Project Lil: Thinking with Portals and Inclusivity!

I, like many gamers, remember quite fondly the first time I caught a glimpse of myself in Portal. The revelation that the character I was playing was a woman and that this fact was treated as such a casual, nonchalant part of the game was an amazing moment for me. I had the biggest grin on my face and for one brief and shining moment I felt unconditionally accepted in the gaming world. It was a special moment for me, as a woman, to feel like I had finally been included under the title ‘gamer’ instead of being shoved off into the a sub-category of ‘female gamer’ or ‘gamer girl’. Of course, all that specialness went away as soon as I turned off Portal and logged into other games like WoW where my femaleness and femininity undeniably labeled me as different from the norm, as some form of ‘other’. So, imagine my surprise and delight, when a few years later, I came across a similar moment in Portal 2: the Project Lil commentary in which Valve discussed their stance on inclusivity.

Project Lil, for those who haven’t heard of it yet, is Valve’s codename for attempts to be more inclusive, in regards to gender, when recording the commentary for their games. It was prompted by an email from a fan named Lil who felt left out as a woman by all the “he”s and “his”s in the commentaries. Here is the full text of developer Marc Laidlaw describing the project:

“Project Lil is our codename for an internal push to make our comments more accessible to the whole Valve community. It was pointed out to us in mail from a fan that in some of our previous commentary, the designers referred unfailingly to the gamer as a ‘he.’ Although in natural speech, most of us normally tend to say “they” and “their” rather than “he” and “his,” some stuffy overactive minion of the grammar police went through and revised all those usages to make them conform to an oppressive gender-biased rule. However, research shows that “they” and “their” is a perfectly acceptable and even older form, and we are happy to fall back on it and let people talk the way they normally talk, and screw the so-called rules that alienate our fans. Thanks, Lil.”

That right there is a whole lot of awesome. It spells out the idea behind inclusivity really well, namely that it’s just about not alienating people by using exclusionary language or themes. That can mean anything from something as simple as saying ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ (or not using mankind/man/men to mean humankind, humanity, or people) to something as complex as adding in characters and themes that under-represented minorities can identify with. While the latter is more preferable because it means we, the audience, get more diverse and better stories in our games, examples like the former are also important because at the very least they don’t disappear the existence of many gamers in the audience.

Valve was already off to a great start in the Portal series with their handling of Chell’s character. Having a female character that just was a woman without making a big fuss about it, either through sexualizing her or hyping up the fact that she was a woman, let female gamers experience the (sadly) revolutionary idea that female characters could just be normal, default characters. For once, the person holding the gun wasn’t some random white guy (like it is in almost every other FPS game), it was some random chick, and she was even non-white to boot! Add to this Project Lil and Valve has taken the (again, sadly) revolutionary step of being the first major game company to explicitly include women in the same ways that men get by default. I know these both seem like small things, maybe even insignificant in the bigger picture, but really taking these first, small steps is how we bring the gaming culture to a place of more equality and quality.

Sadly, though, some of this awesome inclusivity was undermined by a few of the choices they made within the dialogue of the game itself by using sizeist and ableist jokes and using adoption as an insult. These all go directly against the inclusivity message in Project Lil. Imagine how alienating it could be to be playing along, enjoying thinking with portals, and suddenly be confronted with someone telling you that you are inherently less than because you’re not the proper size, were adopted, use a wheelchair, etc. To add insult to injury, you’re supposed to find this little piece of humiliation funny because it was a joke. I can tell you, from experience, that hearing someone joke about how I’m supposedly inferior because of some inherent trait certainly does not strike me as funny, nor does it fill me with the warm fuzzies that should come from enjoying the game I’m playing. I understand that the jokes are in the game to characterize GlaDOS, Wheatley, and Cave Johnson as antagonists, but these jokes don’t just insult Chell, they have the side effect of shaming the player on the other end of the controller and potentially alienating them from the game. It may not happen to most players, or even all of the ones that fall into the categories that are the focus of these one-liners, but it does affect some of them and ruins their enjoyment of the game and sours their experience of gamer culture. There are plenty of ways to be insulting, humorous, and humorously insulting without having to stray into these exclusionary territories and that’s plenty visible throughout most of the Portal series. GlaDOS has a plethora of scathing and hilarious comments that don’t rely on deriding Chell (and inadvertently the player) for innate traits. Relying on fat jokes and the like as shorthand for ‘ooh this robot is mean’ or ‘Cave Johnson is a bad man’ is lazy writing and shows a lack of respect for the players that these pot shots get aimed at. I’m not trying to say that these types of jokes should never be in Portal or any other games, but that having them in there goes directly against the progressive ideals behind Project Lil.

