NAG, the South African gaming magazine, and organiser of the popular and excellent annual rAge gaming expo, unveiled a re-imagined version of the event’s “Roxy” mascot yesterday.
Caroline Vos, the Capetonian artist commissioned for the work states on her Behance.net page for the project that the brief was to “create Roxy with a classic retro space pin-up feel”.
The artwork certainly meets that brief, and Caroline’s talent is apparent in it. However, the brief itself and the resulting artwork is troubling, given the family-oriented nature of the rAge expo, and particularly the recent focus on misrepresentation of women in video games and other popular media.
The latter half of 2014 was a dark time for the games industry, as misogynistic attacks on indie game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn; and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian highlighted the lack of tolerance amongst a vocal minority of gamers for changes to their pastime.
While these events helped to raise the visibility of the way prominent women can be treated in the games industry, criticism over Ubisoft’s decision not to include female characters in Assassin’s Creed Unity; and the near pornographic cover of the Spider-Woman #1 comic (and similar stories) highlighted the lack of diversity and objectifying representation of women in these media.
It would be easy to dismiss the new image as a cheap, mildly sexist ad that plays to the tired stereotype of the adolescent male gamer, or to accept it as a harmless piece of Barbarella-like fun, were it not for the fact that it shows complete insensitivity to what has been one of the most divisive debates in videogaming for over a decade. Right now, an image like this shows either wilful ignorance of the efforts being made to address these issues, or a deliberate taking of the wrong side.
Video games have long been a male dominated medium; in production, marketing and consumption, and there is recognition in the industry that this needs to change at all levels.
For over a decade the Independent Game Developers Association’s Women In Games special interest group has been actively involved in improving female developers’ treatment and growing awareness of the roles women have to play in game development. A growing number of games have included deep, interesting female characters, playing either starring or meaningful supporting roles.
And as far back as 2006 “booth babes” were banned from the E3 expo (the ban has since been lifted, but other conferences such as PAX don’t allow them). There is still much work to be done, but progress is being made.
In the South African context, recent data from industry body Make Games SA reveals that only 12% of the local game development industry is female. Nicholas Hall, MGSA’s Chairperson states that “one of the biggest issues highlighted by the survey is the lack of diversity in the industry”.
This imbalance is harmful to the industry in terms of lost creativity, lost access to skills, and because as a cultural export it is important that as wide a range of our population is represented as possible. We are a society that recognises the need for representative diversity, so much so that it is ingrained in our constitution and laws, and this should carry through to our creative industries.
Games and the events that surround them, such as rAge, have the power to communicate to young people what roles they are expected to fill in society, and how the industry sees them. As long as girls are being told that they’re seen as little more than eye candy it’s going to be hard to convince them their skills are admired and respected. And as long as rAge sports a mascot better suited to that other expo run around the same time (the Sexpo), it is doing the 44% of gamers that are female and the game development industry a massive disservice.
What the new Roxy represents most of all is a missed opportunity to do something more positive, more inclusive and signal that the South African games industry is moving with the times instead of perpetuating gender stereotypes.
Matt Benic is a local game developer who has been in the industry for 14 years and released titles on various consoles and mobile platforms. Find him on Twitter here.