Sunday, February 14, 2016

Diversity in Guild Ball

Reading Robert's post about his first impression of the game made me think (I do that sometimes) about the ethnic and gender diversity in Guild Ball.

Wargaming has traditionally been a "boy's club" in most senses of the word - the player base is overwhelmingly male, and the representation of genders in older fantasy wargames has often fit in with the high fantasy/swords and sorcery stereotypes - large overly muscular men with oversized weapons shouting on about honour and death and blood and glory, contrasted with slender, overly curvaceous, usually half-naked, seductive women attributed either with the malicious, deceitful machinations of a sorceress or simply sexually objectified. Pretty much the kind of jank you'd expect to see on a Manowar cover:

Ethnic Diversity in the Empire of the Free Cities

In terms of ethnic diversity, I will keep it short - the Guild Ball setting is based on a late medieval/ early industrial-era Western Europe, with a dash of Game of Thrones-style pseudo magic.
You have the Scandinavian influences in the Fishermen and Brewers, the urban Jack the Ripper-style gore of the Butchers, the fashionable dress stylings of the Alchemists and Union, the gothic stylings of the Morticians, the steampunk of the Engineers and the Frankish influences of the Masons.

The setting and its influences are squarely European, which I must admit is one thing that drew me in, as I love European history and cultures. Europe in the "Guild Ball" era was overwhelmingly populated by white caucasian Europeans. To my knowledge, the only non-caucasian characters currently (or soon to be) in the game are Greyscales, Hammer and Scalpel (all black), although you could probably argue a few non-European eastern influences on characters like Corsair or Blackheart, not to mention masked players like Snakeskin, Mist or Minx.

All in all, given the context it is working in and the youth of the game, I feel Guild Ball's ethnic diversity is quite good and there is probably more ethnic diversity than the setting would dictate.

You could of course critique the setting on that which it isn't, namely an accurate representation of our increasingly ethnically mixed and diverse modern day society, or why they chose to go with the setting they did rather than an alternate setting more representational of our modern day cosmopolitanism, but that would take the discussion to another plane of critique well above the purview of this short article.

Gender diversity in the game of Guild Ball

In terms of gender diversity, let's take a look at the numbers, including Season 2 releases known so far. I remember Matt Hart mentioned in an interview (likely the CanCon Q&A) that the current female:male ratio in Guild Ball is around one third:

Alchemists - 3/8
Male: Midas, Mercury, Katalyst, Venin, Compound
Female: Smoke, Calculus, Vitriol

Brewers  - 2/8
Male: Tapper, Hooper, Spigot, Stave, Stoker, Mash
Female: Friday, Esters

Butchers - 3/8
Male: Ox, Boiler, Boar, Shank, Tenderizer
Female: Brisket, Fillet, Meathook

Engineers - 2/8
Male: Ballista, Salvo, Colossus, Ratchet, [Hoist], Compound
Female: [Velocity], Pin Vice

Fishermen - 2/8
Male: Shark, Corsair, Kraken, Greyscales, Jac, Sakana
Female: Angel, Siren

Masons - 3/8
Male: Hammer, Mallet, Brick, Flint, Tower
Female: Honour, Chisel, Harmony

Morticians - 2/8
Male: Obulus, Graves, Casket, Ghast, Silence, Bonesaw
Female: Scalpel, Cosset

Union - 5/12
Male: Blackheart, Rage, Avarisse, Greed, Fangtooth, Mist, Harry the Hat
Female: Gutter, Decimate, Hemlocke, Minx, Snakeskin

Total: 22/68 = 32% (33% if you include Compound only once)

Conclusion - Matt was correct. Freakishly so.

Compared to the majority of fantasy wargames out there, and compared to the world of peak-level professional sports (overwhelmingly male dominated), having a one third female proportion of players is not bad at all.

Let's go a bit further and look at individual female models and see how many fit the traditional fantasy archetype of the female physique and temperament. In order to broaden the depth of this overview, I have even consulted with NZ Guild Ball's foremost feminism theory expert, Dave D, M. Health Science (Psych.), for a critique of the representation of women within the game. I offer his cold critical perspective sporadically in red:

DD - This gender ratio is not necessarily a marker for whether this is good or bad, but rather will raise the question, why not 1:1? Sure, this shows a trend towards a more equitable ratio compared to other games, but the critical question still remains; why is it still disproportionate to the actually make up of our population? This is a fantasy setting, where we do not have to rely on "real-world" social discourses to explain why things are "the way they are", yet I will propose that it is the strength of these discourses that lead designers, most probably unconsciously yet still deliberate, to make design decisions where men are represented more, and this is assumed as the "natural" state of affairs.


