I didn’t see you at PAX East this year, so I guess you didn’t make it. Well, you managed to miss out on two-hour lines, paying three dollars for a fun-size bag of chips, and dudes dressed as Chun-Li. You also missed out on a panel run by our own Susan Arendt, Females on Female Characters, where a panel of prominent female gamers talked about female videogame characters.
One surprise for me was that they didn’t mind sexual pandering nearly as much as I expected. Their take on female characters was that it was fine for female characters to be obviously sexualized – as long as they have something else going for them. It turns out that I’m more bothered by sexual pandering than they are.
It’s not that I’m averse to the female form and its particular configuration of curves. (Big fan, actually.) It’s just that I hate being treated like an idiot. It’s like a toothpaste commercial that shows a guy attracting hot young women because he switched to the advertised brand. The message I get from the advertiser isn’t, “Buy a tube of our tooth-cleansing goop,” but, “We think you’re stupid enough to believe that strange women will be dry-humping you on the subway if you buy this product.” It’s hard to enjoy something if you’re left with the impression that the creator thinks you’re a knuckle-dragging simpleton.
Instead of being upset at sexual pandering, what seemed to really annoy the panelists was the general lack of female characters, particularly lead characters. As an experiment, my wife had a conversation with our daughters (ages 11 and 13) about this, going over the same topics that Susan covered in the panel. And the results were nearly identical. They wanted to play as a girl more often. They wanted female support characters to be more interesting and capable. They wouldn’t be so irritated by the likes of Princess Peach and Princess Zelda if they could kick a little ass now and again. To paraphrase: If games are escapism, why do we always have to escape to a world where we’re helpless, clueless, and witless?
I ran though a list of titles and franchises I’ve played, bought, read about or ridiculed in the last couple of years. Observe:
Alan Wake, Alpha Protocol, Assassin’s Creed series, Bad Company series, Batman: Arkham Asylum, BioShock series, Bulletstorm, Call of Duty, Dante’s Inferno, Dead Rising series, Dead Space Series, Dead to Rights series, Deus Ex Series, Duke Nukem series, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Gears of War, God of War Series, Grand Theft Auto Series, Half-Life Series, Halo Series, Homefront, InFamous, Kane & Lynch series, Killzone Series, Madworld, Max Payne Series, Mindjack, Modern Warfare Series, Nier, Painkiller, Prince of Persia Series, Prototype, Quake series, Red Dead Redemption, Red Faction series, Red Steel series, Resident Evil 4 and 5, Riddick series, Serious Sam series, Splatterhouse, Splinter Cell series, STALKER, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed series, the last 4 Silent Hill titles, Two Worlds Series, Unreal Tournament 3, The Witcher series…
You get the idea. This is nowhere near a complete list. I basically came up with games until I got sick of it. All of the above are big-budget, high-profile games where you play as a guy. Sure, we have the occasional Lara Croft or Samus Aran, but they are tiny drops in the ocean of testosterone that is modern AAA gaming.
Oh but Shamus! Most gamers are guys so doesn’t it make sense that most main characters are guys? I’m sure that’s the same justification used by game designers, and it’s silly. At the panel, the room was packed, the audience was predominantly female, and it was clear from their applause and cheering that these women were hungry for an experience that let them behave in a heroic way without requiring them to change genders. And if they did have to play as a man, they would at least prefer to not be humiliated by having the female support character be a useless doormat while all of the heroics and witty one-liners go to the man. If it really is too much to ask for a game to pander to women once in a while, can we at least get the games to stop actively alienating them?
Yes, my list of games is full of male leads, but look at it again. It’s not just that the main characters are men. It’s that the main characters are young, white, American men. (Or at least, guys with American accents.) Even characters that should hail from the dark side (like the Persian Prince) end up in the “would be played by Ethan Hawke in the movie adaptation” part of the pigmentation spectrum. Take away the costumes, and the only thing that differentiates these characters is their haircuts.
This is foolish. Even if you care nothing about diversity, even if you don’t care about female gamers, even if you think that young white American males are the only force of good in the universe, you’re still sabotaging your game by refusing to consider one of the many other sorts of human beings to be your protagonist.
Publishers are always reminding us how important it is to come up with strong intellectual property. They want recognizable names and iconic characters to set themselves apart, but then they give their game yet another hero off the Doom Marine conveyor belt. BioWare gets points for letting us choose the appearance and gender of our protagonist in Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but then they lose those points by making the default box-cover characters a couple of generic white dudes. If nothing else, it would make sense to try and make a dude that didn’t look like all the other box-cover dudes on the shelf.
I know that the AAA games industry isn’t considered a font of originality, but surely we can do better than this.