by Ian Chadwick
Not long before I wrote this column (about three or four months before you'll be reading it), I was at the First Canadian Atari User Show (see the report elsewhere in this issue), here in Canada. I was pleasantly surprised to see a considerable number of women attending the show—until I paid close attention. Almost all of them were in tow behind their boyfriends or spouses, being dragged out to another event to waste a Saturday afternoon among the boys. A look of practiced boredom graces a lot of female faces at computer shows.
Computer fests, particularly the user-group variety, are usually male-bonding rituals. Like the afternoon of The Big Game, except that the chatter isn't about quarterbacks and snap passes, it's about processing speed, interrupt routines and the latest version of TOS. There aren't a lot of women involved in these discussions, for whatever reason, be it biological or sociological. And that's too bad. I really don't want to be part of a male-dominated hobby. It's too boring.
I often wonder why so few women get involved with computers. Sometimes it occurs to me that they're simply too bright to get caught up in it: boys and their toys, after all. Why spend one's evenings and weekends hacking out some block of code, deciphering protection schemes, trying to nudge the high score up just another 1,000 points?
Seems a bit of a dead end, when you think about it like that.
Susan, a woman possessed of infinite common sense, uses computers in her office, but at home is only rarely interested in them. She sometimes plays a game of Shanghai or solitaire, but all of my ST passions—Flight Simulator, Jet, Empire, Dungeon Master—leave her cold. If she comes in on me playing a game, when I should be pounding the keys in search of an income, she smiles with a condescending knowledge and understanding that makes me feel like a ten-year-old, caught with a naughty magazine.
Maybe, as many have suggested, it's the topic matter of most games that make them uninteresting. After all, most action/arcade-style-style games are violence-ridden, simple-minded efforts, in which one's intellectual capacity is put to sleep while the hand-eye mechanics work in overtime. Shoot, stab, kick, maim, kill. Why wouldn't anyone like that?
Sure, some of it is abstract. It's hard to get emotionally worked up over the droids in Sentry or the unmanned bombs in Missile Command. But other games are pretty graphic. In Into the Eagle's Lair, you shoot Germans, whose digitized death shout is the reward. Worse, you're incited to shoot drunken or sleeping officers in the back. My antipathy towards anything Nazi notwithstanding, I don't feel comfortable playing the game. It puts me in a role I don't care to see myself in.
In Leatherneck, it's Rambo vs. the yellow hordes (I assume they're Oriental—who else lives in bamboo huts? Besides, I never saw Rambo in Nicaragua). Violence and racism—it's the Monroe Doctrine in video-form. Soldiers die with that eerie digitized scream again. They throw their hands up and fall to the ground, dead. Lovely.
Very few games even involve female characters, and when they do, they're often stereotyped or thrust into peripheral roles. In Corruption, the secretaries are women, the bosses men. One woman can be found filing her nails all day long. In Leisure Suit Larry, women exist simply as sexual objects for the player to conquer, then discard. In Star Trek, The Rebel Universe, Uhura, the single woman portrayed and the least active member of the team, has a passive role communicating received messages.
Dungeon Master is one of the rare games where females can actually play the lead role and do better than the males. On the other hand, I'm not sure that there is any inherent difference between the genders, aside from the graphics. Are there any unique feminine characteristics programmed in? Only the developers know for sure. The box cover leads you to believe that the men do all the physical work while the women merely hold the candles up. Of course that's not true of the game. But the game's women appear to perform like men with breasts—no significant differences from the males.
Of course, if you want to see real sexism in box art, find a copy of the U.K. games Barbarian and Barbarian II from Palace Software: photomontage of a well-endowed woman, wearing a totally inadequate bikini, beside a muscled Neanderthal, in fur briefs, with sword. Dead monster on the ground. Tacky? Only a little.
In the September 1988 issue of the U.K. magazine Atari ST User, a woman wrote in decrying the state of ST games. She said, "I know that many of the games are blatantly sexist...many games encourage sexism and violence simply by the images and themes they propose." In this intelligent and questioning letter, she went on to ask, "What makes your magazine so sure that the majority of men wish to associate themselves with the very dubious 'macho-male Rambo-type'?"
To which the insensitive and patronizing editorial response was "We're sure that the majority of our readers identify more closely with the macho-male Rambo-type than a wimp."
Uh...is this a trick question? Rambo or a wimp? That rather limits the options, doesn't it? Come on, guys, can't you think of other role models more suited for identification? What if you don't want to identify with either character? If I don't like the Rambo films, why would I want to play a game about him?
Rambo and such characters have little or no redeeming social virtues. They're violent killers, working outside the law and society; individuals with a pathological need for indiscriminate violence The character appeals to the immature or the unsophisticated—usually young males—who are easily fooled by the glossy image and cannot grasp the political, moral or social issues at stake underneath. What sort of man reads Soldier of Fortune?
So who's better? Why not Robin Hood for a start? Lots of action and adventure, humor and very little violence—at least of the killing kind. In legend anyway, Robin Hood seldom killed anyone and even then usually only in self-defense. Not even the mean old Sheriff of Nottingham was killed when he was Robin's captive. Robin won contests, robbed rich barons and distributed the money to the poor, rescued the downtrodden and so on. He's a better role model than Rambo by a light-year.
If he's going to be a male, make my hero Albert Einstein. Put me in the shoes of Robert Oppenheimer. See if I make the same choices. Or Andrei Sakharov. Gandhi. Roy Chapman Andrews. Timothy Leary. Chuck Yeager. Nikolai Tesla. Fats Waller. Ralph Nader. Roald Amundsen. Jacques Cousteau. There are a million suitable, interesting or controversial people to portray. If they're not all the best subjects for a game based on competition, maybe that opens another aspect of consideration: games based on cooperation. Currently rarer than hen's teeth.
