Feminist Frequency: Gender Breakdown of Games in 2020

October 16, 2020

Anita Sarkeesian and Carolyn Petit of Feminist Frequency, contributing to Wired:

This year also marks the narrowest divide between games featuring defined female protagonists and games featuring defined male protagonists that we’ve yet seen, with games starring male characters making up 23 percent of this year’s total, or just 5 percent more games overall. In previous years, there have always been at least three times as many games centering men as there were centering women, so the fact that this year both values are at least in the same ballpark is definitely a welcome development. However, while we should perhaps be cautiously optimistic about these numbers, we also shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet. It will naturally require another year or two before we can begin to determine if this shift reflects actual changes that are taking place, or if 2020 is a one-off statistical anomaly that will quickly see a return to the status quo.

I look forward to these reports every year. Readers of Zero Counts (and The Starr List before that) may recall my E3 2013 and E3 2014 Genre/Gender Breakdowns. I find a lot of humble serendipity that Feminist Frequency began running this very similar survey in 2015.

So much of identity is rooted in gender. With video games being such an immersive medium, the ability to not only witness but partake in the story of a character whose gender is the same or different from that of the player can have profound impact, self-identifying or empathetic. That is the reason I surveyed in 2013 and 2014 (and 2012, to some degree), and that is a big reason why Feminist Frequency continues to do so:

Each year when we present this data, some people invariably point to the fact that games which allow players a choice between a male and female character, or games in which you control an ensemble of characters made up of people of different genders, make up the biggest percentage of all (55 percent this year), and wonder why that isn’t, on its own, enough to satisfy us. The answer is quite simple. Of course we welcome games that allow players the option to create and customize their own characters, but this is categorically different from games that feature defined, specific characters. Each person who plays Horizon: Zero Dawn, for instance, or The Last of Us Part II must step into the shoes of a defined female character, and experience the game’s efforts to get them to identify with and relate to that character. In an industry whose output was for decades dominated by male heroes, what we most want to see is a shift toward at least an equal number of games that require players to take on the role of humanized female characters.

In a year of absolute madness, 2020’s Gender Breakdown of Games certainly a sight for sore eyes. I second Colin Campbell in saying ”the full article, and its various charts, is definitely worth a read.”

How Games are Changing the World

October 12, 2020

Colin Campbell, previously of Polygon and IGN fame, has launched an important newsletter devoted specifically to idea of How Games are Changing the World.

I’ve been enjoying some recent issues and figured I’d share an excerpt from one in particular that had an especially profound effect on me.

The talent of empathy:

Chris Metzen retired from game development in 2016. He’d spent 23 years in the game industry, working at Blizzard on some of its key games, including Warcraft, Diablo, Overwatch, and Starcraft (a solid bio is here). Yesterday, he spoke about his struggle with mental health challenges, and the game industry’s long-standing absence of understanding the centrality of mental health.

Speaking at The International Games Summit on Mental Health, with Take This executive director Eve Crevoshay, he talked about his experiences in an industry that saw itself as a warrior culture where performance was all that mattered, and where a relentless competitive spirit was valued far more than empathy or care. The session was called “The talent of empathy.” (Note. I’ve tidied up some quotes, for clarity.)

“Part of my leaving was I started having some serious issues with anxiety and panic and horrific imposter syndrome,” he said. “It was there all along. The psychology of being afraid, of feeling unworthy, and not being able to ask for back-up from friends and co-workers. There’s a lot of shame that can come with that. It doesn’t feel safe to talk about that.”

He acknowledged his privilege in being at a point in his career that he was able to step away from his work and find “perspective and time”. Most people have to endure the particularity of their workplace, and to compete for position, recognition and career survival.

He began at Blizzard when he was 20 years old. “It was a frat-house. Even though we were all nerds, everyone was trying to be a tough guy. The expression of emotions like tiredness or fear was not culturally acceptable. If you feel overwhelmed then you feel like a weak link, like you’re breaking a grand tradition, like you’re breaking a contract.”

As the years went by, and despite a record of high level success, Metzen was struggling. “I was a grown man and was feeling things that I didn’t know how to process. My performance was linked to my self-esteem and my sense of purpose. I was terrified by the question of ‘who am I’, if I wasn’t this creature who was here to perform in this way.”

I strongly encourage you to read the rest of the piece and subscribe to Campbell’s newsletter.

