It's Time We Put The Bald Space Marine Away

Not everyone knows the joy of playing as a protagonist that is like them — someone with the same skin colour, with the same hair style, with the same sexual orientation, or the same gender. Sometimes, 'who you are' is not an in-game option simply because you are not the target audience. What choice are you left, if, say, you are a person of colour, or queer, or trans, or a woman, than to almost perpetually play as someone else... or to make your own games?

Such was the case with game critic (and full disclosure, personal friend) Mattie Brice, who instead of waiting for the unlikely scenario of having a triple-A developer make a game for her, picked up a copy of RPG Maker and made a game called Mainichi, where she takes you through a typical day in her life — from banal things like choosing whether or not to play a game, to the type of harassment she might face as a trans woman whenever she is out in public.

Playing through such a game can be touching from a player perspective, but Mattie felt something cathartic when she made it, too. She saw herself in a game for the first time only after she made herself pixel-by-pixel.

"Seeing myself as a protagonist was surprisingly emotional," she told me in an interview, "There were no characters in RPG Maker with my skin tone or hair, so I had to do some scavenging and editing to finally get me in there. I remember looking at myself and crying, I was so moved."

Years ago, without the proper training, income or know-how, making a game like Mainichi would have been impossible for many. But now, thanks to the ease of use of tools like Twine, RPG Maker, and Construct 2 along with the power of dissemination that comes with the internet has given rise to game developers who might have otherwise never had a voice in this industry. And they're making games for people outside the typical market demographic of triple-A games.

Mattie is joined in this ‘revolution' by other like-minded game designers like Merrit Kopas, a queer trans woman. Both Mattie and Merritt might have grown up with games, but they didn't set out to be game developers at first. "When I was young, I wanted to be too many things. Zoologist, actress, psychic, interior designer," Mattie, who is now a creative writing grad student, recalled.

Merritt, meanwhile, studied sociology in grad school. "I don't have any formal training in game design or programming, so having a network of encouraging people has been really valuable," she explained. These backgrounds didn't stop them, and in some ways, have better equipped them to speak to more people. Both Merritt and Mattie became visible as game developers after Anna Anthropy's book, Rise of the video game Zinesters, urged everyday folk to take it upon themselves to make games.

Personal games-the kind that are not beholden to the financial interests of stockholders, or the tastes of mainstream consumers, or the proclivities of marketing tactics.

Specifically, personal games — the kind that are not beholden to the financial interests of stockholders, or the tastes of mainstream consumers, or the proclivities of marketing tactics. The kind that allow us to step in someone else's bubble, the kind of game that doesn't aim to be entertainment inasmuch as they are about empathy and connection with one another. Given how most games tend to be about glorification of the player or solipsism, that's incredible — not to mention subversive.

Merrit's most famous game would have to be Lim, which is an abstract game about fitting in. You play as a square that can become the colour of other squares, if you choose. If you don't, the other squares violently attack you — so even if you brave ‘being yourself,' it's not a pleasant experience. Though metaphorical, connections to Merritt's own experience as a trans woman can be made.

Part of not being afraid to hide their backgrounds comes from an effort to empower others who are either aching to see games about themselves, to be represented in games, if not be a game designer themselves.

"I try to be very open and visible as queer and trans in my games and elsewhere primarily for the sake of other queer and trans people," Merritt explained to me via email, "or folks who may be questioning who they are. I don't believe that there should be an obligation to disclose or be "out", but I'm in a place in my life where it's something that I can do, and I very much want to show people that yes, there are other ways of being — if you want to be queer you can do that, if you want to change your gender or your body you can do that too, and I want to help however I can."

Mattie, meanwhile, has had a number of people tell her that her game "help[ed] them understand what's going on that I can't quite vocalize." Here, the merits of a video game become abundantly clear: they are capable of putting us in the shoes of anyone we'd like, and that can be powerful — doubly so for those who typically don't have the privilege of playing as themselves in a game.

Of course, as inspiring as all that is, making a game about your own experience can be revealing in ugly ways. Lack of media representation, along with societal standards of beauty, can instil deep-seated hatred for how one looks — much in the same way that Brown vs Board of Education's famous doll experiment revealed that young black girls did not think they were as beautiful as white girls.

