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.

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