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.


    'Games with woman protagonists have marketing budgets 40 per cent lower or less than man-games.'

    That 'statistic' can probably be explained purely by the sales of Call of Duty game =P
    Seriously, though, it's not a very good statistic in isolation, because it ignores the significant difference in the sample and population sizes of the two demographics.

    I think the best (easiest?) way around gender/racial stereotyping would be the character creation devices some games have, ie, Saint's Row series/Skyrim, etc. Saint's is probably the better one in that, there were male and female voice actors for each of the three separate ethnicities. Yeah, okay, LGBT is barely represented (if at all and even then it's mostly stereotyped), but that's possibly due to a number of factors, ie, games in the US are subjected to the multitude of 'family groups' who push their socially conservative agenda down everyone’s' throats, the notoriously homophobic attitudes of male gamers (not all, but it's very vocal during multi!), in some cases (like the Saints Row example I mentioned earlier) cost may be an issue. Maybe it's just old fashioned, somewhat utilitarian styled marketing to key demographics... But it doesn’t make it right. Variety is the spice of life, but the antithesis of marketing franchises.

    Interesting article.
    I don't believe such a character as Geralt of Rivia should be in that photo. His actions in game are often mostly the player. I understand that some people need the character to be like them to experience a game well, I'm on the other side of the spectrum here. I like to play as a character that Is unlike myself. Often in RPG's I will choose a female purely for the fact that I am not a female, and it's interesting to note how other people perceive you (in game and online) having a female character. That being said, strong built male protagonists also draw me in equally as much. Seeing how they react to disasters and social circumstances is interesting and allows me to learn and base my own experiences in real life according to how these characters act. Geralt of Rivia, Master-Chief and others have led me to better decisions.

    Question: Who is the gentleman third from the left; blue shirt man?

      That's Jason Brody from Far Cry 3, which is funny because his character was envisioned as a regular guy as opposed to the highly trained soldier we're used to seeing (although the concept doesn't manifest very well in gameplay terms). Considering his company in this picture, it looks like the article is stretching the criteria of "bald space marine" to encompass anything with a penis.

        Thanks Azanode, I haven't got around to playing FC3 yet. And I definitely agree with your comment.

    "Lack of media representation, along with societal standards of beauty, can instil deep-seated hatred for how one looks"

    "society often reinforces that when there’s a white-centric standard of beauty"

    So it's a positive thing when minorities want to role play characters like themselves, but a negative thing when the majority wants to role play characters like themselves? Good grief. What a contrived complaint. If you can't relate to a bald space marine just because you're a transgender artist when the rest of us non-bald-space-marines can, and you don't feel like part of our society which is made up of all kinds of different people then I suggest you have some kind of social disorder.

    I do think it's fascinating that developing video games based on their own situation can be so cathartic for people though. People do the same thing with writing and other arts too. It kind of makes me want to do the same thing just to investigate how I end up portraying myself to others in the third person instead of first. That would have been a better focus for the article than the typical "society is oppressing us by being different" nonsense.

    I control the game characters, but I never usually think of themselves as me. Sure, in a couple of RPGs in the past I used my real name when asked to enter a character name, but generally I make something up. I enjoy playing the games through the character. Like the GTA titles. It's what happens during the experience that matters.

    Yeah, it's amazing how many of the comments miss the point. That's great that you don't care what the main character looks like as long as they're interesting, but she's actually talking about the aesthetic of the character not how interesting that are for a reason. I mean, even I'm tired of stubbly brown-haired guys as main characters in games, and I'm pretty much a skinnier version of those characters. That's why character customization always good

    I enjoyed the article for what it was... Kind of. I'm a little offended by the "more than just this" tagline, however. I find that equality and understanding doesn't come at the insult and criticism of others. Are you saying that NOTHING besides GLBT and women's issues are worthwhile in games? That only these few proponents of story that you hold dear have a greater worth than what others enjoy or find worthwhile? Both Mass Effect and the Witcher contain a number of themes on racism and intolerance but it seems like you're saying these don't have any value. That these are "less" than the issues you present.

    Like i said, i want to be able to show people these articles but i'm pretty sure most will be offended by the passive-aggressive nature of it.

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