Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Feminism and the representation of women in video games

by Ben Winterton

There is a general problem with pretty much every field of human achievement, in that women, despite being just as capable as men and normally achieving just as much, are overlooked due a latent gender bias that exists globally. One medium in which this particularly prevalent is the field of video games, which not only has a male-orientated focus in production terms, but also in the narratives and  stylistic decisions that feature in the games themselves.

In case you hadn't guessed, I consider myself a feminist, and I would be more than happy to write a book on the relationship between gender and video games. In fact, if any publishers are reading this, you’re right, that first paragraph would look great as the opening to a textbook, or even as a “to camera” piece for a 15 part documentary series written and hosted by me. Why, thank you, I am rather handsome. Yes, you can come back to mine and show me your screw attack.

Ben: "I could always present 'Coast' if needs be, check me out!"
I don’t think any gamer would deny the absence of a female presence in the world of video games. In fact, Jak and myself struggled to think of more than a few prominent female protagonists. Off the top of our heads, we managed Lara Croft, Bayonetta, Samus Aran, Jill Valentine, Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII, Chell from Portal and various characters from fighting games. This is, in itself, a pretty poor showing. Subtract all the characters from the above list who are marketed largely on their sex appeal and the problem becomes even more apparent. At least Valve aren’t hideous misogynists.

Now, games being sold on sex appeal is not intrinsically wrong. Just because something is marketed on that basis does not stop it being good (although I am not defending either Dead or Alive or any pre-2013 Tomb Raider games). Bayonetta is a prime example; a near-perfect action game that happens to be ludicrously sexualised. A slightly bizarre (and, perhaps, distinctly Japanese decision), but one that does not reduce the quality of the game. However, as Jak pointed out in his article on sex appeal, this does not carry over to male characters; whilst rugged, the male characters that star in Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto can hardly be said to have sex appeal.

Don't get body image worries looking at these sketches... they're physically impossible wet dreams.

Yes, I know that there are female characters in ensemble games, such as RPGs and fighters, but it is rare that the central character is a woman. At least developers are now allowing players to create a female character, such as in the “Fable” and “Mass Effect” games. However, for every gender-balancing “Dragon Age” there is a lads-only “Brink”.

I have two problems with this. Firstly, the assumption that, because there is a tendency for hardcore gamers to be male, that only male characters would appeal. This presumably means that I cannot enjoy “Pride and Prejudice” because, as a man, the life and thoughts of a woman would be so alien to me I would simply walk away in disgust. Moreover, this isn’t even mathematically true; apparently around 50% of female avatars in World of Warcraft are played by male users. Seriously, visit this study page when you have the time: http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001369.php).

Another issue here is that this promotes the idea that men are just the standard. Like a lot of people, I played through Dead Rising 2 in 2010. Can anyone give me a single decent reason why Chuck, the game's protagonist, needs to be male? It is an anarchic zombie-killing sandbox, with very little in the way of narrative. Why couldn’t the central character be female? The answer, of course, is sadly absent.

It is easy to make broad comments about both gender and gamers, but if you can find me a single gamer who likes Metroid Prime for the inclusion of boobs rather than it being an exceptionally well-crafted exploration game then I will eat my hat.