Developers and critics confront sexism in video games at Ottawa conference

With video game designers and developers from around the world in Ottawa this week for a special conference, one critic and analyst wants them to take a deeper look at sexism in video games to make them more inclusive.

Liana Kerzner challenges game designers to create more well-rounded women characters

Critic and analyst Liana Kerzner says sexism in video games is often accidental. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

With video game designers and developers from around the world in Ottawa this week for a conference, one critic and analyst wants them to take a deeper look at sexism in video games to make them more inclusive.

While women in video games can be portrayed as sexualized, secondary, or passive characters, Liana Kerzner believes that sexism is often accidental. She shared her analysis in a seminar called "Accidental Sexism from Game Design" at the fifth annual Ottawa International Game Conference 

"It's not bad intent. So most people who make these mistakes aren't bad people, they aren't sexist people. They just made a faulty assumption, or went for a cheap cliché. It's usually trying to get from point A to point B too fast, and missing something," she said.

As a result, women characters end up in stereotypically sexist situations in a game's narrative, such as the victim, love interest, or sexual conquest, according to Kerzner.

Need for improvement

"A lot of the character tropes we see, a lot the situations they're put in, are taken from action movies," she said, and that can put off female gamers. "When somebody's interacting with a game, they expect far more control and far more choice than going to see a movie on a Friday night."

An image from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain shows a scantily-clad female protagonist. (YouTube)
So Kerzner challenged game designers and developers at the conference to work to avoid those clichés in their games to make them more appealing to women.

"I think there is a need for improvement," said Carleton University information technology student Zachary Sullivan at the conference's Game and Art Expo in the Aberdeen Pavillion at Lansdowne Park on the weekend.

Sullivan is part of a team made up equally of men and women that's developing a game for their fourth-year major project. "I think it really comes down to who develops the game," he said. "If it's a male-dominated team, then you might see more male-dominated characters, or in some cases, more stereotypical characters."

'Make your female characters whole people'

Paige Marincak, who attended the conference on Sunday, calls stereotypes of women in games annoying. "It's more annoying if they're set up to be something more than that, and then they aren't in the end," she said.

Too often females characters in video games act as the victim, the love interest or the sexual conquest, according to Liana Kerzner. (CBC)
Kerzner hopes that by acknowledging the unintentional sexism that can happen in game design, game designers — especially men — will be more secure creating more well-rounded female characters.

"Don't be afraid of pink in games for guys, and those camo colours in games for girls," she said. 

"Don't treat sex as a win condition. Make your female characters whole people. And don't put women on a pedestal to the point that you make that playable character unlockable, as opposed to having a male avatar and a female avatar right at the start."

With files from Jérôme Bergeron