Jennifer Hepler, a senior writer for the Edmonton, Canada based game studio Bioware, has left the company this month to begin a freelancing career. Jennifer and her family have been the target of death threats because of her work writing characters for Bioware’s successful Dragon Age franchise and for Star Wars: The Old Republic. She says the threats have little to do with her decision to leave the company, however the timing of her departure can hardly be a coincidence. With Bioware poised on the brink of a media frenzy over their promotion of the next installment in the Dragon Age series due to be released next fall, it’s not hard to imagine she might want to avoid yet another round of attacks.
Bioware’s reputation among gamers as producing character-driven games with complex and nuanced story lines is due in no small part to her contributions, and the company (and Jennifer herself) have long been criticized by so called ‘hardcore’ gamers for pushing what they consider to be a politically motivated agenda — specifically a ‘pro-gay’ one. In the latest Dragon Age game, playable characters were given the choice of having either a heterosexual or homosexual romantic subplot. These subplots are completely optional and no gamer is forced to sit through anything other than quickly rejecting the advances of a character if they do not wish to participate. While most welcomed the inclusion of gay and bisexual characters in the game and hold the company up as a model that the entire industry should try to emulate, some very vocal gamers were outraged.
This is part of a larger criticism often leveled at Bioware for making ‘girl games’ — that is, games where combat sometimes takes a back-seat to dialogue and story development. Jennifer touched on this in 2006 in an interview with the gaming site Killer Betties. When asked what her least favourite thing about working in the industry was she said:
“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 … If a game doesn’t have a good story, it’s very hard for me to get interested in playing it . . . 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.”
When asked what she would change to about games to reach a broader audience, and specifically women she said:
“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 . . . Granted, many games would have very little left if you removed the combat, but for a game like 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.”
These 6 year-old quotes, dragged up from the bowels of the internet just this past month to create an image macro posted to Reddit, coupled with Bioware’s reputation as being “faggy and/or girly” created a perfect storm of nerd rage within a specific subset of the culture, sparking harassment, and death threats. Anyone who came to her defense on Twitter was also a target.
While it’s easy to write off these trolling-troglodytes as just that, it is a mistake to ignore the issues that exist in gamer culture and indeed popular culture at large. When it comes to the treatment of anyone participating in this culture who is not a straight man, preferably one with violent tendencies and a limited capacity to emote anything other than anger, lust or hunger there is much left to be desired.
Anything ‘womanly’ (in this case, interacting with the game world in a non-violent/aggressive manner) is considered lesser. The important job of mashing buttons to make your character hit something with a sword takes precedent over dialogue; characters must always follow gender binary, stereotypical gender roles, and be hetero-normative; female characters should stay in their place as love interests or platonic sister/friend ass kickin’ females, with character design and costumes reflecting that.
When games are made that don’t reflect those values of this specific type of gamer, the ‘hardcore’ player, can feel betrayed. Any sort of inclusivity in games is detrimental to ‘his’ games and his culture and ‘his’ gaming experience. This testosterone-filled demographic has been long pandered to by an industry that is only recently starting to clue into the fact that they can reach a larger audience if they don’t exclude or objectify ‘minority’ characters or ‘minority’ gamers.
While the threats directed at Jennifer were certainly motivated by sexism and should not be tolerated, the gamers involved were reacting more to what they see as a shift in the industry that has historically catered to them. Jennifer is a foil upon which they can direct all of their anger at being ‘marginalized’ by Bioware, and their fears that other companies will follow their example.
There is a long way to go, but we can only hope that their fears are not unfounded.