My Video Game Challenge

Writer, reviewer, and tech blogger K. Tempest Bradford made waves earlier this year when she announced a challenge she was undertaking for herself (and suggesting for others who felt like doing it): to only read stories by authors who are women, or people of color, or queer.

Now, a number of people have misinterpreted her criteria as being way more narrow than they are, thinking that she won’t read any stories by white people or straight people, but the criteria are “or”, not “and”. A number of other people have decried it as discrimination or a call to arms or misinterpreted it as a boycott.

The most concise defense of her decision I can offer is the fact that after she started doing it, she realized that whole issues of some magazines were out of bounds. This is the point: in the absence of a concerted effort to seek out voices that don’t belong to straight white men, you can wind up reading nothing but straight white men without realizing it.

“It’s fine to add more voices to your reading,” some might say, “but not to the point of excluding anyone else.”

“Okay,” I might reply. “How many stories by straight white men do I have to read to earn the right to read something else?”

Anyway, the actual challenge Tempest lays out isn’t for people to read the same books that she reads or to use the same criteria she has laid out, but to think about who they are reading and make deliberate choices. She suggests defining some criteria and sticking to it for a year.

I’m not doing that this year. Not with prose fiction, anyway.

But I did make a decision late last year, around the time of the winter Steam sale, that during the calendar year 2015, I would not buy any video games that do not allow you to play as a female character. I might have tweeted about it, I don’t recall. I didn’t make a whole lot of fanfare over it, though. It was largely a personal decision.

I’ve decided to publicize it, though, because the concept of “voting one’s wallet” means more when 1) more than one person is doing it and 2) there’s some means for the industry being targeted to know on what basis people are making their buying decisions.

So here it is: for at least the space of the calendar year 2015, I am not going to be buying any games that do not allow me to play as a female character, and I invite anyone who is interested in shaking up the status quo to do the same, and to make their decision known.

Now, there’s some room for interpretation in how the challenge plays out.

For instance, a game like Don’t Starve has a male default character and only allows you to play as other characters (female ones included) as you progressively unlock them. To me, this is acceptable. If it had an open-ended character creation system that arbitrarily restricted you to one gender before you “earned” the right to play as another, that would be kind of a slap in the face, but each of the characters in Don’t Starve is a unique individual, half of the available characters are female, and you can unlock the first female one pretty quickly.

That’s my call on a game like that. There are also games that have multiple protagonists that game play switches between. If a game like that has at least one female character, does it count? Well, that’s your call. What about games in long-running franchises that revolve around a single established character who happens to be male? Are they exempt? Also your call!

I certainly play games like that. I wouldn’t buy one this year, but I understand the temptation to give them a pass. The reason I’m not doing so is the fact that there are so many “legacy” franchises like that, and so few with iconic female characters. Also, so many long-running character-centric franchises have added female playable characters that there’s not really an excuse for the holdouts.

It’s also your call, on games that have multiple predefined characters to choose from, on whether any level of female representation is acceptable or if there needs to be something at least approaching parity. I bought the new Gauntlet game, even though male characters outnumber females by 3 to 2, and you have to pay extra for the second woman. That was my call. You can make your own.

On the subject of Gauntlet, where I am more likely to play as Questor the Elf than Thyra the Valkyrie just as a matter of playstyle, so I should make it clear: it’s not that I insist on only playing games as a female character. It’s that I insist on the option being included. I am very happy that each successive game in the Borderlands franchise has moved closer to parity between male and female characters, but I like to play through them with each character at least once. My current playthrough of the first game is with Mordecai.

I know that some people (e.g., gators) will say that I am trying to dictate how game developers make their games and thus something something underpants gnome logic something censorship something anti-art. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t owe anyone my time or money, and like anyone else, I have the freedom to let my preferences be known.

The status quo of the supposedly free marketplace of ideas already restricts artists to working within a narrow palette of ideas, which is: whatever seems profitable enough to be worth the effort and resources. I’m just letting any interested artists know where my money is, in case they want a piece of it. That is free speech and the free market in action.