This past weekend I went to a party celebrating my good friend Sir Iris’s (everyone loves a palindrome) twenty-fifth birthday. The central theme around the party was Sock Wrestling. Iris rents out a room in her house to various foreigners and students who happen to need a small living space, and her current flatmate is a young woman from China. When she (whose name I do not know how to spell off the top of my head) realized that women would be in the same competition as men, she blanched and said this was unfair.
Now, to be fair, Sock Wrestling is about getting off the socks of your opponent before she does the same to you. Brute strength is not something that really aids one in any appreciable manner. It takes a good mixture of strength and flexibility as well as strategic positioning. Iris and the other females participating did very well in winning against their male opponents. Then again, this is a group of bike fanatics, messengers, and women and men who equally pound back beers and whiskey in the same fashion. Many of us also participate in Pankake Sundays, where you’ll just as often see men cooking and cleaning.
We’re pretty equal opportunity–you do what suits your talents and desires. Other sports in which you’ll see equal sex representation are Bike Polo and Urban Golf. Because there is no preconceived notion of how these games must be played, there is no preconceived notion that they must be distinguished based on sexual differences.
When it comes to physical demands, we still tend to see females as the weaker sex. We could go in circles debating this with various data, scientific findings, and debates on evolutionary imperative. However, I would posit that the real problem comes from our desire to protect our mothers, sisters, wives, lovers, et cetera. I consider myself fortunate to be raised by a mother who believed in equal treatment of both sexes and stood up for me when I protected my brother from an older girl who started beating up on him by pinning her to the ground.
If we look at games that feature female protagonists whom we do not create, we find a couple of distinctions. First, we have the tough female stuck in a game of survival horror. This includes your Fatal Frames, Resident Evils, and Silent Hills. They’re an interesting genre, but one to which I’ll have to return after becoming more familiar with them (I’ve only seen some of these played and ventured on doing so myself of late). My initial impression is that even here we see clear distinctions between female and male. We then have the female who engages in ‘thinking’ and outmaneuvering more than she spends engaged in combat.
One game that appears to be many peoples’ darling is Beyond Good & Evil, largely because Jade is such an accessible character. Yet, as I think we see from the picture to the left, she is known more as a journalist than as some staff-wielding martial artist. I’m halfway through the game right now and still feel a sense that this game is not necessarily about the fighting so much as it is sleuthing about and solving puzzling situations. Sure, there is fighting, but it almost seems an afterthought, we had to include this.
Not surprisingly, Jade is rather lithe and agile in comparison to her male companions, Pey’j and Double H. It is also later revealed that she is capable of amazing feats of healing, because that’s new. Females that heal and are some sort of mothering force…
Don’t get me wrong, I love Jade and Beyond Good & Evil. It is a game whose plot and gameplay were in many ways refreshing from the normal puzzlers and action fighting games. However, I also feel that if the game had featured a male protagonist, we (as a culture) would not have believed the tears, emotional depth, and lack of fighting. The game also appears to have critically been well received while not selling well, though everyone I know who actually played the game will praise it very highly. It’s a game that stays with you.
The upcoming Mirror’s Edge seems to have some questions concerning its play. At first, it seemed that perhaps one would be playing a parkour simulator in which one avoided opposition and made use of stealth and acrobatics. The more that is revealed about the game, however, the more combat seems to infiltrate it:
Now, the primary focus still seems to be parkour-centered running and escape from a supposedly utopian/dystopian government. However, once again I look at the sex of the protagonist and wonder why we have a female (good rebuttal would be, why not?). This one becomes slightly confusing as parkour is a very intense physical exercise and sport, it is not for the weak of body or spirit. However, the game seems largely focused on non-combat as a solution. Sure, you can pick up a gun, but you can’t reload it and it will serve to hinder you in some regards as to whether or not you can grab on to ledges and the like (this is from what I’ve read, as the game is yet to be released).
The game does move into two directions I like. Less violent games that offer other solutions and acknowledgment that we can have protagonists that are not just white and male. I, for one, am a white male who does not mind a story told from another perspective. Playing a female character? Not going to cause any gender confusion here (though I’m a weird example of that, considering my view of myself as non-cisgendered). I believe this is a concern that has been relatively (we’re still not completely there) negated when some fears concerning King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella use of a female protagonist did not see a reduction in sale numbers.
We also have figures like Samus Aran and Lara Croft who prove that males are quite capable and willing to play as a female protagonist. But even in the case of the latter of the two, we see some discernible horror in killing a human being, which is turned into an event depicted through the course of the series. We are not comfortable with the idea of blood thirsty women who walk into a room guns blazing–if she’s going to do such, she better have a damn good reason, like protecting her child (I just visibly cringed). Lara Croft may be exceptional in her skill with guns, but the thought of killing a human being troubles her, she’s still safely a woman. With the former we also tend to see her fight alien species and monsters, often dealing with the puzzle and platform situations of her situations as well as shooting.
Women are often used in support roles in military conflict. Whenever combat is suggested, we seem to come to a debate, however. Again, the argument of mental and physical differences will come to the fore, as well as the instinct that it is them for whom we’re fighting. Coming from Germany, it is very apparent that there is a generation that exists where males were largely absent due to World War II (though don’t believe for a second that this evened out the playing field). When I play a game, I expect to be taking some amount of fiction with me, however.
We very rarely play non-fiction games (those that have narratives).
Now, the question is whether any of this is surprising? Sadly, no. Games, like many mediums, largely reflect the culture in which we live. So, while there are sexist differences in our depictions of males and females in the medium about which I am writing, that does not suggest that the developers of these games are making them with these sexist notions clearly in mind. Sexism permeates everywhere, and unfortunately is largely focused on females, so this is not out of the ordinary. If we want to change sexism in games, we’d be aided by diminishing it in real life (though that doesn’t mean we can’t point it out as need be in a constructive manner). I do know that my mother rejoiced when the announcement was made that we would be able to choose the sex of our classes in Diablo 3, however.
One thing I have not yet touched on is the depiction of females as bodies in games yet. Don’t worry, I’ll get there in future posts as is needed. With the mention of Diablo 3, I do feel the need to address another nagging issue concerning things we (generally speaking) tend to overlook: the question of race.