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Inclusion: What Jennifer Hepler’s Story is All About

If we got angry about this kind of thing we'd be angry all the time

Gather around, boys and girls, and let me tell you a familiar story. It’s about a person who works in the game industry, who said some things about games five years ago. Then a week ago, some gamers took screenshots of those things and photoshopped them next to a picture of that person, a nickname that drew negative attention to the person’s physical appearance, some completely unrelated quotations (made to appear attributed to the person) and added a list of descriptive words: “CANCER INFECTION BLIGHT VERMIN DISEASE SEWAGE PLAGUE WASTE.” Then they put it up on Reddit, in post calling the person “the cancer that is killing Bioware.” Upvotes and downvotes were voted, gamer rage was raged, and eventually moderators on r/gaming deleted the post entirely because that person from the game industry had started getting harassing calls on her home phone.

Shortly afterward this Jennifer Hepler launched a twitter account tied with her professional identity and was immediately accosted by requests that she commit suicide; imprecations that verbally reduced her to her genitalia and implied low intelligence and lack of subjectively appealing physical qualities; and accusations of forcing gay characters “down gamer’s [sic] throats,” moreover, accusations that she had a “fetish” for such characters and relationships.

Oh, did I not mention that this person who works in the gaming industry is female? That’s because I don’t want this post to be about gamers hating women. Do I think the fact that Hepler is female made some of the vitriol leveled at her more vitriolic than it would have been otherwise? …Possibly. Do I think that there were misogynist aspects to the specific words that were chosen to be used against her? Absolutely. But I think what this is actually about is some gamers violently reacting to a perceived scapegoat that they can blame for a trend in games towards a greater measure of inclusivity, a topic that is related in a number of ways to the acceptance of women into gaming, both as fans and creators.

First, lets take a look at what Hepler actually said, in 2006, in an interview about her job in general and also her work on the upcoming title Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware’s new tactical RPG in the fantasy genre and the first video game that Hepler had ever worked on (she’d done work in television and tabletop games before). Here’s the only quote from the original enraging image posted that can actually be found, sourced, and credited to Hepler. I’m going to display it in its original context, with the clarifying positions Hepler made that were excised from the original image. The paragraphs that were in the image will be in italics.

What is your least favorite thing about working in the industry?

Playing the games. This is probably a terrible thing to admit, but it has definitely been the single most difficult thing for me. I came into the job out of a love of writing, not a love of playing games. While I enjoy the interactive aspects of gaming, if a game doesn’t have a good story, it’s very hard for me to get interested in playing it. Similarly, I’m really terrible at so many things which most games use incessantly — I have awful hand-eye coordination, I don’t like tactics, I don’t like fighting, I don’t like keeping track of inventory, and I can’t read a game map to save my life. This makes it very difficult for me to play to the myriad games I really should be keeping up on as our competition.

And with a baby on the way in a few months, my minimal free time (which makes it impossible for me to finish a big RPG in less than six months already), will disappear entirely. If there was a fast-forward feature on games which would let me easily review the writing and stories and skip the features that I find more frustrating than fun, I’d find it much easier to keep abreast of what’s happening in the field.

If you could tell developers of games to make sure to put one thing in games to appeal to a broader audience which includes women, what would that one thing be?

A fast-forward button. Games almost always include a way to “button through” dialogue without paying attention, because they understand that some players don’t enjoy listening to dialogue and they don’t want to stop their fun. Yet they persist in practically coming into your living room and forcing you to play through the combats even if you’re a player who only enjoys the dialogue. In a game with sufficient story to be interesting without the fighting, there is no reason on earth that you can’t have a little button at the corner of the screen that you can click to skip to the end of the fighting.

Companies have a lot of objections, such as how to calculate loot and experience points for a player who doesn’t actually play the combats, but these could be easily addressed by simply figuring out an average or minimum amount of experience for every fight and awarding that.

The biggest objection is usually that skipping the fight scenes would make the game so much shorter, but to me, that’s the biggest perk. If you’re a woman, especially a mother, with dinner to prepare, kids’ homework to help with, and a lot of other demands on your time, you don’t need a game to be 100 hours long to hold your interest — especially if those 100 hours are primarily doing things you don’t enjoy. A fast forward button would give all players — not just women — the same options that we have with books or DVDs — to skim past the parts we don’t like and savor the ones we do. Over and over, women complain that they don’t like violence, or they don’t enjoy difficult and vertigo-inducing gameplay, yet this simple feature hasn’t been tried on any game I know of.

Granted, many games would have very little left if you removed the combat, but for a game like Deus Ex or Bioware’s RPGs, you could take out every shred of combat and still have an entertainment experience that rivals anything you’d see in the theater or on TV.

Wow, you say, that’s pretty nuts. A person who works in the game industry who doesn’t like playing games? I mean, what is there in a game besides combat? Well, in the case of titles like Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect, there’s dialogue and character interaction. A ton of it. They’re considered to be a part of the RPG genre, which means you’re playing a role… and you’re given opportunities to play that role in dense social interactions, as well as in real-time or strategy combat situations. Hepler actually talks about this elsewhere in the interview: she complains that one of the frequent responses to her work on games is skepticism, mostly from those unfamiliar with modern games, that games even need writers in the first place.

So, Hepler is one person, on a team of writers, which is partnered up with teams of developers, visual designers, and programmers and more in order to make a game. She herself downplays the effects that her thoughts have on the game she’s working on in the same interview. Her viewpoint (that of the non-hardcore gamer) is valued but not always shared by the diverse group working on the game: “I’ve been lucky that the design department here seems to appreciate that input…whether or not they end up acting on it.”

