Sugar and spice

Brinstar’s post on Star Wars: The Force Unleashed gave me more to chew on than just the level of violence and gore to which we (don’t) subject women in games; I began considering a comment she made about the protagonist of this title:

I also honestly don’t see why Starkiller couldn’t have been female. The character of Starkiller is pretty much the standard, boring white male with hardly any personality to speak of, which is typical for videogame protagonists. Since he had no personality to start with, they could have had this character be a woman just as easily as a man. The only reason you don’t have a choice for gender is because yet again, male is the default and female the afterthought — or not considered at all. There’s no valid reason why Starkiller couldn’t have been female. Rather than start off with male as a default, they could have decided at the very, very beginning that Starkiller was a woman.

In response, I stated:

Do we hold this to be true of our female protagonists in games? I personally see someone like Samus Aran as an empty void into which we project our own desires, but she seems to have been dubbed a sassy, no-nonsense type of woman. Most other females attempt to have a distinct personality one way or another, though. Perhaps we are left with the perception that females can’t let their actions alone speak for them very often?

It’s certainly true for the majority of advertising that women appear, men act. A man is defined by his actions, not by his physique alone. Someone like Fabio is considered a joke not only because he was primarily fabricated as a female fantasy with romance novel looks, but because we never really saw him do anything beyond be (subjectively) pretty. It is not enough for a man to appear muscular–after all, we laugh at the big cuddly giant with a pipsqueak voice, and normally pair him with a mental disability or make him safe for children.

With female protagonists who take the center stage (I will address ensemble casts later, as I realize I’ve mostly kept these discussions in the realm of the homosocial), we’re more often given a story, a personality, and given background. These are interesting characters. While I could just write it off as women needing to appear and therefore needing to foreground their presence, being given less to actually do, I don’t think this is fully fair or the entire answer.

This is a matter of saturation and identification. The gamer demographic that plays more violent or physically body conscious games tends to still be taken as male (it may well be, I never pay attention to ‘sample’ sizes), so having them identify with a male is considered an afterthought. It is easier to place in a bland and flavorless male and assume that a male demographic will take up the reins and fill in the gaps. We tend to assume that when a male plays a female character, he is busy ogling her, not identifying with her; this is supplemented by the stock MMO response, “I don’t want to stare at a dude’s back all the time.”

To introduce a female protagonist then means that she cannot be a slate on to which the developers and writers expect the players to write the assumed his self. Even with Mirror’s Edge, the senior producer Owen O’Brien stated in a Forbes article:

“I find it’s wearing a bit thin and [is] kind of childish,” Owen O’Brien, the game’s senior producer, says about the typical portrayal of gals in games. “I wanted to create an action hero who happened to be female–but could just as easily have been male–who wasn’t trading on the fact that she was a sexual being. I was trying to create a character that was aspirational but attainable…[without] gravity-defying breasts.

Besides,” says O’ Brien, “Faith fits perfectly into the role of a hunted runner far better than a man ever would. If she were male,” he says, “players would have immediately entered shooter mode–hunting for bigger guns and better armor–instead of relying on Faith’s speed and agility to disarm or dodge opponents.”

If Faith were male, we, the players, would apparently expect big guns and better armor that does not care if it hides the figure of the protagonist. Sadly, while I believe this is a correct assumption, I’d rather be broken of a bad habit than have it encouraged. Armored females are also not very sexy, unless said armor is contoured and illogically revealing.

With all the story and animated shorts that were preceding Mirror’s Edge’s release, it looks very different than another EA title, Dead Space. Isaac seems very much a blank character on to whom we can write much, beyond his love interest being in danger. From the promotional materials and gameplay footage I have seen of the two, Faith emerges as an entity, whereas Isaac seems a side note to the action that takes place in the game. Most of the non-gameplay footage does not even focus on him–the plot around him is of larger importance. While this is largely indicative of their respective genres as well, could we have had a female Isaac in a world that did not center on the protagonist? Would Faith be as interesting if she only displayed her parkour skills?