"I used to straighten my hair two times a week, four hours at a time, and it was a huge burden on my life," Mattie recalled when describing the difficulties that came with making a character with an afro, "I was taught to think that any sign of blackness is ugly, and society often reinforces that when there's a white-centric standard of beauty. But I wouldn't be me without my hair, and there's an aspect of the game that would be missing without it, so I kept it in."

Merritt, meanwhile, is making a game that directly deals with discomfort around appearances. It's called Deface Me, and it deals with her painful relationship with her face. The player will experience what she experiences both when looking in a mirror and when making a new character in a game: the inability to have the luxury of "adjusting sliders to our liking or choosing from six dozen different noses."

As interesting as these projects are, both Merritt and Mattie regularly come under fire for the games they make. RPG maker games carry a certain stigma, for instance, in that they are easily recognisable and are often made by ‘nothing more' than hobbyists.

Lim, meanwhile, sometimes gets accused of being too simplistic, both in message and in terms of visuals. Sometimes, people will assert that what developers like Merritt, Mattie and even Anna Anthropy make things that do not classify as 'games,' because they do not follow standard game paradigms. Interestingly, many of the criticisms almost sound like attempts to delegitimise progressive efforts more than anything else.

"There are a lot of people who criticise games like mine that have simple graphics, few 'gameplay' (I hate that word so much) features," Mattie laments, "thinking that just because they say something interesting doesn't mean they are good. And I want to challenge that...gamers need to be challenged and made uncomfortable sometimes, and not given what they want just because they stamp their feet about it."

Gamers need to be challenged and made uncomfortable sometimes, and not given what they want just because they stamp their feet about it."

Merritt asserts that "most of the people making those kinds of remarks didn't seem to have had any significant experiences of social liminality — of not quite fitting into categories. They were, for the most part, straight white cis men." Many of the under-represented folks insist that they are grateful and happy to have games like Lim and Mainichi exist.

Speaking to game designer Anna Anthropy about this issue, she didn't seem surprised at all. She explained that almost everything about the game industry has gatekeeping in it.

"Videogames have been one of the most exclusive communities i've ever encountered," she said to me via email, "some dudes, like raph koster, insist that when he says dys4ia "isn't a game," that's not a value judgement. that's bullshit. the attempt to label games like dys4ia as "non-games," as "interactive experiences," is just an attempt by the status quo to keep the discussion of games centred around the kind of games it's comfortable with — cus if there's one thing existing video game culture is good at, it's making a certain kind of dude very, very comfortable."

An apologist will tell you that personal games don't get made because not only because game development teams are so large, but also because it's difficult to propose playing as a character that may be less ‘relatable' to most players.

Is that idea not insulting to the target demographic — to say that they cannot possibly relate to minority characters? Morever, does a character's relatability not hinge on how well written they are?

Is that idea not insulting to the target demographic-to say that they cannot possibly relate to minority characters?

But more importantly: might we be dealing with myths? As John Brindle over at Nightmare Mode writes:

"Latinos drive video game sales but are poorly represented in the medium. Black and hispanic people play more videogames but don't get to make them (or be in them). Games with woman protagonists have marketing budgets 40 per cent lower or less than man-games. The straight, white, male, young ‘target audience' is a fiction and a self-fulfilling prophecy."

It makes one wonder whether or not mainstream games even have the capability of providing us what we want — or need — when much of the wisdom that moves them forward comes from a focus group. It's not just about who that focus group might be leaving out, but also about what harmful, backwards practices get adopted in game development, all in the name of making a game that people are likely to buy.


Comments

    Devs can make their main characters how they like, if you're not happy because you can't play as what type of person you want I suggest you deal with it or ignore such games. inb4 I like the "Bald Space Marine" type.

      Plus, only two out of seven characters in the thumb are space marines.

        And only one is visibly bald, and he's not a space marine :P

        Semantics. And deal with it? Pandering to the 14yr white dudebro demographic may allow you to exploit this group and fill your coffers, but marginalising other groups does make for the same, bland experience after a while. Don't assume this mean I want the pedulum to swing to the opposite extreme of PC-ifying games to only represent every single demographic in existence, but for once, I'd love to play a Mil-sim where I'm not a sickeningly masculine, perpetually gritty, hardened soldier guy with barely any social skills. For once I'd love to play as a woman, or as either gender who's gay. Break the stereotype! Variety is the spice of life!

