By Mike Malpiedi
For those that may not be aware, Mass Effect: Andromeda recently released a couple weeks ago and it, like many games in this console generation, has issues. Mainly players aren’t happy about the game’s inconsistent writing and poorly executed facial animations, which keep the game from being the all-around epic experience fans of the series were hoping for. That being said, it is one thing to criticize a developer for their execution on a game, but another to start targeting specific individuals, or groups of people, as the absolute source of blame for why something isn’t as good as it should be.
Since the games’ launch, sites such as Metacritic, IGN, Twitter, and Polygon have seen their fair share of fans going off about the game in some less than kind ways. Specifically, some fans have taken it upon themselves to blame the women and minorities involved in the games development as the main source of the games narrative and technical woes. A particular woman named Allie Rose-Marie Leost continues to receive the overwhelming majority of the blame since being misidentified as the games’ lead facial animator.
Electronic Arts, Bioware, and other gaming industry professionals have come to Allie’s defense, but that still hasn’t quelled the use of her as a scapegoat. Regardless of the fact that numerous people worked on the game, she is receiving a disturbing amount of blame and prejudice. Search her user name on Twitter and you will find a number of sexist comments being thrown her way such as:
(All comments taken from Twitter)
Mass Effect: Andromeda is also receiving considerable criticism for its story. Fans of the series are expressing angry and disappointment because the game’s story isn’t as well written as previous iterations of the series. Some are arguing that it is the story’s desire to be more progressive and socially aware that is holding the game back:
(Review taken from Metacritic)
Comments such as these against women and diversity in the gaming industry are nothing new. In fact, similar and worse comments have been thrown at industry journalists and professionals such as Anita Sarkeesian (Feminist Frequency), Zoe Quinn (Depression Quest), and Brianna Wu (Revolution 60) during the Gamergate controversy a few years back. And even before Gamergate, there have always been strong amounts of sexism and bigotry embedded within nerd-culture from sexual harassment at conventions to blatant racism during gaming tournaments.
Toxicity of this nature is a common occurrence and likes to appear in mass whenever fans, in particular white fans, feel that their experience is being trampled upon by “forced diversity” and “liberal bias” even though the vast majority of media is catered to their tastes. The problem with many game releases nowadays has nothing to do with diversity or that one woman who may have worked on a game series. The problem can actually be broken down into a several real factors…
Publisher and Developer Relations
Bioware made a name for itself back in the PS2 era by making incredible RPG experiences such as Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. Despite releasing excellent and critically acclaimed titles, Bioware struggled financially and was inevitably purchased, along with developer Pandemic, by Electronic Arts (EA) in 2007. Bioware was able to keep its branding and identity, but that doesn’t mean the buyout had no effect on the developer. Publishers buying developers in financial strife is common, but it changes the dynamic of a developer since they now have to serve with the publisher’s interests in mind. More often than not, a publisher’s goal is making sales. The more sales a game gets, the more successful the game is even if it isn’t the most revolutionary experience.
Fans of Bioware have noticed the changes in the developer since the buyout and the release of titles such as Dragon Age II, which saw its share of criticism for similar issues that are present in the newer Mass Effect game. Why the change?
Well since the buyout in 2007, Bioware has lost a considerable amount of its lead talent. Co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk left Bioware and retired in 2012, lead writers Casey Hudson (Mass Effect) and David Gaider (Dragon Age) left in 2014 and 2016 respectiviely, and so on. In 2013, Greg Zeschuk described the relationship between EA and Bioware as such:
“I think one of the reasons that we survived and succeeded within EA was that our company was mature enough and there was enough good people throughout to handle the EA bear hug – something that is well meaning but vigorous,” Zeschuk explained, in an interview. “We needed to be strong to survive that and I think we did and you evolve from that as well.” (EGMR, Jan. 2013)
“A bear hug that is well meaning but vigorous,” aka the publisher is more than likely smothering developers with its ideologies and practices. EA, like other large publishers, are always looking for that next hit franchise that will reach the widest audience possible. By reaching a wider audience a game can, hopefully, sell more copies, but this could also lead to changes in a game’s development such as streamlining rpg elements to make them more accessible to fledgling players or creating generalized characters that live off stereotypes than depth.
Marketing and Expectations
Marketing is another major issue that is plaguing the game industry. In particular, developers and publishers using specialized game demos during conferences like E3 that aren’t actually representative of the finished experience (see Ubisoft and Watch Dogs). Developers and publishers often use these types of demos in order to capture fan appeal and it can create a distorted sense of expectation and hype. Publishers and game sellers, like GameStop, use this hype to sell pre-orders of games and ensure that a game profits well upon release. Whole articles have been dedicated to issues with game marketing and pre-orders since many players often feel cheated if they pre-order a game that did not fully live up to their expectations and the way the game was marketed.
“Open-world Syndrome” is also heavily affecting player expectations. Far gone are the days when simpler games like Pong, Space Invaders, and Super Mario Bros were enough to capture imaginations and engage players. We are at a point where technological advances allow game developers to create fully-realized characters, worlds and universes containing dozens of hours worth of content and spanning multiple types of gaming genres. This type of cross-genre, open-world experience is what many players come to expect out of their games today.
