The Debate About Gender in Oblivion

There was a heated debate last week in the gaming blogosphere regarding the gender inclusiveness of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Adam LaMosca had made a blog post about Oblivion, and how he was impressed by the game’s gender equality. I emailed him a link to Guilded Lily’s post regarding the same topic, and said that not everyone agreed with his point of view, making note of the fact that women may have a different perspective on the same issue. This prompted LaMosca to go to Bethesda to get their response to the viewpoints expressed by Guilded Lily and The Geeky Feminist. That interview was published on Gamers with Jobs: Press Pass. It was then (IMO) irresponsibly sensationalised by Kotaku and subsequently blown out of proportion by (mostly male) gamers who were indignant at what they believed to be much ado about nothing. They dismissed these women gamers’ views and said that the gender inequalities in Oblivion were so trivial as to be unimportant, because the game exists in a “fantasy” world.

Guilded Lily, Lake Desire, The Geeky Feminist, and Sredni Vashtar have commentary on the debate.

My comments:

If it’s just fantasy, then why shouldn’t a fantasy world that includes magic also allow male and female characters to have the same starting stats?

If you argue that there are only two genders (which is debatable by some people, but let’s just go with the majority view here), and having one gender as default is as good as the other, then why is male the default gender in games? Since female is the “default” gender in humans, biologically speaking, then couldn’t one reasonably argue that female should be the default gender in games?

The strong words on both sides probably boil down to the differences between how men see the world and how women see the world, and who has the power and all that stuff. Sites like Kotaku (and their asshat commenters) are saying that the points of contention that these women have are simply complaints about “small” issues that “don’t matter”. Well, yeah, It doesn’t matter because they (male gamers) generally don’t have a problem with the way their gender is portrayed in games.

As someone who believes that games are important, I also believe that “little” things like this do matter. It’s the little things like this that add up and serve to perpetuate gender roles and the status quo. Nothing ever changes because no one questions the “little” things, the things that everyone takes as axiomatic. Even if people do question the little things, nothing changes because the people who can actually effect change may consider these things too small to be worthy of changing. This theme ties in really well with my previous post linking to this month’s IGDA Culture Clash article. Because Sakey is worth quoting again:

…Customers buy what game makers create, not because customers are ignorant, but because it’s all that is available. This disconnect causes the industry to churn out the gaming equivalent of Bruckheimer films, over and over again, based on the misguided notion that it’s all people want.

EDIT: LaMosca has a few comments about the irresponsible reporting of the debate by Kotaku and 1UP.com.

  21 comments for “The Debate About Gender in Oblivion

  1. bigwig
    10 April 2006 at 00:38

    i think the problem arises when men don’t take the time to compare the differences between stereotypes in video games. Yes, men are stereotyped. but theres a big difference between being stereotyped as big, strong, muscled, pretty boys, and weak, small, defenseless, big boobed girls.

  2. 10 April 2006 at 03:22

    It ought to be pretty clear to any developer that making gender choice anything but an aesthetic issue is going to be the wrong approach.

    bigwig, the problem is that most men do take the time to compare the differences between gender based stereotypes… and don’t see anything wrong with it. That’s because of social training, of course, and overriding that attitude will take a lot of effort.

    As far as the male gamers getting irate and starting in with the bashing… *sigh*. I find game community witch hunts pretty tiring and I’m frequently ashamed of my gender (not in a ‘specific as it applies to me’ sense, but in a general ‘why do I have to share the label with those people’ sense).

  3. 10 April 2006 at 03:24

    Oh, and by ‘aesthetic issue’ I mean to refer to the use of different art assets for gender, not that female characters ought to be more or less aesthetically pleasing than their male counterparts.

  4. 10 April 2006 at 06:08

    Here’s what I’d like to know, why is everyone freaking out so much about this? In Oblivion, women are not scantily clad. They appear in appropriate attire and aren’t grossly misproportioned to fit some male-fantasy view of what a woman should look like. There has been some mention of this, but it gets quickly brushed aside as everyone goes ballistic about a slight difference in starting stats.

