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ARGs and Women: Moving Beyond the Hot Brunette

  1. Andrea Phillips * SXSW March 13, 2010 ARGs and Women Moving Beyond the Hot Brunette
  2. What’s an “Alternate Reality Game”? An alternate reality game (ARG), is an interactive narrative that uses the real world as a platform, often involving multiple media and game elements, to tell a story that may be affected by participants' ideas or actions.
  3. Some Stuff I’ve Done
  4. IGDA ARG SIG Learn more: Participate:
  5. “female” by DiscourseMarker on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.
  6. Cloudmakers Established April 11, 2001
  7. The first ARG brunette? Laia Salla
  9. Internet Use by Gender Data from “Characteristics and Choices of Internet Users,” US General Accounting Office, 2001.
  11. Recipe for an Alternate Reality Game ✤ Some fictional websites ✤ Some puzzles ✤ A hot brunette
  12. Brunettes of ARGdom
  14. DUH
  15. Numbers Show That... Two in five gamers are female. “The State of the Video Gamer,” The Nielsen Company, 2009.
  16. Numbers Show That... 52% of PSP owners are female. “Gaming Device Profiles” NPD Group, 2010.
  17. Numbers Show That... Women over 25 play more gaming minutes than any other group. “The State of the Video Gamer,” The Nielsen Company, 2009.
  20. GUNS
  23. STEAK
  26. “DSCF1925” by adubber on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.
  27. “Day 252 - Sibling Rivals” by Ken WIlcox on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivativeWorks 2.0 Generic license.
  30. More Men Make Games Percent of women working in the games business, by department Game Developer Magazine salary survey, 2009.
  31. Women Make Less Money Gender pay disparity in the games business, by department Game Developer Magazine salary survey, 2009.
  32. Women On My ARG Teams
  33. Numbers Show That... One third of ARG creators are female. “The State of the Video Gamer,” The Nielsen Company, 2009.
  35. Numbers Show That... One in five characters on a game box is female. “Sex, Lies, and Video Games: The Portrayal of Male and Female Characters on Video Game Covers,” Burgess, Stermer, Burgess, Sex Roles, 2007
  36. Brunettes of ARGdom
  37. SO WHAT?
  38. Sexism 101 Intro to sexism with Mr. Kuntz “Emily’s meant to be doing her homework!” by squarepants2004j/auntyh uia on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution -NoDerivativeWorks 2.0 Generic license.
  39. “Blue Eyes” by jimmybrown on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
  40. “Women-in-Uniform_Germany” by MATEUS 27:24&25 on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution -NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.
  41. “Fairy Nuff” by left-hand on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution -NoDerivativeWorks 2.0 Generic license.
  43. “A Twisted Family Tradiition ~The Lime Jello Brain” by hurleygurley on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial-NoDerivativeWorks 2.0 Generic license.
  49. “Asleep brothers” by fofurasfelinas on Flickr, available under a Creative Common Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivativeWorks 2.0 Generic license.
  50. Archetypes & Stock Characters Cheerleader Mad Scientist Hooker With Heart Of Gold Hapless Husband Alcoholic Detective Gold Digger Grizzled Veteran Drill Sergeant Wise Elder Used Car Salesman Mysterious Wizard Rock Star Kindergarten Teacher Grumpy Old Man
  51. Stereotypes & Stock Characters Sassy gay friend  Latino gangster Asian convenience store owner Jewish mother Italian mobster Dumb blonde Trophy wife Homophobic Christian Jihadist Arab Drunk American Indian Stoned Jamaican Man-hating lesbian Ignorant Southerner Racist Republican
  52. How to Make Complex Characters 1. Pick an archetype 2. Give it atypical traits Bonus: Mix and match
  55. Pass the Bechdel Test ✤ Two or more women ✤ Who talk to each other ✤ About something other than a man
  58. “Vanishing pier” by Ravages on Flickr, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
  62. Resources ✤ Wonderland ✤ Sociological Images ✤ Geek Feminism Blog ✤ The Border House ✤ Tiger Beatdown ✤ Feministing ✤ Game Girl Advance ✤ Jezebel ✤ Racialicious ✤ Shapely Prose
  63. Andrea Phillips ✤ Game designer, writer, strident feminist ✤ ✤ Twitter: Andrhia ✤ AIM: Andrh1a ✤ Skype: Andrhia ✤ Deus Ex Machinatio

Editor's Notes

  1. Hi, and welcome to ARGs and Women: Moving Beyond the Hot Brunette. I’m your host, Andrea Phillips, and today I’ll be talking about games, sexism, psychology, and very attractive women with brown hair. Good times!
