06/07/2020

Should There Be Sexist NPCs in SWTOR?

Deep thoughts today.

I've been spending more time replaying story content lately, especially the original class stories and other older quest lines that I hadn't done in a while, and one thing that I've been finding striking is how often NPCs treat you differently based on your gender. I wouldn't actually say that it happens a lot, but it happening at all is still a stark contrast to more recent content releases where your sex makes no difference whatsoever. All the newer romance options are "playersexual" as Bioware likes to say, and the rest of the time nobody really cares about whether your character is male or female either.

The class stories and other base game content are quite different in that regard. For example I was doing the planetary storyline on Quesh on Imperial side, and upon my (female) inquisitor walking into the room, one of the Imperials in charge piped up with some comment about how women shouldn't be on the front lines. I mean, excuse me?


That feeling when... you're the most appalling creature in the room while sharing space with a Hutt and a Gamorrean.

It's not all negative either - I was playing through the early levels on Hutta as a new bounty hunter and Juda the twi'lek, who's something like Nem'ro's receptionist, kept making comments to my female bounty hunter about how girls have to stick together and stuff like that. (Mind you, that sort of thing often feels like the writers were simply trying to fill in the gaps where male characters have exclusive flirt options, with the goal of still making female player characters care about the NPC in some way.)

Anyway, all this got me thinking about how the way I feel about this stuff has kind of changed over time. In the early days I honestly quite liked it - mainly because I was impressed by the granularity that Bioware applied when trying to make the experience tailored to the player character, making it not just about class, but sometimes species and gender too.

The blatantly sexist characters were a bit annoying (and being on the receiving end of comments about "little girls" or things along those lines when your character is the tallest body type always felt a bit weird - the opposite of tailored to the character really), but they were never put in without an option to get back at them. I won't deny that's there's something satisfying about zapping someone with lightning if they give you crap for being a woman for example.

Buuut... after getting used to gender just not mattering in the content released in recent years, I have to say I kind of prefer it that way. We're not discussing "realism" here, because Star Wars is a fantasy world and can be written any way we want it to be. It's actually been a while since I watched the original trilogy, but I seem to remember the source material treating the sexes fairly evenly too - there were certain trends, such as most of the pilots being men and the slaves in Jabba's palace all being skimpily dressed ladies, but that could easily be read as circumstantial in-universe rather than a rule, never mind real life influences at the time.

And if given the choice, I think I prefer the simplicity of simply not having to worry about gender biases, and having my female characters being respected (or hated!) simply for who they are and what they do rather than for anything to do with their sex. The revenge fantasy of punching or zapping the nasty sexist has some appeal for sure, but to be honest there is enough of this crap in the real world. Just not having to deal with it at all in my virtual world is simply more appealing to me at this point.

20 comments :

  1. You're right, I wouldn't miss it either.

    It's not that it provides high value, but simply ignoring that it exists would make some kind of story or plot twist vanish. Not strictly speaking about the game, but in general. But also in the game. I certainly wouldn't like 50% of NPCs to exhibit this, but if you can point to the 2 sexist quest givers in the game, I can certainly live with that. It's an outlier from a sample of hundreds of NPCs.

    And I do remember the scene on Hutta and I found it funny. And that must have been in 2012. I don't remember what happened with a male Bounty Hunter, that was just 2 years ago...

    Also with Sith Pureblood being racist so often this would totally be unfair against all the other -isms if they took it out...

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    1. I'm sorry but I can't quite make sense of your comment. XD Or are you trying to say that you're conflicted about it? I haven't really seen the sexism serve any point other than to make the characters unlikeable and I think that can be achieved by other means too.

      The discrimination among/against aliens is a bit different in my opinion as it's at least somewhat removed from the real world, being about different species of humanoid. I think if the game portrayed more "human" racism based on skin colour and such it would feel quite uncomfortable and unnecessary.

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    2. Apologies for apparently inconsistent rambling :)

      My point is that I can personally do without it, but despite all the space magic it's mostly about humans (or humanoids), the storytelling and immersion and story is better than in other MMOs. So that's why my point is... it would be leaving out certain aspects of human behaviour, even if it's despicable. I'm not arguing the game should showcase all these behaviours, but I don't take offense in it per se. Sure it would be nice if it was at least a credible plot point like slavery and war crimes often are in this game.

      Bhagpuss found the word I didn't manage to find. It's not about realism but credibility. Not everyone in the Republic is good and not everyone in the Sith Empire is a maniac mass murderer. So my question would be: Why single out sexist NPCs and not others?

      I get your points about the alien races but I do think it maps very well to the real world. People see "us" vs "them", no matter what criterion they define. And yes, maybe my world view is a bit naive here.

      But you're right, maybe it doesn't serve any other purpose than to make the NPC unlikable. I am indeed conflicted if this is a good idea, but that's not something I tried to answer in the first post.

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    3. Thanks for clarifying. :)

      Just to be 100% clear, I'm not offended by these things being in the game either (just in-character by the NPC's behaviour :P). I'm just noticing that I'm finding this sort of thing less entertaining now than I did a few years ago.

