French Socialists, what is your problem with video games? A few months ago, in the first article of my blog, I quoted the leader of the French Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who said that “PS stands for Parti Socialiste, not for PlayStation, which is about shooting down everyone as fast as possible”. Cambadélis used this phrase to refer once again to the common idea that video games = violence, proving he knew nothing about the medium in general. Seriously, what year is this, 2002? (Nothing particular happened in 2002, it just happens to be a long time ago.) No longer than last month, a socialist députée claimed that French video games were “too sexist”, using groundless arguments. The French game industry actually isn’t the most sexist in the world, but little did she know about it. Finally, when François Hollande reshuffled his cabinet last Thursday, French Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin was dismissed from her functions – an article in Le Parisien stated that fellow socialists pejoratively call her the “video game minister” – i.e. a minister that is incompetent, because she’d rather help the video game industry than Culture with a capital “C”. Once again, games are accused of being too violent, too stupid – in the eyes of politicians, games cannot be a part of culture, and the gaming industry simply is pointless. French Socialists (and other politicians), here is a question for you: have you played a video game, ever? And more generally: what planet are you living on, exactly?
A “video game minister” is not so bad, after all
Since you are lecturing gamers for being so unbelievably stupid and violent, let me lecture you as politicians for being so unbelievably ignorant: honestly, giving your opinion on a medium without knowing anything about it, that pretty much sucks. Don’t even try to pretend that you are familiar with video games: it is quite obvious that you actually aren’t. For starters: not all video games are violent. I already discussed this issue in my blog’s first article, in which I mentioned Jean-Christophe Cambadélis’ statement, explained why I am not a murderer even though I have been playing games ever since I was old enough to hold a controller, and why video games are cultural if not artistic goods, whether it bothers you or not.
I do not have a definite opinion about Fleur Pellerin. Seeing her evicted from the government does not bother me that much, and this article is by no means a tribute to the former Culture Minister, whose cultural policy probably had some flaws. What really bothers me, however, is the way the government refers to her as the “video game minister” with such a critical tone, as if the idea that a politician might work in favor of the game industry was just unbearable. On the contrary, it was about time someone finally took care of the video game industry in France, as all previous governments did very little to help it. Video games deserve a lot more of politicans’ attention. As noticed in an article published in Le Monde.fr two days ago, video games are the ninth biggest cultural industry in the world in terms of revenue, which makes it less lucrative than television, visual arts or press, but more lucrative than cinema or music. Furthermore, exportations of French video games are more lucrative than exportations of French books (in terms of revenue, once again). In addition to that, I believe there is still some sort of “cultural exception” in France, which I already mentioned in my previous article about the “Art in Video Games – French Inspiration” exhibition: some kind of french touch, a particular vision of game-making that makes the whole industry evolve towards a very specific and interesting direction. In a nutshell, video games are a valuable asset for France, both in terms of cultural and economic power. So, the way I see it, a “video game minister” isn’t such a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all, actually.
Fleur Pellerin, along with the Secretary of State for Digital Affairs, Axelle Lemaire, really did her best to help French game developers. Since 2007, French game studios benefit from a tax credit called “crédit d’impôt jeux vidéo” (CIJV) – a credit granted by the State in order to stimulate the creation of French video games, by reducing the development costs by 20%. In 2015, Fleur Pellerin’s minister of culture expanded the CIJV to “video games specifically designed for a mature audience”, meaning video games tagged “18+” by the PEGI system. These games used to be considered as too violent to be eligible to the CIJV. Although Fleur Pellerin and Axelle Lemaire’s reform maintains a restriction of the CIJV for games that contain pornography or that are too obviosuly violent, it really is a great step towards more liberty for game developers. French studios are no longer forced to soften the content of their games if they want to receive a financial help from the State. In the end, it is a great evolution that can only be profitable for France, and that was very well received by the French video game industry.
Are French games really too sexist?
