first real encounter with Jaina was in the Mount Hyjal instance and her constantly saying “I’m in jeopardy! Help me if you can!” and “They’ve broken through!” (Sounds available over at Wowhead.) After the first two bosses (where Jaina’s been helping you out), you go get Thrall to help you out. None of his sounds are of the helpless variety. “Attacked 01″ and “Attacked 02″ are the filenames for the Jaina quotes I used. What are those for Thrall?
“I will lie down for no one!”
“Bring the fight to me and pay for your lives!”
So Thrall is being defiant and threatening his attackers that if they dare to take him on, they’ll die. Meanwhile, Jaina is asking us to help her.
That continued in Wrath of the Lich King, when we faced off against the Lich King in Halls of Reflection. We were the people protecting Jaina from various undead creatures while she “concentrated” and tried to burst us through ice barriers.
Even in the Fall of Theramore scenario, she literally says, “I must attune to the Focusing Iris before transport. Protect me!” And so we protect her from various enemies. Yet again.
It’s not to say that Jaina isn’t capable of being bad-ass, because she is, and you see it on a handful of occasions, but more often than not, we end up having to protect her, which heavily implies that she is incapable of handling herself and needs someone strong and powerful to help defend her.
So, really, in World of Warcraft, some female models suffer from over-sexualization (female night elf and female draenei, specifically), some armor pieces look skimpier on a female character than a male (Leggings of Concentrated Darkness, Shadesteel Greaves, Glorious Armor, etc) and one of the “strongest” women in the Warcraft universe is constantly asking players to protect her.
Again, while race isn’t always a major issue due to the plethora of actual different species in the game, most major human, dwarven, gnomish and blood elvish characters are light-skinned, both in-game and in artwork representing the game, such as loading screens. One could argue that the Mists of Pandaria expansion has been very Asian-themed… but where are the Asian characters? They’re pandas. (I’m not even going to touch on the idea that has been raised in the past that the entire expansion is playing with stereotypes.)
You may have noticed that I haven’t even touched on LGBTQ content. That’s because there is none. I don’t think we need to have Anduin Wrynn discover he’s gay (although, frankly, why not?) or have Sylvanas marry a woman (although, again, why not?), but even some representation in small quests, like talking to a female NPC who talks about her wife, or a child NPC who has two dads, would go a long way towards diversifying the game. There’s no ability to start a romantic relationship between your character and an NPC, so that avenue is out (and, to be honest, I think that’s fine), but why not sprinkle some in as background flavour?
While representations of women in the game are suffering from harmful stereotypes and different visible minorities aren’t being fully represented, LGBTQ representation is missing entirely.
Even in Hearthstone, the game based on heroes in the World of Warcraft universe, only two of the nine heroes one can choose are female characters. Why not have 9 Alliance male representations, 9 Alliance female representations, 9 Horde males and 9 Horde females?
Oh, and let’s not forget that even in Hearthstone, both of the female characters (Jaina and Valeera) are scantily-clad. Jaina’s showing a ton of cleavage and, one can see in the complete version of artwork that her midriff is bare. And what’s that? So’s Valeera? Why yes, yes, she’s wearing thigh-high boots and what appears to be a corset.
4000 words into this blog post and you may be wondering what I have left to say.
It’s simply this: I believe that World of Warcraft is reflecting outdated ideas, ideals and values to its customers by holding fast to the ideas that women (even strong ones like Jaina) need protecting, that women are sexual objects that exist to be viewed by men, that only white characters really matter and are deserving of epic storytelling and that LGBTQ characters have no place in their fantasy world.
This, in turn, will have an effect on society. Kids, teens, even young adults who are currently playing World of Warcraft will be socialized by these ideas. World of Warcraft is a game that millions and millions of people have played, do play and will play. With such a large audience, it is my opinion that Blizzard has a social responsibility to demonstrate an openness to diversity, to show women actually being strong, to show dark-skinned humans doing something of note, to show any kind of positive LGBTQ presence at all.
To do so would be to help normalize the ideas that women are equal, not inferior, that visible minorities are just as capable as Caucasians, that LGBTQ people exist and do much the same in their daily lives as straight people do in theirs.
I’m not saying Blizzard is responsible for all the sexism, racism or homophobia in the world, nor am I saying that the inclusion of strong women, visible minorities and LGBTQ presences will automatically solve all the issues we see surrounding these kinds of people in the world.
But Blizzard has a huge platform and, right now, they’re not using it to help anyone. Worse, by not helping anyone, by sticking with what’s tried and true, they’re reinforcing the old, tired beliefs that women, visible minorities and LGBTQ folks aren’t equal.
Mass media has such power over us all, without our even realizing it. If every book, TV show, magazine, radio show, movie and video game added just a little something extra, a little something diverse to their product, it would make a huge difference, particularly on younger people who are consuming more media in a day than people my age used to consume in a week and people my parents’ age used to consume in a month.
Blizzard could do so much good, without compromising their epic gameplay, without even changing anything to do with game mechanics or game systems, just by cosmetically changing how armor fits or editing skin tones or allowing people to choose different faces based on the skin tone, or just adding an NPC with two moms.
What I’m saying is, it doesn’t take much to make a difference when your audience is millions of people. Why not do it and have a positive effect on the world?
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