Gender balance in video games: Desktop Dungeons does it right

Desktop Dungeons characters

It would be easy to open with “I don’t think there is any debate about there being issues with sexism in video games”, but let’s face it, even on somewhere as mainstream and generally progressive as Reddit you can still find “debate” on the subject. Or watch the fallout any time RPS take a stand on something. Or when Cara Ellison or Leigh Alexander say… well, almost anything.

Which is why it’s encouraging to find a game studio putting some real effort into things. Step forward please QCF Design.

Add boobs, job done

Desktop Dungeons

Female character design is easy. You take the male version that you’ve already made – because you’ll always make the male version first, that’s how things work – make them sexy, add boobs and remove most of the clothing. Simple. But what if – and this might sound crazy – you decided that you wanted to make your character designs a little more balanced, a little more realistic. Perhaps “sexy” isn’t your goal. Maybe, just maybe, you’ve realised that half of the world is composed of women and that maybe more of them might buy your game if you don’t alienate them with Cleavage McNakedmage.

That’s just what the crazy folks at QCF Design did for Desktop Dungeons. In a recent blog post they outlined how they designed the character classes with an eye for gender neutrality. It’s a hard article to quote since pretty much every paragraph is interesting. What I’m saying is go read the article.

Now, Desktop Dungeons itself isn’t some haven of progressive social ideas and forward thinking. We didn’t start the game with an overarching agenda in that area – but during the course of development, we were heavily informed by the dialogues, rants and documentaries around the topic of female portrayal and how some games screw that up so badly.

From standard beginnings:

Though Desktop Dungeons has always been gender neutral in its story and mechanics, it came out the door with a male-slanted art roster. For the freeware version, the entire character sheet was male, only accommodating women when third parties made custom tilesets available. And when the Beta came around, we only began work on active female representation after we’d already dealt with the male graphics as our norm.

To noble goals:

Quite frankly, we wanted the women in DD’s universe to be adventurers first and runway models second … But huge swathes of our artistic language tended to be informed by sexist and one-dimensional portrayals.

With admirable success:

And it wasn’t good enough for us to simply react with deliberate ugliness or typically masculine factors – the idea was for Desktop Dungeons to remove the gender binary entirely instead of just making everyone a man … Some of our proudest mechanical tweaks involved removing notices and choices in particular areas. Male / female adventurer rolls were deliberately made random. Gender-neutral character names were popularised in places.

But there’s still work to do:

In some of the more egregious cases, time and pressure still had us throwing up our hands and going with what was easiest for us with slightly disappointing results… like bringing in an entire cast of female goblins relying on secondary markers like eyelashes and lipstick. We also messed up pretty badly by whitewashing our cast.

So as always, despite the best of intentions they ran into the usual unforgiving walls of resource and time constraints. Even so they’ve done more than the vast majority of game studios and shown a degree of humanity and awareness that should stand as an example to everyone. I truly hope they are rewarded for their efforts.

Leave a Reply

Post Navigation