  2. I’m not going to waste all our time telling you what an ARG is. You know this already, right? If you don’t, go ahead and ask your neighbor. The next couple of slides I’m just telling you who I am, so you won’t be missing much.
  3. First, you probably want to know a little about me and why I’m qualified to talk about any of this. I’m a freelance game designer and writer. My specialty is alternate reality games. Over the last several years, I’ve written and/or outright designed a whole bunch of interactive projects, some of which you may have even heard of.
  4. I’m also the chairman of the *deep breath* International Game Developers Association’s Special Interest Group on Alternate Reality Games, which I’d encourage you to join, it’s an amazing group of smart, creative people interested in the field.
  5. And of course I am totally a girl, which the particularly observant among you will have already guessed.
  6. I was also one of the community moderators for the Cloudmakers, which in ARG years means I’m a great-grandma. Cloudmakers was the amazing Yahoo! group of several thousand people who all got together to play the A.I. game, which you may also know as ‘The Beast.’ It was an epic marketing campaign for the film A.I. There’s room for debate regarding whether this was the first ARG. You could run a whole panel on just that topic.
  7. My good friend and colleague Jay Bushman likens the Cloudmakers experience to a legendary Sex Pistols show in Manchester on June 4, 1976. A small show, just a few dozen people, but in the crowd were members of what later became the Buzzcocks, The Smiths, Joy Division -- a real who’s who of punk rock history. It wasn’t the exact moment when punk rock was invented. But something about that show inspired them to think, “I’m going to do THAT.” Likewise the A.I. Game and the Cloudmakers were that moment we can point to and say *this* was the time, *this* was the place, when everything changed. It inspired at least dozens of people to devote their lives and careers to chasing this magic new thing, whatever you want to call it: pervasive fiction, interactive storytelling, net-native literature. That A.I. Game had a secret recipe for lightning in a bottle that we’re still trying to reverse engineer nine years later. One of its ingredients was...
  8. ...the hot brunette. Meet Laia Salla. She was the main character of the A.I. Game, the one who shepherded you through the experience. She was also the one with a problem: Her good friend Evan Chan was dead. She thought he’d been murdered, and guess what?
  9. Say it with me: She needed YOUR HELP to solve the murder! Let’s put this in a little historical context.
  10. 2001 was a real golden age for the kickass TV heroine. In 2001, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on the air. It was the last season of Xena: Warrior Princess, and the first for Alias and Dark Angel. (Did anyone else watch Dark Angel?) It was also the year the first Tomb Raider movie came out. Our cultural expectations regarding female leads had come to assume a certain hot-but-badass quality. I can’t speak for Sean Stewart, who created Laia, but I think this spirit of the time influenced Laia Salla, who in turn influenced the characters who came after.
  11. 2001 was also the first year a GAO survey discovered that the proportions of men and women using the internet matched that of the general population. It was a big change from a 1998 study showing that only a third of internet users were women. But general perception hadn’t caught up to reality yet. We all still thought girls and computers generally didn’t go together.
  12. Early on, one of the Cloudmakers posted that he thought dozens of otherwise incomplete profiles marked ‘female’ were suspicious, and maybe evidence of sockpuppets set up by the game developers. He was smacked down pretty fast. In 2001, the internet didn’t feel like a safe place to be female, so it was pretty common to hide your gender online to be free of undesired sexual advances. It still is now. Still, it wasn’t long before we were looking around at each other and talking about how very many women we seemed to have among us. More than we expected. A lot more than we were used to. And we started wondering what it was about this game, or maybe about this KIND of game, that brought women into the fold. Was it the actual game play itself? The lack of shooting people? Or maybe the strong female characters?
