Surprise, surprise. Dead Island, whose PR and publishing team won an advertising award earlier this year for a pricey and very artistic trailer, finds its way back into the news this week in a much less pleasant way. A non-final “developer’s build” version of the game, which was accidentally released on Steam a couple of days ago, has been cracked by an enterprising fan. Turns out that one of the unlockable “Skills” for one of the two female avatars is called “Feminist Whore” in the original code base: re-titled “Gender Wars” in the “sanitized fit-for-public consumption” version of the game, it allows the character to deal extra damage to anything male.
Now the game’s “International Brand Manager” and publisher have to scramble and apologize for what must appear, to any sane adult, as an unplanned glimpse of the naked, bald-faced, slavering hatred of women which lives and breeds in their developers.
They’ve hurried to say that the person responsible for this misogynistic snippet of code was a “Lone Gunman” tech monkey, who introduced the phrase into the debug code as a “private joke”. Thus the notion that all feminists were angry whores would “represent the views of only a single person” on that development team—or in this industry in general—and only one guy (at most) should suffer any professional consequences, naturally.
As outside observers we are in no position to contradict the game’s publisher or its brand manager. Unfortunately, what we can say is that the incident brings up a lot of pertinent issues which are systemic to the entire industry as a whole. If this was a completely isolated incident, or if we were all working in a field where men did not outnumber women at least 10 to 1, we might see things differently. But as it stands, the apology and explanation rings a bit hollow to anyone who actually works in this industry, for two reasons.
The first, and the most important, is simply this: virulent misogyny is not a freak incident in this business. It is actually the norm in many studios. It’s extremely common in the culture of gaming as a whole, and it is present in developers, gamers, publishers and the gaming press in copious abundance. Anyone who doubts that insults like “Feminist Whore” are unwelcome in gaming has only to check the forum thread where the “Feminist Whore” skill was first discovered. You’ll see a typical string of comments which you might see on virtually any gaming forum. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few comments attached to this post later that will be equally cringe-worthy and repugnant.
Second, whether the “Lone Gunman” story is true of the Techland team or not, this incident could have happened to a great many other teams at any time. Those of us who develop games for a living know for a fact that there are very few “lone gunmen” on a team of game developers. Yes, outrageous things can end up in the code base of a game as the result of a single individual! (Remind me to tell you about the time that we received a database from another company which had gigabytes of porn on it.) But as an impartial outside observer, I find it odd that the name for this Skill was the private joke for a single individual, when it fits so perfectly with the rest of the Character’s design.
The problem here is not just that “Feminist Whore” is an ugly phrase that expresses violent hatred toward women. The problem is that even with a more “sanitary” name like “Gender Wars”, the core design seems to express misogynistic hostility. And the basic idea of the “Feminist Whore” skill, (a skill that does more damage to males) is deeply embedded in the design of the Character; it is not an accident or a slip-up.
Giving the Skill a less harsh and openly hateful name is a welcome nod to civility, but I find it troubling that the Skill itself, and the core idea it represents, was never questioned. Looking at the Character from the viewpoint of a professional designer, I don’t find this particular ability and its name to be inconsistent with the design as a whole. It’s an integral part of the character’s Skill Tree, and fits in to some degree with her artistic design and character backstory.
Purna has an entire skill path called “Fury”. She’s designed from the ground up to be an Angry Female Killing Machine. Rage is one of her core strengths, and her character backstory accounts for both her consuming anti-male rage and her provocative appearance, which is unmistakably that of a high-priced escort. If you remove the weapons and the boots, she is wearing clothes that I have seen many times worn by upscale sex workers. This resemblance is intended, as her character description clearly states:
“Purna is a former officer of the Sydney Police department. After losing her career when she killed a child molester who could not be touched legally because of his wealth and connections, Purna then turned to working as a bodyguard for VIPs in dangerous places all over the world. She is hired not just for her skills but her looks as wealthy men did not mind showing up with Purna on their arm.”
As for the use of the epithet “whore”? It’s an ugly one, to be sure. I can’t really say what motivates people to use it for a joke, private or otherwise, but comedy is often used as a means of venting anger. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it was motivated in this case by the same poisonous, long-frustrated and unrequited desire that motivates a lot of heterosexual misogyny. There is a species of hatred that is born in the certain knowledge that the only way you will ever lay hands on an attractive woman is if you pay her to endure it, attack her violently, or manipulate her 3D avatar in a game.
Leaving aside the armchair psychoanalysis to return to cold facts: the problem with a revelation like this is that it casts a nasty light on other aspects of the game’s design and promotion. Once the Angry Feminist Whores get a hold of it, they’re bound to point out that Dead Island won its advertising award for a cinematic in which they murdered and zombified a little girl and threw her out the window of a multi-story building. They may also point out that both of the female characters in this game regenerate their hit-points with a Skill called “Vampire”. Hyuk hyuk…because all women are bloodsuckers, right? And yes, before you ask, I checked—the male characters have no negative word attached to their powers of health regeneration. Funny that.
The ironies for me in this situation are many. For one, I have actually worked on a low budget zombie game, and I was guilty of creating a female character who had an unusual, gender-based power. One of the ten Keys in Fort Zombie was called The Beauty Queen; she had the power to increase the Morale of all other characters, and specifically to reduce the negative Morale suffered by male characters--which made them less susceptible to Zombie Rot, better able to endure pain and privation, and less likely to abandon the group in times of trouble.
As a designer, I was reaching for a way to simulate an effect that I have seen many times in real life: a woman whose beauty and grace made people of all sexes and ages smile when she smiled, and want to be near her. Heather Pierson was designed and written as the woman who could make the men in her company want to be better men for her sake.
Even more ironically, in the Beauty Queen’s backstory I also tried to address the hatred that beauty can inspire, in people in all walks of life. Heather Pierson has an extended riff on the old phrase “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful”, and how that applies to the zombie apocalypse.
Of course, Fort Zombie also included a lot of other female characters with different abilities, from medical and technical skill to magical ability, swordsmanship, marksmanship and persuasion. At the end of the day, I had plenty of things to say about women. For the record, I also had plenty of things to say about men. But oddly enough, I managed to get through all the designs for male characters without giving them any “special Skills” like “Needle-Dicked Loser”, “Macho Asshole”, “Date Rapist” etc..
Upshot of this is simple, really. It seems to me that the REAL “raging bitches” in this industry—the ones who literally foam in their fury and launch the dirtiest gender-based attacks--are not the women.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to adjust my evening gown, hurt something male, and vamp some hitpoints off somebody. I’m in the middle of a crunch and the work of a Feminist Whore is never done.