Sometimes it’s just too difficult to be equitable with regard to gender. It’s not a matter of being sexist, it’s a purely technical choice to stick with male or masculine pronouns/examples/characters/test subjects.

The funny thing about this defense is that it’s often true. Technical difficulties such as money, time, or toolset limitations get in the way of gender diversity, at least in the case of video games, and surely with some of the other examples above. Fortunately, we don’t have to take point with the truth of the matter to reject the claim as a valid or appropriate policy for addressing gender exclusivity. The point is precisely that it is difficult because for so long (i.e. most of recorded history) it was not necessary to consider the rights, interests, or unique concerns of women themselves, because women were for men. Things are more convenient when you ignore half the species… but this is not a good reason to do so.

You can see this echoed in an admittedly select example from gaming history. Industry Gamers reported yesterday that Peach wasn’t included as a playable character in New Super Mario Bros. Wii because it would take extra effort (time/money/etc) to make her skirt move appropriately. Dynamic, fluid things in general are difficult to capture in video games because of the way toolsets work. When you’re plastering a skin on a collection of polygons, movement is limited to the programming of the polygons. It does indeed take special programming to have things like long flowing hair, draperies, or otherwise non-rigid textures, since the technology has evolved without these features being seen as central. Although soft hairstyles and draped fabrics are often associated with femininity, and heteromen like femininity, other physical manifestations more directly related to masculine interest in the sexual use of women have taken priority. Continue Reading »


Killing 40 wild turkeys in  a row with less than 30 seconds between kills is really hard. Seriously. Just tune into trade chat this week on WoW and you’ll hear all about it. However, Cassaria the intrepid Blood Elf Priest managed the feat, earning herself the Turkinator title, and thereby achieving the second most difficult task in the Pilgrim’s Bounty achievement. I think Pilgrim Cassaria has a nice ring to it, don’t you?

Of course, Cassaria is my character in WoW, one of two who I am currently working on. On the other side of Azshara, while Cassaria was parked happily at a table in Dalaran waiting for the dailies to refresh the next day, Cassis was undergoing a moral dilemma. Cassis, you see, does not condone the senseless murder of critters. Even when eating them gives her 40 attack bonus and 20 stamina for an hour. As a wee Gnome Warrior, Cassis really isn’t the adventuring type. As much as she loves the journey, all that fighting is just too stressful. There’s nothing she’d like more than to pick herbs and combine them using her alchemy skill to help out fellow adventurers, and to travel the world, learning new recipes and meeting new people.

Cassis was my very first WoW character, and although I didn’t play her for too long, maybe half a year, she holds a special place in my heart. She is such a sweet, happy, friendly little gnome, very generous of spirit. It’s hard not to feel good playing her. Cassaria, on the other hand, was levelled earlier this year using a refer-a-friend experience bonus, and was built specifically for raiding. She would raid 5, 10 and 25 player dungeons in a raiding guild several times a week. Cassaria doesn’t have much character. She just gets things done, and she’s fairly decent at it.

Although I have role played with Cassis, she’s not a role play character as such… I’m not very committed to keeping her ‘in character’ when I play, I don’t often seek out role play situations, but she definitely has a distinct character, and I am almost incapable of going contrary to it even when the game demands it of me. This might be because Cassis is closer to my own identity, or is maybe an instance of it, or a part of it. Thus going against her inclinations would be going against my own (my self) in a real way.

So when Cassis was asked to hunt down and slow roast twenty wild turkeys in honey and autumnal herbs, she was sincerely torn. Cass loves cooking, and she loves Thanksgiving, and she especially loves big celebratory dinners where you get to feed all your friends. The turkeys are necessary to complete the feasts in the game, which you can then feed to your whole party (normally each dish only feeds one), thereby granting them significant bonuses in game for a short duration. To be clear, Cassis regularly hunts and kills animals for food, quests, and in self defense. But there is a significant difference between critters and regular beasts. Critters do not fight back, and they are completely defenseless. Even an accidental blow will kill them. There are achievements in game for killing critters, and others for /love -ing them. In general, casually killing critters as you come across them is  a normal and pleasurable part of game behaviour (perhaps there’s some sort of repressed morbidity happening here). But it makes Cass /cry every time she sees it. Continue Reading »