I'd love to see games based on topics like the race between Scott and Amundsen for the South Pole: competitive, challenging, with real-life heroes, lots of adventure and action, but no violence. Games of discovery, exploration, science, knowledge. Competition doesn't have to be violent to be exciting. How about a game to try and save the crumbling ecological balance of the planet?
It's time to bring women into the fore and make them appear more realistic Female characters in Anne McCaffrey's Dragonrider series or the women mages in Barbara Hambly's books are strong, independent, intelligent, capable and sensitive. Pretty good subjects for games. In real life we've certainly got enough women to respect—Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Catherine the Great, Madame Curie, Gol-da Meir, Jane Goodall.
But we consistently get males as the lead characters: Rogue, Barbarian, Defender of the Crown, Cosmic Relief, Sundog, Questron, Rings of Zilfin, Out Run, Space Quest, Time Bandits—just a few games where male characters rule the game. The ads for Out Run say, "Hot car. Hot music...and the blonde next to you." There's not a cute guy in the seat.
And the themes: Bomber Command, Star-glider, Dive Bomber, Warship, Missile Command, Foundation's Waste, Goldrunner, Leatherneck, Empire, Phantasm, Carrier Command, Gauntlet, Roadwar 2000—kill, destroy, hack, slash, destroy, nuke, murder, cripple and so on.
Think we've gone a trifle overboard on the violence bit? For every nonviolent game (e.g., chess, cards), for every game with a socially redeeming message, such as Police Quest (although the officers are male and the game is quite violent) or Global Commander (although its scope is limited and doesn't address environmental or social issues at all), there are maybe 100 of the kill-shoot-stab-hack variety.
Even when the game isn't a shooting arcade in window dressing, there are few females in an active role. Adventures, like Corruption, The Pawn and so on, usually give the center stage to male characters and relegate females to peripheral positions, often stereotyped ones. Then there are the blatant games—Leisure Suit Larry or Leather Goddesses of Phobos—vain attempts to hide sexism under a veneer of humor. In King's Quest II, the whole idea is to find King Graham a "good and kind" woman with "an inner beauty of spirit as well as beauty of the face and form" for him to marry. He's the active participant, she's passive. And nothing is ever mentioned about qualities he has to have. He might be Godzilla, for all she can do about it.
One of the better adventures, Datasoft's Alternate Reality, does not differentiate between the sex of the player character, but most of the encounters are with males. At least AR provides some alternatives to combat, as well as many nonviolent situations. However, the game characters certainly have a propensity for attacking the player character.
It hardly surprises me that I can't interest Susan in most ST games. And she's not a technophobe. She uses similar machines daily in her working world. She just doesn't find either the themes, the presentation or the play of most computer games very interesting.
And we're passing the image of violence and sexism along to our children through every medium: TV, books, comics, computer games. I think it's unhealthy. We should try to temper our lust for violence. Think about the message underlying these games. Look at the artwork on the cover (or in the screens). Bikini-clad women with low-browed linebackers (usually somewhat more fully clothed than the women). Is that how we want our children to perceive male/female relationships?
Personally, I prefer strategy (abstract) games like chess, Crossword, Othello and so on. I'm still hoping someone will write or port a Go game (Nemesis or Cosmos on the PC) to the ST.
I'm a student of military history, so war games appeal to me, especially those which simulate particular battles. Most war games are somewhat abstract, so despite the topic, they are not violent per se, although the military theme is flagrant throughout. But no digitized screams or the thunder of hooves as cavalry grind infantry into the mud. Not even the booming of a cannon. So you'd have to include among the men I admire: Napoleon, Wellington, Julius Caesar, Shaka Zulu and a few others of the hawkish persuasion. But these are real characters, historical personages. Studying them doesn't necessarily lead to a warlike disposition.
Games like Empire and Colonial Conquest are abstract in the extreme as war games go. There are no dying men, no cities gutted and firebombed. Just flags or symbols changing hands. Not very violent at all—sort of like spirited variations on chess. In Global Commander, in the role of a UN. moderator, you try to stabilize a world plagued by growing unrest and keep it from breaking out into war.
However, war as a goal is not a healthy message to get across either. We don't want to encourage people to think we can solve diplomatic crises by sending in the Marines every time (or worse, jumping to nuclear war as in Balance of Power). I don't recommend it as a subject for everyone's taste. Maybe games ought to have rating codes like the movies?
There are simulation games which have no violence at all—Shuttle II is an example. You have action, but you must apply a lot of cerebration to the task. And the goal is not violent—it's peaceful: the accomplishment of a NASA mission. The message of a game like Shuttle II is far healthier than that of Leatherneck, both MichTron products.
I've been told publishers don't produce this sort of game often, because they don't sell well. I wonder if the reverse isn't the case: They don't sell well, because they aren't produced or promoted well enough. Maybe violent, sexist games only sell well, because we have had little choice so far and have very little exposure to the other sorts of products. Given a greater choice, we'd prove ourselves mature and sensitive by buying the games that project a better social image. Maybe the publishers underestimate the intelligence or the value system of their audience.
I hope so. I'd hate to think they were hitting the nail right on the head.
Ian Chadwick is a Toronto writer who is currently writing a novel about spies and police work in the Soviet Union. About the time you read this, he and his wife will be taking a well-deserved vacation in Colombia.