Calculus - fully clothed, throws chemical bombs (that she concocted herself as a scientist) to melt and blind people.
Vitriol - slender and fast, as you would expect of a superstar striker on a sports team. Face half-burned off following a chemical accident (again, female scientist), fights dirty with smoke bombs.
Smoke - the Alchemist's Season 2 captain embodies androgyny to a degree that would make most gender critics jump with joy, at least in the only art of her we've seen. I don't think there is much else to say there, at least until the rules come out.


Esters - large, very bulky and supremely tough viking lady, straight out of a Wagnerian opera. Fits a female stereotype (the fat lady that sings), but not the high fantasy one.
Friday - fits in the same box as Vitriol - star striker who likes to fight scrappy and dirty, despite having a very sleek feminine model. Young orphan who grew up in a rough environment and is generally opportunistic.


 Brisket - the first female character that fits our stereotypical model. Revealing clothing with all the curves, toned stomach, and the Charmed [Male] rule to boot. If you have a look at her back story as a legacy player that plays heavily to the crowd, it makes a bit more contextual sense.

Perhaps it's telling that she is in the same team as the musclebound macho moustachioed behemoth that is Boar?
Meathook - it's like they took all the refinement away from Hannibal Lecter and put it in a female body. Terrifying. Nothing subtle or seductive about this one. Damage and blood everywhere.

Fillet - Agile, sleek and very feminine in appearance but utterly not subtle in doing what she wants to do, which is making opponents bleed all over the place and cutting them up in small pieces. 'Seductive' might be the last word attributed to this one.


Velocity - Technically neither male nor female by the rules of the game, we only know this is a female model by a) her fluff entry and b) has breasts on her chassis.

A goal scoring robot, basically.

DD- Here we have a very clear and present example of objectification of the female form. And this also presents an example of how much gender is a social construction, where we apply meaning and language to identify something by its gender not because of what genes it was born with; This robot doesn't even have chromosomes to identify it as being of the male or female sex. Yet giving it boobs assigns it with a female set of characteristics. Now, I don't want to assume the design intent of the modelers here, but the potential conclusion that could be drawn is that a female on the Engineer's team is equitable to a robot who becomes programmed and controlled by someone else. An object that is devoid of human agency and feelings.

The issue of power is present here because this robot has none.

Pin Vice - Holy crap does she look terrifying. I don't even know what her fluff entry is but she looks like a mix between a homicidal ghost and a mecha robot. Also stabbing gloves, nice touch.


Finally we move to a team that has the high fantasy female stereotype. However, it's been split across two characters:

Angel - the first half of our stereotype, we have the sultry young Angel. High revealing appearance with short skirt, fishnets and low-cut top which in no way matches her playstyle as a no nonsense goal scorer. Angel has no sneaky tricks or seductive wiles in her rules - only raw goal scoring potential.
Siren - the other side of the coin is Siren. While her model is almost entirely covered up, with ragged flowing robes granting her an ethereal quality, her character plays are entirely based around deception, manipulation, seduction and luring the enemy to do things they don't want to do (not just males, although she does have Charmed [Male]).

Almost entirely like the sirens of old Greek legend :)


Honour - the first female captain in the game defies our stereotype with her heavily armoured model and rugged fighting style. Unless you compare her to Joan of Arc, which I guess you could argue is a certain stereotype.
Harmony - despite being described in the fluff as a show-off and crowd pleaser similar to Brisket, Harmony's rules and model are decidedly less sexualized than Brisket's. She dodges around the place (if anything, she would fit the acrobatic female stereotype) and relies heavily on her sister Honour to do what she needs to do.
Chisel - she's a tiny innocent looking psychopathic murder machine covered in tough leather and plate.


 Scalpel - I don't quite know what to say about this one, other than to say I find her very scary on all levels.
Cosset - she is one that might fit in with the fantasy female stereotype. Slender, seductive, fragile and wearing the flowing robes of a witch but also with the propensity to go crazy and tear things to shreds with her bare hands in a sadistic spree.


