If there is one trend consumers are absolutely fed up with in modern gaming it is the inclusion of forced diversity and politicized narratives in video games. No longer can a creator just focus on crafting an interesting story filled with characters that have their place and role in the experience. Developers today are pressured to focus on representation regardless of narrative structure, while ensuring said diversity-characters don’t violate an ever shifting sociopolitically-driven standard.
Rarely does the consumer get a look behind the curtain at the mechanisms that drive this phenomenon. When they do it’s invariably either caused by an activist whom utilized their platform to push their politicized agenda or its slides from a slide show that aims to accomplish the same ends at an institutionalized level. Recently, even though closer to the latter, a developer reached out on Kotaku in Action to establish a dialog and relate the story of what transpired as he attempted to reach out to feminists boards and organizations.
Ivan is a Russian developer who got a job at Mikola Zaporozhsky Games, the studio working on Highly Likely. During the course of his work he read through the script finding the representation of women to be abhorrent and underrepresented with a grand total of 39 characters and only 3 of them being female, each portrayed (according to him) in a problematic manner.
“I replied that there are things in the game that can put an end to the project and to you as a team altogether. In the game, there are 39 characters, and only 3 of them are women, and they are so oppressed that you wouldn’t wish such fate to anyone: one is constantly abused and beaten, the second is forced to dance at the fair for food, and the third is literally sawed in half because of a failed magic trick but no one believes that anything is wrong and everyone continues to laugh, thinking that it is just an act. What can I say? The women don’t even have names, even the dog and the cat have nicknames, but the women don’t have names. If feminists find out about this, there will be a scandal and the game can quite possibly even be removed from Steam and other stores. Why are you risking your reputation and the money invested in the project?
By the way, there is also a controversial issue with LGBT people, but we’ll leave it out of the picture…”
Keep very much in mind his objections were not with depicting men as evil or sociopathic, but with the under-representation and depiction of women and the unmentioned LGBT character whom is likely the 4th women he would mention without context later. In his mind the solution was vastly simple, he’d reach out to feminist institutions, they’d adjust their game accordingly or he’d quit and everything would work out. That was until reality burst his bubble.
“In my view, everything seemed more than simple. I write a letter, I get an answer, maybe send a few more letters for clarification, I draw conclusions, if corrections to the script are necessary, I bring this to the project management, and then I look at their actions, if they listen I continue to work with the team, if they ignore me I leave the team. Everything goes quietly and without unnecessary noise. But, everything was not so simple.”
Last September Ivan sent out letters to several unnamed but well-known and serious feminist organizations, outlining his position and desire to work with them to adjust the narrative of the game. Through influence the writers and investors Ivan made assurance in the letter that any changes necessary to be a good Ally would be implemented. By January of this year he had yet to receive a single response to any of this letters let alone to the communication attempts he had begun on both Facebook and Twitter.
By September 10th the situation had not improved with not a single group responding to any of his inquiries. Desperate, he reached out to /r/Feminism only to receive very little constructive feedback before being censored for “trolling.” What little feedback he did receive that wasn’t outright vile belligerence, came in the form of being told in no uncertain terms his game was sexist and their writers sucked at making female characters. The commentator going so far as to call the game: “this horrifying sexist video game”.
The second response was a tad bit more down to the point of accusing Ivan of only being interested in preventing the outrage to preserve both their reputation and investment. Claims that aren’t entirely unfounded as you’ll soon see.
“Yeah, it seems like OP’s story is just a checklist of misogynist stereotypes and then he goes “so, what’s wrong with it?”
Dude, your cast is Smurfetted, Fridged, Oppressed, Repressed, Under-represented, fails the Bechdel Test, etc etc etc etc etc. There’s no suggestion to make to fix it: you’re making what you know, and what you know is deeply misogynistic. For heaven’s sake, you even state that your motivations aren’t to make a good story, but to keep the evil bitches from Feminazi Women’s Groups from fomenting unnecessary uproar*.*
It’s not just that there’s a few things to fix, there’s nothing worth saving.”
His second attempt to reach out to /r/Feminism resulted in silence as his post was considered trolling and he was subsequently censored. A sentiment that would follow him to /r/feminism, /r/gendercritical, r/femenisme where it was deleted for trolling and /r/feminismstopswhen.
During the 5 hours that /r/femenisme allowed the post up, users questioned whether Ivan was in fact trolling. Asking whether having a script with only 3 women was sexist when it obviously was sexist. The best advice he was given through the entire experience was the atypical gender swap characters or the racist/sexist typecasting idea of hire women to write female characters.
With the deadline for marketing to begin in a last ditch effort to have any dialog about the script he reached out to /r/KotakuInAction to illustrate his story and attempt to achieve some feedback. Most users were happy to engage with meaningful dialog explaining where he had gone wrong attempting to reach out to feminists and the nature of the group he attempted to pander to. What little feedback was provided for the game itself was the sage advice: Develop the game you want to play.
A minor observance that shatters that goes more to prove the old adage of male feminist allies was how Ivan began talking about women. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with his position or even manner of phrasing the fact remains this is not how someone who strongly believes in champion the cause of feminism should talk. It highlights how the developers were more interested in their reputation of being a good feminist ally than they were actually champion feminism or directly believing in the cause.
Beyond his mannerisms regarding women, the developer was very open to the feedback he received. Asking questions and generally coming to accept the nature of the group he had attempted to court. Whether it sunk into him their absolute lack of influence or not is debatable, but for the developer it was a very red pilling moment.
What Ivan and all developers should ultimately realize is the science around these outrage mobs shows they have very minimal impact. Without a month short of a catastrophic decision most negative impressions revert back to normal with only a fractional percentage difference. This fractional percentage is important to understand as this difference may not even occur inside your customer base and thus potentially irrelevant.
Numerous developers have even seen the opposite effective utilizing the outrage of non customers to signal boost their product to masses that otherwise would not have heard or known about said products existence.
Marketing involves understanding the scope of your market and what share of the market you can receive. Reputation only matter amongst those that have a sway in your life. Most of the outrage mobs have an attention span shorter than a goldfish and will unlikely remember who you are a day after the mob moves onto its next target unless you were successful, but only then they remember you more for your signaling their impotence rather than what you did.
Attempting to establish a dialog with people’s who not only do not purchase your products, but stand nothing to gain by providing solutions is futility. Worse than futility as it actively outrages groups of consumers who are in your market demographic. Sadly where there is a potential for a lighthearted comedy that takes a philosophical look at the world’s indifference towards people or their struggles this game’s moderate wokeness will likely put it quickly on the Master List.