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Video: Gender in game narrative, and what we lose by ignoring it
August 9, 2013 | By Staff

August 9, 2013 | By Staff
More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video, GDC

"Allowing our industry to continue to be narrow in scope, is economically dumb [and] completely undersells the potential of gaming as a medium."
--Leigh Alexander, in a panel discussion on importance of diversity in gaming at GDC Online 2012.

In this free GDC Vault video of the "Writing The Unsung Experiences: Gender In Game Storytelling" panel from GDC Online 2012, critics Leigh Alexander, Mattie Brice, and Jenn Frank share personal experiences and observations regarding the lack of diversity (gender and otherwise) in games.

About the GDC Vault

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent GDC events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers. Those who purchased All Access passes to events like GDC, GDC Europe, and GDC China already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscriptions via a GDC Vault inquiry form.

Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company. More information on this option is available via an online demonstration, and interested parties can find out more here. In addition, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault admins.

Be sure to keep an eye on GDC Vault for even more new content, as GDC organizers will also archive videos, audio, and slides from other events like GDC China and GDC 2013. To stay abreast of all the latest updates to GDC Vault, be sure to check out the news feed on the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.
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Alex Boccia
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Metroid and Tomb Raider are two of my most beloved franchises

Chris Clogg
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Are there transcripts of these videos anywhere? I prefer to speed-read than wait through an hour presentation :)

Anyway, I'm not sure if she implied that there was something wrong with developers making games for themselves (wasn't that the core of 90's games companies?), but if so, I think the bigger issue is then getting more females interesting in being game developers. Even the 'female casual games' (that she joked about at the start) are made by business men.

Well, the movie industry has the same problem as the games industry, which is that (most) big movies are made by men for men (the 23 year old male demographic like myself)... because of risk aversion, like she mentioned.

It was interesting to hear the comment about indie games, because I think indies just make games they are genuinely interested in, rather than what a safe marketing play is, for max $$. I wonder how Half-life fits into this discussion, because it is essentially about playing a protagonist who is invisible and silent...

Maria Jayne
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Really surprised one of the panel mentions Mass Effect fem shep as a good female character, aren't fem sheps dialogue options a direct copy of male sheps dialogue? Isn't that about as generic/none gender specific as it gets? how was it different to Fallout 3 which did a very similar idea albeit minus the voice actress.

Chell from Portal is another interesting choice, given you barely see her and she never speaks. I can see a sexist joke in that female being a good character, but other than she is a blank canvas I don't see how that makes her a good example.

I agree with Alyx Vance though.

For me, good female characters would be

Alyx Vance (Halflife 2)
Triss Merrigold (The Witcher 2)
Jade (Beyond Good & Evil)
Skylar Saint Claire (The Saboteur)
Morrigan (Dragon Age)
Kreia (Kotor2)
Elizabeth (Bioshock: Infinite)

I wanted to put Shodan and Glados in there but I suppose they aren't technically female characters.

Dave Bellinger
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Could you give some examples as to the dialog lines Female Shepard and/or Female Lone Wanderer have that contradict their gender? I remember them being gender appropriate where appropriate myself.

Maria Jayne
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No idea, I wasn't aware I was talking about the dialogue contradicting their gender. I thought I was suggesting the majority of it was gender neutral and could have just as easily come out of the mouth of the opposite gender character you could play.

Which is fine, however not what I would point to as an example of a well done female character. More a well done character with interchangeable gender.

Isvar Horning
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Fem Shep is mentioned as good character because the dialogue, even if mostly copied from the male Shep, makes her the hero of the game. She has the same awesomness as the male Shep, without alterations, and this isn't common. Also the camera angle isn't weird because of her gender. If you had planed the game with a female Shep only, you bet they had weird butt shots like with Miranda, and the dialogue had strange "hey baby" and "wow, you're tough, even if you're a woman" lines.

It's like in Alien. Ripley is an awesome character, and thats because the script was written gender neutral, and not specific for a female character. Sadly these "gender neutral" scripts are often the only method to get realistic female characters.