    I’ve had some discussions about this, and many people note that these initial stat differences quickly balance out over the course of the game.

    So why is this a huge topic for conversation? We’ve all gotten so use to chainmail bikini clad fantasy starlets that we don’t even comment on them. But if we imply that these vixens in armor are somehow smarter but less strong than their male counterparts, now it’s time to get upset?

    I don’t get it.

  5. zeldasrevenge
    10 April 2006 at 06:24

    I’m starting to think that whenever you get a group of people from a dominant class (i.e. men) who lash out at any mention of inequality..whenever you get this, its because of fear of a loss of power. Of course the issue will be brushed aside, because if we really started looking seriously at what is wrong in gaming (and by extension, society) then people might start questioning the status quo and we don’t want that do we??? When people get annoyed, you have struck a nerve. Change will not be easy, and we have to fight for every tiny thing. The only way is too keep being vocal, and KEEP pointing out and protesting against gender inequality in games.

  6. 10 April 2006 at 07:15

    Tara: Maybe it’s because some people had expected higher standards from a game like Oblivion which, (I have read) is good about not objectifying women and so forth. The game presents a very “realistic” and believeable fantasy world, excepting the fact that women are nerfed at the very beginning — and this is the sort of thing that many women dislike.

    It’s a fantasy world, and I think many women would love to play a character that is equal in every regard to their male counterparts, including starting stats. This situation is different than real life, where there still exists a lot of inequality based on gender, so I can’t blame anyone who wants to play a character of one gender that has the same starting stats as a character of the other gender. When they weren’t able to have that (without mods), they weren’t playing their ideal game. And this is the reason for dissatisfaction.

    None of them are trashing the gameplay, and in fact all of them, from what I have read on their blogs, are enjoying Oblivion immensely. The fact that female characters don’t start with the same stats as male characters hasn’t marred the enjoyment of the game, it’s just a detail that causes annoyance. However this little detail is piled on top of transgressions that other games have committed. So I guess it is a case of: “Here is yet another example of gender bias, and this continued inequality is annoying to me”.

  7. 10 April 2006 at 08:28

    Brinstar –

    You offer a very good overview of the larger debate generated by my post and Kat’s at the Geeky Feminist. Thanks so much for sorting this out online, it has been difficult to find anyone making any sense of what I was trying to express.

    Tara – I would just like to point out that I didn’t “go ballistic” about the issue, I simply wrote a blog piece pointing out one of the structural aspects to the design of Oblivion. If we are going to say that anyone has gone ballistic, then I nominate Kotaku for that distinction, since they are responsible for generating the idiocy that has ballooned beyond proportion surrounding this discussion.

    I’m bracing myself for another onslaught – RPGDot has picked this up this morning and so far it is more of the same.

  8. 10 April 2006 at 09:10

    Guilded Lily – sorry, I wasn’t pointing you out in particular. I’m a member of a listserv of women in game development and it’s been a topic of conversation for several days now. Pages and pages of people agreeing, disagreeing, arguing. It’s fascinating, but I’m just surprised given how we don’t even notice when another game comes out objectifying women in even more offensive ways. So I was sort of reacting to the bombardment of my inbox with this topic, not your blog post.

    And I think it is worth noting that women aren’t “nerfed”, they just have different, but equal, starting stats. And apparently not ALL the races have women with lower endurance, it’s just the humans…

  9. 10 April 2006 at 10:15

    Tara – If it helps, I have posted a scan of the starting stats chart from the Prima guide HERE. Yes, all characters regardless of gender get the same quantity of points at the start of the game, it’s the allocation of the points into specific attributes that determines the most optimized build for a specific power design character.

    Plus, three of the races give males a point advantage for endurance, and one race gives the females a point advantage for endurance. I don’t mean to sound fussy about the numbers, I just want there to be accuracy about this since there has been so much that has already been said that is inaccurate.

    I’m still a little puzzled by this whole issue, but I admit I am more than just a little curious about what the women in game development are saying! Thanks.