  13. Whatever it was, the lightning had struck, our lives were changed, and the alternate reality game became a going medium with a reputation for being woman-friendly. Because the A.I. Game was so widely known and so successful, it became the model for a wave of professional and grassroots developers who came after and thought if we could just work out the secret recipe, we, too, could be the next hot thing.
  14. And in marched the hot brunettes. Usually a variation on the theme of young, attractive, smart, funny. The kind of girl a geek guy could fall in love with. There’s one significant difference between an ARG and a traditional video game, and that’s the role you fill as a player. In most video games, you’re the star of the show, and your avatar is the little dude running around on the screen, certain kinds of puzzle games and casual games aside. In an ARG, you’re you, and the story isn’t fundamentally about you. But you’re still the one with agency -- the little dude running around on the screen. So the star in an ARG may be an attractive brunette, but it’s not fair to compare her to Mario and Luigi, or Master Chief, or Link, and pronounce ARGs remarkably woman-friendly on that basis. The brunette is Princess Peach, Cortana, Zelda; something between a goal to achieve and an advisor to lead you there.
  15. I can’t cast stones here, since I’ve had my own games with brunettes who need your help, too.
  16. Actually, it’s funny to think that in the wide world of alternate reality games, my two white dudes who starred in the 2012 Experience were an exception, and not the rule. Obviously there are lots of other exceptions to the reign of the Hot Brunette, too, but even so, there’s clearly a brunette trend in alternate reality games. We’ve made or found an archetype. So we need to look carefully at who she is and what she means.
  17. To really understand the hot brunette in alternate reality games, we need to step back and look at the broader topic of girls and video games, and the portrayal of female characters in video games. So let’s start with the old chestnut, do girls really play video games?
  18. Of course they do! In 2010, we shouldn’t even need this conversation anymore. But let’s back that up with some pretty charts and graphs so you don’t have to take my word for it.
  19. Forty percent of all gamers are female.
  20. Fifty-two percent of PSP owners are female. I’m assuming they didn’t all buy the lilac Hannah Montana Limited Edition, either.
  21. This chart is so amazing I had to screen-grab it right from the Nielsen report to show you. It breaks down the total minutes various groups played PC and console or handheld games, by age and gender. Males 12 to 24, your stereotypical gamer group, play some of the fewest game-minutes out of the bunch. And women 25 and over play the most. How many of you hear that and think “No way, that’s just impossible?” I admit there is kind of a trick to it. We’ll get back to that in a little while.
  22. Let’s stop for a minute and examine the fact that gender awareness pervades almost everything in our society. Practically anything can carry a gender-based connotation. Let’s play a little game to demonstrate. I’ll put something up on the screen, and you tell me if it’s for girls or for boys. Ready?
  23. Girl! Glambert notwithstanding.
  24. Boy!
  25. Boy!
  26. Girl!
  27. Boy!
  28. Girl! Let’s take a quick poll. Gentlemen, how many of you have ever eaten a cupcake? How many of you have never, never had a cupcake? Have you ever turned down a cupcake because it was too girly?
  29. Because there’s a bakery in New York that’ll totally fix that for you. They make manly cupcakes for manly men. In case a regular cupcake was too threatening to your masculinity. Can we all agree that this is kind of ridiculous? That gender is so rigid and so important that eating a freaking pink cupcake is a threat to manhood?
  30. So, OK, if we’ve reached something that looks a lot like gender equity for gaming as a whole, why is that idea still out there that games are a boy thing?
  31. I mean, is there something about Pong that was so deeply hyper-masculine that it set precedent for gendering games for decades? Maybe that’s how it was marketed? Let’s take a look.
  32. Pardon the grainy sound. This ad is priceless, isn’t it? It shows Pong as an activity that appeals to women as well as men, even to a point where it gets them to abandon their lousy husbands and housekeeping duties.
