When will the game industry’s representation of women change?

It’s curious what can happen when you don’t write something. There are obvious things, like you don’t get paid, and nobody reads it, but sometimes, as in the case I’m about to describe, the thing you didn’t write gets more interesting for not having been written; as though it’s silently accruing wisdom while shuffling through magazines in the gloomy waiting room of pre-existence.

All of which is, of course, a grasping overcompensation aimed at convincing everybody – me included – that the piece you’re reading now, which I first pitched just after the BAFTA game awards in March, is better and more insightful these many months later. This is desperately self-indulgent, but then so is taking four months to write a blog post, and, luckily, I also think it’s true.

The piece was conceived around the different lives that games imagine for my son and daughter. Specifically, it was conceived at the moment I heard my daughter, who’s eight, explaining that she had just “earned” a footballer as a boyfriend in the salon styling, make-up and accessorising game she was playing on her tablet. Normally my reaction to this kind of gendered cultural ick is to explain to my daughter why the thing she’s just encountered is limiting or offensive, without destroying her enjoyment of the thing itself. But this time, in the same room in which my patient bit of super-liberal parenting was to go down, my 12-year-old son was playing FIFA.

Those of you with 12-year-old sons will realise this isn’t a huge contrivance of fate, as playing FIFA is often what 12-year-old sons will be found to be doing at all times and locations. What struck me, though, was the aggregate potential being revealed by games to my children in this moment. My son was being told, is told every day, that he can join the ranks of the elite athlete superstars we have elevated to the highest strata of the cultural firmament; that he can earn the instant adoration of thousands with a sharp turn and a kick of the ball. That he can win the World Cup. My daughter was being told that, if she got her eyeliner just so, and matched her clutch bag flawlessly with her earrings, she could fulfill her own potential by becoming an accessory in turn for the protagonist of a different story.

And, well, fuck that idea.

“Fuck that idea” was to be the elegant core of the original piece, although tempered by some positivity and hung on a hook of timeliness. This is where the BAFTA game awards enter the story, as this positivity was provided by two awards nominees: Gone Home, the exploratory firstperson drama from indie studio The Fullbright Company, and Left Behind, the short prequel to PS3 blockbuster The Last Of Us, both of which tell stories about the awkward wonder of adolescence from the perspective of young women.

Here were two games breaking dramatically with the standard tendencies of character, perspective and sexuality in our industry. They won awards, I arranged interviews – this was going to be a positive piece about how things might be changing.

And then I didn’t write it. Initially because I was waiting for interview responses, and then, when they arrived, because of the tumbling inconveniences of life (which now include rigorously vetting the games installed on various devices around the house). And these tumbling inconveniences of life turned out to be a good thing, perhaps not for the editor who was patiently waiting for the piece, but certainly for me and – I’m willing to concede, more importantly – for the balance of residual truth. Which is to say that the passing of time revealed that things weren’t really changing, as the ending I had originally planned hoped they might.

First, Tomodachi Life happened. A vibrant circus of life and all its possibilities which drew criticism because, in the corporate imagination of Nintendo, those possibilities did not extend to people of the same sex falling in love with each other or even having a bit of a kiss. This was a strange moment, because Nintendo had produced a game which many saw as characteristic of the company itself, devoted to playfulness and joy, only to find that the irreverent playground was underpinned by a rigid set of unspoken, uncool values.

The Tomodachi episode made it obvious that issues of representation were still pervasive in games, but actually before that Steve Gaynor, the creative director of Gone Home, tweeted something which made me question my own approach to these issues. It was about the kind of request I’d made to him in the wake of the BAFTAs, about how journalists typically approach him, rather than the others in his small, diverse team, to speak about his game. And it was a totally legitimate thing to point out: “Hey, Steve, tell me, a guy, about how you, another guy, are sorting representation in games with that team of whoever it is over there.”

Of course it does make a certain amount of sense to contact Gaynor – he’s the creative lead on the game and the most visible member of the team. But the fact I did so uncritically without exploring the alternatives was also indicative of exactly the kind of biases and tendencies I was writing about. In the same way it’s tempting to see award wins for unusual games as a handy end-point to a discussion, it’s equally tempting to see ourselves as existing outside the things we discuss.

I’m pleased that laziness and fortune prevented me from doing either. In the end Gaynor had the much better idea of me talking over email with Kate Craig, Gone Home’s environmental artist. Among the many interesting things she said, one which struck me as particularly relevant to the way my daughter experiences games is how she described playing Left Behind with her wife: “I didn’t know how much I needed to see a story like that in a mainstream game.”

So often this is what my daughter is refused – the chance to see herself in the stories games tell. When she found me playing Bioshock Infinite she asked if I could “be” Elizabeth, and wandered away disinterestedly when I said no; when she walked in on me during Beyond: Two Souls and asked, “are you the girl?” she responded with a fist-pump and a “YES!” when I said I was.

Helpfully underlining this issue of representation in the meantime was E3, where Ubisoft offered us the co-op bro force of Assassin’s Creed Unity and the hostage theatrics of Rainbow Six: Siege, in which women were invited to play a role often filled by a flag, briefcase, or bag of money. A thorough and destructive takedown of the various positions taken by internet commenters in defence of Ubisoft, which accumulate in to a depressing miasma of cultural conservatism, can be found here.

For me it’s simpler – I want my daughter to grow up able to play games which offer her a vivid, diverse, ridiculous set of adventures and ideas which make her think about the kind of person she could be and the things she could do. Yes, girls can and do identify with and enjoy playing as male heroes. But this would seem like a more creditably balanced and rewarding exchange if female leads and perspectives weren’t in the overwhelming minority.

So I’m glad this is the latest piece I’ve ever written. This is a long game: the fight for representation and equality will never be won, just swung this way and that, and like Nintendo, Ubisoft, and me, we’re all involved in this fight whether we recognise it or not. To put it another way, Kate Craig sums up where we were, and where we should be heading to: “…the creation of a game (or any media) centered around women or girls isn’t always a statement or a response to something else. Sometimes it is, certainly, but I hope one day games about women and girls can be created without them being considered a response, and can exist in their own right.”