  10. 10 April 2006 at 19:56

    Ok, I finally decided to say something on my own blog about this whole thing. You can check it out here if you want. I read Guilded Lily’s notes on commenting and decided that I needed to write my own post instead of littering up this comment space. :)

  11. 10 April 2006 at 22:03

    There is such a thing as creative license, you know.

    I wouldn’t want my games to be produced as Hollywood produces movies (i.e., token characters all over to ensure a cross-section of American society is represented).

    Female gamers can do 2 things to change this:

    1) Don’t buy games that insult them in any way.

    2) Get into game development and show the world how it’s done. (profitably, that is)

    Because, frankly, complaining is the easiest thing to do.

    Blaming the makers of Oblivion seems a summit of injustice, when you do realize it is a quite gender-neutral game compared to WoW, Guild Wars, EverQuest, just to name a few other games.

    So, the cause may be good, but the remedy and the scapegoat are poorly chosen.

  12. 11 April 2006 at 04:06

    Darth Pixel: No one has said that they are insulted, merely annoyed.

    1) Even if women chose to boycott games because they objected to their content, nothing would happen. It wouldn’t hit at anyone’s bottom line and they wouldn’t be heard. Simply boycotting a game doesn’t prevent more games like it from being made.

    2) That’s easier said than done because there are so many factors that contribute to the fact that not as many women get into game design as men. It all starts from encouraging young girls to play games, to keep them interested in playing games when they are teens, to keep them passionate about games throughout their youth, and eventually this passion becomes a professional calling. Tell me how you can fix that.

    Darth Pixel, no one is saying that Oblivion is the summit of injustice. You are blowing it out of proportion. What they have been saying is that there is gender inequality present in Oblivion, and that they don’t like that inequality. They still enjoy the game, and they also agree that women fair pretty well as compared to women in other games.

    I didn’t read any of the women suggesting any “remedy” that you mentioned, unless you are suggesting that my hypothetical questions equal a remedy?

    And I also didn’t read any of the women blaming Bethesda for anything. Who is scape-goating whom? Please stop conflating the issue into something more sensational than it is.

  13. 11 April 2006 at 07:41

    I reckon no course of action has been suggested. That would come from constructive criticism only.

    Also, a few corrections to your understanding of my comments:
    1) I didn’t post that Oblivion is “the summit of injustice”. I posted that “blaming the makers of Oblivion seems a summit of injustice”. I said that because punishing the better behaving kid in the class for the bad behavior of the majority of the class seems unfair.
    2) Did I blow this hoopla out of proportion? The entire blogosphere has been posting about this for almost a week now. I came very late to that debate and I am not one who kept it going by adding oil to the fire when the fire began to die.
    3) The remedy that was suggested: a) Make sure female character models are also represented in the manual. b) Allow female characters to start with the same stats as male characters.

    As far as making Bethesda a scapegoat, it’s pretty clear where that came from, since most posts on that subject contain “Oblivion” in their title.

    This being said, I don’t like to indulge into confrontational or inflamatory remarks, so that will be my last words on the topic.

  14. 11 April 2006 at 11:08

    Kotaku…sensationalizing something? You don’t say!?!?

  15. 12 April 2006 at 15:36

    Anyone here not playing the game?
    Some things go both ways, What IF I wanted to play a Male RedGuard that uses power of persuasions. I would be at a disadvantage. It’s not the fact that there is a female inequality, there is an overall difference, and I think some of the people, male and female miss that point.

    Darth, Sure add some females in the book, But it’s not let the Female characters have the same stats as the Male characters, it’s let each gender of a race start with the same stats. Once you start implying Male vs female you get into tricky ground, which people can misconstrue as Gender Bias or whatever.

    Lets also not forget that this is a fantasy world, who knows what the people are really like in this world. MAYBE the women are smarter in a certain race, AND maybe the Men are stronger and vice versa.

    Maybe a better way of approaching this would have been to complain that the males dont get the same stats as the females. that way you dont get nailed with all the nasty talk that seems to permeate these types of debates.

  16. 15 April 2006 at 09:33

  17. Lath
    9 February 2007 at 15:20

    You must understand the strategy Oblivion is trying to introduce.

