Flameseeker Chronicles: Guild Wars 2's gender divide

Anatoli Ingram
A. Ingram|09.30.14

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Flameseeker Chronicles: Guild Wars 2's gender divide
I'm about to disappoint anyone who thought I might be okay with GamerGate.
When I sit down to write an installment of this column that is strongly critical of Guild Wars 2 -- a game I love, in case that was ever in doubt -- I try to follow a simple format in order to keep my criticism from turning into a venting session. That format is to establish that there is a problem, explain why it's a problem requiring a solution, and finally to offer any ideas or suggestions I think might be useful to that end. I do this because I want my articles to be helpful on some level to both ArenaNet and other fans, and while blowing off steam is excellent for the bilious humors, it's not so great for creating actual change.

Sometimes, though, the only suggestion I can offer is to please stop doing something because the fact that it's a problem is reason enough for it to require that solution. This is especially important when the issue isn't gameplay or monetization but rather something that personally affects me and the people I play with.

As a warning, several of the source links in this article lead to discussions of graphic and disturbing language and events.

In an amusing twist of irony, he was wearing a kilt and I was wearing pants.
If women are respected equals in Tyria, why is misogyny normal?

Superficially, GW2 seems pretty solid on the feminism front. The people who hate women in Tyria are unarguably villainous, and we get to beat them up. It's straightforward in its condemnation of misogyny: Evil, cartoonish tyrants bent on channeling dark magical powers to subjugate and destroy can be dealt with by kicking their faces in and sending them crying back to the rock they crawled out from under. Take that, insidious, pervasive social problem!

This isn't to say that handling serious issues such as sexism and racism should be off-bounds in fiction, but without careful handling, they can be more of an intrusion on the entertainment of people who are harmed by those issues than an enlightening exploration of the topic. Simply having villains parrot real life bigotry doesn't say anything new about that bigotry or even act as an effective challenge to it, and in GW2's case it even gives misogyny immense power that it really shouldn't have in the setting. Instead of thousands of years of institutionalized disdain for femininity, sexism as a social disease sprung fully-formed in all of its ugly glory into both Norn and Charr cultures based on the actions of two individual women. In both cases a single rebellious, heroic act caused whole cultures to undergo a split, with the misogynist factions promptly adopting all of our sickest real-world stereotypes and expectations of women. In reality, those expectations are based on strict gender roles and a long history of dismissing and devaluing women's contributions to society. In GW2, they bubble up and poison the setting as though it just happens to be what naturally follows when a woman thwarts your plans. It makes Palawa Joko look like the soul of restraint for inflicting his grudge on Turai Ossa's bloodline -- but then again, both he and Ossa were men.

If misogyny weren't already a festering wound in Tyria, holding around half of the population in contempt based on one moment in history is nonsensical. The intent backfires, making misogyny larger than life and giving it magical powers: The Sons of Svanir pose a legitimate threat to ostensibly egalitarian Norn society because disgruntled men are joining them in droves, and they even claim to have an Elder Dragon backing them up. Transposing real life sexism into GW2 as a tool to make villainous characters villainous makes the setting more uncomfortable and less escapist, and because the source of the threat is Elder Dragon corruption instead of the complex social standards that encourage and support real misogyny, it cheapens the message. There exist actual humans who hold exactly the same ideas about women as the Sons of Svanir do, and they have ended and ruined the lives of real people. Reproducing that in a game just so we can cut them down and watch them endlessly respawn is pretty hollow as power fantasies go.

Players who never met the cool lady the Sons of Svanir pin their hatred of women on in the original Guild Wars can most easily find Jora's story in Wayfarer Foothills, where it's arguably overshadowed by the Sons' petty attempts to deface her shrine. The two female characters who tend to the shrine think highly of Jora and regale the player with her legend, while the male character calls his companion's identification with her an "obsession" and says he's there because he thinks Jora's statue is hot. It would have been pretty radical to have that character consider Jora a personal hero as well, but instead we get an insight into his pants in a way that adds nothing of value to Jora's lore. Why? Maybe it seemed natural for a man to casually focus on a woman's appearance over her accomplishments, and nobody stopped to examine why that would also be true in a culture in which a person's legendary deeds are considered the absolute measure of his or her worth.

