No Escape for Tarkov

No Escape for Tarkov

Battlestate Games — the developers of Escape from Tarkov — have come under fire for attempting to claim that they simply didn’t have the development resources to allow for the addition of female playable characters. That it would take valuable efforts away from adding additional gameplay features. Oh, and also — it was against the ‘lore’ of their world.

What lore that is wasn’t elaborated on.

Although there is an interview from three years ago where one of their developers said — get ready for this — that “We came to the conclusion that women can’t handle that amount of stress, there’s only place for hardened men in this place.”

Sigh.

In the interests of transparency — it is worthwhile noting that at least publicly, the developer’s stance on this interview comment is that it was worthy of reprimand and education. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite track. Developers used to pull the ‘Oh, the development resources!’ excuse quite frequently around the turn of the decade. Ubisoft once infamously pulled this line out in regard to why they wouldn’t include female assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity’s co-op as originally planned.

The reason it became an infamous instance is the response. An ex-Ubisoft animator Jonathan Cooper provided a rather public response stating it would take, ‘A day or two’s work’ to add playable female models.

Oops. There goes that excuse then, eh?

Pictured: Their excuse being knocked tf out. (Image actually from Monster Hunter World: Iceborne)

Off the back of this — Belghast and Roger both had things to say. Belghast went into just how important representation was to him, how the lack of such can lead to a lower sense of satisfaction with a title in quite a significant fashion. Roger figured that if Battlestate Games developers couldn’t be reached on moral grounds — perhaps a financial impact might sway them.

Unfortunately I’m not sure in this case there is much of an impact on dollars forthcoming. Or at least — not much of a one they’ve already committed to. To them they’re working on a niche, hardcore experience that will only appeal to a subset of gamers. Staying true to this vision, in their mind is likely seen as a virtue. Something to be preserved at all cost — even financial (within reason and ability to continue operating).

And here I’m going to make some assumptions of my own. Those being that unfortunately — the target audience of their game isn’t going to care about this in sufficient numbers to drive home a meaningful financial impact. I don’t mean to tar everyone who plays or may be interested in playing Escape from Tarkov with the same brush, just to say that the estimated losses from this sector will be small enough that Battlestate Games are not going to be sufficiently pushed to change their underlying beliefs.

And it is those beliefs that are so problematic — the belief that women simply can’t be seen as even potentially surviving within the harsh reality of their game world. Through and through sexist and abhorrent.

For what it’s worth — despite what I said on the likelihood of a significant enough financial impact; I hope I’m wrong. I know there will be some who would’ve otherwise been interest and have now been turned off. Hell — I am one of those people. I had been waiting for a launch on a bigger digital sales platform rather buying from them direct. We can count that right out now.

Understanding Representation

That’s me — On the left!

All the Tarkov drama aside though? And talking to representation in gaming more generally?

I have to acknowledge that I struggle to understand at a deep, visceral, emotive level the importance of having the ability to make a video game character that is like you. Video game characters to me are a vehicle. My avatar within whatever game I’m experiencing. But it is not me. There is a disconnect. I can be equally happy playing Geralt in the Witcher as Aloy in Horizon: Zero Dawn or Carl Johnson in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Hell, give me too much in the way of customisation and I’m as like as not to just hit random until I find something I like.

Belghast’s personal preferences here are at a polar opposite to mine.

“There have been games that I absolutely did not play because they had shitty beard options.”

Belghast (2020) — Player Representation in Game Characters (Tales of the Aggronaut)

So clearly even within the realm of straight, white, middle-aged males there is plenty of scope for difference in personal opinion. At the deep, emotive personal level I struggle to relate to it.

But when I really push myself — when I try to imagine what it might be like to go through life as a person of colour. Or gay. Or gender-queer. To be not only explicitly marginalised in a million different ways day in and day out, but implicitly too by my media of choice barely acknowledging people like me exist?

I can’t make any claim to true understanding — I can’t. I lack the life experience to do so. But I can feel it enough to make the intellectual level easy. To believe without any reservation that everyone has the right to be represented. To be validated. Hell, to simply be acknowledged.

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11 thoughts on “No Escape for Tarkov”

  1. I am on the same boat as you. If the game has a pre-made character I don’t really care what their gender/race/religion is as long as the character and the story are interesting. Everything else are details.

    And if they let me make my own character? Then I will just spend five minutes making a character that looks “good enough” and then go on playing.

    However, like you, I won’t blame anyone to want to see more representation of themselves in games, quite the contrary. I also think that the excuses the developers made are just bullcrap to try to hide their sexism. Which unfortunately they will probably get away with it as most of their target audience probably won’t care or will even agree with it.

    • Yup… I fear we’re right on the target audience not caring in sufficient quantities to drive a change here. Even if true though — it’s still so important to keep at it, keep talking about it and raising the awareness more generally.

      I did some study through work a while back on the process of changing implicit bias and it often takes a degree of over correction and constant attention to even begin shifting them. I’m not entirely sure where we are on the change curve now as a global society, but I think we’re beginning to see at *least* the early parts of this process kicking in to affect a longer term change.