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    4. Now that you say it (and no, I didn't read it as you being offended, maybe a little miffed) - but that's an angle I had missed. I wouldn't even say I'm entertained at all by asshole NPCs for the most part. That maybe sounds contradicting, but I can accept good writing for those, I guess. :)

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  2. I'm with you in that I'm more in favor of bias against your character, such as when they are leveling. Such as, 'why are you, a nobody, bother an important person like me?". (Fandral Staghelm in Wow Classic being a great example.) Until you prove yourself by reaching the end of your class story I can see people being dismissive and/or bias against you. After you've arrived on the galactic stage then I could see all of that going away.

    The rest of it depends on how much a each of us wants the universe to feel realistic. For example, in the Imperial Agent story only human males have certain options with Watcher 2. It says more about her character than it does about the player's character.

    I could see more of this type of stuff in the Imperial Agent story lines as that should be more grim/gritty/seedy underside of the Star Wars universe. (Perhaps the Bounty Hunter and Smuggler, as well.) Less so in the others.

    Good thoughts and questions to ask! :)

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    1. Well, as I said in the post I don't think realism is much of an argument as we're talking about a fantasy universe with space magic and there isn't anything in the core material that relies on us projecting specific biases like that onto it to make it work.

      I had to re-read your second paragraph because I was simply going to say that all the base game flirts are heterosexual only... are you saying that Watcher 2 is racist too?

      I do agree that a lack of romance options can make for an interesting story in its own way, such as when you forge a strong non-romantic bond with someone - Mako calling my female bounty hunter a big sister on several occasions certainly stood out to me for example. However, I can't see that sort of relationship ever really occurring in SWTOR again because the player base loves its flirt options too much so that's where all the budget goes. :D

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    2. Sorry about the muddled reply. I kept rewriting what I was trying to say and it made a pig's ear of my comment. :sigh: I guess that in a universe where a big theme is Good vs Evil (tm), 'small e' evils would be expected. After all, the Inquisitor was a slave and slavery is an active part of the Empire. Seeing sexist people, at least on the Sith side, doesn't feel odd. I'd expect more bigots there. But that's me wittering on about story/universe building without considering what's going on in the real world. I do hear your point, though, and would have no problem with them quietly removing all the sexist points in the game. In the end, the game needs to be fun for everyone. (I hope that all made sense. This is all pre-morning coffee!)

      Yeah, Watcher 2 is definitely racist. There may be some background information about the whys, but it's been a long time since I ran a male IA through that part of the story.

      I do hope they start having some characters not be 'playersexual'. (The most recent Dragon Age, for example had some NPCs who were quite specific in their romance options.) It makes the NPCs feel better when they have their own likes and dislikes. Otherwise, to me, they end up being too generic for my tastes.

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    3. Verisimilitude. That's the word I was trying for, but couldn't remember until I read Bhaguss's comment. It's what degree if verisimilitude one is comfortable with that's the issue. While I like to see the degree over _there_, these days I don't mind it being over *yonder* instead. (I don't want my nit-pickiness to override someone else's fun and enjoyment.)

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    4. I don't think they need to remove what's there. I just like the new way better now.

      And I used to be on the fence about the "playersexual" thing because I agree that an NPC having romantic preferences can make them more interesting, but ultimately I think the romances in SWTOR are just side content and the trade-off of restricting them like that for a tiny bit of extra flavour isn't really worth it. (I still shake my fist at being unable to flirt with Lord Cytharat, lol.) I actually suspect this sort of thing can work better in a single-player game where the characters are more fleshed out and it doesn't take hours and hours to get a new character of a different gender up to the point where they can strike up a romance (plus you can use save games to explore different options).

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  3. This is far too complex a question to address in a comment. Tobold recently posted something about changes Wizards of the Coast plan to make to characters and NPCs in D&D in response to current cultural shifts over attituded to race and I've been thinking about the implications ever since. Your post is similarly thought-provoking.

    I've been pondering posting on these topics myself but honestly I think even the length of a blog post is ridiculously inadequate to discuss the ramifications, which could potentially lead to a redefinition of what we perceive as both the function and form of fiction itself. Also, I haven't even begun to approach a point of equilibrium from which I could reliably state my own position. I'm not even sure I've arrived at a point of understanding the question yet!

    I think "realism" is a misleading descriptor in these contexts, too. Credibility is perhaps more appropriate. Is it credible that, in a setting predicated on a cosmic struggle between ideological belief systems we could shorthand as "good" vs "evil", individuals would not exhibit character traits and behaviors we find disturbing and uncomfortable? And if we move from the acceptability of such as elements of a fiction to their role in a game, are we moving towards a position where, because the object of our attention is a game and an entertainment, its primary purpose includes not disturbing or unsettling the player?

    Games that take a didactive or an instructive purpose to themselves will embrace the need to make themselves uncomfortable and their audience will embrace it as part of the process but massively multiple games seeking to appeal to the broadest audience will have very diferent intentions, I'd have thought. Leave aside the sexism and the racism - at what point are we going to have to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that almost all the games in the genre we focus our time and attention on rely in almost complete part for their mechanics on violent, indeed sociopathic, solutions to almost all problems?

