Sunday, April 09, 2006

It's just a fantasy world

A lovely brouhaha erupted recently when some women dared to point out (1 | 2 | 3 ) that Oblivion shows only male characters in the class selection screen and race section of the manual, as well as giving female characters different starting stats.

Men were outraged ( 1 | 2 | 3 ). Although for the most part freely admitting that the women had a point, they characterized their concerns as too petty to bother about and treated them to a shower of verbal abuse for their presumption.

A common (but specious) argument seems to be that Oblivion is a fantasy world and therefore not subject to the prejudices existing in the real world, or if it is then it doesn't matter because no real people are hurt. This argument doesn't fly, and is in fact a very lame excuse for not dealing with the issues.

Tamriel does model the real world in a great many ways. The laws of physics are the same, races are obviously humanoid, two genders exist, trees and plants exist and look the same as those in our world (and have the same names in many instances). The architecture would not have looked out of place in our world a few centuries ago, nor would the clothing, armour or day-to-day items. The wildlife includes wolves, boar and deer. In fact, almost every aspect of the game is modelled (very realistically) on the real world.

Yes, I know that we don't have magic, daedra or vampires in our world, and these are of course fantasy elements, but the point I am making is that they are included on top of a realistic model of our world. This being the case, I would suggest that those playing the game are able to suspend their disbelief and become immersed in the game much more easily precisely because so many of its elements are familiar.

Because the game world is modelled on the real world, it is natural for the real-world prejudices and attitudes of the designers to be imposed on the game world. Unfortunately, for players, this is just another reinforcement of those real-world prejudices (and the last thing the people at Kotaku need is to have their misogynist views reinforced).

If you're still not convinced, how about this; in Tamriel no one is fat, or in fact anything other than a single body type. However, although body diversity seemingly doesn't exist in the game world, it clearly exists in the minds of the designers, as this excerpt from a letter found during one of the Dark Brotherhood quests shows:

"My beautiful Cae! My dearest daughter broke so many hearts when she was younger. But now that she's an officer in the Imperial Legion I'm afraid she's let herself go a bit. Not gotten fat! By Mephala, not that! But she's settled into a more... practical kind of look. Even a bit boyish, I guess you could say. So what I'd like you to do is get my Cae as much pretty "girl" stuff as you can. Flowers, perfume, Nord chocolate, that sort of thing."

Am I saying that Oblivion is a woman hating piece of shit game and no one should ever play it? Of course not! I love Oblivion and I think it's a really great game. However, just because the game does a better job than most of portraying women doesn't mean it is automatically exempt from further scrutiny. It is possible to congratulate Bethesda on their progress so far and still hope for better in the future.