Lets take another look at something Hepler said in the interview:

I think that the biggest detriment to more varieties of games being made which appeal to women and casual gamers, is simply the fact that people who don’t love games don’t become game designers. A game company tends to be filled with people whose best memories come from the games they played, who spend all their time swapping war stories with other gamers, and it’s not too surprising that they end up wanting to make games that recapture those experiences. A lot of ground has been broken in other media when someone who is dissatisfied with his existing choices decides to try something new (Samuel Beckett comes to mind, as the self-professed playwright who hated drama).

I think as games become more mainstream, more people of more varied tastes will join the field, and that will include women. I think right now, though, the biggest hurdle from the point of view of the companies is how to reach women once you have a product they would like. Most women, certainly all women who aren’t active gamers, can’t be targeted by the typical ads in game magazines or on gaming websites. It’s much, much harder to tell someone who doesn’t yet know that they want your product to go out and buy it, than to convince someone who is already looking for his next gaming fix that yours will be the best.

Again, I really believe Bioware’s Jade Empire would be a fantastic first RPG experience for most women, but I doubt many even saw it who weren’t already fans. And because of this, Bioware is unlikely to produce any games that streamlined again, since their more hardcore audience didn’t like the lack of inventory, easy combat and other features which made it so newcomer-friendly. I really believe that there is a large group of women who enjoy other genre products (from fantasy romance novels, to anime, to the Lord of the Rings movies), who would enjoy an interactive RPG story with some of the more logistical challenges removed, but I honestly don’t know how to let them know it’s out there.

These last two paragraphs? They’re what a lot of people have been saying to the comic book industry when it shows reluctance to move out of its familiar demographic. Lets do some word swapping:

The biggest hurdle from the point of view of the companies is how to reach women once you have a product they would like. Most women, certainly all women who aren’t active comics readers, can’t be targeted by the typical ads in comics or on comics websites. It’s much, much harder to tell someone who doesn’t yet know that they want your product to go out and buy it, than to convince someone who is already looking for his next comic fix that yours will be the best.

But interesting commentary on artistic mediums that mainstream society has decided are not gender neutral aside, lets get back to the rage.

So what is this about? It’s about some gamers who are intimidated by the idea of the story told by a game being more accesible to every player, removing some of the prestige that comes with playing a game to completion. A prestige that is manufactured by gaming culture in the same way that sports culture awards prestige for, say, supporting a winning team. Which is not to denigrate such kinds of artificial prestige, but rather to say that they are made of what the culture makes them of, nothing more. The option to play in a less technically difficult way does not actually denigrate the efforts of others to play in a more technically difficult way.

And those who are intimidated by the idea that games are becoming more inclusive in their technical requirements of the player are responding to a trend. A trend that makes gaming more inclusive, which has the beneficial effect of mainstreaming gaming and makes steps towards removing its stigmatized nature. As gamer luminary Jerry Holkins said only this morning:

Most enthusiast gamers “get” Angry Birds almost immediately, and move on.  For those outside our order – that is to say, the vast majority of bipedal sentients – the ubiquitous Angry Birds is one of the first opportunities to understand what their children are always on about re: vijamagames.  It’s ridiculously easy to get and subsequently play, made so by the fact that even my grandparents carry around portable touchscreen computers with perpetual access to the dataverse.  This is something even a life ass-deep in science fiction did not prepare me for.

These games also introduce these neophytes to the concept of downloadable content, free and paid, which only feeds the demon furnace of their addiction.  They don’t know they’re on something “soft,” they aren’t aware that they’re at the bottom of the roller coaster.  They’re just doing something fun, at a chronojuncture where “something fun” often has a digital component.

It was weird!  Playing videogames used to be weird.  There was a point where spending your time in this way had strictly Morlock connotations.  My mom used to worry about what she called my “spirit man,” my spirit man, simply because I kept my curtains closed for weeks at a time in an effort to maintain proper monitor contrast!  Maybe it was more the isolation and esoteric knowledge requirements of early gaming that brought with them the attendant subterranean cache, as opposed to the strict form.  And now, with a game on a phone, you could conceivably play it anywhere.  You aren’t limited exclusively to the bulbous cap of some deep mushroom.

This intimidation in regards to inclusion (of easier play modes, setting aside the inclusion of characters who are something other than the majority demographic) is the same sort of thing that Patton Oswalt was talking about when he railed on geekdom becoming mainstream. It’s the hipstery fear that if others can like what you like than you’re not as special a snowflake as before, except with the added gamer claim that you’re a special snowflake because you completed a challenge. Well, allowing others to bypass that challenge to play the parts that they like isn’t doesn’t actually make completing the challenge less enjoyable… unless what you actually enjoy is bragging rights and not the experience itself.

So, it does not actually surprise me that some people took Hepler’s five-year-old statements made while she was a single writer in a massive video game production as a threat to their idea of what the gaming industry should be like. And it would not surprise me if the fact that she was a woman exacerbated the response, thought, as I said before, not what I want this post to be about.

As for the harassment, Jim Sterling, who I admittedly have excoriated before, has something relevant to say:

This is the kind of behavior that justifies the FOX News stereotype of the basement dwelling, antisocial nerd. This is the kind of behavior that makes the Spike VGAs look like the perfect gamer show — because it’s crass, immature, and it sports the emotional depth of a wet paper towel. That’s how gamers look when something like this happens.

Inclusion! It’ll get everybody to stop believing that games are only for basement dwelling, antisocial nerds! Just as soon as we can some of the people who play them to stop acting like basement dwelling, antisocial nerds!

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