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'They don't set the tone': Dragon Age lead writer on the men who don't want women in games

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

"Confession, my lecture isn't actually about sex," said David Gaider, a senior writer and designer at BioWare EA. The lecture, he revealed, was actually about how BioWare has had to address sexism and sexuality.

From there, Gaider's Game Developers Conference lecture, bluntly titled "Sex in Games," analyzed players' reactions to various genders and sexualities in BioWare's games, then expanded to explain to how diversity is the obvious next step for an industry addicted to pleasing the male 18-35 demographic.

But first, he wanted to talk about sex and romance, particularly the first time BioWare implemented the latter in a role-playing game. "We had no idea if that's something players would want," Gaider said. "It seems silly now."

"There were four romance characters in Baldur's Gate 2 ... Three were women, one was a man." At the time, female players asked why they were only allotted one romance. "We thought we were being generous," Gaider said. "It didn't even occur to us to look at it as an issue of fairness."

Next, BioWare developed Neverwinter Nights and Gaider was tagged as Mr. Romance, the person who wrote the romantic sequences in the company's role-playing games. For Neverwinter Nights, he recalled his assignment to write the male romance; at the time, BioWare didn't have a female writer.

Gaider met female fans of Neverwinter via the internet, and asked what they'd like to see in potential romances. His curiosity wasn't met with vitriol. The fans were open and honest, sharing a variety of opinions. Gaider called the experience eye-opening. "I only thought about making characters first," he said, "not who they are meant to appeal to."

From there, the writer wrote on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. For the first time, the male romance struck a chord with the female audience, which he credits to the fan input. "It became quickly clear a lot of people really liked that content," he said.

Gaider became the lead writer for Dragon Age. For the first time, the team introduced sex. "It was a very different time ... We assumed the player wouldn't accept that," he said.Unintentionally, they broached the topic of what they thought was normal. They were telling their fanbase, "who they were, who was invited to play the game."

According to Gaider, the inclusion of sex scenes — both gay and straight — pleased fans and didn't hurt sales. Not all response was positive. Some fans had trouble wrapping their heads around the character's sexuality, even though the character didn't identify a sexual preference. Sexuality was the player's choice.

"It's hard to remember," he said, "not too many years ago the climate was very, very different."

Now he jokingly says BioWare has sex. "Ever since Mass Effect, we've included a sex scene to one degree or another," said Gaider. "And we're not alone. The industry has entered the place where video games don't only have the technical ability to show sex scenes, but the willingness to include them."

Sex sells. If you look at forums, he said, the commenters like it a lot. "Though not everyone likes sex," Gaider said, displaying a slide of Fox News pundits.

Gaider believes perception is the reason there's still a faction of people conflicted about sex in games. The public sees average gamers as children. The industry thinks they're males 18-25. But the truth is the average gamer is 30. And 37 percent of gamers are over 36.

He continued, stating that 40 percent of all gamers are female. Now, he said, developers may be tempted to say those women are casual gamers, that they aren't playing "core games." But that perception is just as shallow as that held by the public or the industry, he said.

"If you're working on a AAA title, you probably hear it all the time: We need a casual audience," he said. "But do we actually target the casual audience, or are we still marketing our games to that same male 18-25 demographic?

"What if someone asked others to play?" he asked.

Gaider acknowledged that BioWare isn't above the industry's problems with sexuality, showing a slide of two sexualized characters from Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2. "The point is, our industry is coming under increased scrutiny ... video games are no longer the province of teenage boys. More people are watching our every move now."

The conventional wisdom, Gaider said, is that this is what sells. But is that correct? Gaider asked the audience if Tomb Raider, Mirror's Edge, The Longest Journey and the few other female protagonist games failed. And if they did, was it solely because they starred a woman?

Change is happening, Gaider said, but there is resistance from a small, but loud group of the dominant demographic that feels it will somehow be underrepresented. He believes much of the industry fears the negative feedback of "those guys" more than anyone else.

"They don't set the tone," Gaider said. "We set the tone." By not standing up for others, we condone it, he said.

Developers don't have to go out and attract women, Gaider said. They just need not to repel them.

"Consider, we influence the way our audience thinks ... Those attitudes effect others who may not even be playing the game."