  33. But this idea that there are girl things and boy things turns out to be really important to our understanding of gender in video games. All those game minutes played by women over 25 include games like Solitaire and Free Cell that come free with Windows. Which aren’t really GAME games... right? Actually, the kinds of games women play more often than men are casual games like Bejeweled or Solitaire, social games like Farmville and Mafia Wars, and of course the classic game for women, The Sims. None of these are the big triple-A titles out of EA or Konami, the games we think of when we think about games. Our picture of a gamer as a young man is correct if we’re talking about games like Gears of War, the Halo franchise, Call of Duty. And when you think of video games, there are probably the titles you think of. Farmville and its 100 million users is nice and all, but it isn’t a game that makes you a gamer, right? It’s a girly game. There’s a tautology here. We think that video games are a thing that boys do, and therefore games that girls or women play more are less valid. Maybe even... inferior.
  34. I have a hypothesis that gamer culture is such a masculine thing because of arcade culture, which was the spiritual descendent of pinball culture, which was in turn the descendant of pool hall culture. And as everyone who ever read Andy Capp knows, the pool hall is a place where men go to drink beer and escape from their wives. But no matter how the idea began, the machinery that keep it alive are chugging along to this day.
  35. For starters, vintage Atari ads aside, games are by and large marketed toward men. And not just any men, STRAIGHT men.
  36. Anyone remember the poorly thought-through ‘Sin to Win’ competition at E3 last year? Dante’s Inferno was going through the mortal sins and hit on LUST. So they set a bounty on the heads of booth babes -- not just THEIR booth babes, any women working a booth at E3. They wanted their players to photograph ‘acts of lust’ with these women and email them in. The winner would get a ‘sinful night’ with two hot girls and a limo. Here’s you faith in humanity moment: there was a huge protest over this, and the ultimate winner rejected the prize.
  37. And then there are these nefarious Evony ads. Here are some guys who know that boobs sell. You wouldn’t know it to look at this, but Evony is actually a Civilization knock-off. It’s a game where you build cities and move troops around. There are no characters in the game at all, hot or otherwise. Since this ad, they’ve become even worse. If you didn’t know better you’d assume they were for a porn site. Photos of women in lingerie.
  38. But surely these are outliers, right? The worst cases cherry-picked to make my case. Nothing like an industry-wide trend, right? Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you E3 2009. This is, believe it or not, toned down quite a lot from years past. The one year I went to E3, back in 2005, the booth behind ours was I think Namco. Their entire marketing slogan as a company that year was “Our Girls Are Hotter Than Yours.” If I were a guy, I’d be kind of pissed off at the idea that hot girls are more important to me than whether the game they’re in is any good. And speaking as a woman, the message the game industry is sending me with this crap is ‘we don’t want you here, and we aren’t interested in your money.’ This is definitely an area where ARGs are more welcoming to women than traditional video games. The marketing for an ARG, where there is any, tends a lot more toward mystery than titillation. There may be hot girls in an ARG, but by and large, the hotness isn’t the main thrust of the marketing message.
  39. Here’s another cog in the machine: Games are made by men.
  40. The number of women working in games ranges from three percent in programming and six percent in game design, up to a high of 21 percent working in production. There aren’t a lot of women making video games, folks.
  41. And no wonder, because women in the games business make staggeringly less money than men do. A female game designer can expect to make $18,000 a year less than her male counterpart. In business it’s $28,000 a year less. And it bears noting that the games industry isn’t the place you go to get rich, either. The one exception is QA, where women tend to make more money than men do.
  42. Here’s a highly unscientific sample from my own career. This is the male/female ratio of the major projects I worked on each year for the last few years. In my experience, at least, women do a whole heck of a lot better than the three to 21 percent representation you see in mainstream video games. And the majority of my work had been on teams with more women than men!
  43. Preliminary results from an IGDA survey show that about a third of ARG developers are female. It’s not equity, but it’s a hell of a lot better then you see in traditional game design.
  44. My good friend Adrian Hon has famously said that stories in games all pretty much suck. I agree with him. And along those lines, let me say that female characters in games, by and large, also suck. It’s atrocious.