    Interesting perspective. I'm posting this as a skinny white straight pacifist male. I meet some of the criteria for Space Marine, but not many. I might be white and male, but that doesn't make me Batman. It doesn't automatically follow that it's me on-screen.

    I don't look or think anything like those guys. But I think their stories are interesting and their exploits are entertaining.

    I understand that some people need to feel that it's themselves blasting through hordes of enemies. Me, I prefer to empathise with the characters on screen, and experience their story through them. Personally I don't care if the character I control is male, female, other; black, white, other; straight, GLBT, other; etc, etc, as long as they are compelling. I'd be all for more diversity in game characters. Bring it on. Sure.

    The assumption that the 'target market' for a game is limited to the race/gender/sexual preference of the protagonist is quite frankly an oversimplified and kind of insulting one.

    Last edited 09/01/13 3:13 pm

      I read the byline and thought: Finally! A peice about diversifying the representation of males in games!

      Instead, an insulting passive assertation that I have nothing to complain about. Or, at best, I have it easier due to cis privilege.

      It's like I'm reading first semester Fem Studies and Equality papers all over again.

        The fact that you immediately thought about diversifying the representation of males in games rather than diversifying the representation of protagonists, both male and female, I find is telling.

          I hope it's telling of the lack of male diversification and lack if focus that has anywhere in the industry.

          We're well aware of the issues with female / black representations by now, given the constant and intense focus the issue is finally receiving.

            Just because anyone may be well aware of the issues isn't enough. Action needs to be taken, and not just with the way how males are presented as player characters.

          Probably because
          a) most game protagonists are male
          b) male game protagonists need diversifying

      Makes sense. When I started Skyrim, I wanted to play a Nord character. When I started Oblivion, I wanted to play a Wood Elf. When I started Dragons Dogma, for some reason I wanted to play a black woman.

      I'm not gonna lie. I didn't even read your comment, this article or anything in here but gave you the upvote you so subtly asked for ;)

      Hear hear Shane. I was thinking, what about the males? Why are thy focusing on females.
      i think there is an attitude problem but it should not have to do with gender, rather it should look at seeing more diversity as a whole. Not everyone is barrel chested.
      i was also offended. I think you hit the nail on the head.

    Why the hell is Geralt of Rivia pictured with the bald space marines?

    I personally play games to be someone, something or somewhere else. If I want to be me there's always RL.

    In Metal Gear Solid 2, I played as a woman and absolutely loved that game.

    "Not everyone knows the joy of playing as a protagonist that is like them."
    And who exactly is "like" the bald space marines? There is no bulky space marine demographic being catered to here, the people that play these type of games don't do it to identify with the main character, it's a chance to feel badass and escape reality (like most videogames.

      Weeell, I guess fratboys and dudebros "identify" with those characters :P

        Even then most of them are only good at sports which they can identify with on games like Fifa and shit :P

        Most people that play these "Bald Space Marine" games are socially awkward, middle class white males, we can't identify with these games haha

      I don't know about you but I am a 7'2" pile of bald muscle that is proficient in every weapon in existence and can make any lady swoon just by grunting at them.

      I just assumed everyone else on this site was as well.

    While for the most part this is interesting, there's some over-reaching going on. If someone puts forth that there are not a lot of games that feature minorities (or for lack of a better term 'niche minorites', ie a very small percentage of the general population) and that fact is insulting to the minority in question, that is taking it too far.

    It's not really hard to work out WHY it's that way, in fact the amount of games that feature protagonists that are of a 'niche minority' (again used for lack of a better term) as opposed to other games (and their more generic protagonists) is probably reflective of the actual percentage of that minority within the general population. I also don't think it works the other way, just because people aren't directly represented, doesn't mean that they are being insulted, it reeks of self importance. I seem to say this every time there is an article like this but you can't please all the people all the time, but just because you aren't it doesn't mean you are being racist/sexist/whatever.

