I love skylanders.
And given that it’s more than a1.5 billion dollar enterprise, it seems that I’m not the only one.
Like with any game, my son is learning hand-eye coordination and improving his reaction time; his brain is learning to process information and learning to do it quickly. In addition, my son is learning what would be considered more tangible school-taught skills like reading and problem solving. I’ve enjoyed nothing more than watching my son plot solutions to puzzles in his mind before tackling them and then watching him light up when he’s figured them out.
But there are a whole suite of other life-long assets my son is learning. Because 2-player games are played in the same screen, players must communicate and learn to work as a team, otherwise you’re stuck in an on screen tug-of-war with neither player getting anywhere. Since playing, his communication skills have vastly improved.
The most important lesson, and in my opinion, the most difficult to teach as a parent is the fact that my son is learning how to accept failure and that if you truly want to succeed, then you need to persist, practice and overcome obstacles ahead of you. One of the main reasons that games are so much better at teaching failure than parents and teachers is because of, as James Paul Gee and others argue, the decreased cost of failure.
But there’s one important thing that Skylanders is teaching him that I hate: that heroes are male.
Where have all the ladies gone?
Until recently, I was blind to the depiction of women in video games. I’m guessing this is because most of the games I grew up with didn’t even have human protagonists (think Space Invaders, Galaga, Centipede). Or maybe it’s simply because I am a white male and my privileged perspective led me to ignore other gamers around me. Should we be surprised then that within an industry run by white males we have an overabundance of stories told from a white male perspective? No, but that doesn’t mean it should remain this way.
The age and distribution of gamers has changed dramatically since games entered the living room in the early 80s. Adults are just as likely to be considered gamers as their offspring, and most importantly, women make up 47% of gamers in Australia. Half of the gamers out there are women, yet women make up a minute proportion of playable characters. That’s pathetic.
I’m not the first to bring this up, nor will I be the last, but the thing that bothers me the most is that even when it doesn’t matter what the sex of the character is, the default is male. This is perfectly demonstrated in Skylanders.
If you look at the list of the total of 80 playable characters in Skylanders, only 12 are female.
Even worse, the number of female characters is decreasing with every new release. Parties up in Skylands must be a huge sausage fest.
I’m sure none of the artists or developers sat down and specifically decided that only 15% of playable characters will be female (at least I hope not), but what this subconsciously suggests to players is that you need to be male to be a hero.
When my son is choosing a character, I want him to be able to pick from an equal number of male and female character because this tells him that both sexes (and I say sexes because I am making a biological argument and not a gender one, which is another story altogether) are equally likely to become heroes. That they are equally likely to want to protect that which is theirs. And that they are strong enough to do it.
What makes it worse is that the few female characters in Skylanders are very much female. The dragons are pastel in colour and the human-looking characters have longer hair and tighter fitting clothes. It’s not surprising that the human-like characters would be associated with human sexual stereotypes (lithe bodies, greater hip-to-waist ratios, enlarged mammary glands), because we are drawing from our own species’ differences. That’s not really the problem.
The problem is that some of the human characters (left column) could easily have been females. Chop Chop and Ghost Roaster are literally skeletons, couldn’t either of them be voiced by a female? Why is a witch doctor assumed to be male? Many cultures such as Mapuche in Chile have female shaman called Machi. And history demonstrates that women played important roles in spiritual leadership, feor example, Veleda in the Germanic tribe of Bructeri. There is no reason to assume that a spiritual leader need be male.
This is even more frustrating in the non-human, biological-based creatures. In most mammals and reptiles, females are the larger sex and they are nearly sexually monomorphic. Every single animal-based character (examples in the centre column) could easily have been female.
Finally, with many of the imaginary creatures (right column), you can’t even tell their sex until they speak and use a male voice. What distinguishes a male rock golem from a female? Surely sexual selection hasn’t shaped female lava golems to the same extent as humans. What exactly is Pop-Fizz and surely a female counterpart can’t look that different.
The main point here is that many characters could be female and they wouldn’t need to be designed any differently. Given that the sex of the characters doesn’t matter, we should ask why the developers and designers thought most of the characters should be male.
Why this is important
There is quite a lot of discussion about sexism in gaming, why it occurs, and how to solve it. I agree that women need to keep voicing their opinions on this matter, but the truth is that it’s a hard fight. Although attitudes are changing, it’s painfully slow. Recently, Activision realized that women play Call of Duty and want playable female characters. Yes, the female character is only available on the multiplayer, but hey, it’s a start.
But why did Activision think only adult female gamers would want this? Wouldn’t girls also want to play Skylanders and prefer to use female characters? Or god forbid, wouldn’t boys want to use a female character too? The reality is that all gamers need more female characters.
Sexist perspectives and attitudes are pervasive and reinforced daily by print and video media. The best way to battle sexism and gender stereotypes is by teaching children that there is no such thing. Eradicating sexist perspectives is easiest in if we can demonstrate that both sexes can fight to protect what they love and that sex (and gender) has nothing to do with becoming a hero. Skylanders seems like the perfect opportunity in which to demonstrate equality because all the characters are imaginary.
Although you may not realize it, Acitivision, you have an amazing opportunity to do something incredible with what you have created. Along with teaching my son all these wonderful life skills, you could teach them that all people are equal and that his mom can (and wants to) protect him just like his dad.