    If you start to drill down, there's very, very little about the core gameplay of any MMORPG that feels comfortable by modern cultural standards.

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    1. Good comment, and I won't even pretend to be able to answer it all. :)

      I do think level of abstraction matters though. I think it's quite possible to clearly and credibly code things as evil while still keeping things light-hearted and not disturbing.

      As for what disturbs us in games, I also believe that familiarity actually weighs more heavily in this context than severity. The reason many of us can enjoy virtual violence is that we fortunately live in a world where a lot of us don't have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. On the other hand, minor bad deeds that remind you of issues you encounter every day can quickly become a downer or annoying.

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  4. Hel-lo, Corso Riggs.

    I mean, his sexism is part of his storyline, and other members of your team call him out on it on a regular basis. And his sexism is the reason why my oldest refuses to pursue a romance with him. (His loss, IMHO.)

    And I do have to agree with Bhagpuss in that compared to the frequently violent solutions that MMOs and other video games present, sexism is a more easily solved problem. If we're being honest with ourselves, what we do as players in a lot of video games is at odds with what society expects of us as people. Does that mean I'm going to whip out a gun and blow away the people I don't like, because video games? No, because it's been shown in study after study that video games don't necessarily encourage violent behavior. But at the same time, they do frequently present violent behavior as the best solution to all problems.

    On the flip side, I consider the original SWTOR to be an artifact of its time. While today's perspective might be different, I'd prefer to keep the game as-is with the acknowledgement that times have changed (and in this case pretty rapidly) rather then retcon some of these lines.

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    1. Corso is an interesting case, because his character is still one I quite enjoy (though maybe also a bit less than in the game's early days, when I was actively revelling in making him squirm every step of the way). I hope he has given at least some male gamers that also play female characters pause about the concept of "positive discrimination". (If only I had a penny for every time I've heard/read something along the lines of "Women want equality but they still want us to hold the door for them!" It's really not as good as you think it is.)

      And like I said in my comment to Bhagpuss above, I think it's less an issue of severity than of familiarity. Just like nobody wanted to see any disaster movies that involved blowing up buildings for a while after 2001 - not because there was anything inherently wrong with the idea of having them, but after 9/11 people just did not find that sort of stuff entertaining, not with the awful reality still fresh on their minds. Casual sexist remarks are definitely small fry in the grand scheme of things, but if you're exposed to that kind of stuff all the time it can be wearing and tiresome to have to deal with it in relatively harmless entertainment too.

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  5. In addition to the open sexism, the hardcore anti-alien stances that you encounter in the empire are a pretty obvious stand in for racism. It gives some characters like Malgus a somewhat noble dimension, while making others even more despicable.

    While I can't say I exactly enjoy these elements, I definitely think they have a place. Rampant misogynists like Jabba the Hutt are part of the setting after all. I also think that part of the positive role that fiction plays in society is giving us a safe space to consider issues like racism, sexism and injustice towards other groups. If we say that video games need to be a place where those sorts of issues are never addressed in any way, we diminish them as an artistic medium. I also think that SWTOR is fairly effective in the way it portrays these issues because it forces you to decide how to respond when you encounter them.

    Thanks for this, a very thought provoking post.

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  6. PS: I did not mean to imply that your stance is that misogyny and racism should never be addressed in any way in SWTOR, that were just the thoughts that bubbled up first.

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  7. I just can't believe I missed this post!!!
    (I mean, missed, but you know what I mean).

    I'm going to say 3 things:

    1 - I LOVE this conversation. Made my day. Please, more.

    2 - I won't say anything about sexism, but about gender-marking: I think the BH is a great example of GOOD usage of it. IDK if all the other options would have been flirts (bet not), but Crysta's behaviour, for example, feels far more empowering when you have a double-girl team; it DOES make you feel like she cares more about you because she DOES make a point of saying how rare it is. It builds something within you and, even if it took me YEARS to hear from her again, I was moved in Rishi because I had cared for Crysta. She knew what rare position i was in and stood by me (and Mako). I can't see a Male-BH having quite teh same attachment. And, no, penis-attachments aren't the same. Kalyio, as well, has some wonderful gender-based dialogue as you two discuss the balmorran-spy. It helps build her character - and mine.

    3 - I won't get into the meat of this OR I'll write a bible. Literally. :D

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    1. I was super bummed about Crysta dying too; I liked her a lot.

      And I remember that convo with Kaliyo on Balmorra... one of the few instances where I thoguht we were exchanging some genuinely friendly banter (as opposed to me just being perpetually annoyed with her the rest of the time).

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    2. Ikr, she was awesome.

      And - same. Kalyio is always annoying me, but there are a couple isolated instances in which She's ok.

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  8. aah...yes...i love this internet thingy...

    ...especially the peope in it...

    ...every time someone mentions sexism, racism or anything like that... internetpeople have to make sure, their voice is heard...

    ...every post on this blog has like five comments...but these are rookie numbers...

    ...i really love the internetpeople...

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