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.
2013-03-20 at 09:21
Maybe Lara needs to be taken care of. Maybe the men needs to be taken care of as well.
2013-03-20 at 09:29
Yes! I’d love to see that happen on a wider scale, vulnerability and humanity of game characters is great and wonderful. But not if we separate women mainly into the vulnerable pile of characters and men mainly into the strong, independent pile.
2013-03-20 at 12:51
I think that the Lara Croft discussion is incredibly interesting as an example of how women is portrayed in the game.
90% of the you run around with a strong and exceptionally capable person who is a woman, amongst other things, and now I’m not talking exceptionally capable as a woman or exceptionally capable for being a woman(some people think like that which is why I mention it), she is exceptionally capable compared to anyone, period.
There is also a “vulnerable” side to her, or she is young adult whom is stranded on an island, fight for her life and survival surrounded by a cult of madmen (emphasis on men because there isn’t much of a gender spread there) There is a scene where she is almost raped but fights her way out of it, Lara grunts cries a bit when she gets impaled by an iron spike and doesn’t really like to get bloodspatter all over her. Overall the game design is made to provoke both symapthy and immersion whith and in the main characters feelings and overall she is portraied quiet human.
If I was in the game I would have died in the first scene and then paniced, cried and died my way through the rest. Lara kicks ass 90% of the time and the other 10% she shows that it is pretty fucking hard to loose friends, getting chased around homicidal maniacs all while having to hunt for food and sleep under an open sky without any comforts. So I think it’s justified from that perspective.
So I think it’s damn good, Lara and the game is designed to be relatabel to, to make us feel for her as a tool for immersion, I love immersion personally.
But the lager scale problem is that Lara is portrayed like this because she is a woman. Because the gaming industry makes games for men so other men (which me men aren’t supposed to relate to on an emotional plane, that would be gay and we cant have that) Which is why for example Mr Dexter Drake whom is another famed videogame tombraider is not depicted with dramatic effect when he is impaled by an iron spike, why Dexter is sarcastic when Laura is serious or troubled. We are note supposed to relate to Dexter like that, we are supposed to be Dexter in all his sauve asskicking, sarcasm bulletproofness (both physically and mentally)because games are designed for men and we all know that feeling is for pussies, except for a maybe a manly roar of rage when someone steals your trophies (woman or treasure)
So I think that Lara in the lastest Tombraider installation is one of the best portrayals of a main character ever in a game. The portrayal is still from a survivors point of view completly inferior compared to the manly men of videogames and all this is because she is a woman which makes it ok (i.e. not gay) to relate to the character on an emotional level from the developers point of view since games are made for a young male audience.
2013-03-20 at 12:55
Now I haven’t played Tomb Raider yet, so I can’t really discuss it, but I think your right in your assessment that the only reason Lara can be weak is because she’s a woman.