The gaming industry has suffered from a lack of diversity more severely than most. But as the tide begins to turn, it raises questions about the appropriateness of some progressive choices. Is it ever okay not to be diverse?
A few weeks ago, EA and DICE announced the latest Battlefield game. Due to a caricatured, cinematic tone and the presence of a woman with a prosthetic limb, the trailer for Battlefield V was poorly received; but, though there is no excuse for the abuse that fans are hurling at women in general, it is important to understand why they are hurling it. After all, the gaming industry suffers from a particularly bad diversity problem – women on the Battlefield ought to be a positive thing.
Finding a balance
The bedrock issue here is that Battlefield is a historical shooter that has often marketed itself as being historically accurate. This is, of course, a term that should be taken with a pinch of salt; first-person shooter games involve plenty of thoroughly historically inaccurate things, the least of which is the respawn system.
There is, however, clear reason to despair over the presence of a woman with a prosthetic limb. Women did not fight on the front lines during World War II in any significant capacity – though they played a crucial part in the war effort – and an amputee would have been refused the option to resume active duty.
This certainly explains the violently negative response that Battlefield V has received thus far. A lack of communication between fan-base and developer has meant that the reasons behind the drive for diversity are still indistinct. In reality, Battlefield V will focus on the less well-known stories of World War II; many of these stories feature women very prominently, as they do in real life. But this is irrelevant, given the uproar that the poorly-communicated decision has caused.
In order to be historically accurate when depicting conflict, it is necessary that the emphasis falls on men. This is not an issue of present-day diversity, rather, it is a reflection of outdated, sexist notions. It is hard to believe that a female historian would appreciate seeing a factually incorrect depiction of the front lines. In this instance, then, it seems to be acceptable to feature one sex more prominently than the other; 150,000 men landed on the beaches during D-Day, after all, but only one woman.
But what a story that one woman had. Martha Gellhorn was a journalist who stowed away aboard one of the many channel-crossing vessels after Ernest Hemingway took her assigned place. Following the story of these extraordinary women – as Battlefield V will do, as it explores the occupation of Norway – is both historically accurate and progressive. It does not neglect the sacrifices made by male combatants, and it provides a real, strong female protagonist.
A game that attempts to retell history for the sake of diversity will inevitably fail. It is far more important that under-represented groups in the gaming industry are represented through original narratives. Horizon: Zero Dawn is a perfect example of an original narrative that produces a memorable female lead; Aloy is unique because her story is not simply a retelling of one previously populated by men. The re-imagined Lara Croft is further testament to this phenomenon.
It is unfortunate that Battlefield V should serve as the scapegoat in this scenario; the game will treat the women of World War II with the same reverence as it will the men. A poorly-directed reveal trailer has overshadowed the best of intentions: offering a growing female fan-base the chance to represent their gender in-game. What this exercise has proven, however, is that it is better to tell the real stories of those who deserve representation. Appropriating the stories of others – an issue that is particularly visible in modern cinema – can be problematic for all those involved.