This was my first article for Unwinnable after Stu Horvath recruited me at the Game Developers’ Conference in San Francisco. It went up in March, and I loved the illustrations made by the talented Chris Martinez (@drakelake). Since then I’ve pitched some of my most daft ideas to Stu and he’s never once batted an eyelid. I have a thing I say to Stu. I say to him, “I have this crazy thing if you want it. If it’s shit, don’t put it up. Please, if it’s shit, don’t put it up.” He always puts my articles up. Either we both have really shit taste, or the stuff I do is okay. Thanks, Stu.
Imagine if your mother became your worst enemy. Imagine, if you will, that she is everywhere at once, controlling your every move, making sure you ate a certain thing, went certain places, picked up certain things, kept telling you that you’re getting fat…it’s not hard to imagine, is it? Well, not if you have my mother. (Mother, that is a joke – look, I’ll go to the gym soon, okay? No, I won’t brush my hair.)
Videogames use this idea of the controlling mother figure to play with us, to scare us. She’s meant to be caring, protective and helpful but she often turns out a bitch from hell. I’m talking about the soothing computer voice – the Artificial Intelligence we all trust. And these days, it’s usually a ‘she.’
The nightmare of the omnipotent AI began in science fiction and has, for the most part, stayed there. In Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, has a calm and somewhat nasal male voice, even after HAL 9000 becomes paranoid, manipulative and ultimately tries to kill his object of affection, the astronaut Dave.
Yet, because 2001 was such a significant landmark in our cultural history, HAL’s distinctly male voice has had a huge impact on both real-world products and the genre of science fiction. In a 2011 CNN article, Brandon Griggs noticed that our computer voices are now, on the whole, female. “When automakers were first installing automated voice prompts in cars (‘your door is ajar’) decades ago, their consumer Shodanresearch found that people overwhelmingly preferred female voices to male ones,” a Silicon Valley analyst says in the article, explaining why most GPS navigation systems have a default female voice. On the other hand, the female default needed to be changed in Germany “after being flooded with calls from German men saying they refused to take directions from a woman.” Regardless of the exception, the same analyst has a theory about why male voices are no longer used in products: “A lot of tech companies stayed away from the male voice because of HAL.” This is a great example of how fiction can shape our reality.
However, science fiction quickly noted the HAL cliché and subverted it accordingly – instead of having the voice be a he, now it was a she.
Read the whole thing at Mother’s Legacy: Engendering AI in Videogames | Unwinnable.