Decimate - likely a male for most of the early design process (the art has a legit goatee), Decimate is an agile swordmaster. If mastery of physical tools is one of the determinate aspects of masculinity, where does that put this martial artist in regards to the female fantasy stereotype?
Gutter - considered the strongest, most overpowered model in the game for Season 1, having received several nerfs. Loves to fight and takeout multiple players at a time. Her background story implies that she had been taken as a slave and developped Stockholm Syndrome as the result of an unfortunate chain of events.
Hemlocke - probably also considered one of the most overpowered models in the game and having received almost as many nerfs as Gutter, Hemlocke and her druidic ways are not seductive or honourable at all. But she is very helpful to have in a scrap :)
Snakeskin - the only model in the Union to have Charmed [Male], Snakeskin might fit into the femme fatale stereotype with her tight black leather outfit, love of poisons, Shadow Like, Clone, Nimble... the lot. I would think that she should probably Charmed [Female] as well given that her charm is through deception rather than feminine wiles.
Minx - Minx is a bit of the savage amazon warrior woman type. She is really good at charging at great speed while yelling and cutting things up. She fits a certain feminine character type that has a place in traditional fantasy.

In conclusion, I think the representation of women in this game is good, perhaps even industry leading, with a lot of variation and I would be hard pressed to pin it down as the game being "a real boys' club with a few token women".

There are a handful of female characters who fit quite squarely into female stereotypes and probably could not be 'converted' to male models: Brisket, Siren, Cosset, Snakeskin, and arguably Esters, Minx and at a stretch, Harmony. The rest you could probably convincingly turn into male models with only a background change and another sculpt (there is of course the critique regarding the 'necessity' of breasts to be sculpted on a female model or an overly slender physique in order to be identified as female). The same argument could probably be made for a good percentage of the male models (Mist, for sure) in the game, thought probably not to the same extent.

It feels to me like the designers and developers of Guild Ball have taken George RR Martin's stance on female fictional characters to heart:

Dave's closing thoughts on the matter:

Overall, it becomes hard to address gender issues without also comparing the female models to the male ones. Because while on the surface there seems to be a range of tropes that GB references in their character design, much of what identifies gendered markers includes what that gender is NOT. If you want to talk diversity, looks at the range of poses and body types the males have, from big burly brawlers to more slight and athletic men. Compared to the males, the females follow one body shape, with the notable exception of Esters, who even then requires great massive breasts so that she is still identified as 'feminine'. 

Now I write all this having to disclose that I have not read the fluff. I am purely making these observations based off the design of the models, and what scraps of background information I do have. But ultimately I don't think my opinion would change after reading the fluff. Which is that I disagree that Steamforged have broken any molds. This is a criticism leveled at various media, movies, music, books, etc. that the females either follow standard accepted tropes of female character types, or require characterisation based on masculine standards to make them as vicious as the men in this game. The males are still used as the norm, a measuring stick, around which the various female abilities are compared. And even then, there is a reluctance to move away from a feminine body archetype. This is a critique I also level at GRR Martin, where his depiction of sexual violence and the characterisations he uses, still rely on gendered norms; men are in the position of overwhelming power and set the standard for all others to follow. You either be as viciously cut throat as the men are, or you become a subject of abuse and objectification.

The one thing I can conclude that Steamforged have done is up the gender-representation. The actual cultural impact this has, I'm very skeptical of.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for going over the female Guild Ballers in more detail JS, I was actually just basing my opinion by looking at the season one players and it does look like Steamforged is making a much more concerted effort now. However I do think it's a danger to point at other games and say "Well, we're better than them..." and think that's enough. Because anything's better than GW which classifies women as alien races!

    Also as Dave pointed out just having a fair number of women isn't enough, they also have to avoid falling into the usual lazy tropes. Again, season two looks a lot better on this front that season one, so another great sign of progress - awesome. But there are still the same old problems: of body shapes (mentioned by Dave) - men are allowed to be all sorts but women have to be slender (the one exception, Esters, has an ability that pokes fun at her size). As I mentioned in my original article most of the female players have their beauty directly mentioned (Brisket, Angel, Harmony, Siren, Cosset) and also use their sexuality as a weapon. Plus there's just the base level of having several sexualised models with overemphasised breasts and legs, sadly so par for the course in miniatures games that it barely rates a mention. Again, season two looks much better in this regard.

    Also one last point about the setting. I understand that the world of Guild Ball is meant to evoke medieval Europe, and that this informs its racial diversity. This is the same argument behind why it was okay for The Witcher 3 to have a completely white cast of characters, something discussed in this Polygon article: I'll just say that the designers can't claim innocence behind the "historical" setting, choosing a faux-Europe to base their game in is as much of an important decision as the concept art directions. They aren't explicitly saying "whites only" but they are implicitly saying it.

    So I do agree that yes, my initial statement about female tokenism is inaccurate about the current rosters of Guild Ball. It's still pretty spot on for the first season though. :) It's great to see Steamforged taking representation issues more seriously and including more interesting female characters.

    This is something I feel is very important because I want my toddler niece to grow up and find my miniatures collection just as cool and awesome as her older brother does, and find just as many interesting characters that she sees herself in.