The Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, is a video game company's best opportunity to rally its fans and win new ones.
That's why the so-called “rape joke” during Xbox One E3 event on Monday was so significant.
It came about halfway through the event, when a female Xbox Live community manager (someone whose job is to act as a liaison between game companies and their players, and moderate disputes) appeared on stage. She played a match of new Xbox One exclusive fighting game "Killer Instinct" against one of the game's producers, who was using a pro-gaming controller called a Mad Catz FightStick.
Here's an excerpt of their on-stage conversation as the producer proceeded to beat the community manager with her hardly landing a single blow:
Producer: "Come on; you gotta practice before you get on stage in front of millions of people."
Community manager: "I can't even block correctly, and you're too fast!"
Producer: "Just let it happen; it'll be over soon."
The audience laughed.
Producer: "Wow, you like those."
Community manager: "I don't — no, I don't like this."
All right, let's break this down.
Microsoft has since said that this dialogue was not prescripted, and it's highly unlikely that either Rare or Microsoft intended to make a rape joke. If the person getting trash talked had been a man, almost no one would have said anything, except perhaps to comment on the awkwardness of pitting a community manager against a game producer with a professional-grade controller.
But E3 is, by and large, an advertisement. And any good advertiser will pay attention to the way sex, race, gender and other social signifiers are portrayed in their media spots.
[See also: Nintendo Plays it Safe at E3 ]
Women in games: A spring fling?
The rape gaffe contrasts with what has been a good few months for women in video games.
Crystal Dynamics' "Tomb Raider" rebooted a franchise whose iconic female lead, Lara Croft, had become mired in sexist stereotypes and uncreative storytelling. And "Remember Me," from new studio Dontnod Entertainment, featured a mixed-race female protagonist in a futuristic action game.
[See also: 'The Last of Us' Redefines Video Game Combat ]
Two other major titles, Irrational Games' "BioShock Infinite" and Naughty Dog’s "The Last of Us" have players take the role of a male character who works closely with a dynamic female nonplayable character.
And in May, the upcoming game "Beyond: Two Souls," which features actress Ellen Page performing motion capture and voice for protagonist Jodie Holmes, became the first video game to be featured at TriBeCa film festival.
The increased prominence of female characters shouldn't be a surprise. After all, women make up 45% of video-game players, according to a 2012 survey by the Entertainment Software Association.
Yet the trailers for the upcoming video games shown at E3 make it seem as though these leading ladies were nothing more than a spring fling. Every game shown at the Xbox press conference featured a male protagonist. Most of these games portrayed these male characters shooting male antagonists and occasionally rescuing a screaming woman or two.
Set up to fail
Historically, video games that feature female protagonists don't earn as much money as those starting male characters, or games where players can customize their characters' gender and outward appearance. But in November 2012, an investigation by games journalist Ben Kuchera of PA Report showed that the marketing budget for games with female protagonists is approximately half that of games that allow players to choose their gender, and approximately 40 percent of the budget for games with male protagonists.
"It seems the very idea of a female-lead game seems so toxic to publishers and marketing that there is barely enough examples from which to draw conclusions.,” Kuchera wrote. “What we did find is that almost no games with exclusively female heroes exist. Those that do are almost always sent out to die, due to limited marketing budgets."
Dontnod Entertainment's creative director, Jean-Max Moris, told PA Report that several publishers asked the company to change the protagonist of "Remember Me" to a man, and when Dontnod refused, the publishers passed on the game. Eventually, Dontnod did manage to find a publisher in the Japan-based Capcom.
Despite describing the nonplayer character of Elizabeth as the “true main character” of “BioShock Infinite” at PAX East, Irrational Games didn't put her on the game's cover, instead opting for a close-up of player character Booker DeWitt holding a gun and standing in front of an explosion. Irrational Games' creative director, Ken Levine, has said that this cover was designed to evoke other generic but popular first-person shooter titles, many of which feature scruffy, gun-toting white male protagonists. “Fortunately, now we don’t have to make any compromises on the game we make,” Levine said at a British Academy of Film and Television Arts event in March.“But if I have to compromise on a cover, I’ll compromise on that cover.”
Naughty Dog, the studio responsible for "The Last of Us," recently told The Escapist that its market-research firm tried to convince the company to take Ellie, the female nonplayable ally to male player character Joel, off the game's front cover. Naughty Dog refused. The studio also had to specifically request that this research firminclude female focus testers, as well as males, when assessing player feedback and quality assurance.
[See also: Game Over: Why the Console Wars Have Ended ]
Why it matters
There's nothing wrong with games that star male characters. There's nothing wrong with marketing campaigns that target men and boys. There's nothing wrong with talking a bit of smack while you game.
But when a broad selection of video games is composed entirely of these types of representations, then the absences start to speak louder and louder. In a perfect world, "Just let it happen; it'll be over soon" isn't a rape joke. But we're not talking about a perfect world — we're talking about a press conference for a company that's directly involved in the production of a sizable portion of video games worldwide. The representations they incorporate into their advertising suggest the types of customers they think are worth seeking out.
It's important to talk about this because if no one says anything — if no one points out the fact that men vastly outnumber women both within the industry and in the games themselves, or that video games starring female characters are given inadequate marketing budgets and “sent out to die,” or that the “Killer Instinct” segment at the Xbox One E3 press conference was alarmingly uncomfortable to a significant number of people — then it gives the impression that the way things are is the way they're supposed to be.
Stepping out of the box
E3's first trailer to prominently depict a female character occurred a few hours after the Xbox One event ended, when EA announced the new game "Dragon Age III: Inquisition." BioWare's “Dragon Age” series — as well as its other major franchise, “Mass Effect” — have always allowed players to customize the gender, race and appearance of their characters, as well as included a party of diverse nonplayable characters.
[See also: E3: Sony's PS4 Console Puts Gamers First ]
Also at EA's event was "Mirror's Edge 2," the sequel to the 2008 game "Mirror's Edge," that, despite poor initial sales, became an underground hit.
At Sony's PlayStation 4 event later that evening, the company presented a new trailer for “Transistor,” an indie game with a female protagonist. Later in the evening, three game players demoed the upcoming science-fiction first-person shooter “Destiny.”
During the demo, the two players — both men — engaged in friendly smack talk, comparing the size of their guns and making fun of each other's mistakes. The fact that one of them was playing as a female character wasn't mentioned. A few minutes later a third player joined the demo, a woman playing as a male character. But again, no one commented. It was all portrayed as a perfectly normal game of “Destiny.”