  45. The classic role for a female character in a video game is the damsel in distress. It started with Donkey Kong, and it’s still going strong to this day. The whole point of the game is to rescue your girlfriend, your wife, your sister, or a princess of unclear relationship to you. Look at the Super Mario Bros. games, Shadow of the Colossus, Final Fantasy, Dante’s Inferno, Fable. Anyone have others? Sometimes it’s unclear why the girl needs rescuing, though. I am looking at you, Princess Zelda. Over the course of the Legend of Zelda series, Zelda wields amazing magical forces, knows every mystic secret, and in Ocarina of Time she disguises herself as Sheik, an actual ninja. A ninja! Can anyone explain to me why exactly Zelda needed Link to take down Ganondorf instead of just doing it herself? In the Legend of ZELDA, why isn’t Zelda the playable character?
  46. But even when you get the playable female, it doesn’t always go so well. Look at the DS game Super Princess Peach. She finally gets her own game, and you know what superpower they give her? MOOD SWINGS. She flies when she’s happy! She sets things on fire when she’s angry! She drowns her enemies with her tears! And fun fact: The whole thing takes place on VIBE ISLAND. But Super Princess Peach isn’t even the worst of it.
  47. Bayonetta is a hot game right now, came out in the last couple of months. Bayonetta is in a category all by herself. This game is getting amazing reviews for being visually stunning and having an amazingly well-done game mechanic, but but but... there’s the art director who enthused about how hard he worked at getting her backside exactly perfect, and the fact that when she fights, her special moves are called ‘climaxes’... and then there’s the part where her bodysuit is made out of her own hair, help together by the force of her mystic power. And when she does one of these climaxes, she can’t split her concentration enough to keep herself dressed. So yeah: Her superpower is getting naked.
  48. And even that is assuming there’s a notable female character in the game to begin with, which is no easy assumption. The war game Bad Company 2 just got some flak because they said that putting women into their game would be too much work and take up too much processing time that they would rather devote to allowing you to break down a wall and have it stay crumbled for the rest of the game. Never mind the fact that dozens of other games have managed mixed-gender and even mixed-species casts for a dozen years and more. Never mind that women have served in the armed forces for decades. My own mom was a B-52 mechanic in the 1970s. Women in the military aren’t a sudden, new phenomenon. They’ve had time to adapt! Fable only gave you the option to play as a male, and there was enough outcry that you could play as a woman in Fable 2. So there’s a trend toward improvement. But in general, male characters outnumber females in video games - at least on the box art - by four to one. That from an industry that’s obsessed with reflecting light off of water and rendering crumbling walls in as realistic a manner as technologically possible.But realistically modeling the real diversity of the human population is somehow beyond them.
  49. All those ARG brunettes don’t sound so bad anymore, do they? But it’s a slippery slope, and we’re sliding down it already. The brunettes are getting hotter, they’re showing more cleavage, they’re posting bikini pictures on Facebook. And they still always have a problem they can’t solve on their own. ARGs are definitely still an oasis of positive feminist mojo, but it’s a troubling trend.
  50. Right, so we’ve talked about games and ARGs and women. Let’s talk about why this matters. So what if girls play games, or make games? So what if game marketers use good old-fashioned T&A to sell? If it works, it works.
  51. This is not an academic question. Sexism is a real problem that affects real lives. I could give you pay disparity and sexual harassment studies until we all fell asleep, but let me take this somewhere a little more personal. I had my first meaningful brush with sexism when I was 13 years old, in the 8th grade. I’d recently moved to a new school. In my old school, I’d been taking literature classes, but in the new school, they placed me in a class doing some seriously remedial material. It was pretty hard going from Shakespeare, Dickens, and dramatic irony back to ‘underline the verb in this sentence.’ I was bored to tears. So after about a month, I went to my teacher, Mr. Kuntz, and explained to him that I thought I needed more difficult work, and was there anything I could do to get into a more advanced class? He listened to me patiently as I poured my heart out about this thing that was so incredibly important to me. When I was done, he smiled and said, “Andrea, do you know...”
  52. have the most beautiful blue eyes?” I did not get moved to another class. But I did grow into the kind of young woman who takes pride in not blowing her hair dry, not following fashion, and instead doing ‘boy stuff’ like playing RPGs and working with computers. Pink was my kryptonite. I rid myself of as many markers of femininity as I could, and still remain acceptable to mainstream society. I’d learned that being a pretty girl might hold me back.
