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Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars as the old saying goes, but have men and women still been so far apart when it comes to video-games?
The inspiration for this blog comes from a recent Facebook campaign. Organized by The Legend of Zelda fans, its Facebook page addresses Zelda co-creator Eiji Aonuma's recent comments regarding the possibility of a playable Princess Zelda in future entries. The campaign's page, humbly titled, "Nintendo, Please Give Princess Zelda a Stronger Role" asks exactly what its title does and urges the company to include Zelda in both a playable and meaningful part in the franchise. I think of it as a fantastic idea and if you're on Facebook, you should consider supporting them in their monumental task.
At the same time, the issue raises a world of issues: why aren't there more female heroines in gaming? Many people have talked about this topic and I suppose I wont' be the last. Nevertheless it's one that I consistently take interest in as a gamer, perhaps hopefully as a person too, and I couldn't let this nagging question escape the Inquisitive Blogger's grasp.
Historically, women's portrayals in video-games have always seemed to be stuck between extremes. Either they've been helpless, adoring princesses or they've been evil, man eating witches. Most are caught up in being locked in a dungeon awaiting their heroic savior, dancing at nightclubs amusing their male patrons, hooked up with a super-villain clown, or ready to have her literal demonic tentacles envelop you. They have a choice to be beside you cheering unconditionally or wreak havoc on you. Is that purely dualistic view very healthy?
Rarely has a bridge filled that gap between hanger-on and grouch lady, yet a few select titles have made some significant progress towards that goal. Uncharted's Elena Fisher, short of her uncanny aim with a .45, was a calming voice of reason against Drake's headstrong/insane recklessness and her fellow, sassy blonde contemporary of Bonnie McFarlane served as one of the only likable, grounded people able to simply shoot the breeze with Mr. Marston like an old friend. Elizabeth's remarkable AI and emotional connection with players has been self-evident enough through any amount of hrs. with her. Even Jennifer Hale's Fem Shep was picked many times over Male Shep thanks to her bravery, loyalty, and leadership not often seen in her feminine peers. That kind of progress, however, is all too rare in an increasingly bro-centred age of military shooters and hack-and-slashers.
An almost equal detriment to female protagonists has been a history of seemingly trying too hard to establish strength. Certain characters like Metal Gear Solid's Meryl and XIII's Lightning come off as overly abrasive in resisting femininity, constantly waving guns to get her points across. Others like 2013's rebooted Lara Croft only seem to be persistently exposed to gruesome torture only because her female image is more disturbing to see damaged to male players then a man's. Does that serve to undermine the intended message of strength? Some like the Boss and Samus Aran simply exist as tough characters who otherwise just happen to be female. They don't exist to continually prove their they're strong women, they refreshingly just let their tough exteriors speak for themselves without the grandeur.
The heart of the issue surrounding the absence of female protagonists could be seen as a pragmatic one by companies: the view that women aren't as strong as men. To a physical degree, that's true. A bulked up, womanly Kratos snapping chains in half would never be as visually believable compared to his manly version, let alone the cultural demand for animating a top to her outfit. Similarly, a female Drake wouldn't be pulling the same punches as his scruffier self. The Last Guardian's developers shared this attitude and raised many eyebrows in the process along with many games sporting buff, chiseled dudes strutting their muscles.
Some big counter-arguments could be made to that perception. Games like Mirror's Edge and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation has shown off women that could compete against any of the guys. Faith's thrill-inducing parkour move set made an impression on me more than even Prince of Persia's with its quick and visceral combat, while Aveline's slinky assassin skills showed us that brute force isn't the only thing that keeps people on their toes. I even thought Cat Woman's agile gameplay was at times more fun than Batman's in Arkham City and characters like Elika were a graceful and invaluable tool to gameplay. Lara Croft certainly held her own in this year's Tomb Raider and players won't soon forget what she endured across her island trek. Regardless of both arguments, why are women being judged on their simple ability to bench-press a boulder or endure bodily harm over story-telling?
One of the most unfair factors against video-game heroines are the statistics. Women do in fact comprise 45% of the gaming population, virtually half of all gamers, and many studies have shown throughout the years that women are just as capable of being the hard-core gamer that men are if not more so. Then why aren't we playing more Lara Crofts or Samus Arans? Simply put, women aren't commonly making our games. The amount of women designers in the game community is slim if not outright tiny. Further, the game industry is still one of "frat boy" culture and is notoriously unwelcoming to female influence beyond the scantily clad, eye-pleasing kind. GI's own Megan Marie has been heroically outspoken about her own experiences with this discrimination. When it boils down to it, guy players and designers say "eww" all too often to "letting a girl tell me what to do." That prejudice expresses a fear that we can't be friends, we should be a boss and under-boss. I just don't think that's right and it's something that I don't want to continue as an industry precedent.
(Why can't we be friends?)
With all that said, more women, of course, is not a quick solution. Quantity over quality characters doesn't amount to addressing women's importance in story-telling just as much as more women in politics, or education, or medicine, or media isn't the answer. Their inclusion in games as equals alongside men is what's needed. Funny or serious, sexy or plain, strong on the outside or inside, female characters deserve to be whatever they want, of course. As a straight guy, I enjoy seeing a pretty face but I much prefer a person behind it. Perhaps women in video-games reflect the same dilemma that's plagued either gender for the majority of gaming's history. We need a sense of people carrying these stories more than we need AI.
As Aonuma has relayed in his interviews, series like Zelda are beloved franchises with great hurtles ahead of them to continue to entertain their fanbases. Zelda has had the right to finally step up to the plate and star in her own legend for a long time coming. I hope it's something that Nintendo deeply considers moving forward. If series like it don't change, they'll very soon die to their followers. Their reflection of the social and cultural growth around them is only one of many on the list of artistic aspirations they need to keep fans engaged in the medium. At its heart, the game industry is a relevant expression of our imaginations. Can we imagine a place for feminine role-models? I dare say that I hope so.
I guess I've all but exhausted my thoughts on that subject. What do you think of having a playable Zelda, or more heroines in gaming in general? As always, anything else you have to ask, blogging suggestions and all, are welcome. This blogger's signing off for the night. Thanks for reading folks.
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