Extra Punctuation Lichdom

Lichdom: Battlemage (ugh, still so awkward even in writing I can feel that colon hanging over it like rotten mistletoe) is a game. A game with features in it. And one of those features is the ability to choose, at the start of the game, whether you want to play as a male or a female battlemage (or lich or whatever the title thinks we are). And that made me think about this big sticky issue of diversity in video games.

There have been quite a few games throughout history that haven’t been true-blue RPGs and didn’t have extensive character customization, but did let you choose at the start whether you wanted to be a male or a female protagonist. The earliest one I can think of is Night Shift on the Commodore 64, but other examples include Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force. And in these games, the difference between playing as the man or the woman is usually nothing more than visual. Elite Force even named both characters Alex just so they wouldn’t have to do two versions of all the NPCs’ lines.

But it hardly matters if a choice of gender is merely aesthetic and means nothing to the game, because it can still mean something to the audience, and all the cultural attachments and biases they have brought with them. So if the fact that the vast majority of game protagonists are male is a problem, then the simple solution is for every game to let you pick your gender. Instant equality. If Night Shift and Elite Force and Lichdom can do it, why can’t everyone?

Well, there’s one obvious reason. Because, depending on the story, it might not be possible to separate a character from their gender. James Sunderland from Silent Hill 2 springs to mind, as a central theme of that game is frustrated male sexuality. Even disregarding that, the game is an analogy for the Orpheus myth, and a lot of its impact comes from subverting the societal understanding that men carry an obligation to be strong enough to protect the one they love. Kratos from God of War, Vincent from Catherine, many male characters are tied to masculinity by the plot.

And now I’m trying to think of a game in which the main character being female is inseparable from the plot, but I’m drawing a bit of a blank. The Path, or Beyond Good & Evil, maybe. Or the Tomb Raider remake, but barring that one single act of attempted rape the plot is virtually the same as that of Far Cry 3. Perhaps this confirms the existence of a lack of diversity, but I’m not sure how to fix that. Game developers do remain predominantly male through no fault of their own, and asking them, from a male perspective, to make games about a female perspective, would probably produce something rather disingenuous.

But I digress. Okay then – let’s say that every game should let you pick your gender as long as their gender isn’t hugely central to the plot. Wait, that sounded weird. Games in which gender doesn’t matter should let you choose your gender? If the gender doesn’t matter, why should we care? Maybe the game developer just wants a character to be a generic cipher, so they make them a white male, because that’s what they themselves are, and it’s what generic means to them. To demand diversity for characters that are essentially blank placeholders is to put way more thought into it than the creator did.

Lara Croft in Tomb Raider

I know that it’s very easy for me, a white dude, to say that about a white-dude-dominated industry. But I don’t buy the argument that biological similarities like race or gender strongly affect whether or not the player identifies with a character. I’d say its about attitude and emotional response before anything else. I identify with, say, Lara Croft more than I identify with Kratos, just as I identify with Jason Brody more than I identify with Rubi from WET. I thought the whole idea of equality was to be able to look beyond what brand of tackle everyone’s swinging.

Alright, I suppose there’s a bit of an elephant in this room, that being the ongoing argument that video games are misogynistic, and the online proponents of such. Might as well acknowledge it. Come on in, you big trumpeting beast, have a sticky bun. Now let me be as clear as possible on this. I believe an essential part of free speech is a mutual discourse. I think everybody’s entitled to take a position, just as no position should go unexamined. So I welcome the perspective of those who want to discuss misogyny in video games, and in the interests of discourse, I don’t agree with them.

Specifically I don’t agree that video games are misogynistic just because there are certain tropes they tend to fall back on a lot. It is true that there are an awful lot of game stories where the protagonist is male and the female character exists either to be rescued or to die and give the protagonist motivation. We’ll call that the hero-damsel narrative. I don’t think that hero-damsel enforces misogyny. After all, the protagonist, the male, is the one who has it worst. He’s the one who has to put himself at pain, and even die, over and over again, in an endless cycle of torment, for the benefit of the women. Yeah, ‘damsels in distress’ tend to be shallow characters without much agency, but who has less agency than the protagonist? The one that can’t so much as lift a finger if the player doesn’t press a button telling them to?

Of course I don’t believe that hero-damsel narratives are actually misandrous. I’m trying to illustrate something I was taught on my first day of media studies: that the same facts can support a wide range of conflicting agendas, depending on how you frame them. In truth, I don’t think hero-damsel is misandrous or misogynistic. I think the worst you could say about it is that it appeals to gender roles that are part of our base, emotional instincts, the animal brain stating that men need to be the big strong defenders going into harm’s way to protect the poor fragile women who can’t be expected to save themselves, thus ensuring the continued survival of the species.

And if I object to that, it’s because it’s lazy, and tired, not because it’s slanderous or unrepresentative of me. I think video games should aspire to be more thoughtful, rather than create appeal by triggering pure emotional responses. Hero-damsel isn’t trying, it’s too easy. But having said that, there’s certainly nothing wrong with using it as a foundation to explore more interesting concepts, such as in Silent Hill 2 again. And furthermore, if we’re talking about using it as a blatant placeholder plot in order to concentrate on creating a raw, cathartic gameplay experience (like in Painkiller, say), then I’m all for that as well, not much point in trying to be thoughtful in an admitted turn-your-brain-off kind of game, pass the shotgun.

I do think it’s true that games could use more diversity. But when I say that, I mean diversity of ideas, thoughtfulness, and perspectives. And that takes a whole lot more than just numerically equalizing the ham sandwiches to the sausage rolls.

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