  53. I considered myself ‘not a Real Girl,’ because Real Girls like shopping and are bad at math and spend all their time on shallow, petty things. Bitchy, gossipy back-stabbers. Real Girls kind of sucked, because they did girl things, and girl things sucked. Funny thing, though, not only were none of my friends Real Girls... we didn’t even KNOW any Real Girls. When do you stop and question your most basic assumptions?
  54. For me, it was when this happened. That’s my daughter Sasha. Favorite color: Guess! Loves princesses and babies and sparkly things. But I’d internalized the message that girl stuff sucks to such an extent that I was happy with little Sasha taking karate, but her dance classes kind of skeeved me out, because they were so... girly. And my daughter was better than that.
  55. There’s this idea that feminism is all about making masculine things OK for girls and women to participate in. The right to vote, the right to an education, the right to own property, the right to work outside the home, the right to pursue careers as doctors, soldiers, firefighters. And it’s true, that has always been one of the highest goals of feminism. It’s important stuff.
  56. But it’s just as important that we destigmatize femininity. Nowadays, we’re cool with a woman surgeon, but we’re a little creeped out by a man who works at a daycare center or collects unicorns. But why shouldn’t that be OK? If a man just really loves unicorns, why shouldn’t he be free to collect them without anyone casting aspersions on his manliness?
  57. In our current value system, girl stuff -- femininity -- equates to soft, pretty, decorative. Masculinity maps to tough, useful, strong. That’s why you see stuff like this ad for the Droid.
  58. The message in this ad is ‘the iPhone is a girl thing, and girl things suck.’ That message is incredibly pervasive in our culture. Think of the expressions: ‘crying like a little girl,’ ‘you throw like a girl,’ ‘even a girl could beat you’. I use them myself, and I know better. But that message, repeated often enough, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  59. Everybody knows that the media affects what we think. But the extent might surprise you. A study out of the London School of Economics and Political Science just this year shows that consuming a message, even if you vehemently disagree with it at the time, can cause you to eventually shift toward that point of view. This study sent extremely biased political newsletters to participants over two years. Let me quote from the Miller-McCune article: “Over time ... and without exception, the readers subconsciously adopted the bias to varying degrees ... a few of them in the extreme. Surprisingly, they didn’t register any change right after the newsletters stopped — not until full six months later, when they had obviously let down their guard.”
  60. This seems to be related to a psychological phenomenon called the Sleeper Effect. Once information is in your brain, even if it comes from a distrusted source, it eventually becomes a part of your worldview. The link between the source and the data becomes weak over time. You brain tosses everything into one big idea stew to help you make sense of the world. If you’re constantly being bombarded with media messages suggesting that girls should be pretty, dismissed, passive, it’s very likely to affect how you think and behave, drip by drip.
  61. Malcolm Gladwell gets a bad rap in some social science circles, but he’s responsible for teaching me about priming, so I owe him one. It turns out that behavior and performance can be tremendously affected by situational and environmental cues. If you remind a student that she is female by something as tiny as having her check a box on a quiz before she takes a math test, research has found that her performance tanks, because girls are supposed to be bad at math. Social context changes us, and not always in a good way. So who’s to blame for putting messages out there reminding us that girls are supposed to be bad at math and don’t play video games? It’s the media, right?
  62. We are the media. All of us here at this conference, game designers and writers, marketers and journalists and filmmakers and bloggers and musicians. When we talk about the media, we can’t just look at network TV and newspapers. We are the media.
  63. And this is what we do, as members of the media. We make culture. We are the ones putting ideas in people’s heads. That’s our job. It behooves us to think about what it is we’re adding to our collective consciousness. We need to be mindful of the messages we’re sending, intentionally or otherwise. And with our collection of brunettes, the message we’re sending is that women -- even smart, competent ones -- need help to solve their problems.
  64. To get away from all of those passive and increasingly sexualized brunettes, we need to understand what we’re using them for. Why does the typical ARG feature a hot brunette who needs your help? It certainly isn’t anything like intentional sexism. Quite the contrary, I would suspect that many of them originate from a very well-intentioned place of wanting to provide interesting, strong female characters, and giving a woman the lead role in your game seems like the way to do it. But why brown hair, why young, why cute? Why not something different?
