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I attend PAX primarily for the panels, rather than the games. As antithetical as that may sound, there is a compelling reason: I am attracted to unique experiences, and the panels are most frequently a conversation that is uniquely conducted in that time and place. There is so much that we can learn, develop and grow from not only the reception of but also the exchange of ideas at panels; many are big and fun, but some are smaller and more ambitious at PAX that every attendee should experience.
A great example of the above at PAX Prime 2013 is the Friday night panel “A Discussion of Military Servicewomen in Video Games”, hosted by notable game operations leader and now writer at large Stephen “Stepto’s” Toulouse. The speaking group was rounded out by military veterans Ana Visneski and Sarah Mccaffrey, active gamers who offered both professional and player perspectives on the topic of female military depiction in video games.
The crux of the issue is, how do we convince game development studios to shift from primarily unrealistic and over specialized depictions of military women (and women in general) in video games? The common portrayal of these individuals as sexy romantic possibilities and/or over the top cheesecake in impractical outfits and often lesser capability than their male counterparts is not only denigrating towards women, but also limiting to considerations of game factors such as emotional engagement and narrative depth. After all, how can gamers form meaningful relationships with shallow and stereotypical characters?
The panel noted that progress will be achieved not only with advancement in real life, but also in the virtual depictions that are often the primary exposure to women in military roles for many gamers. Mccaffrey made a particularly striking point that people who learn not to take female military service members seriously in games may inadvertently or maybe even deliberately carry that attitude over to real life situations, a problem that can have an adverse impact on the safety of both parties. It’s a harrowing effect that isn’t fun or profitable for developers to consider, but it should become a top of mind factor for the ones that are socially considerate.
At a time in gaming history where authenticity in not only simulation but also identity and cultural dynamics are more important than ever, the widespread depiction of women as strong and capable military leaders in video games is long overdue. There has to be real pressure for meaningful change from both female and male gamers on this front not only in conversational environments such as PAX and social media, but also on an economic level: as gamers, we have to demonstrate that gender portrayal in an even and socially progressive manner is a key factor in earning our financial support.
There are small but encouraging signs that the industry is headed in the right direction, and I hope to attend a followup panel in the future about how far gender equality in interactive entertainment has progressed.