This post is a continuation of the many posts where I talk about having women’s stories in game, and this one in particular is focused on having female role-models and heroes in games.
I’m playing Mass Effect 3 for the umpteenth time (although my social bioware profile says it’s for the third time. The profile is lying.) and one of the things that make me come back, time after time, is the lovely conversations, the 40/ 60 split of female and male squad mates and – wait for it – the Nemesis and Phantom characters, the asari, the competent Brynn Cole, Samantha Traynor, the female soldiers and crew on the Normandy, the female mercs and the fact that the women in this game are treated by and large as normal people. I get to blow women’s heads off, just like I get to blow the heads off engineers, soldiers and guardians. To me, there is no difference apart from tactics, and that – I’ve learned – is a precious thing. It is also what is usually missing in games. The more or less equal treatment of women* (and men).
That means that it is okay to blow their heads off because they’re the enemy. It means it is okay for there to be an entire race made up of women**, who also happen to be the most advanced race. It means it’s okay for a vulnerable and naive Asari to grow strong enough to take on the role as the Shadow Broker. It means it is okay for the breakaway Cerberus team to be led by a woman or for that matter that the admiralty board of the Quarians is made up of three women and two men. And – to bring this home – it’s okay to shoot the heads off women in the game. That privilege – or whatever one should call it – is not reserved for a faceless mass of men. What’s the message? Anyone can fight. Everyone belongs. No one is special.
The lack of women in games is not limited to player characters. It is also limited in what you might see on the battlefield and this is important, because when we exempt women, we also draw a line. We say “women don’t belong here”. We say “women can’t fight”. We say “women are other”.
Now this may seem as if I’m trying to advocate the killing of women in video games but that would be a simplification.
The fact is that many games take place in or around a violent context. Violence is and was a largely male domain, meaning that women who fought and led armies (or fight in general and become known for it) have either been very powerful, extraordinary or disguised themselves as men, or that’s at least what history would teach us. Games as we know them today, at least the story based games, were born from table-top role-playing games and miniature war games, so no wonder that the main portion of games portray violent conflict. Traditionally, this is also an area of entertainment that in some cases purposefully reject female players.***
So what am I saying when I’m saying that women should be allowed to be cannon fodder as well as interesting characters in the game is that they need to be involved, no matter the context. And – also very important – they need to be treated like everyone else.****
There’s been a bit of hubbubb around the Tomb Raider reebot where the player is admonished to take care of Lara Croft. I’ve not yet played the game, so I don’t know how much of it is marketing spiel and how much of it is serious, but honestly. Do you take care of and protect Nathan Drake? Or Snake in Metal Gear? Or which ever male hero on order for the day? No? Then maybe Lara doesn’t need care taking either?
I would say that the first step towards a good portrayal of women in games is to allow them the same liberties as men and that includes being strong, being good looking and idealized without turning into an object of sexual desire, and having their heads shot off just like everyone else.
After that we can start talking about the ridiculousness to always use violence as the ultimate tool to solve a conflict. Frankly, it might be fun to use violence, but it’s cave man territory.
* Yes, Mass Effect has issues with asses, in particular Miranda’s ass. I think one of the cutscene directors may suffer (or not really “suffer”, but you know… have a fascination for?) from Aethytas preferences. Everyone knows she goes for asses.
** Again, not entirely unproblematic, but a hell of a lot better than just having male Krogan, Salarians and Turians lurking about.
*** Trough culture in the games, through recruiting through subject.
**** Games where women are treated as sexualized victims are NOT treating women as everyone else. Instead that is playing into the rape culture. Games where women are constantly saved is NOT treating women as everyone else. Instead you make women victims of – presumably – men.