These ideas are habitual, and it's nearly impossible to break a habit without hard work. ArenaNet has put in a great deal of work in support of representation, from creating characters like Marjory and Kasmeer and Taimi to establishing the Sylvari as a people for whom gender is little more than an aesthetic distinction. There are characters and ideas in GW2 that show the deliberate breaking of those habits and have been held up as examples of equality in Tyria: In Queensdale you can meet a little boy who admires Zojja of Destiny's Edge, and one area in Wayfarer Foothills features a Norn father who stays home to mind his children while their mother goes hunting. These deliberate subversions ring true to the setting, instead of feeling as though they were airlifted in from the bowels of the internet.

When I discussed gender and sexism in GW2 with fellow fans recently, one of them said something that stuck with me: "Fictional worlds that preach complete equality as per the lore are always going to be teeming with microaggressions when writers assume these are 'default' aspects of society rather than deeply ingrained harmful behaviors to be unlearned." The term "microaggression" was originally coined in reference to racism: It refers to the layer of behavior we find ourselves at when open, bigoted violence is no longer socially acceptable and "harmless" jokes, thoughtless comments, biased assumptions, and stereotypes still remain. Because we're conditioned to think of these behaviors as normal and invisible, anyone can blunder into them, even people with good intentions. Even members of the marginalized communities in question can perpetuate harmful ideas simply because they internalize them as normal. When they do identify them, it can be hard to speak up if they don't feel safe rocking the boat.

Diverse hiring practices are important in the gaming industry for this very reason, but it's also why marginalized people can't be expected to carry the weight of recognizing and fixing problems by themselves. Listening to fans when they say something makes them uncomfortable is very important because while ArenaNet can't possibly hire enough people to cover the entire spectrum of lived experiences, invaluable insights can be gleaned from the thousands upon thousands of diverse players who love GW2.

This is also why the debate over GW2's armor disparity keeps coming up, loudly and frequently and with increasing anger behind it.

If you roll a Scholar class, this is an immediate part of the new player experience.
It's not just about sexy armor

GW2's character design is surprisingly strict about remaining divided along gender lines. Even when female armor sets don't show more skin than the male versions, effort is expended to make them look different. Elements are changed or removed to make them exclusive to one gender or the other: Charr ladies even had occasion to lament when a cool dragon tail ornament was added only to the Charr male version of the Ancestral outfit. Sometimes one gender's version is much flashier than the other; sometimes the two sets don't look similar at all. When gender-exclusive details happen, they tend to cleave to tradition: Male characters get rougher, bulkier, and more practical designs, while female characters get pretty and decorative details. And yes, women overwhelmingly get the sexier versions, too. Tallying up the number of outfits that don't mysteriously lose fabric on a female character and deciding that there are "enough" doesn't mean the issue of disparity doesn't exist; it just means that it could be worse.

Might things be done this way to conserve resources? It's hard to imagine how, since more sets and all of their exclusive detailing need to be designed and modeled to preserve the gender disparity. It might be a matter of technical limitations, but if so, then why can Charr and Asura females -- who are flagged for the male versions of most sets -- be selectively flagged for the female-gendered looks when ArenaNet thinks it's appropriate? It's hard to cook up an explanation for the differences that doesn't involve ANet's simply wanting to maintain a noticeable, distinct aesthetic difference between masculine and feminine humanoid characters. Armor with a relatively equal appearance across all genders and all races is rare, and even more rarely falls on the feminine spectrum; Charr and Asura, who are described as being practical and egalitarian enough to not bother with different clothing for different genders, both get masculine clothing as the "gender neutral" default. Coincidentally, these are the races in which nobody possesses visible breasts to be shown off in low-cut dresses, and even the supposedly gender-non-conforming Sylvari have some of their cultural armor neatly divided into the usual boxes.

