You’ve heard, probably, that 48% of gamers these days are female. (Source: the Entertainment Software Association. Also, every news source like this one that reposted the ESA’s stats, paying special attention to the fact that adult female gamers outnumber young male gamers.) You might also have noticed that the percentage of female playable characters in games is much, much smaller than that. In 2009, less than 10% of playable characters were female; hopefully that number has increased in the last five years, but obviously we’re nowhere near equity on that point.
But it’s been an exciting summer for the visibility of women’s issues in games. In June, when a representative from Ubisoft said that it would be too costly to include female playable characters in the next Assassin’s Creed, the internet fairly exploded with derision. Critical Distance, as always, has a good selection of links on the topic (June 15 and June 22); of them, I particularly liked this post from Hellmode talking about the female playable characters we had in games from the 90s and early aughts. The inference I make is that there is a bit of backlash in game development, a hyperfocus on hypermasculinity among some top-selling titles, but it hasn’t always been that way and it certainly won’t continue to be going forward. The gamer stats make it clear that the “majority male demographic” argument doesn’t hold water.
More recently, a new installment of Feminist Frequency’s Tropes vs. Women is now up: Women as Background Decoration Part 2. (Here is Part 1.) Anita Sarkeesian has gotten waves of hostile attention online (and, unfortunately, offline) since even before the first video in this series was up, but I’ve been intrigued to see a number of male voices in gaming media speak up in support of her critiques recently. I like this post from Kotaku that recaps her argument and then demonstrates some of the ways Sarkeesian and even the men who support her come under attack simply for suggesting that we could stand to break out of some boring habits of mangling female characters.
For what it’s worth, I think that this most recent installment of Tropes vs. Women is one of the most clear and cogent to date, and I’ve been a follower of Feminist Frequency for some time. One of the most effective tools of the series–for both her film and game critiques–is a visual representation of the astonishing ubiquity and repetition of certain representations of women. Parts 1 and 2 of “Women as Background” reveal horrifying homogenous landscape of casual cruelty toward women, used mainly as window dressing for a supposedly edgy, gritty universe, meant to be simultaneously shocking and appealing. Part 2 does a particular good job of demonstrating that the disposable female characters in numerous games exist for no other reason than to be sexualized and then assaulted, and that even when such scenes are not crucial to the plot, gameplay will frequently compel the player to observe or overhear gruesome treatment of women with no means of opting out. Likewise, Sarkeesian takes particular care to show how violence against disposable female characters is staged in a completely different (i.e. sexualized) way than that against disposable male characters. That’s two points I often see made by detractors–that violence against female characters is crucial to certain games or that it’s no different than violence against male characters–already refuted.
I also appreciated her stance (seconded by the Kotaku author) that using sexual violence as shorthand for evil or horror is straight-up lazy writing. Perhaps that’s one reason this episode really gelled for me: I’ve made this argument myself in reference to the (ahem) climax of The Magician King and I’ve heard it in reference to certain media that seem to exploit women’s bodies in this way–Game of Thrones is the obvious example.
AND YET. I’m always a little shocked when I see a game I love in the Feminist Frequency slideshows of shame. Surely that game is not like the rest of the games with disposal women! I hardly even remember that little rape joke in a game that is otherwise touted as a triumph for gender and sexual diversity! And I feel a bit hurt and defensive. So I get it, gamer bros. But of course that’s precisely her point: the objectification and violence toward women in games is so ubiquitous that one may well not notice, or unconsciously choose to overlook it because it’s still such a rare treat to enjoy interactive media with minimal violence or objectification toward women.
Tangent: I’ve been thinking about the way I can really lose myself in a good book or a good movie, giving a good story the kind of engagement where I might cancel plans just to immerse myself in a fictional world, the kind of commitment where I will look up everything I can find online in order to find threads of that experience elsewhere in the world. The books, films, and TV shows that lead me into this depth tend to be exceptional in craft: they are incredibly well-made, well-told, or well-thought-out stories in their genre. I favor stories that allow women and minorities to be well-drawn characters in part because that is a sign of craft. Sure it’s social justice, but it’s also style.
I can really lose myself in a video game, too, and become a voracious consumer and loyal customer. But the bar is much lower. Many of the games I love have severe lapses in narrative craft, from painful dialogue (Skyrim) to egregious treatment of women to gameplay that encourages players to act out oppression instead of against it (et tu, Bioware). And I lose myself in them anyway, because of the nature of interactive media: you have some influence over the outcome, you are explicitly complicit in the storytelling, and it doesn’t take much to become invested. Gaming is severely underestimated and underutilized as a narrative vehicle that way. Imagine what the experience of gaming could be like if games required the same level of narrative craft in building nuanced, diverse characters and worlds we’ve come to expect from good television, movies, and books!
On that note, this is not strictly a gaming link, but this essay is so good that I’ve been dying to link to it on this blog forever: We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome, by Tasha Robinson. Robinson laments the number of female characters that are brought into mainstream film and TV to kick ass, and who indeed get some extremely kickass representation of their strength and talent and complexity, but who in terms of plot have nothing to do. Who lose their nerve at the last minute to make room for a hero to come in and triumph, who are taken out of the action (often kidnapped or trapped by the villain) so that her strength and talents do not contribute to the plot resolution, whose primary contribution may in fact be as nurturer or sexual reward or other traditionally female role. She’s got some great examples and a delightfully scathing checklist:
Is a fundamental point of your plot that your Strong Female Character is the strongest, smartest, meanest, toughest, or most experienced character in the story—until the protagonist arrives?
…or worse, does he enter the story as a bumbling fuck-up, but spend the whole movie rapidly evolving past her, while she stays entirely static, and even cheers him on? Does your Strong Female Character exist primarily so the protagonist can impress her?
Now, this test is only for storytellers and developers who have graduated past 101: Are All Your Female Characters Sex Workers? but I look forward to what the extra credit might look like.