      It’s one of the ways we can help make future generations better and more tolerant than the ones that came before.

  2. It’s disappointing to me that developers still hold to these tired old excuses for a lack of representation in games. It doesn’t personally affect me – the only way in which I’ve heard of this game is through the controversy and it just solidified that I won’t play it anyways – but generally I think advocating for representation is a net good. I’ve pretty much always been able to play someone who looks like me or close enough from even a young age, and I don’t doubt that the sense of belonging that engenders was significant in some ways to my growth and development as a person.

    The silly thing to me is that there is still an audience, small but annoyingly vocal, that freaks out over representation even being brought up. Woman on the cover of Battlefield V? Lots of screeching. Ethnically-diverse hairstyles and character customization being added to WoW? Same. I can’t imagine spending my days being so mad over something that doesn’t directly affect me and makes other people happy. If any online game has a large-enough chunk of the community that feels so strongly about their misguided outrage, that tells me a lot about what kind of stuff I can expect in game. So if the Tarkov devs think that “no feeeeeemales” is their target audience? Even if I knew about the game before and was looking forward to it, that is a hard pass for me.

    • “The silly thing to me is that there is still an audience, small but annoyingly vocal, that freaks out over representation even being brought up. Woman on the cover of Battlefield V? Lots of screeching.”

      Ugh, yes — I remember the BFV issues. I didn’t hear about the WoW one, but I haven’t been a close WoW follower for some time now so not too surprising.

      It must be exhausting to be constantly up in arms about this kind of thing. Or worrying nonstop about whether Netflix is going to recast another character in some way different to what they expect.

      • I STILL see people being weird about BFV, so it just gets to a point where I wonder what kind of life that person leads.

        The WoW one was very new and a very small minority of people freaking out. One of the things they announced at Blizzcon for Shadowlands is racially-diverse human model customization, so you can finally be a black person with hairstyles and facial features that stray from the current human models, or an Asian person with similar customization. All the races get something, but they clearly had the most to share about the humans because it logically was easier to get the inspiration for. And some awful people lost their minds over it.

        The Netflix point is a good one, which also reminds me that I still need to watch The Witcher. ;)

  3. I’m not 100% sure how the “representation” thing works from the perspective of someone who isn’t “represented” by default, as a white male would usually be in a Western-made game. I am a white male and it never occured to me until I played EQ that anyone would have a vested interest in the person playing the character being recognizeable in the character they played. Prior to that, going back to the early ’80s, I’d played tabletop RPGs. I mostly played dwarves, gnomes or animals. I played the ghost of a robot dog for most of a year. It literally never occured to me to play a male human.

    When I discovered EQ I played the same range of short characters, adding in some big ones in the form of trolls and ogres. I also began playing female characters, right from the start. Since then I’ve almost always played females, animals and short people. When I’ve occasionally been forced by the game design to play a normal-height male Igenerally haven’t stuck around for more than a few sessions.

    For many years there were huge arguments over people playing cross-gender, as I routinely did. I had many arguments with people over that. Many players saw playing out of gender as a trick being played on everyone else. They felt it threatened their own identity (in some curious and fascinating ways). Now we seem to be in a mirror-world, where we’re arguing over the rightness of playing a character that diverges as little as possible from the player.

    Whether I’d feel differently if I didn’t see myself represented in every game is an intriguing question. It may be my privelige talking but actually I don’t feel represented, in that I have never seen those white male characters as representing me in any way whatsoever. They’re more alien to me than the short people and the animals and the female characters could ever be. But then, I have never identified with masculinity, despite being a straight male. People are complex and confusing.

    As far as games go, though, I do wonder who it is that actually cares. I tend to think of games as very unimportant in the scale of, well, anything. If some developer wants to cater to a meathead demographic that finds gender threatening, wouldn’t the best response be either ridicule or no response at all? I’m not sure engaging the peole who make or consume this sort of thing in logical debate is going to get anyone anywhere. Clearly, logic is not a guiding principle for any of them.

    • “I am a white male and it never occured to me until I played EQ that anyone would have a vested interest in the person playing the character being recognizeable in the character they played.”

      I’m not sure that it is that 1:1 recognition which is most important to everyone. (Although clearly it is to some, e.g., Belghast.) I think it has more to do with simply seeing people like you existing and being respected in popular media. Of which games is one, but also TV, movies, etc.

      These representations are important for shaping impressions of not only self-worth but those of the world at large, which is why I think the following should be challenged too:

      “I’m not sure engaging the peole who make or consume this sort of thing in logical debate is going to get anyone anywhere. Clearly, logic is not a guiding principle for any of them.”

      Although I do agree with part of the sentiment — it isn’t likely in the course of a single event that you’ll change the minds of people such as these developers. But to an extent, that’s almost beside the point. There is value to be had in expressing the view that this is wrong, unacceptable. We might not be able to change the minds of these people — but there is still plenty of room to shape the coming generation’s thinking.

      Think about just how far things have come even in the prior decade. At the turn of the decade it was common parlance in the gamer vocabulary to say something was ‘raped’ if it was destroyed or otherwise had something bad happen to it. While I’m certain pockets still exist where this is OK language, the general understanding that it isn’t OK has shot way the heck up.