These sorts of exclusionary jokes alienate fans not just from the game they’re playing, but as they add up in game after game, it alienates the players from gaming as a whole. And that really is a loss for gamers because we lose out on the diversity of human experience to both draw upon for story ideas and to share our enthusiasm for our beloved hobby with. Hopefully, in their next venture, be it Portal 3 or some other game, Valve will continue in the inclusive spirit of Project Lil and expand upon it to include more than just gender. I would love to see them, and other game companies, bring the ideals of inclusivity to the forefront of their development process and use it to give us, the gaming audience, characters, dialogue, stories, and commentary that aren’t exclusionary. It will make our games better as a whole and, more importantly, it will also make the gaming culture more welcoming to more gamers.




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  3. Marijn

    Hi Lizz,

    though I agree with the first part of your post, I think you’re slightly missing the point of the nature of GlaDOS’s and Johnson’s remarks. They’re not there simply to underline their role as antagonists (or their meanness), but to flesh out their characters in very particular ways.

    GlaDOS’s sizeism and comments about adoption work because the relationship between her and Chell resembles a (very unhealthy) mother-daughter relationship. Her comments are similar to what we imagine a passive-aggressive mother figure would say when she really wants to hurt her daughter. More general insults wouldn’t work as well exactly because they would be less disturbing, and less specific to the relationship between GlaDOS and Chell.

    Cave Johnson’s sexism not only defines the character, but also dates him. He is a product of a time in American history that was rife with white male entitlement (see also Mad Men). Besides, his attitude also subtly underlines how GlaDOS (in her human life) had to struggle with being seen and treated as inferior to the (less intelligent) men around her. We can see how GlaDOS’s own sizeist comments find their origin in having had to endure many similar comments by her co-workers and boss.

    I’m sorry that you (and presumably others) feel personally hurt or alienated by some of the comments in Portal 2. I’d ask you to keep in mind though that these comments weren’t included for a cheap laugh, let alone as a commentary by the writers on what constitutes “normalcy”.

    • Andrew

      Well said, Marijn. We have a tendency to think deeply about certain aspects we like in art but criticize without going deeper into aspects that bothered us.

      Lizz, I think it is good and just to be wary of jokes at the expense of innate traits in all media. Being mindful of such easy and crass humor is good.

      But one must also be mindful of the true source of humor. If the punchline is “she’s fat” or “she’s adopted,” then the humor is pure divisive meanness. But is that really where the humor is here? Surely not. Why those comments are funny, outside of the passive-aggressive mother-daughter relationship Marijn has so elegantly summarized, is their clear desperation and incongruity with reality.

      GLaDOS is trying to hurt a human’s feelings like other humans do, and doing so in the most stereotypically gendered way possible. It’s funny in part because Chell is lithe, atheltic, and strong, but it is more funny, to me at least, because in this sterile testing environment such notions of social norms are ridiculous–there is no society. For all we know, Chell is the last surviving human being. She is normal and alternative and strange and everything because there are no bases for comparison. These sizeism barbs serve only to emphasize the player’s power over GLaDOS.

      And don’t forget: the weight and adoption jokes are just a small part of GLaDOS’ arsenal. She also uses the gendered fashion attack, but totally neutral attacks like mocking Chell for not being able to go outside and encounter nature, or not talking (seemingly by choice), or being mortal.

      Humor in portal 2 is never easy (outside of some simple slapstick) as far as I read it. That’s one of the many reasons the game is so great.

      Sometimes mocking the futility and sillyness of exclusivism is the best way to make a more inclusive world.