  65. It’s because writers and game developers are, at heart, deeply lazy. Building nuanced characters is a difficult business, especially when you only have an internet-sized chance to snatch somebody’s attention. In a mass-market game, you generally want smart, funny, easy to relate to, and vulnerable. Female for vulnerability, and brown hair to convey smart. Bonus smart points if you put glasses on her. You can’t do a blonde because blonde hair carries connotations of ditzy, unreliable, easily dismissed. Redheads are supposed to be feisty, Felicia Day notwithstanding.
  66. This is a simple graphic representation of a neutral human being. And this is what you start with when you’re making characters: A blank slate. But the blank slate isn’t actually that blank. Odds are good that when you look at this figure, in your head you’re just naturally assuming it’s male, white, straight, and middle-class. These are the defaults we’ve been socialized to expect. Did any of you think of this figure as female right off the bat? I bet you didn’t. That’s because girl stick figures have a skirt, right? They’re the exception from an otherwise neutral human being. The male is the neutral human being, and female is a variation from that, like being fat or having red hair is a variation from the normal, neutral person. Filling in that blank slate with something besides your personal defaults is really hard.
  67. A nice, fast way to fill in the blanks is with an archetype, or its runty relation, the stock character. The cute brunette does a lot of heavy lifting right off the bat because *she* has become a stock character. They’re the writer’s shorthand. All you have to do is provide a couple of props to get across what kind of character you’re using. Wild white hair and a lab coat? Mad scientist. Leather pants and a sequin-covered scarf? Rock star. Stock characters are familiar and comfortable for both the writer and the audience. You don’t have to bother your pretty little head about creating or conveying character traits, because your audience already knows what you’re talking about. It’s fast, easy, reliable. The problem is they’re also simple, predictable, and boring.
  68. And they can veer into offensive stereotyping very quickly, especially if you’re not careful. So what’s a writer to do? That blank slate is scary. That’s why we use stock characters. They’re a quick way to get away from the neutral human being. But as artists and people of conscience, we can’t leave it there. It leaves you open to being offensive and boring. Who wants that?
  69. One possible method, out of the many, many methods out there that work, is to be aware of the archetypes and stock characters you’re using, and intentionally insert atypical traits. Take the Gold Digger and make her male. Take the kindergarten teacher and make her hate kids and go to night school for her accounting degree. Even better, mix and match. Take the mad scientist and put him in a rock band, and suddenly you have Buckaroo Banzai. It’s not the only way to do it, and not the most refined way, but it’s quick and dirty and at least gets the ball rolling. The point is to avoid the obvious. If you have a character who is fat, have them go to the gym sometimes instead of always eating a donut. Have the girl who hates shoe shopping. Make unexpected choices. Obviously the more time you spend refining and getting to know your characters, the better they’ll be.
  70. Anyone want to have a try at making up their own on-the-spot atypical stock characters? I’ll give you a minute to think about it first.
  71. Let’s be clear. There’s nothing wrong with casting a cute brunette girl as your lead. It’s been done, and done well. But when you’re including sex appeal regardless of whether it furthers your story or illuminates character, or creating one character after another who has absolutely no control over her own fate, then you’re sending harmful messages about the role of women in society.
  72. And you don’t want to do that, right? So I’ve helpfully compiled for you a few lists of things you could keep in mind to help you consider whether what you’re doing is on the right track, even if you absolutely have to have a hot brunette.
  73. Here’s one suggestion: Pass the Bechdel test. This was named after the cartoonist of a web comic called “Dykes to Watch Out For.” A character in the strip once said she wouldn’t watch any movie unless it met these criteria. They seem simple, but it’s amazing how many films don’t pass this test. It’s not always a good test for games -- a lot of games don’t have conversations in any meaningful sense at all. But the spirit of the test is sound. Make sure your women aren’t there purely to provide a love interest, either for another character or for the player. Make sure there is more than one token female represented in the experience.
