Women In Gaming

In The Gaming Community, Video Games on December 16, 2010 at 5:44 pm

I, for one, welcome our new female overlords.

You hardly need to be a feminist to understand that women get a bum deal as far as their representation in gaming is concerned (though I’m sure it helps).  Were you to lay each female game character down before you, you’d see miles of corpses, stacks of lewd clothing and rows otherly-uniformed cheerleaders waiting patiently for their male protagonists; female characters with any semblance of emotional, physical or intellectual independence would occupy an easily-identified cafe table to the side of the road (the “not smokinghot” section is bizarrely empty).  Designs on artistic merit ring hollow when your entire gallery is filled with white, vaguely European men dragging their one-dimensional arm candy from cutscene to cutscene.  But I digress; this is about women, not race.

Whether it’s really that dire is a matter of perspective.  Fiction is a vehicle for interpretation, so by all means, disagree with what follows.  Some statements have more merits than others, but this is what showing your work and wrangling the written word is about.  And when it comes to this topic matter, you’d best be prepared to talk about the characters’ emotional, physical and intellectual independence as is reasonably justified by their circumstances, characterization and plotting, held against how well you can argue for and against whether their portrayal is exploitative, objectifying or empowering.  Of course, none of this is made easier by the assembly-line misogyny that comes out of Japan; nor is it by the numbers showing that women gamers are a definite minority on all but the PC, and even on that platform they tend to stick to social gaming more than your “standard” gaming fare.  Games are only sometimes written by writers, made by men for men with a heavy emphasis on marketability.  You have been warned.

Harken back with me to the days of the original Tomb Raider, before the franchise had been rebranded as Tomb Raider Starring Lara Croft or Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider or even more recently, simply Lara Croft and her Descriptively-Significant Subtitle.  Back in 1996, Lara landed on a German butcher block in Oktober (which is to say, in a sausage fest).  Game protagonists, the player characters, were almost exclusively male, and Tomb Raider came along at a time when games were just becoming graphically capable and narratively focused enough to make the shift all the more significant.  If girls wanted a like-sexed protagonist, they had to look no further than the athletic, acrobatic, intelligent self-made millionairess Lara Croft, woman to no man.  I will restate this for emphasis: presenting Lara Croft as a protagonist for a new video game franchise, where you had to play as the female main character, cannot be understated for its significance.

Does the fact that she was built like two triangles stacked on each other detract from her position as gaming’s leading woman (no jokes about how, no, her lousy games did that)?  That depends.  While the Lara value meal came with a side of sexy, it didn’t change the fact that she was a emotionally strong, physically capable and intellectually the superior of pretty much anyone else in the series.  Did her unrealistic figure and panoply of fetishes (glasses, accent, garters, natch) make her “safe” for men intimidated by such a portrayal, by reducing her to a sex object?  Or did it open their eyes to a world where “sexy” could also mean strong, smart and independent?

Given her growth as a franchise and the focus on her character, rather than her games, I’d say at least the developers thought so.

Lara Croft: 1996 and 2011

Each successive title allowed Lara to become a character, rather than a figure, and we learned more about her motivations, her family and upbringing while her list of accomplishments grew.  While her list of outfits grew like the doll of an overeager enthusiast, the voluptuous caricature in the borderline impractical outfit gave way to this striking young woman with fierce determination in her eyes and confidence in her posture.

How does this affect how she is played?  Lara is still a video game character.  When girls play her games, do they imagine themselves in her place?  Or is it more vicarious?  Are boys able to surpass Lara’s otherness (castration anxiety, et al) or are they simply playing for the doll?  Yes, she has a two-man team for her support staff, but they basically exist to ask questions for Lara to answer; they’re not exactly telling her what to do.  They make her look good.  The assertion remains: Lara represents a muted argument for the contemporary female identity, one where women may live and excel in a “man’s world” without necessarily embracing masculine or feminine traits, exaggerated phenotype notwithstanding.  On the flip side we have Bayonetta with its wholly ridiculous protagonist and her impossible spinal architecture.  Purportedly, hundreds of hours of work were poured into sculpting her ass.  She has a limitless supply of lollypops to suggestively suck on and she crosses her legs further while walking than most women are capable of after a thirty-minute warmup.  Her attacks cause her clothing to disappear and oh my god the game is even called First Climax.

How is this game not forcing us to wear a GTA-sized egg on our faces whenever women and sexuality in gaming are brought up?  Gentlepersons, I present to you the exploitation/empowerment boundary.

For the uninitiated: exploitation fiction, be it literature, films, music or games, is when a work adds just enough content to not be branded as complete tripe while fully exploiting its sensationalist subject matter.  This subject matter can be over sexualized women, gratuitous violence or even the individual actors and actresses themselves.  When a given work focuses on a singular sensationalized aspect, it is given a portmanteau name to signify its sub-genre, kind of like dopey celebrities and their mayfly romances.

Bayonetta is an exploitation game.  It is exploiting its over-the-top protagonist’s sexuality to promote what would otherwise be an above-average but otherwise not noteworthy game, and the game itself is used to justify the presentation what would otherwise be an untenable protagonist.

