Deep Silver, Sexism and Women

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Deep Silver, you confuse me so much as a company. You publish in many cases some of the most forward thinking games there are when it comes to Gender Equality, but your marketing and PR often doesn’t match up with the tone of the games you’re trying to promote. Are you of the school that as long as we’re talking about you it’s helping the game, even if it’s complaining about sexism? Is your marketing and PR arm just highly detached from the teams of Developers working on the physical game that comes out? I just want to know what you’re thinking.

Female Sexualisation, PR and Marketing.

Catherine and the “Gentlemen’s Club”

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Right, first things first I’m going to outline some of the things that Deep Silver have done in the last console generation that stand out to me. Some of these made big headlines and you’ll have likely read about, some of these only ever really effected press and others only effected players that went looking for them. What they have in common is they all show an uncomfortable attitude toward women and their place in the world of video games, one that often doesn’t line up with the games they promote.

Let’s start in early 2012. Catherine had been out for almost a year in Japan and North America and was finally getting a European release. Understandably, press were very eager to get their hands on the game, it had been receiving critical acclaim for months in other regions for it’s mature handling of relationships and how men and women interact. Unfortunately that was somewhat overshadowed at the time by the nature of the games press only Launch Event. The event was held in a “Gentlemen’s Club” in central London, with scantily clad women in costumes loosely tied to the game’s art style, were present posing for pictures amongst a group of women providing pole dances or private lap dances for those in attendance.

An article which collected together journalist comments about the event paints a picture that I’m only too familiar with, most of the people in attendance were uncomfortable with the choice of venue and the common consensus was that the event encouraged sexist views within the industry and was in no way representative of attitudes in the game it was advertising.

Dead Island and the “Feminist Whore”

Many players of Dead Island will never have encountered mention of the “Feminist Whore” skill in the original game, but that didn’t stop PC gamers from digging into the games code and discovering this lovely signpost for sexist attitudes within the games industry.

By digging through the .src file of the PC game at launch, a line of code can be found referring to the character Purna learning a “Feminist Whore” skill. After some digging, it became apparent that this was the skill that would in the final game be referred to as “Gender Wars, awarding Purna a 15% increase in damage against Male enemies. Deep Silver’s response to the line of code’s inclusion was that “These unfortunate actions were of one individual at developer company Techland and do not in any way represent the views of publishing company Deep Silver”. No apology was made by publisher Deep Silver, but developer Techland did issue an apology for the code’s inclusion and promised to take action against the employee responsible.

Dead Island Riptide and the “Zombie Bait Edition” Torso

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Skipping forward to 2013 we now have a more recent and well known example of Deep Silver being aware of their attitudes being offensive, yet pushing forward with them regardless. It’s January, the release of Dead Island Riptide is fast approaching and Deep Silver have just announced the special edition of the game that will eventually make it to store shelves in Austrailia and the UK.

So, how offensive could a special edition be? Sure it comes with a statue of some sort, but what special edition doesn’t these days? Well, this statue was of a highly sexualised, limbless female torso, splattered with blood and with visible muscle tissue and general gore where each limb has been violently removed. So yeah, that offensive.

The day of the announcement social media channels exploded in uproar about the tasteless choice and to their credit they did apologise that same day for their actions, saying that “we sincerely regret this choice” and promising that “we are committed to making sure this will never happen again”. Unfortunately, this didn’t mean they wouldn’t let it happen this time.

Skip forward to April and it became apparent that despite their horrible choice, and their acknowledgement that this was the wrong move for them to make, they were still going to push forward and make the Zombie Bait Edition of the game available in AU and UK regions. They knew it was offensive, but they didn’t care enough to prevent the item hitting shelves.

Metro: Last Light and Topless Women

I previewed Metro: Last Light at an event run by Deep Silver. I was incredibly positive about the majority of my experience with the game, but a few moment playing through the game did make me feel rather uncomfortable in the setting provided. I’m sat at a screen, men to either side of me, as I walk slowly through an area of the game where I have no choice but to watch topless women dancing on a stage in front of me in a line, being encouraged my the room full of virtual men, while I played as a man who seemed unphased by the scenario that was unfolding.

I wish that had been the worst part, but later in that same demo I found myself in a topless lap dance I could not escape from, forcing me to point the camera at the ceiling and just wait the scene out. I’m not terribly comfortable with these scenes in general, but having to play through them as a woman surrounded on all sides by men was a situation that not only made me feel uncomfortable, but a little unsafe. I understand in this case that Deep Silver only published and did not develop the game, but those scenes were not comfortable scenes to play through for women at a primarily male event.

Saints Row IV and Pole Dancers

RightI found myself in a tough position back in July. I was invited by Deep Silver to come and play Saints Row IV around a month early, previewing the game and interviewing Associate Producer Kate Nelson in the run up to a convention where the game would be playable by the public. I walked into the event and was immediately uncomfortable as I was greeted by a number of women in sexualised, skin tight, shiny police outfits with cleavage on full display. I honestly didn’t know where to look, I didn’t feel comfortable either looking at any of the women or looking away and ignoring them when they tried to be polite to me. I went through the mock White House setup and proceeded to take a seat at a screen ready to play the game. Unfortunately I first had to get through something that made me even more uncomfortable than I already was.

