What is a feminist game, anyway?
“Why not just review a feminist game?” I was discussing several new games with a friend and trying to decide which one I would write a review for last week, when he asked me that question. At first I thought he was kidding, but he asked again— “No, seriously. It’s a feminist gaming site, right? Just find something feminist to review”. The question certainly made me stop and think. Our conversation went on, and eventually I decided to review Continue?9876543210, but the question continued to bug me.
I should note, before I begin this discussion, that there are a lot of feminists out there and, as with any philosophical belief system, there’s a plurality of (sometimes conflicting) views on what feminism means. Just as not all Democrats, Republicans, Christians, or any other group share one homogenous set of values, not all feminists do either. These musings on “feminist games” represent my personal interpretation of feminism.
So, to return to that question, why not review a feminist game? Well, it seems to me that wanting a feminist game, or even a category of feminist games, is entirely the wrong direction to head in. The very idea of identifying and separating “feminist” games from other games reminds me of walking into a Game Stop and seeing the “games for girls”. Labeled or not, you could always identify those games by the blinding pink color and the themes: cooking, pets, fashion. As a perennial tomboy and a “real” gamer, I know now that I missed out on some good games because they set off my personal girl game detector- Nintendogs and Cooking Mama are two that immediately come to mind. This isn’t to say that games shouldn’t be designed with audience in mind; they absolutely should. The problem with this particular type of design is that it both calls a particular audience into being and rigidly defines who “should” and “shouldn’t” play a particular game—reminiscent of how gendered toys. I would argue that a game that truly embodied feminist principles, which I’ll loosely define here as equality and respectful representation regardless of gender, race, or sexuality, would not be a game only for feminists, making such a tag unhelpfully narrowing.
Of course, the complete opposite of this response (a hyper-stereotypical design) seems to be more common in recent years. As MIT Game Lab researcher Todd Harper notes in a Polygon opinion piece, many game designers are increasingly arguing that games are “not a place for real world issues to be discussed”. Harper identifies in his article to two specific developers, Blizzard and Nintendo, who have taken this stance. In Nintendo’s much discussed “sorry, not sorry” statement over Tomodachi Life (check out our coverage here), the company argued that they saw the game as “whimsical and quirky game… absolutely not trying to provide social commentary”. Similarly, Harper interviewed Rob Pardo of Blizzard about diversity and social issues in Blizzard games, who responded: “We’re not trying to bring in serious stuff, or socially relevant stuff, or actively trying to preach for diversity or do things like that”. This sentiment isn’t uncommon in gaming either, the belief that games are “just fun” and don’t mean or represent anything more than that. However, as Harper notes, games are simulations that reflect the both our world and our culture—telling vast groups of people that their gender, race, or sexuality isn’t “just fun” is a poor excuse for game design. Exclusion is just as profound and meaningful as inclusion, no matter the reason given.
Going back to that question, “why not a feminist game,” my belated, long after the conversation ended answer, is that’s the wrong question to ask. We don’t need a category of games tagged with the label feminist, in part because that gives license for developers and players to ignore major issues in games that are “just meant to be fun”. Fun and inclusionary are not oppositional pairs, and neither is critical awareness. Instead, we need critical consciousness across the board, from both the people making the games and the people buying, supporting, playing the games. Perhaps this is dreaming too big, but I don’t want a feminist game; I want a feminist games industry.
So what do you think? What would you call a “feminist game”?