    Also I find the pull out quote "Gamers need to be challenged and made uncomfortable sometimes, and not given what they want just because they stamp their feet about it.” somewhat ironic, given that this article is about gamers/game developers who are of a 'niche minority' who are taking issue with the fact they aren't being represented enough ie not getting what they want.

    I feel like you enjoy creating edgy, controversial problems to complain about, Patricia.

      I think that was the entire reason she was hired for. All of her articles are bullshit "social" type articles that would be better off on a personal blog, rather than Kotaku.

        I agree, every time I read one I just feel as if it's somewhat disingenuous, as if it's a style she has been told to write in. "Hey Pat, we need another society-still-hasn't-caught-up-to-me article, go go go!"

        Last edited 09/01/13 9:10 pm

    As a straight Asian male, I don't give a damn about what race, gender, or sexuality the protagonist is as long as their character is interesting. We're all humans. That much is enough.

    Personally, I'm just sick of a buzz-cut being classed as bald.

    I MAY BE BALDING, BUT I STILL HAVE HAIR! SO STOP CALLING ME BALD GOD DAMMIT!

    To answer the statement in the article headline... when the unreal engine can do hair decently, then we'll see the death of the 'bald' space marine.
    FYI they may not be bald by choice... male pattern baldness happens to a lot of guys.

    On the topic of the article (which is very different to the headline and attached image), ignoring the fact that I'm a white male, games are about escapism.
    I'm not a space marine, nor do I know anyone who is. I'm not an archeologist, a fighter pilot, a race car driver or a soldier who is singlehandedly responsible for saving the world.
    I am not a transformer, an assassin, the leader of the 3rd Street Saints, a horseman of the apocalypse, the Dragonborn, a Knight of the Old Republic, a Mechwarrior or the commander of an enormous military force.
    I'm a clerk who works in a boring thankless job... and in the scant free hours of my week I don't want to play a game where I'm doing my job.
    I want to be the hero, the sole hope for my species, the racer who makes the podium... or the pilot who takes down the death star.

    Maybe the reason the mundane isn't represented is because it's mundane.

      I know I'd hate to play a video game based on my job

    I actually really struggle with playing female characters. I just cant 'get into it'. Stupid I know, but I like to be able to relate to the character, and I can only do that with male characters. The other details don't bother me.

      I'm the same, for the most part. I find it harder to identify with a woman, for the most part, and while I have no problem playing different races, different species, whatever the hell Pac-Man is, I find it hard to identify with women, so I don't play as them. When I play a game with male or female options, I can't remember ever picking the female. Hell, I've played through the Mass Effect series 5 times and still haven't made a female character.

      Though, I have no problems playing Metroid. That's, like, the sole exception.

    If a AAA game was released, featuring a mixed race, vegan, transgender person, how much marketing and media focus would be directed towards the protagonist's gender, orientation, etc. and would that be a good thing?

    Last edited 10/01/13 9:44 am

    Isn't it time people stopped defining their entire existence based on what they choose to do with their genitals?
    None of my coworkers know my sexual orientation and that's fine because it isn't relevant to my work - if I took every opportunity to shove this orientation down their throats, it'd be inappropriate and insecure.

    As others have observed more eloquently, games are all about escapism - I don't recall ever thinking about the gender of the avatar onscreen because I don't feel the incessant need to project myself onto everything I do.

    Not really agreeing or disagreeing with the article, but I'd say games more than ever let you play as whatever you want to be. The amount of character customisation you get in games nowadays is astounding (even if you always sound American).

