Annalee is a gamer and general-purpose geek. She can be found on Twitter as @leeflower and Dreamwidth as annalee.
Like most feminist gamers I know, I have learned to give myself permission to love problematic things. If I didn’t, I’d pretty much have to give up on video games entirely.
The fact that I’ve grown accustomed to the whiff of garbage that comes with almost every game on the market doesn’t mean I can’t smell it, though. So while I’m having a heck of a lot of fun playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, I am also slapping my forehead a lot and going “really Bioware? Did you seriously just- I mean, really?”
Because boy howdy does this game have some issues. Minor spoilers ahoy.
On pretty much every world you visit in SWTOR, there’s at least one sort of stock mob-usually some kind of aggressive animal-standing around to attack you on your way from one quest area to the next.
Then there’s the prison world of Belsavis, where mobs of escaped prisoners rove the landscape between you and every objective. Lest you get the impression that all of these prisoners are, as the story suggests, the very worst of the worst criminals the republic has to incarcerate, some of them are helpfully labeled for you as “lunatics” and other charming ableist slurs. Because people with mental illnesses are totally the same as vicious animals, amirite?
(Also, Seriously? The great Galactic Republic, shining beacon of justice and equality, has no facilities for people with mental illnesses who are a danger to others, and instead throws them in with the general prison population? What?).
When you create your character, you have a choice of four body types. For a guy toon, your options vary from lanky to football coach. When you play a woman, your choices are bratz doll, barbie doll, she-hulk, and one that I guess passes for plus-sized in mass-media land.
Here’s what I mean-these are the two “plus-size” models, side by side:
Yeah, so apparently Even Longer Ago in a Galaxy Not Quite As Far Away, ‘plus’ was a bra size. Because everyone knows fat women can’t be heroes, amirite?
As you zoom about the galaxy, you’ll encounter many fat guys. They’re soldiers, wardens, shopkeepers, spies, smugglers, community organizers, and Jedi. You’ll see not a single flippin’ fat woman anywhere. They just don’t exist.
And if erasing fat women from the galaxy wasn’t enough, the protocol droid on my ship helpfully informs me every once in a while that he’s put my crew on a diet. My crew of athletic guys and one skinny woman; all of whom spend their time sprinting across strange planets, getting into fistfights with monsters, and kicking the forces of evil in the face. God forbid these folks exercise their own discretion about how much fuel their bodies need. Not when BioWare can get in a cheap shot at fat people and call it a “joke.”
After the great strides BioWare made towards including gays and lesbians in Dragon Age, SWTOR has felt like a big step backward. All romance options are heterosexual, and if any of the non-player-characters are in same-gender relationships, they never mention it. Heterosexual relationships, on the other hand, appear quite regularly.
Back in 2009, there were reports of people being banned from the game’s official forums for questioning why words like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “homosexual” were on the censored words list. Banned, that is, after being rudely informed by a BioWare staffer that those words “don’t exist” in Star Wars. Classy.
(I guess we all just imagined Juhani the lesbian Jedi from the original Knights of the Old Republic, then?).
Last September, they changed their tune, releasing a statement saying that same-gender romances will be available as a post-launch feature, and citing the “design constraints” of a fully-voiced MMO as the reason they weren’t able to include it at launch. I took that as fair enough-they hadn’t committed the resources for the extra dialogue they were going to need, and it was going to take some time to fix it.
That is, until I encountered the first character that would have been a romance option if my toon were male. If you’re playing a dude, she initiates a relationship, and you have the choice to take her up on it. If you’re playing a woman, there’s an entirely separate, fully-voiced conversation in which she awkwardly asks to adopt you as her sister.
So, in fact, they spent extra time and effort to remove the same-gender romance option. I’m not sure heterosexism really counts as a “design constraint,” BioWare. But I guess a statement reading “We made a horrible mistake and are working as hard as we can to fix it, and we apologize to all our players for the bigoted, hostile statements we’ve made in the past about this issue” would have taken a little more courage than they had on hand.
LOL slavery, amirite? [TW for violence against women]
If you play a Sith Warrior, one of your companion characters is an accomplished treasure hunter the Sith have enslaved. Your dark side options involve [Trigger Warning] torturing her with a shock collar and either making her watch you have sex or forcing her into a threesome (it’s not clear which).
I know, I know: dark side Sith are supposed to be evil, so slavery, torture, and sexual harassment/assault are just part of their alignment, right? Bullcookies. Any writer worth hiring is creative enough to come up with dark side options that don’t involve turning slavery and violence against women into a punchline.
(h/t Club Jade for that link).
If you pre-ordered the game, your character starts out with a handful of mostly-useless toys, like a flare gun and a droid that buzzes around. Oh, and a holographic burlesque dancer.
A woman dancer, of course. I imagine some of the guys playing the game might start feeling vaguely gross and uncomfortable if they had to run the risk of seeing a mostly-naked dude shaking his thang every time they entered a populated area. I imagine this because that’s exactly how I feel about that flippin’ hologram.
And since we’re talking about feeling vaguely gross and uncomfortable, let’s talk about the slave bikini.
For the most part, I have been quite impressed with BioWare when it comes to armor options for women. Unlike most games (where full-body armor magically morphs into a bikini when you equip it on your woman toon), all but one piece of armor I’ve found in the game has looked perfectly sensible and protective on my lady knight (the exception was a piece of low-level armor that magically lost a midriff when I put it on, but kept its sleeves and neckline). Women characters start off wearing pants and a shirt (PANTS! It’s amazing! It’s like they know that most women don’t do their butt-kicking in bathing suits, or something!).
But of course, it’s Star Wars, and you can’t have a Star Wars property without some kind of reference to Leia’s slave outfit. So if you’ve got the extra in-game cash to burn, you can buy it and equip it on your character.
Well, if you’re playing a woman, that is. Unlike every other garment in the game, which can be equipped onto either available gender, the slave outfit is ladies only. Also, I say “your character,” but really, I mean “your companion,” because so far, every time I’ve seen it, it’s been a player with a dude character, who’s equipped the bikini on their female non-player companion character.
At first, I thought maybe they included it as a joke, and just didn’t account for people actually wanting cheesecake enough to take massive armor penalties to have it. Sadly, I was mistaken. Because rather than making people live with the consequences of forcing their companion to walk around in metal underwear, they decided to make Leia’s slave outfit armor.
In fact, it’s not just armor; it’s orange-grade armor, which means it’s some of the best armor you can get. You can have your character walking around in a bikini that protects her as well as anything else she can put on.
So no, it’s not a bad joke gone wrong. They actually incentivized using it. The fact that I have to put up with other players reducing their companion characters to sex objects is no accident at all. And of course there’s no version for guys. Like the bikini itself, that gross feeling that comes with being subjected to someone else’s demeaning fantasy is reserved for ladies only.
There are a lot of things to love about this game. It’s well designed and well-paced, with engaging stories and gorgeous graphics. The mechanics are smooth and easy to learn, and the details are delightful. As a gamer and a Star Wars fan, I’m having a heck of a lot of fun with it. I don’t even want to know how many hours I’ve clocked playing since launch.
As a queer woman and feminist, however, I’m having to close my nose. Because there is an undeniable whiff of garbage.
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