We’ve never really tried to hide it: Extrasolar has an agenda -- several, in fact. We want to create positive role models for young scientists, and particularly women in science (Did you know that our in-game biologist is written by a real biologist?). We want to bring attention to issues of the long-standing struggles of sexual minorities (Try Googling the last name of game character Robert Turing). And we want to inspire an interest in space exploration.
Rob Jagnow with the brand new Alan Turing plaque in San Francisco’s Castro district.
For some people, this idea seems strange. Most people have seen games as diversions rather than as platforms for advancing an agenda. Sure, we all know about educational games, but we tend to see these as something different -- explicit educational content, often wrapped in a thin veneer of gameplay.
Even big companies have had trouble accepting the idea that games can and should have a social or political impact. As Apple infamously explained,
To us at Lazy 8 Studios, we see things differently. Our first priority is still to make games that are fun to play, but that leaves tons of room to take a stand on issues that are important to us -- issues like positive role models and gender bias.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to rely on our own good intentions to fix problems like gender bias. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has done some fascinating research on the depiction of women. Though the institute focuses primarily on TV and movies, many of the findings are just as applicable to games. For instance, consider what Geena Davis had to say in an interview with NPR:
In other words, if we want to achieve gender equality in media, we need to make a conscious decision to analyze and fix our existing biases.
Anita Sarkeesian runs the Femenist Frequency blog, where she has a video series called Tropes vs Women in Video Games. This well-researched vlog specifically addresses problems with the dehumanizing depictions of women in the game industry.
Having observed these biases, comic writer Alison Bechdel in 1985 devised a simple check that has come to be known as the Bechdel test. To pass the test, a movie or game must have at least two women with names who talk to each other about something other than a man. That’s it! Seems simple, right?
Sadly, a huge number of mainstream movies fail the test. A few failed selections from this year include The Boxtrolls, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Edge of Tomorrow, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
We’re not perfect either. We’re fully aware that Extrasolar currently fails the Bechdel test -- something we plan to fix in season 2 with the introduction of two new women into the story. We’ve found some simple solutions to help address these shortcomings. For instance, as we write characters, we try to make an effort to ask ourselves questions like, “could we have a bigger impact if this character was a minority woman rather than just another white guy?”
If designers make a conscious effort to include women and minorities as characters in games with positive portrayals, we can have a positive impact on the world around us. But to do this, we need to be willing to create and support games with a social agenda. For game studios of all sizes that agree with Apple and think that games aren’t an appropriate place to advance an agenda, we encourage you to reconsider.