In talking with Howard Nye the other day, I got thinking about a problem. It started with the general question I’ve been stabbing at for a while, “what’s wrong with stereotyping, particularly in MMOs?” It might not be immediately obvious why I would need to specify that I’m talking about MMOs- the ethics around stereotypes presumably stand on their own. But video games are different in a few ways. First, positive stereotypes often have negative stereotypes attached to them. For example, let’s suppose that there is nothing immediately wrong with the stereotype that women are interested in fashion, appearance and beauty (I realize this is contentious, but we’ll just bracket it for now). Usually that stereotype is pernicious linked to a set of other stereotypes, about how their interest in such things is due to the fact that they are shallow, uninterested in other (deeper) things, or even incapable of serious thought. There is a concern that buying into even just the positive stereotype affects women’s actual behaviour and expectations for themselves due to the pernicious influence of the negative stereotypes, in addition to men’s behaviour towards and expectations of women. This concern is echoed in empirical data studying stereotype threat and other ways that stereotypes affect behaviours and attitudes (it exists, somewhere, I suppose I ought to cite those facts.)

In the case of video games and in this case MMO’s, the abilities of avatars are predetermined and unaffected by categories such as race, gender, and so on. For at least some stereotypes, then, there is  a break between the positive and negative attributes. Take the stereotype that women are smaller and weaker than men. The first attribute is not necessarily bad, but it carries the second, which can be harmful in the ways expressed above. In MMOs, even if one has this stereotype, there is no way to modify one’s behaviour accordingly. So although women in games are smaller than men, they are not weaker, since their strength is not modified by their size or gender. Expectations that women would be weaker might hold on, but continuing to expect this to be the case would likely interfere with your success in the game. So over time, it might be the case that the negative attribute of weakness is dissociated from the neutral attribute of smallness, at least in game. Perhaps some empirical data could help explain if the break carries over to an out of game context. If this is the case, the outcome would be huge. Not only would game developers have an increased responsibility in their design of games and inclusion of stereotypes, but also ‘stereotype modification therapy’ games might be a realistic possibility. I intend to look around at current research on stereotypes to see if I can predict what the out comes might be, but I will table that for now.

The second way that stereotypes might work differently in games is that video games, like fables or stories, model behaviour and sometimes model moral behaviour. Modelling can be seen as an endorsement in a fictional context when the behaviour being modelled is glorified, when possible negative outcomes are not included in the representation, when excessive benefits are bestowed on the participant engaging in the behaviour, and so on. This might take the form of “winning”, so in the story of David and Goliath, the good guy wins the match, wins morally, and his morally bad opponent loses. Winning a game or competition (or the favour of others, or status, or goods) is often used in storytelling to convey the sense that a moral victory has occurred, and to the victor goes the spoils.  Continue Reading »

Our gray tabby kitten, Zoe, hiding in a Tofurky box. From Jackie, Thanksgiving in September, 2009.

Our gray tabby kitten, Zoe, hiding in a Tofurky box. From Jackie, Thanksgiving in September, 2009.

Delicious things so often come in small packages. A shame, really, since then you have to go through multiple packages to get your fill. That is how it was with the kittens. No kittens turned into three kittens over the course of a month, with little to no forethought.

The Edmonton Humane Society was rife with them early this summer, and I was drawn to their website every day, browsing through the photos of tiny kittens without homes. It was heartbreaking and adorable at the same time, and I was left itching every day for more. Covertly, I started researching kitten care at the office. Between spreadsheets I would be reading animal behaviourist guides to introducing new kittens into a home with an established cat. We had two at the time, sweet old cats who hated senior food, loved snuggles, and wanted to nap more than anything. At first I was just curious- would it be possible for them to adapt at this old age? Would being around a kitten unlock deeply buried maternal tendencies? Would they kill it? I had been reading a blog by a foster mom for kittens, and her stories about her own harem’s indifference to the fosters gave me hope. Hope turned into a field trip to the Humane Society, and then another, and then there was Malcolm.

Continue Reading »