Death to Historical Accuracy: Rotterdam to Rome, and All the Sexism Between

The internet is like a mug of filter coffee – it’s great until you get to the bitter dregs at the bottom.

These dregs are the GamerGate types, alt-right trolls who bully actresses off social media and launch hate-campaigns against important critics. Corralled by hate websites such as infamous Nazi breeding ground The Daily Stormer (don’t worry, that isn’t a link to the site!), and using a plethora of meaningless buzzwords like “SJW” or “liberal agenda” to flood message boards and Steam reviews, these trolls have it out for reasonable people.

In the last few months these trolls have organised hate-campaigns against Total War: Rome II and Battlefield V, railing against the inclusion of female characters in both historically-based games. No-one’s expecting online trolls to have reasonable points to make, but their flawed logic to justify outrage casts a sad shadow over the gaming community.

Arguments against the inclusion of female characters in Roman and World War II contexts hinge on the belief that it upsets the historical accuracy of the games, but these arguments stand on an incorrect assumption-

Video games are not historically accurate

To be historically accurate to any setting, a game must not only adhere to strict limitations on aesthetic, tone and theme, but must visit the era’s central events in a faithful way. Any piece of entertainment would need to be carefully structured to respect all these components.

A game has something that a film, book or TV show doesn’t have – a player – and when this player is given agency, no amount of intricate game direction or intelligent ushering can keep them from bowling through this careful structure. By letting a player take the reins, a game forfeits any semblance of historical accuracy.

Consider the games at the centre of the debate. Total War games are favourites of history buffs – the amount of aesthetic detail in each testifies to the care and work Creative Assembly put into their games. Then the player comes along.

The player is given freedom to write history as they wish. The Maratha Confederacy can invade America. Prussia can conquer Wales. The Vandals can plunder Rome. The joy of the Total War games comes not from historical accuracy but in reneging from that accuracy, and creating from the building blocks of history a strange new world.

When Battlefield V announced female soldiers, enraged fans pointed to Battlefield I as a pillar of historical accuracy, which is perhaps the most ludicrous argument ever made. The First World War, during which Battlefield I takes place, was a miserable time full of displaced youths idling away their innocence in crumbling trenches. Many died in slow agony from illness or starvation. To put it mildly, it was not a fun time to be alive.

Battlefield I, on the other hand, is a fast-paced action shooter in which you leap off zeppelins, ride horses while shooting flamethrowers, and jump between planes in mid-air while pulling off a trick-shot that’ll later go on YouTube. It doesn’t even belong in the same article as ‘historical accuracy’.

Both Creative Assembly and DICE know their games aren’t accurate to the periods they are set in – the era is simply an aesthetic, to vary their mechanically similar games.

There were, of course, many powerful and incredibly impressive female warriors throughout history. But online trolls aren’t really known for their firm grasp on history.

Those who complain of infringement on historical accuracy don’t believe this nonsensical defence, naturally. It’s an easy shield they think they can get away with to distract from the sexist overtones of their outrage. The problem with paper-thin defences however is that, as paper, they are easily seen through.

Language as a Weapon

This sexism is most obvious in the source of the outrage – female characters being added to video games – but can also be observed in the language trolls use to debate the issue, and refer to women, online.

When the second ‘controversy’ reared its ugly head, Creative Assembly community manager Ella McConnell commented “Total War games are historically authentic, not historically accurate – if having female units upsets you that much you can either mod them out or just not play.” This sentiment echoes that of EA’s chief creative officer Patrick Soderlund’s comments on Battlefield V: “those people who don’t understand it, well, you have two choices: either accept it or don’t buy the game.”

Both comments have been criticised for being stark, especially the former as people have spent money on the game only to have it modified in a way they disapprove of. However this argument (ignoring, for a second, the distasteful idea that female generals are a negative addition which damage the game) is being overshadowed by the sexist overtones used in its communication.

Comments on Reddit chastise McConnell, saying she is liable to “act out again,” and should have been more “professional,” calling her reply “tactless” (as if she needed to use tact and professionalism to a horde of gamers egged on by a literal Nazi website).

