Are We Moving Back or Moving Forward? (Part 1)

Meghan has written a piece on the tropes of Zelda and Link’s latest outing: Tears of the Kingdom. Warning before I link it, that the post does give a fairly comprehensive set of spoilers for how the story of Tears of the Kingdom unfolds. I won’t echo the spoilers here though, and Meghan’s post ends up speaking much more broadly than Tears of the Kingdom as well.

If you’ve finished the game yourself, or otherwise don’t care about having it spoiled, Meghan’s post is here.

Preamble

As for myself… I’ve never played a Zelda game from start to finish. I probably spent the most time with BoTW, and even then I never left Tutorial Island. I’d say my biggest experience with the series was the cartoon back in… I’m going to say the 90’s, but I also refuse to look that up. I don’t need to be attacked like that so early in the morning. I also don’t really remember any details from it either.

All to say, replying to a post breaking down problematic tropes from TotK is probably not a topic I can wade into with any sort of authority. But on the more general nature of the discussion and the broader context Meghan spoke to, there was one thing that caught my attention as possibly something to dig into a bit. … Not that I can speak to that with any ‘authority’ either. It isn’t an area of study, nor have I lived the experience from the other side. All I can add are my own perceptions of change and how things are going from the other side of the fence.

And when I say ‘the other side of the fence’, it’s probably worth acknowledging that I haven’t always held the most… progressive… views myself. Sure, there is likely some defence to be found in the social and cultural norms and therefore what one would be immersed in as a result — particularly within the gaming subculture. I would cut myself at least a little slack for that — but that is not to excuse it, nor to let it be a reason to not evolve my thinking.

Which I suppose, at last, brings me to the meat of the response. Meghan said something which evoked some surprise from me, and that sense of surprise hasn’t entirely dissipated in the day or so since initially reading.

I used to think representation was getting better, that more effort was being put into creating and including well-rounded female characters. But I’m not so sure anymore. Partly because of the politics of representation, and how a vocal minority (at least, I hope it’s still a minority) continues to scream and shout about the perceived push for “wokeness” in gaming.

Meghan, Meghan Plays Games — On Writing: Tropes of the Kingdom (2023)

The part that took me aback here is the concern that we may no longer be making forward progress. That the effort to increase representation may in fact be backsliding.

I was wondering where to even start with this, and I think first, it’d be good to take a look at my own biases on the matter that are likely to come into play when discussing the subject, and the perceived movement (or lack thereof) across movies, games and social landscape more generally.

My Biases at Play

The biases I know I come into this conversation with are:

Attribution Bias

There is a psychological bias that we as humans have when it comes to attributing causes to behaviour, depending on whether the subject of the attribution is one we like — ourselves, friends, or people we agree with making them part of our ‘in’ group — vs. subjects we do not like.

When it comes to someone we feel positively about we are more likely to attribute positive actions as being a natural result of who they are. Or another way — as a result of intrinsic qualities of the person. Giving money to a homeless person is because they are generous. Compassionate. Anything negative this person does on the other hand is likely to be viewed as a result of the situation or circumstances. Extrinsic from the person. If they snapped at someone — it is because they’re just over tired. Having a bad day. Need to get away from it all for a bit.

These tendencies flip when you are considering someone you dislike. Suddenly this person when giving money to the homeless is just doing it to escape the situation and conversation with the homeless person. When this person you dislike snaps at someone — they are just a grumpy, nasty person. Clearly.

Naithin, Time to Loot — Cognitive Dissonance (2019)

I last spoke about this bias in the context of finding my rationalizations at odds with themselves when it came to two different situations which from a raw, factual basis, were remarkably similar, yet I had strong feelings in opposite directions on their ‘rightness’ once adding in the context of the matter, and by extension, how I felt about not only the actions taken but the entities involved as well.

Where it comes into play here is when we get to discussing various movie makers and game designers, and how I interpret their intent.

