Tangential Politics: A strange little tale of gender, superheroes, and video games

Before I put up a post about the existential panic of being so close to a funded Kickstarter but running out of time, I want to take a moment to tell a weird little tale that might show, in a quirky way, some of the deep-seated issues of misogyny ingrained into both parts of the comic book culture and the video game culture.  In fact, the arena for this little tale is none other than one of those nexus points of the two cultures, one of my favorite video games, Marvel Heroes.

Marvel Heroes is a fun, free-to-play action game using the Marvel IP.  They make their money primarily by selling cosmetic costumes for the characters in the game … a pretty smart way to go, as visuals can mean everything to people and comic book characters often have quite a wardrobe that can be sold.  Early in the game’s history, they also introduced the notion of Enhanced Costumes:  Costumes that had more than a basic visual change.  Altered special effects, new voice overs, new animation sets, that kind of thing.

One use of Enhanced costumes was for cross-gendered counterparts of characters.  As you may know, many comic book characters had Distaff Counterparts created, female versions of male heroes, both as cheap fixes for the female demographic or, more recently, trying to bring some equality in the male-imbalanced comic book world by putting a woman in a legacy hero role.  Rarely, you can see the reverse, the Spear Counterpart, but considering the massive imbalance already between male and female representation in comic books, this has been exceedingly rare.

Here’s where things start to get creepy.  From the start, there have been sections of the game’s player base to keep shouting about the ‘unfairness’ that there were multiple male-to-female swaps (Lady Loki, Kate Bishop (a modern female Hawkeye), Lady Deadpool, etc.) and no female-to-male swaps.  Any argument about gender imbalance in the existing cast (which these costumes helped to even out) or the tremendous lack of Spear Counterparts in comics period were met with deaf ears.  The developers opened a feedback thread for suggestions for such female-to-male costumes and 99% of the suggestions were extreme stretches, often trying to stick totally different characters into totally incompatible character slots.

Eventually, two female-to-male costumes were announced.  A lot of people were unhappy about them, because they were, by the eyes of any fan of comic books, stretches.  The developers original policy was that Enhanced Costumes had to have near identical powers as the base character and be strongly linked.  Both of these new ideas were on-point with the second idea, but stretched the first one considerably.  Still, they continued on.

Cut to the now, as the first of these is to be released.  There are now creepy and strange little nitpicks about it.  Why isn’t the character name changed, it looks weird to see a feminine name (despite the fact that no other Enhanced costume has had a name change)?  Why do the power icons still show the original character, it looks weird to see a woman’s face on them (despite the fact that, you guessed it, power icons have never changed on other Enhanced costumes)?  Why did this costume take so long to come out, all the other female enhanced costumes came out so much faster (even though they took just as long, one even being released incomplete after a long delay)?  To contrast, none of these questions were brought up by the female gamers who were getting male-to-female costumes; they just expressed relief and thanks for getting more female playable options.

This may seem a little thing, but it’s very eye-opening about the casual misogyny that men (and some women) can show.  There’s an expectation that there are different rules and that what applied to women doesn’t apply to them.  Their needs are more important and things that weren’t previously an issue are now big issues that need to be addressed for their comfort.  The one positive I can take away from this is that the Marvel Heroes dev team have not indulged in any of this chicanery.  Still, the whole deal colors portions of the game’s community in a pretty negative light … thankfully it’s no one I hang around with!

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