“Is there a lack of worthwhile female game characters because the industry is so male dominated, or is the industry so male dominated because of the lack of worthwhile female game characters?”
I had asked my girlfriend – who doesn’t really play games – whether she would be more inclined to pick up a controller if there were more heroines in gaming and that was her response. It was a question I hadn’t anticipated and one I couldn’t answer from inside the bubble of gaming culture. But, it got me thinking about the role of gender in this industry (in terms of the fictional characters, not the real people who make them, nor those who play them) and how often it can obscure the response to or quality of a new release. Yes, there is undoubtedly a problem with sexism in the games industry. But are we trying to solve it in the right way? Are target demographics too narrow? Should a developer cater a game to its majority audience over the ever increasing minority? Is the industry suffering from Male Guilt? Are we as gamers of all types simply expecting too much? If any of those questions provoked a response in you, you are aware of how much of a tense issue this can be.
One of the arguments that arrive time and again whenever the issue of gender is raised is that of the difficulties of having to relate to a particular character. Gaming is a medium where we can inject our own personalities into an avatar, or at least live vicariously through their actions. Admittedly then, it becomes difficult to empathise and connect to a character when there is no common ground on which to build. In an article on Jezebel, Laura Beck talked about how, among other reasons, she refuses to play GTA V later in the year because she simply doesn’t feel she can relate to any of the three male protagonists, and so she is right to say. But neither do I. I have no knowledge of bank heists beyond watching the first hour of Heat about a dozen times. I don’t have marriage, let alone a failed one like Michael. I’m as clueless about the gang banger culture that Franklin inhabits as any other suburban white nerd, and if I felt in any way connected to Trevor, I would be seriously concerned for my health.
The point being, no game character is relatable in every detail. I won’t deny that the closer a character is to your own persona, the easier it is to find a connection with them. However, we should not get stuck on which bathroom that character visits, but focus more on their actual character and how they react to the obstacles they face. I can empathise with Lara Croft, stranded and hunted on a hostile island. I can imagine the fears she would face because they would probably be identical to my own, and I find the progression of her character – not her physical body – rewarding. Equally, I can understand why Max Payne does the things he does, without any regard to whatever might be underneath his outfit. It’s the kind of person a protagonist is that bridges the gap between player and game, not digital chromosomes. If the issue runs deeper that fictional genitalia, surely then, gender is immaterial to the quality of a game, for the most part. Why then can’t more developers adopt the approach of Bioware and Bethesda in allowing the player to create their own avatar, gender and all?
I can only imagine a lot of games would unfortunately suffer at the hands of a choose-your-gender peace offering. Sometimes, the story determines the kind of character that is required, and that includes gender. These are the games whose strengths come from a tightly focussed narrative or particular relationship between characters. To allow a choice of gender either way in these games would be to ruin the dynamic of those relationships and impact the story of atmosphere of the game as a whole. Returning to the GTA example, one of the major queries from comments on the article is why Rockstar couldn’t have included a female lead, citing the popular example of Snoop from The Wire as how a female criminal could fit right into that world.
Simply put, it probably wouldn’t work. Yes, you could have a female character in a GTA game, and I’m sure in the wider universe of Los Santos, just as many women are racking up Wanted levels as men, and it’d be brilliant to eventually have that experience. But for the particular story Rockstar wanted to tell with GTA V, it had to be men. Why? Because only 10% of bank robberies committed in the US are carried out by women, so in order to play into the heist theme believably, and gain an investment from gamers, they needed male protagonists. Also, introducing a female lead would change the dynamic between the trio. Not to say it wouldn’t be good – I would love to see it, as well as a separate female-fronted GTA game, maybe as DLC – but it wouldn’t be what they intended. By the same token, from what has been seen so far from Quantic Dreams’ Beyond: Two Souls, it just wouldn’t work with a male lead. The draw of that game is Ellen Page and her performance. Any man in the same role would change things. Imagine if Lee and Clem from The Walking Dead became Lisa and Callum. Sure, it might still be a great game, but it wouldn’t be the story Telltale they wanted us to experience. Sometimes gender is non-negotiable.
Don’t get me wrong, I am waiting with baited breath for more varied narratives beyond man-with-shaved-head-kills-some-bad-guys, and I do want to see more engaging female leads, but I feel the lack of these is more down to a general lack of quality of many games than any secret agenda. In games where the narrative doesn’t really matter too much or is secondary to some other pillar of the game, it is easier / safer / cheaper to churn out a male lead. Some developers are taking creative steps in the right direction, testing the water with a variety of different leads (Faith from Mirrors Edge and Nilin from the unfortunately average Remember Me spring immediately to mind), but the unfortunate fact is that most are not. When studios like Rockstar are exercising their creativity, just not in the gender field, it can often be ignored in favour of lambasting this cookie-cutter trend towards muscles, a buzz cut and a digital penis. Unfortunately, both genders often get oversimplified and stereotyped as a result of this process, as I have as much resemblance to Marcus Fenix and his countless clones as any women does to Ivy from Soul Calibur.
Therefore, there is a much bigger problem: a general lack of any interesting protagonists in games, regardless of gender. Admittedly, of those good memorable characters, the balance does tip in favour of the Y chromosome, and I encourage that to change, but there is a wider issue that too many characters are boring, repetitive and uncharismatic. For every John Marston and Lara Croft there are a dozen Jack Kellars and Violette Summers (Who? From 2005’s Black and 2009’s Velvet Assassin respectively. See what I mean?). I personal do want to see a much broader range of quality protagonists in future games, not just in terms of gender, but race, faith, sexuality and more. Aside from the previously mentioned Nilin, how many memorable black protagonists has there been? Is there a game that presents Muslim characters as anything other than terrorists? Has there ever been openly and respectfully handled (read: not treated like a camp sterotype) homosexual video game character who is gay by-design as opposed to made that way by player choice as in the Mass Effect series?
We have to remember, when compared to other entertainment media, gaming – at least the character driven type we have come to expect – is still so much in its infancy. The first women to act, Margaret Hughes, did so in 1660 years, one hundred years after the opening of the first theatre. Homosexuality was only introduced to Hollywood in the last few decades, and disrespectful ethnical tropes and stereotypes exist in cinema. Granted, gaming has a much bigger and more liberated foundation to build on, and social change happens faster now than it ever did, but it still takes time. Steps are already being taken. The female Commander Shepard from Mass Effect is far and away more popular than her male counterpart. Lara Croft was redesigned and actually made to look and act like a human being in the Tomb Raider reboot. Although not the main protagonists, both Ellie and Clementine, despite being children, are played as real, engaging and important characters in The Last of Us and The Walking Dead, and the upcoming Beyond: Two Souls lets Ellen Page bring a unique female character to life who looks a lot more interesting than any upcoming male protagonist. So, video game equality will happen, and I look forward to that day, just as long as at the end of it all, it’s all about character.
What do you think? How should the industry handle diversity going forward? Sound off (respectfully) with your thoughts below.