      • I agree with you that mocking -isms and exclusivity is a great way to move towards more inclusivity, but that is not what happened with the fat, adoption, or ableism jokes. Those jokes, as I said in my reply to Marijn, are based off of the idea that being those things is bad and worthy of ridicule. The fact that its even more humorous because Chell is objectively not fat or adopted, and thus being wrongly called one of those ‘bad’ things, only highlights that that is the basis of these jokes.

        Much, if not most, of the humor in the Portal series is complex and as you put it, not easy, but these jokes are cheap, lazy, and based on divisiveness. They have alienated players from the game, even causing some to not finish the game or purchase it for themselves. Like, I said before in the article, this goes directly against the idea behind Project Lil: making the game accessible to the whole Valve community.

        • Andrew

          I disagree with the notion that the jokes inherently refer to being fat, adopted, or disabled as bad. Think about the context here.

          In Portal, GLaDOS has (recently?) killed all the scientists and made the facility her own. She is in total control and you are just her coerced test subject. At first, she may even be getting the endorphins from completed tests that Wheatley got. Her attacks on you come from a seat of total power and are merely there to disturb your mind as you complete the tests. They only become personal near the end of the game when GLaDOS calls you a bad person and says that no one loves you and such.

          That attitude is exactly the GLaDOS that greets you in Portal 2. She’s petty and personal in her insults, using, as Marijn says, the isms she was exposed to and may have even believed in the 50s against you. And, just like the jabs in Portal, these are completely ineffectual and you still beat every test she throws at you and help turn her into a potato.

          I completely agree that games should strive to overcome common divisions and respect every member of their player base. Telling someone who feels offended that they shouldn’t be is a dicey thing to do. But, I honestly feel that within the context of the character archs and story progression of the game, the jokes are funny and good and positive and deep. I consider the controversy that has cropped up to be a false one based on taking jokes out of context and reading sinister content into them.

          Laughing at sexism, ableism, sizeism, and the like is a good thing to do. Portal 2 encourages it.

    • The sizeist, ableist, and adoption jokes are poor (and IMO lazy) ways to flesh out characters. GlaDOS managed to go through all of the first Portal game, and a large portion of this one, without having to rely on the weight jokes or adoption insults to make her seem villainous or antagonistic. I’ve never seen this supposed mother/child relationship between Chell and GlaDOS (actually never even heard of it until a few days ago) and with that interpretation the fat jokes take on a not so subtle sexist slant as well as a sizeist basis.

      With Project Lil, Valve stated that inclusivity was something they were aiming for and having these jokes in the game undermines that goal. There are far better ways to characterize GlaDOS, as either just a straight up villain or as an atagonistic mother figure, without relying on jokes that can alientate Valve’s audience.

      As for your remarks about Cave Johnson, his sexist comments aren’t actually a problem I have with him, it was his ableist ones that I took issue with. It may be different for others (because this is all up to personal interpretation), but I felt that his comments lampooned sexism, not reveled in it like his ableist jokes or GlaDOS’s sizeist ones. They weren’t jokes based on the idea that women are bad, but that underestimating women is bad. The sizeist, ableist, and adoption jokes are fundamentally based on the idea that being fat/differently abled/adopted is bad and worthy of ridicule.

      And that’s where the alienation can and did stem from for a lot of people. So I’ll ask you to keep in mind that although these jokes and comments were put in the game to add an extra level of nasty to the villains, they also translate into shaming for the players on the other end of the controller which, again, goes directly against the idea behind Project Lil.

      • Marijn

        You’re still failing to distinguish between having a character say something because you want them to seem “villainous and antagonistic”, and having them say something because it says something deeper about how the character thinks. Johnson’s able-ism and class-ism tells us who he is: an entitled, ethically challenged egomaniac who thinks of human perfection in a very linear way. GlaDOS’s comments show her to have been uniquely influenced by Johnson in her thinking – she’s just repurposing sexist insults which have probably once been used on her. Thus, and as always (in reality as well as in fiction), the comments say more about the person who utters them than about the person they are meant for.

  4. Marijn

    I don’t know if you’ve already seen this, but also read this deconstruction of the relationships between Portal 2’s characters by Pop Matters’ unequalled Miss Anthropy:

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