Why I’m still waiting for video games that only star a woman

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2011 by knightofsummer Tagged: , ,

Rght now there are usually two modes for games that encourage the player to identify as the character: “be a specific man” or “be a customized character, who can be a man or a woman” (clearly exceptions exist, in some genres more than others.) While I enjoy customizable characters, I want there to be a third option of “be a specific woman”, as that option is missing right now (along with options for any purposefully un-gendered, multi-gendered or variably-gendered characters. Gender is interesting! And multi-faceted! And not actually a binary switch! But, anyway…)

I empathize with the desire for “girly” games. I experienced a rush of excitement, physical joy, when I saw the new design for Laura Croft. I may be terribly disappointed, of course, but right now she looks like she might be a specific, emblematic character who’s new design I find appealing, I am excited to get to *be* her, and play out whatever story they will tell. The white, straight, cis guys I know who have always been well-represented in games didn’t get that rush when they saw her; for them, nothing is missing. They didn’t seem to have any particular reaction at all to the new character design, even the two who had played earlier versions of Tomb Raider.

When I was little I accepted pink games, games with ponies, games about clothes and makeup not because I cared about any of that, but because it was the closest thing I found to games about *me*. They were’t about me at all; they were about stereotypes other people assumed about me, but that still made me less invisible. I was looking for role models, I wanted to play games about what I might become when I grew up, about what femininity even meant. If the only answers available were in pink packages and starred Barbie, well, that was where I was going to look.

When they say “those games won’t make enough money” they really are saying, “women aren’t worth writing about.” And that simply, absolutely, sucks. Games are “fantasy fulfillment”, and so when they refuse to create games about women they are saying that nobody would ever want to be a woman. I don’t know about other little girls, but I heard that message loud and clear.

While Bioware has taken a more inclusive approach, it is not the only possible approach. Bioware, instead of just telling men’s stories tell the stories of a human, who is either male or female. They offer options, but the player is never required to identify with a female avatar. It is kind of a cop out, though one that is greatly appreciated given the alternative. However, I believe it does limit the stories you can tell.
In Bioware games the only time gender can be important is in small, isolated areas where it doesn’t drastically change the game. From what I’ve seen, this is when sex comes up or occasional extra conversation options that are added for women (because most of the time, male is still default.) Gender can never be a central and integral part of the story or they’d be creating two separate games, and it can only vary as much as these little extra hooks allow. At the same time, some of the constraints of real world gender are still there: on sexuality, on gender expression, on which bathroom you can go into without getting yelled at. Most social sexism is ignored when it comes to your character (the “we don’t respect women, but Shepard, you’re a hero!” effect) and there is a whole bevel of human life that gets smoothed away so that your gender is irrelevant to the story. Luckily, not every story is about gender and not every social role is gendered, and so Bioware has many interesting stories it can tell.

However, I believe there are other stories that call for specific protagonists, and I don’t automatically condemn games that tell the story of some man. BioShock was a game that was more meaningful because Jack was male. A story based on Joan of Arc would make no sense with a configurable gender; a man wouldn’t be tested for virginity or burned at the stake for wearing men’s clothing. He would not be the only person of his gender in the room at his trial. There are stories in which gender isn’t just important, but central.
I don’t want games with male protagonists to go away or stop being made, but I have no fear that that is going to be the result of pushing for games that tell women’s stories to be made as well. Arkham Asylum will still be there even if Promethea becomes a game. I love the specific games games I play now, I just wish they didn’t all tell the story of a similar white, straight, cis man. Eventually it stops being specific, and goes back to being a generic stand-in for the audience, with default, unexamined, unimportant gender.

In those cases, where gender isn’t important to the story, the Bioware approach works fine. Other games where gender never comes up and the player character is primarily an avatar, such as Assassin’s Creed, would benefit from it and I would like to see it become the default, from which there should be a reason to deviate. But that approach will never produce the rush of gratitude that a game with a single, specific female protagonist does. A game that’s not just a “girly” game but rather a game about a specific woman who was once a girl makes me feel… seen. I can play a version of *my* life! It would be even more amazing if these protagonists varied in other ways as well, reflected the heterogeneous spectrum of human experience, but to open up that possibility I think we have to start with convincing people that that even if they can’t imagine anyone paying for the privilege of being a woman, some of us think it is worth it.


3 Responses to “Why I’m still waiting for video games that only star a woman”

  1. This post is months old, I know, but I found your blog today through your comments on Jim Hines’s recent post.

    I’m DYING to have more female protags in games and it kills me that, just like with film, directors keep saying “we won’t make that because it doesn’t sell.” They’re outright ignoring a large portion of the audience – gaming is not something only men aged 18-30 do anymore.

    But I’m curious – what are your thoughts on Samus Aran? She pretty much singlehandedly opened the way for female protagonists in video games by showing that people were STILL INTERESTED IN BUYING THE GAMES even after they realized that dude in the armour was not a dude (even if her progress is slooowly being eroded by the increasing trend of Nintento sexualizing her).

    (Ignoring Metroid: Other M which painted her as a weak emotional abuse victim without acknowledging any of the problematic aspects of the “romance” it was trying to portray. Good Lord.)

    • I had never played Metroid games, mostly due to only having a PC growing up. I had got the impression that she was somewhat like the protagonist of Portal: primarily an awesome avatar rather than a story-driven character, but she could be a good example of what I am looking for and I just missed out!

      • Initially, yeah. I’ve heard that the Zero Mission games are more story-driven, though her characterization is still pretty sparse. A lot of fans are upset about Metroid: Other M because they finally made her personality central to the story, and…it was not the personality the other games set up for. I think a lot of the personality gamers associate with her comes from her appearances and soundbytes in the Smash Bros. series in addition to her own games.

        As for Lara Croft, she’s been largely a fanservice character ever since her very first game, but even so she’s also been a strong, independent character with a definite personality. I think she gets written off by a lot of feminist gamers simply because of her fanservicey nature, but I still think she’s pretty cool.

        I think we’re on our way to getting more decently written female-centered games, because some companies (Bioware especially) are starting to realize that yes, people ARE interested in seeing women’s stories.

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