(Crossposted from my gamebelech blog. Twitter @gamebelch)
Speaking to Gamespot UK recently, Halo 4 executive producer Kiki Wolfkill and 343 Industries head Bonnie Ross announced that gamers spouting sexist, racist etc. chat in Halo 4 lobbies & in-game could get permabanned from Xbox Live.
(As ars technica noted in their coverage of the piece, the Xbox Live Code of Conduct surprisingly does not even mention sexism, but that's another story.)
It's a positive step, I think (efficiacy of permabans aside), but I'm not convinced it's entirely fair.
Don't doubt that I despise sexist and racist behaviour in online games -- in fact I regularly pull people up on it, and it's a special joy when one of my female friends repeatedly wipes the floor with a gobby Call of Duty lobby.
But it doesn't seem particularly fair to permaban pumped-up teenage boys from acting like immature sexists when that is exactly what the game has trained them to be. It's like kicking a puppy.
"As developers, we have a personal responsibility to think about how our games come across," Ross said. "With Halo 4, we were very deliberate in thinking about who should be female and who should be male in the game, and if we came off stereotypical, we went back to question what we were doing and why." Gamespot
Cortana in Halo 3
Cortana in Halo 4
She's had a bit of work done.
In this GameInformer interview, "Halo 4 - GameInformer Interview - Secrets of Cortana" Frank O'Connor (Franchise Development Manager, 343 Industries) explains Cortana is a highly-advanced AI performing many military tasks. The AI was allowed to choose the form it took, and explains the appearance by the fact she chooses takes some inspiration from her creator, Dr Halsey, and that her appearance as a "beautiful blue naked lady"
"is tactically designed to put people on their heels and make her a little bit more in charge than she might otherwise be... I can't believe I'm arguing for her nudity as a kind of feminist ideal [nor can I: ed] ... but I felt it gave her an advantage in conversations and it put them off their guard a little"
So a super-advanced AI chooses this appearance to gain an advantage in social situations despite being terrifying anyway. Seems unlikely. Cortana's other super-advanced AI facilities include being on the edge of tears a lot, looking panic-stricken, sighing heavily and wiggling her cyan arse.
The latest installment in the franchise is largely led by the professional women mentioned above -- I wonder if Kiki Wolfkill & Bonnie Ross credit their success to similar feminine wiles or simply being good at their jobs?
Personally I would expect a bunch of "Alpha Male" soldiers to respond better to the only other semblance of humanity they would respect-- a bigger, badder "Alpha Male".
Anyway, the developers certainly have a greater responsibility given that the Halo games have always been aimed at a younger demographic than say the Call of Duty series, and carry certification to match. And the title has always lacked the narrative sophistication of say Mass Effect -- not that I expect it to be taken seriously at all given the main protagonist is called "Master Chief", for crying out loud.
But still, I am not buying any of this. To continue with psychology amateur hour, this is a game aimed squarely at the pushing the Will to Power buttons of teenage boys. Guns & titties.
But there are female Spartans!
Yes, yes there are. Here's the last one you see in the game:
And her purpose?
To gawp open-mouthed at our huge, wondrous hero.
"I Need A Hero", "Bropocalypse", "Bros to the Close", "Bromageddon". Yeah, there are female Spartans.
To be honest, I could watch more of the gameplay videos and dig up more but it's all so predictable and juvenile, and writing this has already felt like a trip to the dentist.
But This Isn't Multiplayer
Yep, that's right. Certainly Halo (and indeed videogames) aren't entirely responsible for creating this behaviour, I don't recall seeing anything fostering sexism in Halo 3 MP, and I'm not knocking this positive step. But I am sceptical at the positive press 343 and friends have got out of this when there's a massive blue-breasted elephant in the room.
So, in summary:
Mildy sociopathic tendencies, difficulty with socialisation
An unseen protagonist speaking to the female scientist who created Cortana and the Spartans, right at the beginning of the game;
"Do you think the Spartan's basic lack of humanity helped?... Records show Spartans routinely exhibited mildy sociopathic tendencies, difficulty with socialisation..."
Indeed. Because that's exactly how they were designed to behave.