Empowerment is something else entirely, and it’s the kind of subject that will have feminists giving each other black eyes over whether its valid.  Basically, in terms of the contemporary female identity, this posits that the traditional trappings of femininity  — skirts, dresses, makeup, coy behavior, high heels, pink, pushup bras and so forth — can still be used and embraced without kowtowing to whatever masculine hegemony that’s presumed to exist.  This is because women have been granted agency in their own lives, and may choose to act and dress in whichever manner they please.  The social convention is no longer that they must dress that way, or that men may dictate the moors of their behavior.  Ideally, anyway.

As there’s currently two options for gender (masculinity and femininity) (yes, I know it’s vastly more complicated than that, but mainstream thought forces us into either being “male” or “female”), this option is supported by those that see the flawed premise in having women simply adopt masculinity as empowerment; after all, with women as equals and all they shouldn’t need to emulate men and it’s not as if being feminine or female should be viewed as weak, especially not by women.  Furthermore, sex.  I mean, sex, especially for women, used to be heavily regulated and controlled by men, sometimes through laws but most times through social convention.  Women who were sexually open or promiscuous were locked up and a condition was invented to justify it (nymphomania, if you’re keeping score).  After suffrage, women more and more were able to dress and act as they pleased, and the social barbs for sexual independents lessen with each year.

So, sexuality is a perk of being female, and it can be used in empowerment.  For a bizarre example, look at oral sex: in this sexual encounter, the woman, of her own volition, enters into intercourse with the man and controls every aspect of the encounter; his pleasure is up to her.  On the flip side we’re trying to take a woman on her knees with a man’s appendage in her mouth and somehow not view it as demeaning.  Personally, I think it depends on the relationship and how the participants treat and respect each other, but I can see both arguments.

Bayonetta is empowering because, in her world, women run the show.  They’re heavy-hitters capable of taking down eldritch beasties and advancing the plot; men are along for the ride.  The women saunter and strike rather than simper and sob.  She’s sexy, smart and powerful without aspiring to masculinity in her gender role, and you’d never mistake her for anything but as a woman.

Of course, she was made by male developers for a male demographic; she didn’t choose to look like that, she’s just drawn that way.  A key aspect of empowerment is the choice it represents, and as a meta matter of minutae, Bayonetta had no choice in her portrayal.  Whether that undermines the grrl power is up to the beholder, as always.

Lastly, I’d like to briefly discuss an overlooked female figure in gaming: Mirror’s Edge’s Faith.

Remarkably, she's among the few adult female game characters that can see their own feet.

Faith is an anomaly in female character design.  She’s independent, capable but rebellious and not all-knowing.  She has her own goals, which are supported by her (male)  adviser.  Compare Faith’s design to a modern freerunner and you’ll see that it’s an understatement to say she’s dressed for the part; she’s light, limber and athletic without embellishment for male-oriented marketing purposes.  She’s wearing shoes that help her run, gloves that help her grab and lightweight, unobtrusive clothing from no particular brand.  Yet, she is distinctly if subtly feminine and has several touching moments with her sister and the other supporting characters.

Freerunning in Mirror’s Edge isn’t a man’s job, nor is it the playground of women; we seem to encounter both in equal numbers and they’re all more or less treated equally, specific plot elements or being the main character notwithstanding.

All in all, Faith is a stellar character with her own goals and real flaws, while being seemingly unaffected by the detritus that typically surrounds our female leads; both Lara and Bayonetta have massive mediastorms centered on their figures, with the latest on Lara being that her 2011 reduced her curves, which are apparently an indelible part of her character.  And we’re still not sure if we’ve been trolled by Bayonetta.  All the same, the number of playable female characters and female leads in games is on the rise, which is significant; not every woman needs to be a support NPC or the villain.

However, I do think the future of gender portrayal in gaming is looking up, or at least on the mend.  There will always be games that make us second guess this, just as there will always be movies that do the same, but more and more we’re looking for better characters and game companies have designs on the untapped potential of the female demographic.  Even if a game character seems at first glimpse to be nothing but eye candy, there might be more to her characterization and deployment that justifies her “empowerment.”

  1. I had wondered if you had seen the Tomb Raider reboot. I really like what they have done, and for the first time ever I actually find Lara attractive. Likely because she actually appears vulnerable. A joke could be made here but what I mean is that she looks like someone who might succumb to a horrible fate, she looks alone and scared and that makes her all the more stronger when she overcomes the adversity that will befall her.
    The old Lara was an overpowered icon with no identifiable traits. But she was an Icon, i’ll give her that. As far as the woman’s cause I think she does more harm than anythign else. Women being strong is something that gets misused alot and people seem to think that a woman has to act liek a man to be strong. Maybe if strength is measured only physically but I think it runs deper. Example: Angelina Jolie has played some tough characters, Lara Croft among them, but I have only seen her be ‘strong’ in one role and that was “Changeling”. More people need to be exposed to that.

