Tokenist Equality, or just another Generational Shift?

Or; Why Marvel had to do it, and why the games industry will be dragged into it kicking and screaming…

So, Thor is now a woman, and Captain America is African-American.

It’s not the only change happening within the Marvel Universe, but as examples of moving quite archaic ideals into a modern, 21st Century readership which now sees an almost equal divide between a male and female fanbase. More to the point, many of these changes – however sudden they appear on the surface, are the result of years of story engineering and building up towards these new promotions, be it Mjolnir’s current fancy to bestow itself on a woman (because, hell, why not? Who says Thor HAS to be a man anyway?) or moving on with Captain America. For those of us not ingratiated or steeped in the Marvel world, the changes will seem stark, sudden and tokenist. For those more attached – or more experienced – in the comic book mythos, these changes have been a long time coming and were perhaps becoming increasingly obvious directions.

In a sense, there’s a certain brilliance to Marvel’s decisions. Far from just dumping out token equality support, the backstories and directions of the characters will be of paramount interest and importance; not just who they were (the new Captain America was The Falcon, if I remember correctly, so it really is a promotion! Who said there was no upward mobility in the superhero world?) but where they are headed, and why they are doing it; the challenges faced by both women and those of ethnic descent – wherever that may be – is an increasingly awkward question. We’re being confronted not just with the issue of sexism in the world, but racism – often filmed, documented and laid bare for all to see. Rather than sit in the background, the idea is fast striving to put key players first and foremost in the front; to challenge stereotypes, issues and in some cases help to educate and effectively break down whatever barriers are left, to prove that race nor gender is a barrier to anything; the only barriers are those people create, and those barriers can be destroyed. We’re seeing this more and more in our world, and comic books are simply another part of the media that is changing to adapt to a diversifying market.

Yes, it’s true video games require far more in terms of manpower – and I use that term quite deliberately – from inception to release. The workforce in the games industry is still, in the majoritive sense, a male-dominated landscape. And not just male dominated, but in the last fifteen years or so, predominantly also white, and American or European. Such a landscape has led to – arguably – a decrease in interesting ideas and/or genres in the meantime; a casual look back to Gen6, for example (that’d be the PS2, Gamecube, Dreamcast – yes, it counts – and XBox… err… first) shows us how incredibly varied our gaming content used to be – spanning all styles, genres and a diverse and imaginative sense of characterisation. As most of that success in Gen 7 came from Western gamers, the gaming landscape shrank in terms of its creative scope, and the end result was others trying to follow the crowd than dare to stand out and be counted, to be imaginative.

Gen7 was sadly where even our female icons began to suffer; Samus was diminished greatly in Metroid: Other M, a game which depressingly revelled in subjecting our intrepid bounty hunter to a diminished stance because “she’s a lady”. Lara Croft went from playful, witty, sexy British aristocrat to a confused, weepy and angsty teenage girl in the most recent Tomb Raider. Even in Resident Evil 6, Ada Wong saw not only her playful side from previous games reined in, but a shocking change in skin tone! As games once seen as “male-orientated” took off, it became somewhat unfashionable to be different; not to mention financially ruinous, as budgets exploded in size, and development times increased exponentially, it seemed more and more like a smart move to move into this profitable, but lacking, niche which seemed to be a veritable bottomless pit of money.

But no pit, it seems, is without a bottom, and the seam that seemed to explode last generation in popularity is now drying up.

This has left the industry in a complicated position; whilst the money and popularity was there, it was incredibly hard to argue for them to go back to the ideals of a diversifying market. As the money poured in, it felt like wasted breath to fight against what was a tsunami of money, an uncontrollable tidal wave that we couldn’t hope to stand against. Young men were the main target, and the sales and money made by appealing to this demographic often outweighed more inclusivity and more diverse representation. We need look no further than the likes of Gears of War and Call of Duty to give us strong examples of this, of games where the target audience was clearly niche in terms of representation, but financially lucrative nonetheless.

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We might see much less of this in the coming years…

But now, Gen8 is here. And sales have been increasingly low; once bankable names are becoming harder to sell, once important series are being sidelined. More than that, our culture has shifted dramatically in recent years and now demands more varied representation across the board, with the likes of Nintendo being criticised for not including same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life.

