Friday, March 25, 2011

Story vs. Demographics -- What's Fair?


Dragon Age II's Merrill, as drawn by squanderling

Making commercial art, or really, any art that's designed for an audience, is always a matter of balancing self-expression with enjoyability. Sure, if your 500,000 word stream-of-consciousness epic about sea slugs is just dying to be written, put that baby on paper!

But on some level, writers want to produce something that people will connect with, and sometimes yes, something that will make us a little bit of cash as well. At what point, then, does an artist "owe" something to her target audience?


I started thinking about this as I scrolled through my daily (okay, more often than that) check of Kotaku, and came upon the following article, covering the complaint by one fan about the lack of romance options for straight male players and the writer response from Bioware, the developer.

Let me start by saying that it annoys me when people with a strong love of heternormality include other people in their argument, as if we all agree with them. The original poster, Bastal, complains that:

BioWare neglected The Straight Male Gamer

And this is offensive on its face. I am a Straight Male Gamer (such an important concept, apparently, that it needs to be capitalized!), but I did not feel neglected. I did not feel neglected when I played, as I generally do in Bioware games, as a bisexual female character, and I did not feel neglected when I replayed, as again is customary, as a bisexual (and kind of an asshole) male character. Go ahead and complain that you feel neglected, but please don't lump me in to your anti-gay, anti-woman tantrum.

Even worse is the assertion that the two romance options for a heterosexual male character, Merrill and Isabela, are somehow not normal, not sufficient:

Unfortunately, those choices are what one would call "exotic" choices.

Exotic? I doubt the poster could have chosen a more offensive word if he tried. For the uninitiated, Merrill, as seen at the top of this post, is a quirky Elven woman, so I suppose I can understand that. Maybe some people just really can't get past the pointy ears. But the other option is Isabela. Who is Isabela? A sharp-witted pirate, one who is, shall we say, experienced in the ways of love. So did Bastal label Isabela "exotic," and thus undesirable, because of her sexuality? It's a possibility, and that's incredibly misogynistic. But the more likely scenario is because she looks like this:

For the vision-impaired: she's not white.
So yeah, there's also a creepy racial undertone to this whole argument. Bastal is not even simply complaining that there aren't enough wimmin for his taste; he's complaining that there aren't enough chaste white wimmin for his taste, and Bastal don't approve of no miscegenation. The argument is gross and offensive from the beginning, but Bastal brings up a fair topic for discussion. Bioware has made games where, say, a homosexual male character has no romance options, and this is generally acceptable, because it's not necessary to shoehorn every sexual option into every game. But imagine there were no options for a heterosexual male character. Is this somehow less acceptable because the Straight Male Player is the target audience?


Privilege, or Demographics?

Those who fail to recognize their own privilege tend to get understandably angry about being accused of bigotry. I don't hate "the others," they insist. It's the others who are demanding unfair benefits that outweigh their representation -- it's all about the demographics. I represent x% of the population, so I should get exactly x% of the consideration.

Hopefully, most of you are shaking your head about how lame that reasoning is. For those of you that aren't, it may be because you're thinking of this in the setting of a video game, and not a book or a movie. The main character in Dragon Age 2 is supposed to be a representation of the player, right?. But that's not the case. Bioware long ago dispensed with the idea that the player character is a simple avatar. Mass Effect's Commander Shepard and DA2's Hawke are voiced characters with opinions, fully formed backgrounds and agency. Yes, your choices influence their personality (more on this next week), but the age of the silent, blank canvas protagonist is over.

The other problem with this reasoning, of course, is that the writers never once removed choice from the player. Even in earlier Bioware games, your player can be a homosexual, or asexual, or whatever -- there just may not be a character in your party with whom you can consummate your love. What Bastal is demanding is that Bioware cave to his expectations and actually design the OTHER characters in the game based on demographics.

When you look at this demand from the perspective of any other type of art, it clearly falls apart. The focus should be on the story, and on the characters. They should grow from conception to creation. Their sexuality should be something that is a part of them, the same way as hair color; it shouldn't be thrown in because 80% of our players are blond, and therefore 80% of characters need to be towheaded as well.

Kaidan Alenko is bland, but at least he's not randomly gay
Bioware has actually gotten better at this over the years. The romance options in their early games were very formulaic, but even then, they didn't force sexuality on a character when it clearly didn't fit. Dragon Age 2 is some of their best work. It's a lesson in what happens when the romances are not designed by committee, but by natural character growth. The sexuality and romance just fits. Stoking love in this game never felt like I was just checking a box in my character's profile, and that's an achievement of which the developers should be proud.

But should they be worried? Target audience is always a part of marketing. For good or bad, if I write a literary novel from the point of view of a gay character, it's likely to be labeled as 'LGBT Fiction' and ignored by the mainstream public. There's nothing anyone can do about that. A reader who doesn't want to read about, or play, a homosexual character doesn't have to. If Bioware's sales drop off sharply because of this (I seriously doubt it), they'll have no one but themselves to blame for not addressing the correct market.

Where Bastal crosses the line, however, is in the insinuation that an artist OWES her target audience something. How entitled of him! If a fan of Fantasy novels picks up a book marketed as Fantasy, and it has no magic, he has every right to say "I don't like this book, and I'm not going to read it because it doesn't have magic." He does NOT have a right to say "How DARE you for not putting magic in here! Your target audience enjoys reading about magic! You OWE us!"

This, I believe, is the answer. Bastal has every right in the world to say "Unless you include a white heterosexual woman for me to romance, I won't buy your game." But Bioware has the right to say "This is the story we're telling. Deal with it."

Writers do not owe an audience anything other than the best story they can produce. They do not owe you any elements you think to be required. They do not owe you a sense of heteronomality because most of the population is heterosexual. They do not owe you a release date. To paraphrase Neil Gaiman: Bioware is not your bitch.




I don't normally comment on video games here. While video games are one of my life's passions, nearly half the internet is devoted to them (the other half, of course, is porn). But when gaming and writing merge (as they do in the best games, in my opinion), I think it's a valid topic for discussion here. The newly released Dragon Age 2 exemplifies great video game writing in a couple of ways, so I'm going to talk about that in a couple of different posts. More to come.

2 comments:

Margo Lerwill said...

Yay! I'm playing this game now. I was also perplexed with the idea that straight male gamers were somehow ignored by this game - unless we're playing into the stereotype that the only suitable romantic interest for Mr. Straight Male Gamer is a caucasian blonde with large breasts. Exotic? Merrill is exotic??? I thought Isabella came off more sultry than exotic, but that's what you get for letting a hetero female have an opinion.

Jim Reader said...

My fighter ended up with Merrill, my rogue is quite likely (please, dear GOD) to end up with Isabella... when I play a mage I think I'll go after Aveline and if she didn't whine so much, my sister is damn cute... Mom's not bad either... Knight Commander Meredith in dominatrix gear... NOW we're talking...
Excuse me, my erotica-writer side got a little wild and crazy there.
Anyway, the idea that the artist 'owes' the reader anything is laughable (and I'm starting on that 500,000 stream-of-consciousness epic about sea slugs right now, Matt, can't wait to see your notes on it) - unless the reader is paying for it specifically. You want to act as my patron, support me in the manner I'd Love to become accustomed to, I'll write any damn thing you want. You pay me a mutually acceptable amount to write you into a scene or a story or a book, not a problem.
Otherwise I, as the writer, don't owe you anything except what I feel I owe you.