Plants, Zombies, Sexism?

soc_econ.pngI like the way The Border House challenges sexism, racism, ableism, and more in the gaming industry and community. (The post “BGG (Black Girl Gamer)–LFG, PST!” is quite excellent, for example.)

I was a little discomfited – and not in a “good, challenging” way by two things at the end of a review wondering why there were no women in the world of Plants vs. Zombies. (It’s a bit long to quote here, so I’m talking about bullet point SEXISM and below.)

First, I would have liked to see the two parts of SEXISM split. As it stands, it’s buried in a huge chunk of text.

I think intention matters – a lot – in the most effective way to react. A first draft of a story I took to my writer’s group, while not exactly having the “Women in Refrigerators” angle, comes uncomfortably close. I’m at a point now where not only did I recognize the potential of falling in that trope, but took their critique and am rewriting that whole section. Years ago – basically before reading Privilege, Power, and Difference – I would have been insulted at the suggestion that I’d written anything sexist. The way to get the most impact changes dramatically.

Somehow, I think it’s less likely the creators of PvZ are as intentionally sexist as Gearbox’s plans for Duke Nukem Forever (and I say this as someone who liked the original and was horrified (for these reasons) when I decided to reinstall and play the original again). For that reason, I like that it was explicitly stated:

And keep in mind that sexist results do not require conscious, sexist intentions to happen.

I think that phrase defuses obstructing denial and lets most of us get on with actually fixing our unconscious biases.

Which brings us to the second problem: The paragraph right after the one saying that sexist intentions aren’t necessary.

Every single thing in a game has to be put there by designers. Everything. A decision has to be made about every single little detail. Every blade of grass. Every pixel. And yes–a decision has to be made about characters’ presented gender.

Yes, I understand that this doesn’t actually contradict the “does not require sexist intention” line. But as I was reading this article, it felt like it did.

I can sum up like this: Knowing where I’m at in my journey away from being a “typical” (read sexist) USAian male, I still felt defensive about these two paragraphs. Hell, it’s not my game, and I still felt defensive. (I’m still debating whether my one big question about the content of the post is real or just a reflection of that defensiveness.)

If I had a defensive reaction, I think it’s a good guess that the game designers whose behavior they wish to change are going to have a similar reaction as well.

While the Border House says it is “a blog for those who are feminist, queer, disabled, people of color, transgender, poor, gay, lesbian, and others who belong to marginalized groups, as well as allies”, it first says that it’s a blog for gamers.

Maybe I’m confused about the target audience, or desired impact of the posts. If we’re just looking to say “Ayup, there it is again,” then the PvZ post is a great example of pointing out sexism in places that it’s often overlooked.

If the intent was to actually change minds and behaviors, though, I’m not so sure it met those goals.

I reserve the right to be wrong here, so I’d be interested in hearing your point of view. Let me know in the comments.

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  1. April 14, 2011

    Unfortunately, the definition of sexism has become so broad that almost anything could qualify. Consequently, it's all too easy to find yourself in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.

    In the case Plants vs. Zombies, the plants are essentially asexual, which means any female characters would have to be zombies. Zombies only do two things in that game: eat and die.

    Even if there HAD been female zombies, I'm sure someone would STILL complain that it's sexist. Why? Because the game encourages players to act out violent fantasies against ugly women who eat too much.

  2. April 14, 2011

    That was actually my thought re: content. That and most of the zombies have their clothes ripped and in some degree of disarray. Or worse – "Why does she have a traffic cone on her head?" All the characters there are over the top and silly.

    In a serious zombie game, it'd be a much more serious complaint.

    It's a hard line to draw, and there's no good consensus at this point. At the same time, though, we (and by "we", I mean "men")have to keep pushing ourselves and at least seriously thinking about whether or not we're being sexist. (Whether intentionally or not.)

    Here's a serious example of embedded (and often unquestioned) sexism: If a woman is running alone on a track late at night and is assaulted, the first question is usually "Why was she in a risky situation" instead of "Why did that asshat assault someone"?

    Where the line is between there and silliness, though, is anybody's guess.

  3. April 15, 2011

    This actually reminds me of a similar discussion I had about race. Nalo Hopkinson give a speech on race in SF&F at the Williamson Lectureship. She first pointed out the absence of minorities in most SF&F, and then criticized the few minority characters as being token gestures, essentially just white characters with dark skin.

    During the reception, I asked her, "If white authors can't write minority characters accurately, but failing to include them is even worse… then what SHOULD we do?"

    "Nothing," she replied. "You're screwed."

    I laughed at that, refreshed by her honesty and willingness to acknowledge the catch-22. Then she gave me a more serious answer. The trick, she explained, is to do your research. Get to know a minority people and culture, perhaps even run your rough drafts past a minority friend for cultural inacuracies and biases you overlooked. As long as you make the effort to get it right and do it respectfully, she claimed, minority readers will appreciate it and cut you some slack when you get some details wrong.

    She then gave an an example the mystery writer Tony Hillerman, who accurately portrayed people and life on a Navajo reservation, even though he was an Anglo.

    Made sense to me.

  4. April 15, 2011

    Good points and advice indeed, Edward!

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