The is, however, a precedent for this; each console generation has brought with it a notable shift in tone. The PlayStation era – or Gen5 – saw an increasingly adult audience and the games of the time, such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Tomb Raider and the increasing popularity of games like Doom and Mortal Kombat, reflected this shift in ownership towards an adult populous. The average games-buying age of the time was 21, and as more stayed home with their mates than went out, the games reflected that important dynamic shift in social moods. Gen6, on the other hand, reflected another shift – as the 90’s  faded away, the new Millennium was filled with a creative wonderment, technical excitement and a market that was growing exponentially, across the world, as wealth was created and optimism ran high. Gen7 brought with it baggage; social mobility was slowed down to a crawl and the optimism that had arrived at the turn of the decade fast dissipated. Financial markets crashed and the ugly business of war was on the cards. In a very blunt manner, it was an era of male domination; war, as we’ve come to debate, is a hard issue to tackle. Moreso women in war. And it was the boys who were see as the bigger market for these core games, rightly or wrongly.

Generation 8, meanwhile, is still formulating a direction for itself. Most cynics will believe this is capitulation to an increasing awareness of social injustice, and an attempt to side with these dynamic shifts in thinking in order to create ‘normality’ out of such things. And… is that really any different to how the industry has worked to this point? Most creative media is dictated by shifts in social politics and societal norms; there was no complaints as we strove for a more adult audience in the early days of three-dimensional gaming, or the varied commentary that came with the boom of the PlayStation 2, where games could indeed cover so many variant bases (for better and worse – the amount of crap on the PS2 was incredible! Let’s not forget that…). Our cultural direction now aims towards an increasing demand for inclusive representation, to show how we are and the norms that we now take for granted. It is the absence of equality that now annoys people, a damning silence that can be filled with voices all screaming to be heard.

The fuss over things like FarCry 4 and Assassin’s Creed: Unity are not idly ignored now; nor were the voices silenced by Nintendo offering a more inclusive future for its games. Social media has in the last few years exploded, and it is much easier to complain and be seen to be complaining. The shift has focused somewhat back onto pleasing us as consumers, rather than predicting our tastes, and that I think is an important and positive shift in the right direction. It certainly isn’t easy as to do so might be construed by some as going backwards, but what good does it do anyone to push ahead with such limited audiences who are becoming increasingly alienated and turned off from their hobby? Sometimes, it’s good to look back at a time when the industry was getting it right, than press ahead with a direction which is patently and obviously wrong but you know, can’t apply the brakes for whatever reason.

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And maybe we’ll see characters like Jen come back too!

With more vocal proponents pointing out the faults, flaws and issues being neglected by the industry, it’s more important now than ever before that it changes to meet those new challenges. And it might be in some cases that yes, such changes simply represent token support of new ideology. But it’s a start, and with independent developers now exacting an irreversible influence on the market and tackling many of these issues, it’s something that cannot be escaped. Generation 8, for all the baggage we have carried into it from the last generation, will formulate its own identity to meet the changing face of the world, and the increasingly diverse audience that it now has to appease. It won’t always be sunshine and rainbows, but then, we don’t expect sunshine and rainbows from our games these days; adversity is the name of the game, and overcoming those barriers is how we derive enjoyment and pleasure from the games we consume. We’ll simply see a broader display within those confines.

Marvel comics, to their credit, have been working towards this for some time. The games industry meanwhile seems to have been surprised by this shift, and will take some time before it comes to terms with what new societal norms dictate in terms of content. As depressing as that is, games can take years to come to the fore so what we’re seeing now was probably seen as perfectly okay three of four years ago when they began. The industry will adapt; it has to, companies will have little choice or they will find themselves subjected to poor press, as well as skittish investors running at the first sign of a baying mob. And as they adapt, and as more companies realise the wealth of genres and topics they abandoned in their quest to mine that once-rich seam of money dry over the last six years or so, the industry will invariably sort itself out. As it always does and always has to, in order to stay relevant and on point in an increasingly competitive market.

We simply expect better; and no, it’s not going to be a perfect shift – expecting that is facetious in the extreme. But we have changed, and the games industry will have to change with us or be seen as increasingly irrelevant. It’s how companies adapt to the consistent ebb and flow of our cultural and societal changes that denote their strengths – or weaknesses – overall. Companies that can’t adapt will be seen as dinosaurs, relics of a bygone era, and largely discarded and relegated to the outskirts until such a time they are prepared to make those changes. Left too long, they will simply die out and leave us with fossils, reminders of the past. That’s the natural course of things, and fighting against the tide is a fruitless exercise.

What will be the ultimate identity of this generation? It’s hard to tell right now. But give it time. Marvel can turn on a sixpence; it’s somewhat easier and faster for them to instigate this change now. Video games may require a year or two more before they can truly begin to take advantage of this new drive and any content that is being seeded now.

Just in time, ironically, for hardware prices to drop and become mass market. Me, cynical? No no, I think you’re mistaken… well okay. Maybe a little bit cynical…

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