    This particular topic seems rather redundant, given some of the biggest titles over the last few years, allow you to become a fat, transgender clown, complete with stockings, brassiere and giant dildo bat (Saints Row 3) if you desire, a strong black woman who dresses in armour who wants to slay dragons (Skyrim), a fat, overweight, bald man with a drinking problem who has to fight his demons to rescue a woman and come to terms with his addictions (Max Payne 3), a young asian police man hiding out in the criminal underworld, trying to get a grip on who he is, testing his allegiances every day while trying to stay true to himself (Sleeping Dogs), leading a team of true multiracial, multiethnic (NO stereotypes) multigender soldiers against xenomorphs (XCOM), a very deep, very charismatic, very intelligent COLLEGE PROFESSOR african american who was convicted rightfully of murder in The Walking Dead, Lee did not fall into any stereotypes, his conviction of murder was well thought out and applied, it would have suited *any* race and added to his character. A native american in Assassins Creed 3, which by all means actually presented them pretty well, despite being a fairly flawed game, it didn't present them as an 'uber mystical people' as per the norm, but as an every day people trying to live life like everyone else, representing their social structure, conversations, idiosyncrasies and problems. AC: Liberation where you played as a black woman assassin, need I say more?

    2012, more than any year, put forward equality in the gaming arena. It squashed the idea that you have to be white and male. That stereotype is *gone* for the most part. Imagination is coming back in terms of lead characters. Topics like this? They're throwbacks, setbacks to a time game makers have been progressing beyond. If you want to wallow in the 'WHY AREN'T THERE MORE!' syndrome, then do so by all means, but quantity, does not always equal quality. I'll take *ONE* THE WALKING DEAD over ten TOO HUMAN, SILENT HILL DOWNPOUR, SPACEMARINE or even THE WAR Z any day of the week.

    Don't like character creation. actually i hate them. just give me a well defined character and let me play as that character. I feel lot more emotionally attached than a custom character that looks like me. Imagining myself in a video game is 8-year old kid stuff.

    Someone please just make her go away.

    Do you really want to alienate the vast majority of your audience to please a tiny fraction of it? It's insane. Make a console game for non-white transgender people that doesn't involve doing things a space marine, soldier, or warrior would do, and see how many copies you sell. Try it as a Facebook or mobile phone game, and maybe you might find more of an audience.

    If you all you change is the race of the characters, you still have a large market. But with each added variable, you really start carving up that shrinking market. Main character changed from white to black? No problem, GTA San Andreas sold buttloads of copies and is regarded really highly amongst GTA fans for the most part.

    Now what if CJ from San Andreas was also homosexual and transgender? What if the game's missions involved him (it?) doing things that would appeal to real-life African-American transgender people? Somehow I doubt San Andreas would sell anywhere near as many copies. Your market would be miniscule, if not non-existent. Your sales would be limited to $1.99 Steam sales where people would buy it to makes jokes on Youtube and Reddit.

    Just ask how much profit the hardcore flight and train simulator developers make. They can tell you all about what it is like developing games for a small market whose communities all demand different things. The majority of flight sim developers that were around in the 90s and 2000s are now gone. The ones who are left seem to be barely squeaking by. That's what happens when you develop games for a tiny (and/or shrinking) market.

    It's OK to daydream, but you have to face reality sooner or later.

    Race, gender, and sexual orientation isn't all there is to a character and their story. As a white, heterosexual woman, I've never had trouble playing as or identifying with a diverse range of characters. I much prefer a character who is well written and different to me in every way than someone who is just like me but hasn't had as much time and effort put into their story and personality. Personally I don't understand how people can't connect with a character or their story if that character isn't like them in some way, but each to their own.

    Picture is misleading, Geralt is neither Bald or a Space Marine.

    Here is the actual link to Merrit Kopas twitter, ironically the one linked in the article seems to lead to a classic dudebro.
    https://twitter.com/m_kopas

    Ok, so I just actually read the thing... and where was the bit about the bald space marines? Did they even get mentioned in the article at all? If they were I sure couldn't remember it by the time I hit the end. What did I just read?

    Interesting, the only game that I actually consider the character as "me" is Mass Effect. I make decisions based on what I would do, rather than play with a preconceived idea of what type of character I want to play as, as opposed to Dragon Age or Skyrim where I create a concept, and then tailor a character build to that concept. Similarly games where I play as a pre built character like The Witcher, Assassins Creed or Red Dead Redemption I try to play like I think that character would react to the world around him. For example, in Red Dead even though I wanted to go crazy and just sand box it like I would in GTA, I felt the world needed me to be a good guy, the player character needed me to be good to fit the story.. Until of course *Spoiler* you play as his son, and then I got my revenge on the world.. This feels a bit ranty.. Sorry for that.

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