    Faith sort of benefited and suffered from the first person nature of the game. Her looks wern’t an option because they were very rarely seen. However she might have gotten mroe attention had she flashed those looks around a bit, it’s hard to really build suppot for a non-visible element.
    With it’s first person element I think Mirror’s Edge should have had a choice between two protagonists, one male and one female, because freerunning is not the arena to stand up and declaire men and women equal. People who practice it will tell you that each gender has their own diverse strengths and weaknesses. I imagine this does also help because it allows each gender to fidn their own strengths so Faith doesn’t have to “be as good as a man” but instead she just has to be an awesome woman, which she is.

  2. I don’t think the first or second continuities of Lara Croft did more harm than good. You are right that a major problem with the contemporary female identity is in equating equality or strength (of character) with masculinity; however, I don’t think Tomb Raider actually stooped to that. She was still feminine and still quite the woman.

    And as for Faith, her looks were seen at every instance in the game; whenever you looked down, you saw her. Her face is on the box cover and in every cutscene. Aurally, all of her grunts were distincly female; I don’t think her gender was really up for grabs.

    As for freerunning and gender equality: I don’t know what differences or adversities each gender might uniquely face, but I would question both whether they would be of the sort that you could represent in a video game, or even if they were so universal as to call into question Faith’s presence in the first instance. Not to mention a male character would have severely altered the sister dynamic, and not for the better I’m afraid.

    Should be noted that Mirror’s Edge was written by a woman. Not sure how much that matters; so was Assassin’s Creed.

  3. When I think back to the Lara Croft of olde, I routinely remember commercials for Tomb Raider 2, which basically stared a bunch of guys who tried to give reasons that they were playing the game other than Lara’s bust size. I suppose one could term this is Sony regarding the character as a wank fantasy more than anything else, though I’d have to suppose the commercials were more harmful to the image of gamers than to the image of women.

    That said, I never really saw the appeal to Lara Croft back in the day. To provide contrast, I found FF7’s women much more attractive despite them being similarly polygonal, but I owe this more to the presence of art that complemented what they were supposed to look like.

    That said, I agree with Jack insofar that the more current incarnations of Lara are more flattering to the character, and I am at least fundamentally curious as to how they’ll handle the latest reboot.

    I do think you make some fair points about Bayonetta (aside from that comment that it would be an otherwise above-average title; the game was a little too fun to qualify with a lowly “above-average”); I hadn’t considered the game from an empowerment standpoint, but I would agree the material is certainly present in the game with the way the one guy in the story is treated.

    Concerning Faith, I recall some statements made by the developers that she was designed not to be oversexed. I think some of this came from some fan image of her with larger breasts, sparking the statement that she was not to be some sort of sex icon. I’d similarly like to cite Rubi Malone of the probably-not-as-good-by-comparison-but-still-with-its-merits game Wet, who was also designed not to be oversexed.

    At the very least, there seems to be a few designers who are trying to cut down on the exploitation of the female image in producing their games. Bayonetta is obviously an example against this, but the game is so over the top that I think it’d almost be silly to ask that one aspect not to be what it is.

  4. Yeah, marketing is a big thing that tends to kill the portrayal of women as anything other than oversexed. But then, Lara’s creator did cop to creating her as his own personal wet dream, but I’d like to think the character and franchise managed to move past that.

    FF7’s women were interesting, but strangely they don’t get much press in gaming/feminist circles. Aeris is almost certainly your typical example girls-as-healers and was stuffed in a fridge at the first opportunity. More charitably, I would say she had more force of personality than Cloud and frequently spoke her mind. Tifa was tough, but keep in mind that this tough girl basically let herself get lead around by her nose buy a guy she knew was full of shit. And then she got passed over for the dead girl that actually had a modicum of femininity. So yeah, FF7 can go back and forth as to whether it was your typical JRPG misogyny or not.

    As for Bayonetta, snarks about quality aside, she needed that game as much as that game needed her. Probably exaggerated a bit much to make the point, but there you go. Most discussions about Bayonetta’s empowerment do actually fall flat on their face whenever the designer opens his mouth. I mean, he recently spoke of his favorite part of the game” the porno-lesboriffic pose-off that ended in an orgasm between Bayonetta and the angel chick. Yeah. This game was wanktastic and sculpted entirely for the male gaze; men aren’t featured prominently because it ruins the fantasy.

    I read about the photoshopped image of Faith. They basically made her look like a fourteen year-old with a stuffed bra and no tattoo. The designer was reported as feeling “crushed” by this, as it was the direct opposite of how they intended Faith to be portrayed.

    Ruby was designed to be sexed; her costume, while not impractical, does sculpt to her body in an unrealistic way and her pose definitely has a “come fuck me” vibe, what with her legs spread and arms held passively at her sides. But! She does get bonus points for being a total prick, something designers and writers don’t often “let” their female characters be. So overall Rubi gets a tally in the “plus” column.

    As a special note, the upcoming title Bulletstorm features a female lead (though not main) character that isn’t over the top. Apparently, there were shouting matches between designers, as one side wanted something realistic, while another wanted boobage.

    A shouting match. Between devs and not marketing. Just to not have her be breastacular. This is why we can’t have nice things.

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