About your choice of good characters - I'm with you with most of them, but especially not with Triss, Morrigan and Elizabeth.
Triss Merrigold is powerful - at least the story tells you so - but most of the time she does not get anything done without Geralt, who has to save her ass all the time. When attacked by archers in Witcher 2, she gets unconscious after 2 minor spells, and while she gets carried, has her ass grabbed.
Morrigan - I don't know. All bark and no bite - first every second sentence could be "I'm a strong, independent woman in supersexy clothing, also quite 'evil' - but love bah - I don't need no maaan" - and if you romanced her she got supersoft and jealous.
Elizabeth is not a real character in my opinion, she is more of a game mechanic. She lets the "hero" make all the important decisions and bends to his will, even if he murders the crap out of Columbia. Even if she doesn't like what your character does, she stays with you as if she had no other choices and her whole life is you. It's sad.

Half Life is another thing. I must say I see Half Life more as a comedy now, because I don't get my head around why Gordon as a Physicist is the only one who can do this stuff, even if it has absolutely nothing to do with physics. Most time you have to kill people with weapons and follow instructions from npcs. Bun nontheless it's a cool game, and Alyx a nice character. I just think she would make a better protagonist than gordon, she has a cool backstory.

Michael Joseph
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"For me, good female characters would be"

Lisbeth Salander

not a game, but Lisbeth seems like the type of unconventional female superhero character we should have seen by now in a game but somehow never have. It's kind of shameful really... and I think it should make us wonder to what extent this is due to a lack of creative vision and talent within the industry.

Games really have been conservative. I wouldn't have thought this would be the future 20 years ago. Comics have been conservative to... and it's no wonder why...

Maybe the crème de la crème of artists don't gravitate towards making games or comics. They're making films and writing novels leaving marginally talented (or no talent) self deluded hacks with nary an original thought in their heads (and who really just want to get rich) to make games. Ok that was harsh.

This is an invitation for the really creative folks out there to enter this industry and take it over.

Jed Hubic
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I don't see any of this as a lack of creative vision, or that there is an abundance "self deluded" unoriginal hacks. People may be making visions that suit/interest themselves or the public they are wanting to appeal to. I don't see how "creative vision" means intentionally having to change their games because certain people feel it should be so (not directing any of this on this on those in the talks).

If anything it shows the current armchair mentality where everyone is a critic and everyone expects to be catered to without doing any work themselves. There's more tools than ever for people to enact a creative vision in a game. Imagine how pathetic the games industry would have been back in the day if all the icons just wrote papers to each other complaining rather than creating the visions they had. But yah just keep demeaning everyone that's doing what they enjoy and act like that's somehow making a difference or bringing something intelligent to the table.

Oh well back to my dumb little, uninspired and totally deluded world of programming games I guess...

Michael Joseph
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That's fine. I will simply say that objectively, games play it safe. They're seldom courageous. They're seldom very creative. You say this is not a reflection of the creators abilities and metal. I wonder if we can simply take that for granted anymore.

In my mind I keep coming back to the question "if they could do something special, why wouldn't they do it?" If they could fill their achievements album with artistic firsts day in and day out, why not? Why is it left for other media? Game stories, themes, game characters, character roles and archetypes are extremely derivative and not very good... like a Uwe Boll picture. And the few that are novel are the ones we celebrate the most.

In the past people have talked about the lack of creative control, but part of the equation could also be that there are 100x more Uwe Boll's in games than there are Darren Aronofsky's.

But the presumption that the people expressing opinions or posing questions that challenge accepted thinking or assumptions are not also doing any work (i.e making games, being the change they want to see and all that) I think you'd very often discover to be incorrect.

Matt Boudreaux
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I'm going to agree with Jed above (like him, maybe this is just my pragmatic programmer mentality slipping through).

I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but has anyone on this panel actually been the part of a team creating a game? It felt like they had this idealized notion that when a game is created, you start with the story and begin crafting things around that. In my experience the story tends to be the most fluid part of development. 90% of your money is going to go to tech/art costs so you want to start a game you can actually afford to complete (Is your game online? Is it persistent? Console? Whats your art budget going to look like? etc.). Your narrative can always be adapted around the gameplay and tech, for very cheap. Most of the publishers I've met don't actually care (at all) about your story, they want to know how much money you need and what market you plan to go for (and thus how much money you expect to make).

That said, I love story in my games (The Last of Us was amazing), but when you get down to the financial/technical logistics of game development - it just isn't as important as this panel seems to believe.