As music begins to play, signalling that press should pay attention, one of the higher ups on the game comes out to talk about the game from a balcony, flanked by two men dressed like security or secret service agents. On the floor level however it’s a different story. The scantily clad women from earlier were pole dancing to the music. There were press getting out cameras to take pictures of these pole dancers, not the person who actually worked on the game. I later had to walk past the pole dancing podiums to get both to and from my interview slot.

I didn’t approach either of these subjects in my Preview or Interview as honestly they will never effect the end user playing Saints Row IV and as such in many ways are irrelevant to them. The game itself shouldn’t be viewed badly for what happened at a press only event, but it’s yet another example of women being sexualised at one of these events and making the whole atmosphere one that was entirely unwelcoming to women. You wonder why women dislike this industry? It’s because we are constantly bombarded with sexualised women while the men on show get to remain classy and fully dressed. If the event had taken some lessons from the game it was promoting and been a bit more gender equal with it’s sexualisation I doubt it would have been nearly such an issue.

Reality Vs Potential. Let's sexualise a man and have a woman in a Secret Service Suit please.
Reality Vs Potential. Let’s sexualise a man and have a woman in a Secret Service Suit please.

Interestingly, Kate Nelson did comment on sexualisation of women and how it related to Saints Row at the time. Speaking to Edge magazine she said criticised THQ’s move to market Saints Row 2 by putting a porn star in an executive producer role on the game.

Nelson said “Saying that someone who had no industry experience was in a role that is sexualised as a producer of our project, or saying the Penthouse girls are our QA staff… I can see the humour in that angle of promotion but for me that’s the line where it gets into reality”.

She continued by voicing her personal thoughts on women within the series and how their representation is empowering from her perspective. “I think it’s important in marketing games to make sure that the essence of the game is what’s being marketed, and I think the porn star angle didn’t really fit in with what Saints Row is at heart, which is a parody. We like to poke fun”.

“You can be an important female character – you don’t have to have a D cup either. You can be large woman, a small woman – you can be blue. You can be who you want to be in the game and you have powerful female characters written into the narrative. I think our game actually does represent women in a positive way, but the press will focus on, oh hey, there are strippers, or there’s a dildo bat – it’s unfortunate from my perspective that that doesn’t come through.”

My response to this is that yes, that does come through. I accept that your character creation tools are incredibly inclusive and that your game itself is equal opportunities when it comes to representation. The problem is your games are still not presented that way. If I come to a press event I should not have to be uncomfortable at the event. The balance of sexualised pole dancing women to well dressed men in suits shouldn’t be so stark. It really doesn’t match the equality of the game you’re trying to present. In fact, let’s talk in some detail about just how much of a contrast the inclusivity in the game itself is.

Is Saints Row IV the height of gender equality in gaming?

The weird thing about complaining about sexual equality and sexism at the Saints Row event in particular is that the finished game itself is such a brilliant example of how to do Gender Equality right within a game. There are some minor issues with representations of gender transition, but on the whole the game itself is a beacon of how to handle sexuality and gender well within a AAA game.

A brief look at sexuality first. Saints Row IV is completely neutral when it comes to sexuality, allowing you to romance exclusively characters of your own gender, the opposite gender or any mix of the two. It gives you a wife in one early mission regardless of whether you are male or female and never makes a big deal of that fact. You just date or romance whoever you do and that’s never a big deal that needs exploration.

The character creation tool in the game is pretty fantastic too, mainly because it doesn’t limit any of the creation options to either gender, allowing you to have a completely non gender conforming character. You can create a male character with long hair and a high pitched voice that wears dresses and talks with the voice of Nolan North, or a female character that has a shaved head and talks with that same stereotypical male voice. You can have a female character who changes to a male character mid game but doesn’t change their high pitched voice or sense of fashion, wearing a tank top or skirt when it suits them and you know what, nobody in the game cares. You can just be who you want to be and that’s cool with the people around you. Characters in the game can be sexualised, but there are just as many options to sexualise male characters in just the same way. Giving me the choice to have a male character run around naked with his unmentionables jiggling about is oddly amusing, just knowing that I could just as easily do so with a female character. The game doesn’t force this sexualisation on the player, it just makes it an equal opportunities option for players.

The slightly uncomfortable suggestion that was less than ideal was the games implication that gender transition is a case of spending a few seconds and a handful of money to flawlessly transition and go unnoticed in your new target gender. It’s not ideal, but it does open doors for the option to actually have a trans character in your game, which is a step I can’t think of many other games having taken so far.

Summary

For a company that publishes such forward thinking games when it comes to gender, the fact that so many of their recent releases have had some form of sexism or offensive material linked to them and their promotion is shocking. These are the kind of things that put people like me off of this industry, I just don’t like being subject to needless and gender targeted sexualisation as a side effect of trying to enjoy my favourite form of media. I’m not sure what the solution to this problem is, just that we need to send a clear message to Deep Silver going forward. Continued sexualisation and actions that make women uncomfortable for the sexual gratification of men are not okay. Having games that are progressive doesn’t stop your press events and marketting being offensive or upsetting.

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