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Opting out of game sexism

Should players who are offended by certain aspects of a game be able to change them?

There has recently been a fair amount of debate about sexism in games. However, this debate is somewhat stuck in a distinctly old-media paradigm. In this paradigm, a mass market of players are provided with identical copies of a game, and they play it without really influencing how it looks and plays. Game creators therefore have the power to impose their aesthetics and values upon all players.

But this is not a given state of affairs. Games are not movie reels, they are software. Every element of a game world can be adapted to the preferences of the player. It is not necessary for players that are offended or annoyed by certain elements in a game to be exposed to them.

Consider a simple switch that replaces all revealing outfits in a game with more modest attire. Someone who doesn’t like Miranda Lawson’s pants (the source material for the picture in Brandon Sheffield's article) can flip this switch to replace them with loose cargo pants. A subset of players would appreciate having this choice, including some that would not actually flip the switch, but like it as a gesture. It seems publishers would see some benefits as well, by increasing sales to sensitive customers. They may also be given some arguments to use when Anita Sarkeesian wants to interview them.

Of course sexism in games is not only about how the characters dress. But more influence on the game wardrobe is a good place to start: it doesn’t influence the gameplay and is easy to implement. Creating choices so players can avoid sexist character development and plotlines would be much harder.

There are certainly obstacles in the implementation. One obstacle, which is relevant because it influences developers’ efforts to overcome the other obstacles, is that developers themselves are rather attached to the mass media paradigm. They enjoy the fact that they decide what millions of people are going to stare at every day. They dream of their characters becoming part of an established cultural canon, and usually, the more iconic the character, the less influence do players have on the character’s appearance. So developers might not like people toying around with "their" characters just because they don’t like their clothing.

There also needs to be a certain amount of tact involved. The ”modesty" aspect of the choices should not be too emphasized, as the insistence of men wanting to control women’s immodest dress is a controversial topic in the real world.

The basic problem is not going away anytime soon. Some elements of games will always titillate some players while offending others, and developers will always want to sell as many games as possible to each of these groups. So the notion of mitigating game sexism by giving players more in-game opportunities to change certain parts of the game is worthy of further discussion. If anyone has any thoughts on this topic, feel free to share them.

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