  74. ‘Agency’ in this sense means ‘possessing the power to act in the world.’ Princess Peach in Bowser’s Castle doesn’t have agency. Xena, Warrior Princess, kicking warlord butt all over creation, has agency in spades. Lack of agency is one of the places where the ARG lets us down. But it’s a structural problem built into the nature of an interactive experience. If you have a female lead and give her too much agency, sometimes you’ve removed the need for the player to do anything. But if you give your character free will, you can use this as an engine to drive story, too. Let her make mistakes. Let her misuse information the players have given her. Let her reach decisions and conclusions on her own. Make her unreliable, have her keep information to herself, so the relationship between your brunette and the players is troubled. If you go into your creation process mindfully and with intent, you may well wind up with a much more interesting story as a result.
  75. And in any instance, diversify your cast and how they are represented. Some writers are in the habit of creating characters in whatever their default templates are and then go through later, reassigning genders and ethnicities, and shifting the narrative to match. This can be a risky thing, because you can wind up with characters who look different on the outside but are all the same as you or your default character in their behavior. This can feel a little goofy and off, or it can be so jarring that it kills the characters and your story.
  76. The brunette in an ARG often serves as your guide to the game world, giving you backstory and context. But another thing to try is to skip the guide entirely. Let the players into your world and let them make sense of it on their own terms, and tell your story with an ensemble cast. If I may steal an analogy from the wonderful Maureen McHugh, right now we have a lot of ARGs that are House, with one strong central character. But maybe we could get away from the brunettes if we were to try to make Friends, a game that is equally about several characters all at once.
  77. And though there are a lot of bad, bad female characters in traditional video games, it might also be helpful to look at some of the ones that really work. This is Faith from Mirror’s Edge. She’s physically strong and agile, and she’s certainly attractive, but obviously not designed to be eye candy for a straight male player. She has relationships with other characters in the game, and those relationship are not solely romantic. Her designers conceived of her as a human being first. A human being who happens to be female.
  78. And this is the female hero in Fable 2. The story and relationships in Fable 2 are the same regardless of if you choose to play as a male or female, and it’s largely a sandbox game, so the choices you get in terms of forming relationships are pretty much up to the player. I’m including this as an exemplary female character, though, because as I played through this game, I couldn’t help but notice that the female avatar is suspiciously beefy. Almost like they didn’t make a second set of motion caps and skeleton for the female characters. But regardless of how they got there, I just adore the fact that the female hero has heft and muscle to her. And if you’re bad at the game and die a lot -- like me -- she gets horribly scarred up over the course of the game, just like the male hero does, and there’s no way to remove them through the regular course of the game. Remaining pretty just isn’t on the agenda.
  79. And then there is the deliciously subversive Chell in Portal. You don’t get a lot of information about her, her relationships, or her personality. The reason I love Chell is because she’s female, and it’s not a big deal. You don’t even have a good opportunity to discover what your avatar looks like until about midway through the game, so it’s possible to be surprised at finding out you’ve been a girl the whole time. There are more good examples, of course, but the key to a good portrayal revolves around treating a female character as a human being who happens to be a woman or a girl, and not a chick who is there mainly to be hot to look at.
  80. Stories are the truths we tell ourselves, as a society. ‘Crime doesn’t pay,’ and ‘Love Conquers All.’ Or sometimes something grittier, like ‘Life Isn’t Fair.’ But we also tell ourselves that ‘Men Can’t Take Care of Babies,’ and ‘Women Don’t Play Games.’ The ARG message could be that there are hot brunettes out there that really need your help, but I like to think the deep truth the ARG is telling us is that when you need help, somebody out there in the wide internet will be there for you. This is a story that’s coming true. I can’t even count the number of times in the last few years I’ve seen the story of disaster striking -- cancer, a house fire, job or home loss, followed by the kindness of strangers giving to those in need. That’s the culture I want to be making.
  81. Build the world you want to live in. Be mindful. Choose the message you mean to send. It matters, boys and girls. There’s no such thing as ‘just marketing,’ ‘just entertainment.’ Everything you make becomes a part of our collective culture. Build the culture you want to live in.
  82. These are some excellent resources for further reading on gender and racial issues in society, and in games.
  83. Thank you!