Promotional material for Faith gives us her backstory. The parkour is one aspect of the game, but EA is really pushing hard to make sure you know that the game has not only a female, but that she is fully dimensioned. It also takes away the temptation to ogle her, placing you firmly in the shoes of a first person perspective. Parkour itself could not define who she is, otherwise she would be male. She cannot be defined by her actions alone, whereas we can drop in many faceless or droll soldiers whom you can control into a battle field and don’t feel the need to provide them with compelling backgrounds. Though this is not to say that such males cannot exist (they certainly do–right next to their blank counterparts).

Instead, I believe what we’re seeing ties back into saturation. If a female is to make it into a game, she either needs to be sexy or have a compelling story in order for her to sell copies of the game. She needs to push: a. forward her story, b. up her mammaries, c. for either children or a lover. Again, as Brinstar stated, “…male is the default and female the afterthought…” If we create a male protagonist, this character is expected, and there need be no reason for anything beyond his appearance. Females? They need justification to be in a (man’s) gaming world.

However, if this means that they can become more memorable than their male counterparts years down the road, I’m all for pushing forward some love for these game women.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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5 Responses to Sugar and spice

  1. Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 featured female characters as an option for the player’s avatar and as potential members of your squad. They were not depicted as either inferior to their male counterparts or as sexual objects, they were simply females doing the same job as males.Little comment was made about it anywhere that I can find. Considering the genre of game I find the fact that female characters have been included without fanfair to be laudable.

  2. Denis Farr says:

    I shall have to look into it. Will be doing some more research and looking into the field before I make a post about the ensemble casts, or options such as you mentioned.The Final Fantasy series, for all its inclusion of females, is not looking particularly great as I look back on the titles. It’s downright wince-worthy.

  3. nowhere says:

    <>“Promotional material for Faith gives us her backstory. The parkour is one aspect of the game, but EA is really pushing hard to make sure you know that the game has not only a female, but that she is fully dimensioned… whereas we can drop in many faceless or droll soldiers whom you can control into a battle field and don’t feel the need to provide them with compelling backgrounds.”<>I think looking at promotional material as a way of determining what the character’s backstory is and whether or not they are faceless is a bad way of going about this.For example, let’s look at the most faceless and droll soldier that gaming has produced: Master Chief. This is a character that plays into exactly what you are talking about with the male not needing to be justified. However if you look at the promotional material created for the Halo universe, specifically the Halo novels you can see that the Master Chief actually does have a backstory as fledged out, possibly more, as Faith’s backstory is in those videos.I don’t know if you’ve played Mirror’s Edge, but the game hasn’t exactly gained a reputation for a riveting story in reviews so I don’t think Faith has really been given a <>compelling<> background just because of some promo videos.<>“Parkour itself could not define who she is, otherwise she would be male.”<>I think that’s too doom and gloom and not in line with the actual character. I would debate that she is actually very faceless and parkour is what defines the entire game and her.

  4. shadaik says:

    Somewhat late to the party, but I’d still like to suggest the obvious: Portal. It’s a game were the lack of a background to the (female) player character is actually important to the story.This is indeed interesting, because it might (might) be that nobody would have wondered about the lack of a personal background, if Chell was male.

  5. Denis Farr says:

    @nowhere: I have yet to play Mirror’s Edge, so this was based entirely on conjecture and looking in contrast with Dead Space. If what you say is true, then I stand corrected. My focus then would be shifted at the marketing of such games.Halo has had a brilliant marketing team which probably has and will be studied again for its effectiveness. In the case of Mirror’s Edge, this then creates a dissonance into how Faith is presented and the actual storyline, much as it would with Master Chief. Unfortunately, this would also make me believe it stands out more in the case of Faith, but I could very well be wrong. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.@shadaik: Chell is an excellent example, and one which I had overlooked. If I’m not mistaken, wasn’t the design team behind Portal headed by a female? If so, this presents an interesting case for more females in the gaming industry to provide innovation in ways that might not occur to men because of cultural background and influence.

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