Early in the history of commercial video games, masculinity was defined by silent muscle-heads with giant machine guns and the 'L' shaped Tetris block (I refuse to elaborate on the Tetris point.) Anyone who played games like Contra or Doom got the idea that all men in video games were well in line with action movies of the same era: long hair held back with a bandana, vein-bursting muscles, something to kill people with, and preferably a ripped shirt.

He is all that is man. . .

Video games have certainly moved on from the cliché imagery and tones that come with this kind of portrayal of masculinity. Though there are still plenty of ripped dudes murdering enemies en masse, not every male character is the generic, testosterone fueled maniac common of gaming yesteryear. Manliness has taken a variety of shapes in video games throughout the years. The days of the loudmouthed, machinegun blazing meathead are well behind us. . .

Bros 'til the Hyperbolic End

. . . for the most part. There's no denying that the gaming world is still filled with battle-hardened, tough guys reminiscent of the kind that saturated the early years of action and first-person shooter games. However, as easy as it is to ridicule the fist bumping nature of these characters, they have certainly grown out of the military grade armored shells from which they hatched.

Is Dom flexing his triceps and bicep at the same time? Is that even possible?

Even the most aggressive and violent of shooters these days attempt to weave a narrative that functions similarly to any other genre of games. Characters are explored, plots become thick, and conflict runs amuck. A common theme amongst these games is the feeling of camaraderie. Essentially, masculine characters end up expressing their admiration for one another through means of their commitment to a mutual cause.

An excellent example of this can be seen in the Gears of War franchise; even the tagline of the most recent entry of the series points to the idea of camaraderie and brotherhood. Though most of the game seems to be painted with an extraordinary amount of male clichés and action-game genre conventions, the ideals and philosophies of male bonding through a shared traumatic experience are still intact. This in turn leads to a sense of community amongst the characters, something that can even transfer to the players as they engage with the multiplayer components of the game.

Nothing says "I'm an active member within my community" quite like the fist bump

La Familia es Todo

Not every game projects the identity of a man through a violent lens. Particularly in more recent games, taking control of a family man has become a viable narrative path. These are characters that are not driven by the circumstances we have come to expect would incite video gameesque conflict. Rather, these are male protagonists who do everything with the best interest of their family in mind. What they do may not always be right or moral, but they justify their actions to themselves by means of sacrifice rather than self-interest.

Red Dead Redemption's John Marston showcases his loyalty and love for his family throughout the entire game. Practically from the moment Marston speaks, he consistently lets everyone involved with his plight that he's there for one reason: the safety of his wife and son. Marston's character design becomes particularly intriguing when juxtaposed with his expressed cherishment for his family. The gun-toting, rugged Clint Eastwood of video games has a soft spot? And he's an understanding/patient father/husband? How interesting.

Even if you're stranded out in the old west, rabid animals and bandits amidst, there's always time for a good hug

In Marston's case, his inclination to protect his family ends up curbing the violent trends of his life. Marston claims that, despite a shady past full of hardships and violence, he has chosen a peaceful life with his family. Some games demonstrate the opposite; a peaceful character can be driven toward an unknown path of aggression and violence in an attempt to guard his loved ones.

Silent Hill is quite good at this practice. The first two games of the franchise featured male protagonists chasing after someone they loved. Neither of these characters gave off the impression that they had or were able to take up violent tendencies; these weren't ex-military commandos visiting a sleepy New England town.

James isn't exactly the machinegun wielding type

The idea of how these male characters interact with their environment becomes even more complex when you consider how Silent Hill worlds are built. The idea of Silent Hill is that much of the town's appearance and atmosphere is crafted around the psyche of whoever visits it. When you mull over the world that is created around James and Harry (the main characters of the first two games), there seems to be very little in the way of traditionally masculine themes or tones. No one in Silent Hill is trying to be brave, bold, or courageous. Rather, the overall feelings are of fear, concern, and anxiety. These aren't tough guys. These are guys just trying to survive and rescue their family.  

So you're a Wise Guy, Eh?