And to make a game that truly feels almost endless and consistently engaging is a tall order…
No longer can many developers get away with producing an eight to ten hour game and selling it with a full $60 price tag. Games have to be at least 40+ hours for most players to feel like they have gotten their monies worth. That is a lot of content and world-building which is why a good portion of AAA games are taking longer and longer to develop (and are much more expensive to boot!). It is not as easy to create the illusion of a limitless world as it once was back when titles like KOTOR were released.
While this isn’t an excuse for games to be released unpolished, it is understandable that some aspects of a game may be favored over others. In Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s case, it is obvious that more attention was put into the development of each playable planet as opposed to character and facial animations. If you read through reviews for the new Mass Effect, you will find that reviewers are harsh on the facial animations, but almost unanimously praise the looks, aesthetics, and vastness of each planet they visited in the game.
It is great to see game developers looking to create such fascinating worlds, but there is always the possibility that the game ends up feeling hollow despite how great the worlds look and how expansive they are. This is because so much effort is put into making games bigger and more expansive, but that does not always translate into compelling content within the actual story and mechanics of the game.
And last factor to discuss is…
Resistance to Change
Gaming and other aspects of nerd-culture are mainly marketed to white, heterosexual men between the ages of 18 and 35 despite the growing number of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people who continue to invest in gaming and nerd-centric media (see the controversy with Assassin’s Creed Unity, the lack of male-male romances in Mass Effect: Andromeda, and the lack of women playing Call of Duty professionally). Game publishers and developers play upon the loyalty and nostalgia of this demographic to sell their products and experiences. Go into any local game store and look through the titles, the majority of the time you will find a white heterosexual male protagonist featured in the game.
This is what makes it so fascinating to hear certain fans say that feminist and “social justice warriors” (SJWs) are trying to “force diversity or culture” onto them. It begs the question, how do you think marginalized groups feel seeing the upteenth white protagonist in their games? It is 2017, why don’t people of other races, sexual orientations, and gender identities deserve fair representation in the games we play? They do, in fact, EXIST, so why are we not celebrating that in our media? By utilizing primarily white characters and consistently pandering to that specific demographic, game developers are only strengthening an all too bolstered sense of entitlement and privilege while alienating potential new fans.
Not only are the products catered toward white men, but the development side of gaming is as well. If you look at the majority of developers out there, you will find that most of their positions are occupied by heterosexual white men. This gives the impression to people from marginalized groups that they aren’t as welcome in game development as they should be.
With this in mind, let’s go back to the writing in Mass Effect: Andromeda which has received as much criticism as the animations in the game. One of the biggest issues with the writing is the inclusion and handling of a transgender character named Hainly Abrams, who is a non-playable character aboard the player’s ship, the Tempest.
Many LGBTQ players have been expressing concerns online since the character acts and reveals information about themselves in a way that isn’t true to the experience of trans individuals. Bioware recently revealed that they will be working with people from the trans community to fix the writing of the character and have apologized for how they were included. The problem here is that trans people, specifically transgender writers, should have been hired and consulted prior to the game’s release. It is obvious from the criticism and the writing that this character was handled by writers that do not understand the trans experience.
There is opportunity to have greater and more complex stories in games by allowing marginalized people to participate in game development and actually create characters representative of themselves and their communities. One of the best aspects of gaming is that it can be a space for empathy and understanding since it is a medium that grants participating players the opportunity to live in different shoes. If developers make it a point to nurture genuine diversity both in-game and behind the scenes, fans can hopefully start to see the fresh and complex experiences they have been clamoring for while simultaneously developing space for empathy.
Unfortunately this lack of representation behind the scenes continues to be the norm, so fans can expect to see generalized, stereotypical, and forced characters and stories in a good number of their games moving forward.
So What Now?
If the game industry wants to continue evolving then developers, publishers, and fans alike need to actively work together toward positive change. Instead of looking for scapegoats and hurling hateful comments at people who have seen enough suffering and trauma, the gaming community at large needs to address these outlined issues.
Publishers need to re-evaluate marketing strategies and demographics in order to understand players’ actual wants and manage expectation. Alongside developers, publishers need to better listen to player feedback and take example from companies such as CD Projekt Red and Blizzard (both have done a tremendous job of improving their games based on player feedback and criticism). Developers need to re-examine what makes gaming so great and give players unique experiences that contain the following: stories with substance, well-rounded and diverse characters, expansive yet manageable worlds, and refreshing game-play.
As for players and fans, there needs to be more voting with dollars. Maybe don’t pre-order that game as soon as it is announced, give time for the game developers to prove it is worth the purchase. Maybe even wait for the first round of reviews to come out. Constant streams of pre-orders keep publishers content in the fact that players will pre-purchase games regardless of quality. There also needs to be more fans educating each other on the importance of genuine diversity and what is actually plaguing games today. It is unacceptable at this day-in-age to see game fans using ignorant and inflammatory language against women and minorities when their gaming experiences start to change or aren’t as excellent as they could be. Fans and players need to push each other to seek out experiences that are counter to their own.
Gaming is so much more than just playing games. Gaming is about community. It is about giving players a new experience they may have not been able to experience otherwise. It is about journeys of growth and understanding. It is about challenging people, making them think, wonder, and question their actions before making a move. It is about players exploring fantastical worlds and learning something real about themselves in the process.
Gaming is a space for everyone to come together and learn that they really aren’t that different after all.