      If everyone had decided to not engage because we wouldn’t change the subject in question’s mind anyway… Well, not sure we’d have seen such a change now.

      There’s a similar thing going on with Netflix’ casting decisions. It has gone far enough to have become a meme but the reality is it’s smart. It is a known that to change biases — especially implicit biases — a period of almost overcorrection is required to reset the norms in people’s minds.

      • I kind of thought some of that was bollocks when I wrote it but I thought I’d put it out there anyway and see how it flew. It’s a complex interface of actions and reactions, though, and it’s not simple to navigate, although “doing what feels right” is usually the best guide.

        I completely agree that it’s vital to challenge instances of (what you personally consider to be) wrong thinking when and wherever you encounter them. That’s fundemental to creating and sustaining incremental societal change, as we’ve seen countless times. On the other hand, the “oxygen of publicity” is very real, as is reinforcement by opposition.

        Tarkov is an interesting case from my perspective in that I very much doubt I’d ever have heard of it had this PR storm not blown up. It means that I am now primed to avoid a game that I would most likely never have played anyway. That makes me wonder how many other people have been similarly primed to go play it because the discussions raise issues where they are already on the developers’ wavelength. Which is why, on balance, I would rather see these things die on the vine, unnoticed and ignored.

        The problem in this case, though, is that although I might never have heard of the game, apparently it was already successful on platforms I don’t pay attention to, namely Twitch and other streaming services. It probably had plenty of oxygen already and there’s a good argument that what the backlash is doing is throwing sand on that fire.

        What interests me more is the underlying need to feel represented. The difference between what Belghast appears to mean by that, what you mean and what I mean would seem to be significant. As usual, discussion is limited by language. I think where most “right-thinking” people can come together, though, is in considering the Tarkov developers’ response to be inadequate, self-serving and specious.

        • I understand a lot better where you were coming from after this reply, I think. And I do agree that in some cases adding fuel the fire as it were will serve no good purpose.

          You are also right though that for whatever reason (likely an active PR person and sponsorship deals though) had started to gain traction with some pretty big streamers and despite the potentially very niche appeal of the title had started to enter the mainstream gamer awareness a bit more.

          Still — I’m really curious now where the balance lies in this equation now between the two balance points you mentioned.

          Also agree with your conclusion. :)

          I think there almost has to be a post in there somewhere for you around the different interpretations of ‘representation’ too. ;)

  4. The representation bent gets challenging in all media now. The BAFTA garnered a lot of anger because of how white and male the awards were. Regardless of how many white males are creating and participating in the art.

    For me, I don’t care. Pick the best and run with it whether it is straight, gay, trans, black, white, purple – just have a system that can pick the best as fairly as possible. And I think its the system of creation that people have a real problem with.

    The challenge is, representation of self vs representation in general. For instance, the trans population in the United States is estimated at 0.6% of the population.. (just did a quick google, could be 6%, 16%, doesn’t matter – my real point is so does that mean a game set in the USA should have that % of of the NPCs as trans? and this is where the argument gets silly.)

    Just make interesting characters and I’ll play it. But do it for the sake of making them interesting, not to check off boxes of diversity or check of boxes of “core audience” (ie: white males) for sales. Sadly I think many devs are doing it for the sake of being able to say they did it – and not for the sake of making the experience better for the players (all of them, however they self-identify)

    • “For me, I don’t care. Pick the best and run with it whether it is straight, gay, trans, black, white, purple – just have a system that can pick the best as fairly as possible.”

      I actually agree with the sentiment there. That race, sexuality, creed or any other distinguishing feature of the people involved with the creation of the art shouldn’t matter. The quality, resonance and impact of the art alone should be all that matters.

      The problem is, whether we want to or not — humans are *bad* at this.

      Implicit bias is an absolute ass when it comes to our ability to fairly judge. If you’re unfamiliar with the term — it basically refers to biases we unconsciously hold. Often through the things we’re subjected to over the course of our life experience. Living situation. Media. Friend groups. etc, etc.

      Not only are implicit biases consciously hold but at times they can outright run contrary to your consciously held values/beliefs. And they will still shape your judgements and thought processes.

      An example might be that growing up your personal experience was that your mother stayed at home with the kids while your dad worked. Your friends were the same. TV and Media at the time showed this as the norm.

      Now – you likely truly believe that equal opportunities should exist for all. That it is perfectly acceptable for a Dad to be a stay at home dad. For some this could be a core tenet of their identity even.

      But still the underlying implicit bias can exist and manifest in subtle (but still impactful ways) when it comes to judgement and decision making. Until our workplaces, our schools, our media and the like make a norm of equal representation across gender, race, sexuality or any other element you might care to name, and start eroding these implicit biases, we’re quite literally *incapable* of true equal opportunity.

      This is what brought me around on the idea of using positive discrimination as a stop-gap method to get us there. Before doing a little study on this (thankfully offered by my work) I was very much of a mindset that there should be no discrimination of any kind, positive or negative.

      Harvard has some pretty interest content (and even some tests) around this too if interested: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/faqs.html

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