For her sixth birthday, my eldest daughter has decided she wants a 3DS. And being a doting gamer dad, who am I to argue? But when I had a look at some of the games available for the system, I was struck by the fact that she’d actually never played what you might call an escalating difficulty game before. We take this model for granted: games that become progressively more complex and demanding as you play through them. But if you’re five, going on six, and the only video games you’ve ever played are flash inserts on kids’ TV websites and iPad activities that let you bake cookies or poke aliens in the eye, it’s a new and problematic paradigm. And if you end up falling at that first hurdle, it could put you off video games for life.
Of course there are good games like Nintendogs that don’t entirely fit this model but they’re very rare. So I had a think about how I could discover whether or not she was ready for more challenging games and I hit on the idea of having her play Flight Control on the iPad on the (very easy) easiest settings. You’ll have played some variation of Flight Control before – you guide some form of public transportation to a variety of destinations without having them crash into one another. In Flight Control it’s planes and the touch screen implementation is smooth and very natural – perfect for a child. And it worked, she loved the game, accepted the increasing difficulty, started to climb the challenge curve, which made me very happy. And then at the end she saw the screen you always see at the end, which is pictured above for you, and she asked “Daddy, who’s that lady?”
So I told her it was a lady who worked on an aeroplane. But I was perturbed by the fact that I’d never asked myself the same question. I was particularly perturbed that I’d never asked related questions like why she was blonde, or why she was always striking a sexy pose in a variety of mildly provocative outfits.
This has nothing to do with prudery: I’m entirely in favour of anyone being allowed to post pictures of other sexy and/or naked people wherever, within reason, they like. Rather I was struck by how commonplace and acceptable it’s become in games, so much so in fact that I’d ceased to notice it. In TV and magazines and other media, it’s quite common now to post alluring pictures of either sex to advertise something, and it’s often done in a creative manner to help you sit up and take notice. If I’d seen something so old-fashioned, so tiresomely unoriginal and so obviously one-sided (where’s the handsome cabin steward?) I’d have rolled my eyes and wondered for the thousandth time why western civilization hasn’t got over this particular hangup yet. But in a game, it took an innocent comment from my daughter to wake me up to the fact I was seeing the same thing all over again.
For this blame not only my lack of observational skills, but the sheer ubiquity of it in the medium. You can see it in the arguments over FemShep. You can see it in the fact that Aris Bakhtanians felt it was okay to try and excuse his repulsive, loathsome behaviour with anything other than a humble apology. You can see it in Lara Croft’s curves, in the comments made during multi-player matches involving female gamers, in the outfit of Ivy from Soul Calibur. None of this is new, or surprising of course and these points have been made frequently and rather more eloquently many times in the past. The point of this post is that I thought I knew how to spot this stuff, and that I was on the “right” side of interpreting it as sexism, and I wasn’t. I was just on the “right” side of the more extreme examples. I hate and despise the way that a lot of the fairly stories, especially the older ones and the Disney ones, that I end up reading to my little girls carry a variety of subliminal messages about women only being validated by the love and attention of a man. I try and steer them away from these stories toward ones with more proactive female protagonists, but I can’t ban them, that would be draconian and only create more desire for the banned thing. But I really didn’t think I’d have to do the same thing when they got old enough to engage with mainstream, family oriented video games. I’m very sad that I’ve been proved wrong.