Unfortunately, most French politicians are not as open-minded as Fleur Pellerin or Axelle Lemaire. Last January, Socialist députée Catherine Coutelle wanted to amend a French “Law for a Digital Republic”. Her amendment aimed at excluding from the CIJV all games that contain “degrading portrayals of women”. Catherine Coutelle justified her amendment as such:
“Either there are no female characters whatsoever, as it is the case in “Assassin’s Creed”, which totally negates the existence of women; either the female protagonists are sexualized and identified by their body – a big butt and big breasts, to put it crudely – while male characters are always decently dressed.” (Catherine Coutelle, quoted by William Audureau in “Des députés socialistes veulent s’attaquer au sexisme dans les jeux vidéo français”, Le Monde.fr, January 13, 2016)
In the end, Catherine Coutelle’s amendment didn’t make it into the law. Probably because someone, at some point, realized how unconvincing and pointless Coutelle’s arguments actually were. Indeed, it looks like Catherine Coutelle needs an update on some points of general knowledge:
Assassin’s Creed? Not a French game. Ubisoft is a French company, indeed, but Assassin’s Creed is mainly developed in Ubisoft’s Montreal studios – which means it isn’t eligible to the French CIJV anyway. Secondly, just because you have heard about a controversy regarding the absence of female protagonist in Assassin’s Creed: Unity doesn’t mean that all Assassin’s Creed games “totally negate the exitence of women”. This controversy was triggered by Ubisoft’s poor justification of the absence of female protagonist in Unity‘s multiplayer mode, which resulted in a bad buzz. Actually, the player can only play as Arno, the game’s protagonist: there are no playable women in the game, simply because there’s only one playable character who turns out to be a man. But instead of saying just that, Ubisoft used a lame excuse about how it would have been too difficult and expensive to create and animate a woman, which was an absurd argument and triggered the whole controversy. It seems to me that Catherine Coutelle only observed the controversy (from a very long distance), and then considered the whole Assassin’s Creed franchise as sexist. Had she better analysed the series, however, she would have noticed that Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (released in 2012, two years before Unity) has a female main character, and that Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (released in 2015, a year after Unity) has two protagonists, one male and one female. And I’m not even mentioning the numerous female secondary characters in the Assassin’s Creed series. All in all, there is no “negating the existence of women” in Assassin’s Creed. Catherine Coutelle’s argument is not acceptable.
The French gaming industry, which Coutelle takes as an example of a sexist industry, has actually produced a great number of games with female, independant and non-sexualised protagonists. You might even say that this actually is a French specificity, as opposed to some other countries that tend to produce male-centric games only. In 2003, Beyond Good & Evil featured a woman as the lead: a young journalist named Jade who, struggles to survive a war and overthrow a dictatorship. In Remember Me, Dontnod Entertainment depicted a female protagonist, and then they created Life is Strange, in which at least 50% of the cast is composed of women, including the two main characters, Max and Chloe. As opposed to many other video game women, Max and Chloe are totally independent from men: they do not need them to become themselves or to accomplish things. They are smart, independent women, which is a very positive and progressive representation of women. And by the way, none of the aformentioned characters have “a big butt and big breasts”.
Everything isn’t perfect in the way women are portrayed in French video games. The French studio Quantic Dream, creator of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, does feature female protagonists in its games, but also has a tendency to place its female characters in scenes of assault or rape, which does nothing but contributing to the rape culture, that is already heavily imprinted in people’s minds. So everything definitely isn’t perfect, as I said before, but France does produce games in which women are positively represented – more than other countries, at least. Implying that the French gaming industry is sexist is a negation of all the positive evolutions that have occured in the last few years, and it might also discourage developers to keep evolving towards more representativeness.
We should definitely be more careful about the way women are portrayed in video games, and to the amount of crude violence developers put into their games. But banning developers from receiving a tax credit based on subjective and unclear criteria is like depriving game makers from some part of their liberty of creation. If you have read my blog before, you probably know that I believe a sexy character isn’t necessarily a sexist character. It is the case of Lara Croft (for women) or of Nathan Drake (for men). There are many reasons why a video game (or a movie/book) character – whether male or female – might be sexualized, that don’t involve sexism, or even unconscious sexism. Otherwise, one might say that artists who paint naked characters are all sexual addicts, or that movies that feature nudity are sexist, too. Refusing the CIJV to developers who sexualize characters is an incitation to stop sexualizing characters at all. Which, in the end, reduces the artistic liberty of game developers. So my point is: find another culprit, games are not more sexist than any other art medium. Preventing this industry from growing isn’t the right way to reduce sexism.
Sell your Valentine’s gift on eBay and get a console
Blaming video games for almost everything that is wrong in this world? This is seriously getting old. When they underestimate an industry that actually contributes, with or without their help, to the economic and cultural power of France, French politicians are a few years late. And with their help, things would be even better. It is time to change the way we think about video games, and to realize that they are part of our culture. Fleur Pellerin, Axelle Lemaire or anyone else, that doesn’t matter much to me. What I do want, in the end, is to finally see other perspectives for video games than being accused of all sorts of problems, and considered as nothing more than a silly and stupid subculture.
To all of you politicians of all sides and all parties, and to all of you video game haters, I only have one thing to say: buy yourselves a console. Or a computer, whatever. Just play. Play. Stop giving your opinion about a medium you know nothing about. Play. Only then will I allow you to talk about video games.
- Des députés socialistes veulent s’attaquer au sexisme dans les jeux vidéo français by William Audureau for Le Monde.fr, January 13, 2016. [French only]
- L’industrie du jeu vidéo prend la défense de Fleur Pellerin by William Audureau for Le Monde.fr, February 13, 2016. [French only]