Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Female characters in video games

Anita Sarkeesian has made a video series where she posits, and comments about, the claim that video games are on average inherently sexist against women, that there basically are no strong female characters, and such characters are often relegated to be essentially "objects" to be saved, used or abused by the player, and how video games pander to and entice male players to engage in such abuse.

I'm not going into the subject of how much she misrepresents, distorts and fabricates evidence of this, as that would be a whole rant on itself. Instead, I'm going to examine that accusation more seriously, from my own experience with video games. Is there any truth to it?

The thing is, I have played hundreds and hundreds of games during the past 30 years, and I am honestly having a very hard time pointing out any game that would support the idea, especially if we are talking about games made in the last 15 years or so.

Let's start by examining some games I have played that have had female playable characters, mostly as the main protagonist.

Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series is typically thought of, especially by the media and people who are not hard-core gamers (and even some who are), as the archetypal male fantasy protagonist: An improbably busty and sexualized athletic badass, whose only role seems to be to show her posterior to the camera and to shoot bad guys. When most people think of "sexy female game protagonist" chances are that Lara Croft will come up.

However, that depiction is in my opinion too simplistic. If you have actually played all the Tomb Raider games, you would know that she's not just a sexy&dumb badass. She actually has a personality. In fact, the more modern the game, the more three-dimensional she has become in terms of characterization. This has always been true, but the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot upped this to a whole new level. Her characterization in that game is both subtle and very strong at the same time; she's very relatable, and you often feel empathy for her predicaments and feelings. I would say that this is pretty much the polar opposite of what Ms. Sarkeesian claims female video game characters are like.

Deep characterization of relatable and empathetic female protagonists is nothing new. For example Final Fantasy VI, a game released in 1994, has several of them. The game deals with the struggles of Terra Branford, and later of Celes Chere. These are considered some of the best characterizations of the 16-bit era of gaming. (For example, the famous opera scene, where Celes impersonates an opera singer, and later her attempted suicide, are some of the most touching scenes of any game of the era... or even any era for that matter.)

The Final Fantasy series as a whole has never shied away from having female characters with full storyarcs. Most of them have females as side characters and even playable characters. The main playable character of Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning, is a woman. The main playable character of the sequel, XIII-2, is her sister Serah.

Many (if not most) games with female protagonists don't actually make a big deal about it, instead treating it as completely normal. A couple of further examples of this are Faith Connors from the game Mirror's Edge, and Nilin from the game Remember Me. Both are great examples of "here's a game, here is the protagonist, she happens to be a woman, no big deal". The games neither emphasize nor de-emphasize the fact that the protagonists are female, and instead treat them as characters with full in-depth storyarcs.

Even more examples of such characters (all of which I have played) include: Chell from Portal, Ellie from The Last of Us, Amanda Ripley from Alien: Isolation, Kameo from Kameo: Elements of Power, April Ryan from The Longest Journey and Zoƫ Castillo from its sequel, Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, Nina Kalenkov from Secret Files: Tunguska, Polka from Eternal Sonata, Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark Zero, Jeanne from Jeanne D'Arc, Lenneth from Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, Naija from Aquaria, and Kaitlin from Gone Home, to name a few.

And this isn't even going into the myriads of games with selectable or customizable characters (a good portion of role-playing games, for instance). Some of them even have custom storylines depending on the selected character (a couple of examples include the Mass Effect series and the Persona series, especially Persona 3 Portable, which is the game I have.)

Then there are myriads of games with female sidekicks or side (non-playable) characters, which nevertheless give good in-depth characterization to them. A good example of this is Alyx Vance from the Half-Life 2 series (especially the episodes). A couple of other examples include Trip from Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, and Princess Farah from the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time trilogy. These are not just helpless shallow characters that need to be constantly rescued, but all the contrary.

The concept (promoted by Ms. Sarkeesian) that there aren't strong female characters in video gaming is just a myth. One could argue that there aren't as many as male characters, but that's a rather different proposition. The former claim insinuates that video games are inherently sexist and shun female characters, when that's clearly not true, and has never been.

Of course the fact that there are plenty of games with strong female protagonists doesn't mean that there aren't games that are sexist against women. But are there?

I have hard time remembering of such games that I have played.

Perhaps the closest thing to this are games that depict prostitution or sex workers in a realistic manner ("realistic" in the sense that they don't try to hide or whitewash the fact that there exist prostitutes and a sex industry in modern society.) The Grand Theft Auto series would be an example of this.

Many people are quick to jump to accusations of objectification of women. However, is depicting reality "objectification of women"? Or is it simply a case of depicting reality? If a game wants to represent the gritty, ugly side of our society (if you really want to see prostitution as that), shouldn't a game be allowed to do that? Is it really "objectification of women" to represent the real world? Is it really all that different from representing other aspects of your society generally considered negative, such as drug use, crime or violence?

The game Watch Dogs depicts human trafficking. Is this "objectification of women", or is it simply depicting sad reality? (Note that it's not the player who engages in human trafficking. In fact, it's one of the quests to stop the operation. In other words, the game depicts it as a crime that the player needs to stop. It's not so much different from eg. having to stop a robbery or a murder.)

Some games give the player ample freedom to eg. kill or mistreat non-playable characters in the game. All such games that I can remember do not make any distinction between the gender of those characters (although all of them make it impossible to do it to children, either by not depicting children at all, or by making it impossible to hurt them if they do exist in the game.) Unlike Ms. Sarkeesian claims, none of them somehow entice or promote violence against women specifically; they simply don't make any distinction between the genders.

There most probably are games out there that are extremely and obnoxiously sexist (perhaps for the shock value or as some kind of selling point), but I just can't remember playing any, from the literally hundreds and hundreds of games I have played in my life.

The sad thing is that when someone like Ms. Sarkeesian says "there are no strong female characters in video games" and "many video games objectify women and entice players to abuse them", the media (incredibly even the gaming media) and the wider public believes her without any skepticism. When actual gamers, like me, who have actually played hundreds and hundreds of video games, people who have actual experience, say otherwise, they are dismissed and ignored.

(I am saddened, but I understand, that the non-gaming media and public believes those claims. What perplexes me, however, is that even the gaming media at large believes it too, even though they should know better. I really can't understand how the people who should be experts on the subject have been duped too. It's incomprehensible.)

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