Video Games, the Media, and Perceived Sexism

The article I am referencing:

http://www.theverge.com/gaming/2014/9/29/6862757/dota-2-the-1000-hour-review

I’ve posted rants before about the way that chauvinism and outright misogyny are part and parcel of online games, and one would think that focusing on the community of players would give the popular media plenty enough to do without focusing on game design itself. No, I am not going to just brush it under the carpet, here; game design often focuses on making female characters fit a mold that could really, truly, only be defined as sexist.

Recently, though, another person has stepped onto the internet and offended the wider group. People are up in arms about it, though even with a slightly level head, it is easy to see that there has been both some level of dishonesty and some level of disingenuousness. The catalyst, in this case, was a review of Dota 2 that for the most part was incredibly fair and informative. The issue taken by gamers was one line, almost offhanded, and not dwelled on by the writer himself; the line in question basically calls the game sexist. Further, for those who have played it, a screenshot of the Queen of Pain character was included as proof of this.

Now, the reviewer himself was being somewhat unfair; I would say that Luna and Legion Commander, at the least, are some of the most fair depictions of females in modern games. Add to that the fact that you are able to use custom costumes in the game and you have to understand that much of the sexism, as I mentioned in my first paragraph, is in the hands of the community more than in the hands of the game. In fact, going over most of the other characters, one finds that not only do females make up some of the most powerful and popular characters in all of Dota 2 (Anyone who tells me that a late game Drow Ranger is not in their top 5 most terrifying heroes list has not played against a late game Drow Ranger).

As I just mentioned, Drow Ranger is very formidable, and Mirana is an incredibly popular and versatile character. Legion Commander is fully armored, strength class, and is capable of going 1v1 against almost any hero in the game with only basic foresight. Luna is one of the highest damage characters in all of Dota, up there with Medusa, also a nonsexualized character, and Luna wears full armor. There isn’t even the slightest hint of cleavage.

The Templar Assassin, another formidable carry character (Carry being the term applied to a set of heroes that is expected to ‘carry’ you to victory) is nearly fully clothed, though there is some cleavage shown. She is no simpering girl, though, no character that the male characters are expected to roll over. She has powerful abilities that make her dangerous at every point in the game, from the first exchange of blows to the eventual destruction of the ancient.

Phantom Assassin, the highest single target damage carry in the entire game, is also fully clothed and armored, wearing a formidable breast plate, and carrying foreboding weaponry. She has the ability to completely change the tide of a losing game by destroying the opposing carries in 1 or 2 hits, no matter their HP. I can say with honesty, I have been in a winning position late game, feeling nigh indestructible, to be humbled by two swipes of the Phantom Assassin’s blade.

I could keep going, with heroes such as Spectre (Another carry whose ability to confuse the enemy is unmatched), Naga Siren (Her ability to control the flow of battle makes her valuable in any role), Windranger, Enchantress, Death Prophet, all powerful in their specific area. There are support females (characters whose primary purpose is not to carry you to victory, but to control the flow of the game, allowing their carries to do what they were designed to do), but they are not some passive girls, waiting for men to save them. Crystal Maiden (mentioned specifically in the offending article) has the highest damage ultimate ability in the game, and has nearly unmatched ability to control the movement of her opponents, stunning them and preventing them from fleeing. There is Lina, a character (descriptively) categorized as Nuker; everything about her is designed to do damage. Vengeful Spirit, whose primary abilities save her team from harm or initiate combat favorably for your team.

So what is the point of this rant on the females of Dota 2? Well, first, I wanted to point out that you can find flaw in anything. I can pick one character in a game (Queen of Pain, as per the article that set this off) and say that this represents everything. That is being unfair, and I think the article was being, at best, casually unfair to the developers of Dota.

The gamers, though, and their reaction, are being unfair to the reviewer. They are up in arms, some of them saying that the whole point of mentioning the sexist themes of some characters was the writer attempting “click-bait”, getting people to come read his review when they otherwise wouldn’t. That is unfair, and I think they could put down their pitchforks and torches, and say, with due respect “I think that sentence in your review was unfair. Why did you mention it?”

The thing is, for that sentence to be click-bait, it would need a bit more prominence than it has. I won’t lie, I heard about the article in question before I read it, and when I sat down to read it, I was prepared to read a diatribe about the evils of all men, the sexism of Dota 2 on full show, stripped naked for all to see. That is not what I got; what I read instead was almost a love letter to Dota, explaining patiently all that was good about it, but mentioning that it has its flaws. The line that has gamers up in arms is just that; a line. The inclusion of a picture of the Queen of Pain was likely editorial, and I would be comfortable giving the benefit of a doubt; the writer may not have intended its inclusion at all. In that way, it could be said to be click-bait.

The point is this; we all need to step back and avoid knee-jerk reactions. Many people in the comments thread of the article in question had not read it, and in protest would never read it (they won’t get my ad-revenue! All 1.5 cents of it! That’ll show ’em!!). I think if they read it and stepped back a hair, they could probably approach it with a more level head.

But like anything in the world, this issue is not purely black and white. The reviewer needn’t have included the line about sexism, but the gamers needn’t have raised their pitchforks and torches.

I think if you are looking for misogyny in game design, Dota 2 is about the last place to start looking; the female characters are for the most part fully and completely covered, and represent some of the most powerful mechanics in the game. But if you want to find a mob that will get up in arms about anything, the MOBA community is where you will look. In fact, the backlash from this article has acted like a magnifying chamber; I would never have heard of it, nor written about it, had I not come across a violent mob, and asked to what purpose were their pitchforks?

I am ok if you attack the community. I mean, it is a battle you can’t win, the community is far too large to paint with one brush. If you call them sexist, one thousand SJWs will come to the fore. If you look at them from outside, the noisy, virulent minority will be your experience.

But when a developer makes fully clothed women the most powerful characters in their game, maybe avoid calling the game sexist? There are better targets for that kind of thing. That’s all I’m really trying to say here.

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