One of the ideas behind Zero Counts was to share positive impacts video games have on the world. But I remain an outsider to the industry — simply observing and playing here and there. Yet, I recognize the toxicity in it, which hurts. It sucks to have such a pleasant part of your childhood associated with so much pain for others. Video games are joyous marvels of engineering and art. They spark conversations of curiosity and wonder and should be just as fulfilling to work on.

I’m so glad there are more outlets popping up with the mission of sharing positivity within the industry. But positivity holds no weight without also holding others accountable. Outlets like Into the Aether, Polygon, and Gamesindustry.biz not only showcase positive stories and emphasize fun, the hold feet to the flame of injustice, discrimination, and exploitation. I’m happy to add How Games are Changing the World to that list.

Vintage Nintendo games are good vibes made playable

October 04, 2020

Allegra Frank, Vox:

Finding comfort in games is what’s drawn me to them the most this year. Which is why I’ve turned obsessively toward the types of games that exude friendliness. I’ve found this most in the nostalgic charm and childlike wonder of (mostly) vintage Nintendo games. Gone is my interest in the new and buzzworthy; I’m here to revisit the kindly faces I can find on my Switch.

And it doesn’t matter if you have pre-established nostalgia for the halcyon days of simple, E-for-Everyone-rated Nintendo games or not. In the same way that Nintendo’s small-town-life simulation game Animal Crossing found mass appeal earlier this year for its coziness, these games promise morally uncomplicated fun from the onset. They’re good for anyone who’s craved some virtual, pleasant, joyous worlds to escape to.

This harkens back to Amanda Hess’s feelings at the beginning of lockdown in the US — nearly seven months ago, for those counting.

The handling of the situation globally has been fraught with anxiety. In the US, it’s a complete shitshow. I can’t take my eyes off of the news. Email newsletters pile up in my inbox — two from The New York Times, one from Vox, one from Apple News, and Dave Pell’s NextDraft to add some levity and (surprisingly) reality to the avalanche nay cavalcade of bad news. Even tech focused newsletters from Ben Thompson, Casey Newton, and Dieter Bohn ring with a tinge foreboding. OK, more than a tinge.

Every day feels the same. Whether I’m trying to navigate corporate bureaucracy, social unrest, brain chemistry, or electrical wiring — there’s lots of home improvement going on in the Starr Household these days — every day feels the same. I miss my friends. I miss my family. I miss my co-workers. Thank every otherworldly being that my wife and I pair like chocolate and peanut butter. She’s my saving grace.

Yes, I have distractions. We watch great TV like Watchmen, Seinfeld, and Ted Lasso. We cook together, clean together, and decorate together. We have it as good as it gets. Solitarily, I work on remotely recorded ’90s covers with a group of dudes (less often than I should be) and I’m in a book club.

But in the flood of bad news and rip current of quarantine space-time, I find great serenity wading deep in the waters of childhood comforts. The latest of which is Super Mario 3D All-Stars.

There are better sources to explain the strengths and weaknesses of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. After much consideration, I don’t aim to do that on Zero Counts. What I will say is that Super Mario 64 is my You’ve Got Mail. If you’re my wife or have a fondness for bouquets of newly sharpened pencils, you get it. That’s a big deal.

This is a long way of saying that I agree with Allegra — vintage Nintendo games are good vibes.

Ben Thompson on Microsoft's Game Plan

September 17, 2020

Ben Thompson, Stratechery:

In fact, if you would have subscribed to the $15 Xbox All Access anyway, you actually save money by paying monthly: $19 in the case of the Series X, and an impressive $59 in the case of the Series S.

That last discount is the tell as to what Microsoft is up to: the truth is that anyone buying a “cheaper” console that, unlike the PS5, is in fact worse in performance, is pretty unlikely to sign up for an additional $15/month gaming service. Subscribers, though, are exactly what Microsoft wants, and when you consider the fact you can pay only $25 a month, get all of those free games, and “save” $60, the offer becomes pretty compelling to more casual game players, and parents.

More broadly, Microsoft is seeking to get out of the traditional console business, with its loss-leading hardware and fight over exclusives, and into the services business broadly; that’s why Xbox Game Pass, the cloud streaming service that is available not only on Xbox and PC but also on Android phones (Apple has blocked it from iOS for business model reasons), is included. In Microsoft’s view of the world the Xbox is just a specialized device for accessing their game service, which, if they play their cards right, you will stay subscribed to for years to come.

This also explains the hardware differences: Microsoft actually wants developers to focus on scalable games that work anywhere, as opposed to targeting one specific hardware configuration; their strategy is just as aligned as Sony’s, it’s just pointing in a very different direction.

This is the best take on Microsoft’s gaming strategy I’ve read.