Gearbox' misstep with Duke's Capture the Babe mode is likely to raise hell - and rightly so.
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Every few months, a new survey tells us in no uncertain terms exactly what the past few similar surveys have told us previously - that the majority of people playing videogames are female. Every few months, wise heads in the industry nod sagely at this revelation, and then come up with reasons to ignore or quietly disbelieve it. Zynga's games skew the figures, they say. Women are only interested in very specific genres that are outside the core markets. There's no point thinking about catering to a female audience with games like shooters or RPGs - it's just not their thing.
Such nonsensical excuses to ignore a vast segment of the audience are exasperating but unsurprising. After all, it looks okay to shareholders and investors if you're sucking at your teeth and saying, "Yes, that's a very exciting market but it's not really relevant to our business plan." It's less okay to confess that you've been catering to nothing but adolescent boys and marginally-less-adolescent adult men for 20 years and that accepting that, actually, women want to play your games too and this creates new considerations for the design process puts you so far outside your comfort zone that it's borderline panic-inducing.
For the most part, we muddle through. Sometimes, developers earnestly and with the finest of intentions end up being nothing short of patronising, ignoring the fact that the female audience for videogames actually likes videogames, rather than having bought an Xbox in the vague hope that someone might someday build shopping and make-up modes into their games. Other times, they slip up - "slip up" being the charitable interpretation - and forget that their audience doesn't consist entirely of braying misogynist hordes demanding to have their prejudices pandered to.
This week has been a bad week for examples of the latter, and as such, not a terribly good week for our medium's relationship with its female audience. In Britain, we've had the unfortunate spectacle of games retail chain Gamestation running an advertising campaign featuring the slogan "Cheaper than your girlfriend", and not even having the good grace to admit the misstep when confronted.
Nonsensical excuses to continue ignoring a vast segment of the audience are exasperating but unsurprising
This, the chain claims, is part of Gamestation's "edgy" image. The claim was made by a PR person apparently oblivious to the fact that this kind of rubbish stopped being "edgy" in media or comedy about 20 years ago, unless you're a knuckle-dragging guffawing idiot who nods along appreciatively to Richard Littlejohn columns and likes saying things like "it's PC gone mad innit", but not in reference to Steam's sales figures. I assume (or at least hope) Gamestation doesn't believe all of its customers fit this stereotype.
Gamestation's advertisement, at least, has the sense of an isolated mistake, even if it's compounded by failure to acknowledge the problem (and a truly forehead-slap inducing reference to the "traditional male core gamer" as its customer base - a customer base which, on this showing, it has absolutely no interest in expanding). On the other side of the pond, however, we've seen a rather more ugly and much more vociferously defended example of sexism raising its head, from an unlikely source.
Gearbox is a developer for which I have an immense amount of affection. I've only visited their offices in Dallas once, but they were hospitable, pleasant and obviously deeply passionate about what they were doing. Company boss Randy Pitchford is, quite honestly, one of the nicest men in an industry which is (often to the surprise of the mainstream media) stuffed to the gills with softly spoken, intelligent, pleasant people.
All of which makes it all the more mind-boggling that the company's forthcoming Duke Nukem Forever title is set to feature a multiplayer mode called "Capture the Babe", a variant on Capture the Flag in which you'll carry off a squirming young woman who, occasionally on your point-scoring trip back to base, will "freak out", requiring the administration of a slap on the buttocks to calm her down.