I, of course, cannot possibly know anything about the people involved or what their true motivations might be. But then on the one hand, I might be overly cynical and not willing to extend the benefit of the doubt, whereas on the other, I might perhaps head so far in the other direction as to enter the realm of naivety, when, on a raw ‘factual basis’, is there any difference at all?

Implicit Bias

The following quote I originally posted the following as a response to someone else as a comment. And then brought it into a post of its own here. And now it will serve again, albeit lightly modified for clarity. The original is still available in the linked post.

…I entirely agree that all else being equal, merit should be all that matters. We shouldn’t need to entertain the idea of quotas.

But the huge ‘if’ in there is around the ‘all else being equal’. It just isn’t. What finally tipped my views over from ‘Quotas are bullshit’ to something more accepting of them was a course on implicit bias and the impacts they can have on all sorts of things. Implicit bias is a fascinating subject, but the cliff notes version is that they’re unconsciously held beliefs. These beliefs can even run contrary to our consciously held values, the values we live by. They’re a product of upbringing and life experience. Long term exposure to ‘the way the world is’, as you’ve experienced it. That kind of thing.

One example being, most people these days probably consciously believe it is equally acceptable for a mother OR a father to be a stay at home parent. But when this belief is tested, the bias leans toward a rapid and automatic assumption of the mother fulfilling this role.

Quotas aren’t really so much about the here and now. The aim is to normalise seeing people of minorities in those roles, to change the underlying implicit biases the world teaches us to have — so that going forward? In the longer term? The quotas are no longer required.

Naithin, Time to Loot — Comment to Post: Representation & Implicit Bias (2021)

We’re not talking about ‘quotas’ here, but I think it’s fair to say that I spent my formative years playing games that mostly catered to a male-dominated audience. Female leads were few and far between, and when they did exist… Well, it was likely for their sex appeal…

False Consensus Bias

No big quote this time, as I haven’t explicitly written about it, that I can recall at least.

But this is the idea that the norms in terms of beliefs and behaviours, either of yourself or within a particular social group, are much more widely spread than might be the case in reality.

As you might’ve guessed through my surprise at Meghan’s perception of things possibly getting worse, this hasn’t been my personal experience. Both within my work life and within my social life, even within my gaming group of friends. I have seen clear growth and change as the years have rolled on.

That leads me to believe that the world as a whole has moved in the same way. That the people posting contrary views to ‘X’ (aka Twitter), or Reddit, or wherever are social deviants, and not at all representative.

Now, to be clear — that might actually be true. My callout here is that when I stop to think about it, I don’t really have any evidence base for this beyond what is, in the grand scheme of things, are very limited sample.

So it also might not be true. As scary a thought as that might be.

What Next?

I didn’t expect to require a part 2. But then, I also didn’t initially think I’d need a post.

I still want to cover what changes I’ve seen in the landscape of movies (grr), games (yay), and social (mixed feelings). I think I can do all that in the next post on the subject, but, well, refer previous line again.

I’m not going to leave you without sharing my opinion on the subject though. I’ll try to back it up with the next post — or possibly find I change my own mind as I work through it, that’s possible too.

But in summary; I think we’re seeing good improvement at a societal level on the acceptance of more diversity in lead roles. But I also think that Hollywood has done some damage to this acceptance. The efforts to commercialise the wave of increased desire to see this diversification happen directly contributed to the rise of the “Go Woke, Go Broke” style sentiment.

Games, in my opinion, have perhaps made some more sincere strides in this arena. And yep, Alan Wake 2 I think is a recent prime example of this. Sure, Alan is the titular character, but Saga has equal air time, and was, in my opinion, the more interesting side of the story to play.

There are some themes to dive into and unpick there as well, but I’ll save that for the next one.

Perhaps just from that summary though, you can see why I called out Attribution Bias first. Hah.

Something else to unpick next time around!

Naithin

Gamer, reader, writer, husband and father of two boys. Former WoW and Gaming blogger, making a return to the fold to share my love of all things looty.

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