    If you complain about this “inequality” then you would be defying Darwin’s theories. I am in no way trying to be sexist when i say that men are naturally stronger than women because this is scientific fact. The tissue that their tendons, collagen etc is made of is thicker/stronger. Statistics show that men are indeed stronger than women and the average male has a higher endurance level if reached at their peak.

    Women in oblivion are shown to have more “magicka”. So let women embrace this. if you are complaining about the game, then think about magicka. why arnt males complaining that women races have more magicka – simply because they would probably play with a female to explore their inner mage.

    I think this stats changing is wonderful because it actually changes more than mere appearance. if you protest against this, then we should all play with a single linear character who has no gender which would send the company all the way to the imperial sewers.

    you must think about these things. The target market should naturally be males since most gamers are male and the company WOULD like to make a profit…
    it is not being sexist, but appealing to its target audience right?

    if those that think oblivion is sexist and should ignore the target market then ladies and gentlemen please do not invest in a market linked to this. you would most likely fail due to the simple fact noone would care about your game.

    Oblivion wants to go where non have gone before. this controversy is ridiculous

    pardon my english i am not native to it.

  18. 11 February 2007 at 04:30

    Lath: No one is telling the developers of Oblivion to ignore its target market. What I would have liked is that they put some thought into the stereotypes they were perpetuating, and you know — not done something that everyone else did. Let’s get real here: Oblivion’s sales probably would not have suffered if males and females had the same starting stats. To suggest that stat differentials between two genders in Oblivion could impact sales is far too much of a stretch.

    The fact is that female characters in RPGs are stereotypically placed in spellcasting or healing roles, a situation which is no different in Oblivion. You pointed out yourself that women have more “magicka”. It would have been nice if Oblivion’s developers had tried to do something unpredictable and non-stereotypical. I don’t think Oblivion has done anything new in this area of game design. If it has, then please explain how giving females higher starting stats for magic is a new thing, or how giving females lower stats for physical abilities is a new thing.

  19. FaceInThESAnd
    10 January 2008 at 17:10

    Sorry for being a thread necromancer, but I have something you have to take notice of.

    In the Elder Scrolls, Negroes are presented, ‘Hucklebury Finn’-style, as fast and stupid, and there are only two “Redguard” mages I can think of. One is a necromancer in the Alyeid ruin outside the starting sewer. The other’s belief in magic is limited by his superstitious traditions. Most other “Redguard” in the game are thieves or mercenaries of varying honour.

    Why do they not say being black or being Scandinavian is just an aesthetic choice?
    Because it’s a game. It’s a game where green, toothy girls and tall, blonde guys alike get a kick from smashing stuff in with hammers. It’s a game where there are racial tensions between cat-people and lizard-people. It’s a game where gaunt, yellow people look down their noses at you both figuratively and physically.

    Therefore, in this fictional world of Tamriel, women might be more able to use the magicka that runs through all things, and black guys can run faster.
    Do these virtual facts have any bearing on my opinion of either? No. That’s the important point.

    Likewise, It doesn’t keep me up at night that Englishmen are constantly presented as extremely evil or delightfully charming in Hollywood (when I myself am a rather unassuming 20 year old of fairly robust moral standing) because I’m well aware it’s just a fiction. No one looks at me in the street and thinks “He’s English, he must be evil”, and being English makes up a MUCH larger part of my sense of self than being male does.

    It’s immensely unlikely that gamers will look at women differently because they’ve seen Night Elf armour in WoW, or because Lara Croft gets realistically damp in TR: Legend, or because females in the Elder Scrolls have slightly different starting stats.

  20. Tommy
    3 September 2009 at 21:59

    Don’t you think that maybe the male is default because the games is purchased and (this is an assumption, not a fact) is probably played by more males than females? I don’t know hardly any female “gamers” (and what makes a “gamer” anyways?), and based on that it makes sense to believe there are less females who play videogames. I enjoy reading your opinions because they give me a point of view I never get to hear from people I know, regarding games and how they look from another’s shoes. Anyways, just speculation.

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