Some male characters rely on their wit as their dominating characteristic. These are the smart guys, the silver tongued. For every near-death situation they have a clever response to lighten the mood. Even when these guys are driven to violence and conflict, their wits always keep them afloat.

Everyone knows the best witty quips happen when you're about to die

It would be difficult to mention a clever male video game character without thinking about Nathan Drake. Drake consistently keeps a light-hearted tone about him regardless of the danger he faces. Even as you control Drake through the game world, he always has snide remarks to his situations. His body language lends itself to the same idea. Drake cowers around corners to seek cover, throwing his hands over his head as pseudo protection, tripping and stumbling over terrain while maintaining an "Awww, man!" facial expression the entire time.

A similar attitude can be seen in Ezio Auditore. Ezio's training to become a master assassin is grounded in his mental fortitude just as much as it is his physical prowess. Ezio is forced to keep his wits about him during Assassin's Creed's narrative and gameplay. Simply rushing into enemy encounters isn't the kind of assassin Ezio has trained to be; he studies his victims to strike with precise timing.

Okay, so he's not always that subtle. . .

These characters usually rely on their intellect to overcome adversity or achieve an objective. They're not the biggest or strongest, but they can figure out how to beat the odds with quick thinking and by out-maneuvering their adversaries.

Silent, Stoically So

Not everyone has the time to sit down and explain things with hollow words of dialogue or monologue. Some men have to pick up the tool they need to get the job done and get to work. These are the types who let their actions speak for them.

The Xbox's championed hero, Master Chief, is well known for not participating in conversation. Sure, the Chief throws in a line of dialogue here or there to let everyone know that there is a person under that suit and not a robot, but while everyone else is jabbering on, he's usually taking down groups of hostile aliens.

I bet when he puts down the guns, he picks up a pen and writes beautiful poetry

The most infamously quiet man in video games is Gordon Freeman. Freeman has an intricate and deep story crafted around him without ever contributing even a single word. Despite his commitment to forever being speechless, everyone around Freeman responds to him enough to generate a concrete narrative.

Evidently, getting a Ph.D. in physics requires absolutely no oral communication skills

It may seem like a generic way to create a male protagonist, but it does reflect how much of western culture (particular American culture) expects a man to behave. Traditionally, men are to be relatively silent and repressive of emotion, letting what they do perform the heavy lifting for identity.

Have Fun Storming the Castle, Boys!                                                      

Some guys just want to save the day. With little rhyme or reason, they want to bring down the mean fellow who stole the girl, set his castle on fire, and call it a day. As simple as it may seem, this convention of gaming can lend itself to some interesting analysis. After all, these characters are almost completely selfless in their endeavors. Their interests rest solely in the wellbeing of another person; they risk life and limb with little or no guarantee of reward.

Nintendo practically set the foundation of this kind of game with the likes of Mario and Link. Both characters brave through a treacherous world with practically no regard to their own safety or health. They both take on quests that test their character in nearly every respect.

Sometimes the best way to impress a girl is to show her how far you can throw a chicken

When we consider how this behavior looks outside of how it might represent masculinity, it seems more obsessive and borderline creepy than anything else. But this kind of selfless commitment is a classic convention of male characters in all kinds of cultural productions. Chivalry of this caliber can be traced all the way back- and probably further- to medieval literature and culture, when the reason of the hero's sacrifices weren't even to benefit tangible people but rather abstract ideals and morals.


Gawain's green knight

Video games have played with the themes and tones of this kind of male character, though, most notably in the game Braid. Tim, the player controlled character, seems like your average selfless hero at first. For the sake of spoilers, let's just leave it at his objectives aren't exactly like Link's.

I'm not sure what that pinecone looking guy did to deserve that. . .

Masculinity in gaming no longer coincides with whatever blockbuster action movie is in theatres at the time. Male characters have come a long way from the generic meathead model to showcasing a variety of definitions for manliness. As the variation of male character creation continues, however, it brings up the question of what gender really means when crafting personality. Does being a man no longer inform what our characters will be like? Or is considering gender still an important part of analyzing our digital protagonists?