It's great that ArenaNet has allowed for more gender-neutral hairstyles and faces in total makeover kits, but armor disparity has only increased as armor sets and outfits are added to the gem store. It's tempting to trot out the ancient, tired "sex sells" line and shrug helplessly, but the issue goes beyond breastplate and battle lingerie. Since a sale of an armor skin or outfit is a sale regardless of what sort of character a player plans to put it on, creating sets that have the same detailing or level of sex appeal across all genders shouldn't be a problem. Creating multiple armor sets with different details and then not restricting them by gender shouldn't be a problem either, since the work is already being done -- and hey, it would even mean more products for the store! This makes me wonder whether it's as much about protecting masculine characters (and male players) from femininity as it is about dressing feminine characters up in attractive, sexy gowns. Is there a reason each and every one of the default armor icons portrays the male version of the set, even when the armor itself is based on the clothing of an iconic female character?

If that sounds like a ridiculous thing to be suspicious about, consider this: Marketing studies have found that men are less likely to buy products that they believe are earmarked as being "for women," even if the distinction is absurd. Yogurt companies are coming out with what amounts to brogurt because yogurt has been traditionally marketed to women. Soda companies run advertisements to reassure men that their diet soda is for men only because diet soda is traditionally marketed to women and so men buy less of it. Cartoons popular with little girls are canceled because they're not being watched by the "right" gender, while commercials reinforce the idea that even touching a feminine-coded product or item should be repulsive to men. Objects don't have a gender until they're assigned one, and so companies take advantage of anxiety over gender performance to create two versions of a product and sell the reassurance that you're buying the appropriate one.

Am I on guard for that sort of cynical business practice in my favorite games? You bet your blue, gender-neutral boots.

I'm still waiting for those real-life total makeover kits I asked Santa for, like, years ago.
Let's face it, I'm tired: Extended metaphor edition

Video game fans who critique these things are often accused of looking for things to be offended about, but we don't have to look very far when it's on our doorstep. These are not fun things to be upset about or to talk about, particularly when you just want to enjoy a game.

Maybe all of this doesn't affect you, and you've been sitting through this article getting increasingly annoyed with me for blowing a lot of little stuff out of proportion. When that little stuff does affect you, though, it piles up until it's not so little anymore. It's sort of like having a tiny rock in your shoe and telling the people you're walking with that you need to stop and take it out. It would be great if those people stopped for you and said, "Hey, let's get that rock out of your shoe!" but you're just as likely to hear that the rock isn't a big deal and they'd just like you to shut up so they can enjoy the scenery. Or that the rock is there because you're hiking up a mountain and you should expect to have to walk with a rock in your shoe -- after all, that's just the way things are. You're holding everyone else up because of your stupid rock. Are you sure there's a rock in your shoe? Really sure? Are you so sensitive that you can't stand walking on a little pebble? Jeez.

Eventually the dismissive, apathetic, or outrageously hostile reactions to speaking out about the rock become just as infuriating as the rock itself. If it's not a big deal, why do people flip their lids in defense of the status quo?

I'm transgender. My rock maybe isn't as large or painful as other people's, especially online where my identity as a trans man is invisible by default and I can easily fade into the Greater Gaming Boys' Club if I never say a word about it. It's definitely there, though, and like many other people from marginalized groups, I tend to seek out games and other media that make me feel less marginalized and more normal and welcome. GW2 attracts a large number of players from those groups for that exact reason, so it's natural that when we pick up a rock from it, we speak out: ArenaNet is one of the development studios most likely to listen and show sincere empathy. On the other hand, when those problems occur (or worse, go unaddressed), it hurts a little more. I could say that it's doing better as a company than most other game studios, and that would be true, but it would also be damning it with faint praise. A rock digging into your heel is better than a nail.

When the clothes my characters can wear are determined by whether or not they have breasts, that hurts. When a plot point in the living world story involves my character deducing the gender of a Sylvari from his name alone, that's irritating. When my greatsword-wielding, dragon-fighting lady character has to listen to a male NPC belittle women in order to complete a skillpoint, that aches.

Some people's fantasy is to kill dragons. Mine is for people to be able to play games without getting rocks in our shoes.

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's biweekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every other Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.
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