This language is full of coded sexist sentiments. Criticising her for ‘acting out’ refers to outdated stereotypes that women are driven by emotional, as opposed to men who are logical and rational. Other comments imply she should have stuck to the ‘motherly’ role that alt-right extremists think a women should be confined to – she should be complacent and complicit, happy in this traditional gender role. A women can’t have a voice, after all, but should simply preside over the all the men in the Steam forums that do!

The Rise of the “SJW”

Of course, no-one’s ever accused the online trolls of having a solid semantic understanding – nor have they, for that matter, been spotted with a healthy relationship with women. Many disgruntled trolls have decided that including women as characters in games now is all part of an “SJW plot” to spread “liberal agendas” across gaming.

Plot twist: they’re right.

They’re right, of course, with several complications. Firstly, “SJWs” aren’t some malicious counter-culture trying to undermine the fundamentals of society – they are society, they are culture, and they’re making a change for the better. Including more women in gaming, and therefore increasing the number of people who feel represented by characters, themes and ideas presented in games, will help evolve gaming into a newer and more honest art form that represents and speaks to those who make and enjoy it.

Secondly, many are accusing the developers of these games of “shoving the changes down our throats”. They’re asking games to have female characters as an opt-out feature, as though women are some strange and experimental trial run that can be recalled at will. You’ve never been able to opt out of having male generals in Total War games, or male playable characters in Battlefield games, though – why aren’t they optional? If you’re the kind of person who feels seeing a women on screen is having them “shoved down your throat”, perhaps consider you’re the problem.

The question of historical accuracy in video games, the language used to refer to a human being, and the two inciting incidents that are discussed in this article, are three orbital points in the real issue that is gender and representation in video games.

However I am a male, and so am not as qualified, or perhaps even capable, of writing about games’ gender representation as women. Thankfully there are many talented gaming critics who can – for example Tracey Lien, Leigh Alexander and Anita Sarkeesian. These three writers have made huge positive contributions to gender studies in video games, and their work enunciates the importance of representation far better than I ever could. Read their work.

A report by Anita Sarkeesian’s website, Feminist Frequency, found that of all games showcased at E3 2018 only 8% featured a female protagonist, whereas triple that (24%) had a male lead. In comparison, the number of women who play games is roughly equal – within 10% difference – of men.

While the GamerGate trolls act as though games that introduce female characters are catering to some fringe group, in reality there is a terrible deficit in the number of women characters in games.

We can’t keep having this argument

Women characters are going to becoming increasingly prevalent in games. That’s not a reason to be upset, but a fantastic change for the better.

While many may oppose the change in its increments, saying “I’m not a sexist but…” or “I don’t mind women, however” they ignore the irony of their statements. By prioritising other goals in games, be it historical accuracy or the myriad of other excuses offered in these debates, people constantly relegate the importance of representation to the back-burner – despite us living in a society, with such a tortured history, that has repeatedly done so.

Even trying to maintain a viable debate over an issue like this, in which one party is trying to preserve an age-old system of oppression, is a ludicrous waste of time. The gaming community can’t debate with sexist trolls for the same reason the BBC refuses to field climate change deniers in climate change debates – we can’t pretend a minority’s views are worth discussing if their raison d’etre is to oppress others.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however – to talk in such encompassing terms of the woes of internet gaming culture is to ignore the many facets of it that are supportive of the change. For every troll whining about the addition of female characters in games, there are five supporters who embrace the change. The Total War subreddit in particular has been a surprisingly warm place, with many making light of the ‘controversy’ to mock those who perpetuate it.

Hopefully the good will of many members of the community can continue to fight this trolls’ nonsense, by calling out, questioning and criticising problematic views and supporting games that try to enact positive change. Hopefully.

But with games release season 2018 heating up, the trolls have an increasing number of perceived slights to get offended about. What’ll they think when Just Dance 2019 lets you dance along to a female avatar? The horror!

Tom Bedford

Updated: Sep 28, 2018

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Death to Historical Accuracy: Rotterdam to Rome, and All the Sexism Between | The Digital Fix