Thursday, January 13, 2011

I downloaded and played Civ V last night. I watched through the high-quality animated movie intro, and noticed how carefully the old man, the hut, and the young man were culturally mixed. Their skin was brown, but could have been from suntans and wear/age. The old man's hair was grey, the young man's hair was hidden. The clothing (including a turban-derived headgear on the young man) was carefully invented and mixed inspirations from different cultures, as far as I could tell. I am convinced this introduction was designed to be culturally neutral, as if the old man and his son could have been the early leaders of any of the cultures used in Civilization.

So it finally struck me: it's all male. They couldn't make it gender-neutral.

The original Civilization had 13 male leaders and one female (Elisabeth I was the default leader of the English, though you could type in "Henry VIII" or "Tony Blair" or "Rowan Atkinson" if you felt like it.) I didn't really notice at the time. Civ II had a female and a male leader for each civilization, which was in-your-face obvious gender equality. It meant that some famous women got exposure (like Catherine for the Russians) but others were pretty unknown (I'm thinking Nazca for the Aztecs, and Ishtar for the Babylonians -- and can you even guess which Civ had "Bortei" as its female leader?)

This kind of public, forced gender equality was what finally made me notice once in a while what role females were expected to play in video games. Like being rescued in Super Mario, rather than being the rescuer. Back when I was just a teenage gamer, I didn't ever notice. I was oblivious. It still can take me a while before I notice, like I spent all that time noticing the careful cultural neutrality in Civ V before it finally hit me there was no attempt at gender neutrality in that introduction.

My point? Given how blunt and ham-handed the stereotyped roles for females in video games are, and how long it took me to start noticing, even though I am a woman, is an indication of how poor I am (and I know most people are) at even noticing gender bias.

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