Activision’s all-male games are quite okay, really
Evil publisher Activision has grown eviler in the eyes of many a gamer by denying claims by unnamed sources that it deliberately commissions only male-led games for commercial reasons. People from the industry, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Gamasutra‘s Leigh Alexander that the company was so obsessed with focus testing proving male leads were the best option for sales that it actually skewed the results from some tests that contradicted that notion.
As always with unnamed sources, we only have L Alexander‘s word for what she’s claiming. I, for one, believe her because what her sources are telling her makes perfect sense.
For all its dismissal, Activision is very probably putting enormous pressure on its studios to produce the same games over and over again, down to the male protagonist. I want to tell you why that is okay. Hit the jump if you want to hear me out.
Media can be incredibly powerful. The world’s leading country now has a black president, even though it remains a society divided by a great racial rift. This is in no small part thanks to film and TV, which over the past decades have continuously reinforced in the public mind the notion that black people can be the protagonists of great, sweepingly relevant stories. They are now moving to do the same for gays, by sporting homosexuals in roles heterosexual male viewers are supposed to identify with. I have no doubt that eventually they will succeed.
Games too can do a lot to facilitate the decay of unhealthy stereotypes about racial, sexual, religious and other minorities. Only they’re not doing anything like that. As the example of Activision‘s strategy demonstrates, some games are actively reinforcing those stereotypes, because they fit in with their publisher’s commercial interests.
I can see why people would be upset by that. Here’s the thing though: Activision Blizzard, Inc is a publicly traded business. It is owned by its shareholders. The chief responsibility of people like Bobby Kotick is to those shareholders and to other stakeholders in the business, such as creditors and staff.
When people buy shares in a company, they usually do it for profit, not to help society overcome its weaknesses. When banks extend loans, they usually do it for profit, not because they care for gay rights. When people lose their jobs, the usually miss the associated income, not the opportunity their job gave them to change the world for better.
There is nothing more natural for a company in the position of Activision than to try, sometimes desperately, to generate the largest profit possible so that it can pay salaries, pay back credits and distribute dividends. In a way, it would be bad if Activision were to jeopardise the welfare of so many people that depend on it being in good financial shape.
And, mind you, it is not on its best form right now. On Thursday the publisher reported its financial results for the fiscal quarter to June. Its shares took a dive because enough of its owners were so unhappy with its performance that they sold their shares.
A company in that position can very rarely do anything else than stick to the old and tried formulas that have delivered in the past. It is almost impossible to imagine management taking on any risks. No amount of us getting angry about it will change that.
Yet hope remains. Market logic dictates that if there is enough demand for something (female-led games, gay-led games, you name it), there will be supply. It doesn’t have to be demanded by the majority, either. There are myriad examples of niche markets that have formed around very specific needs. In the end it may even be Activision that will supply, either by turning around and changing its in-house policies or by simply acquiring a smaller firm that has sniffed out the emerging niche.
The games we want will come and that is a fact. We may not be around when they do, but they will show up eventually. You may find it unfair that those evil times, when the biggest publishers are mostly not interested in making the games you want, should be yours. But on the bright side: think of how many wonderful things you have access to precisely because you live now and not sometime else.