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Why Female Protagonists Matter
It’s no secret that the gaming world is mainly dominated by men. Whether you look at developers, journalists, or the players themselves, it’s clear that the demographic is strongly male-oriented. Even taking a glance at the actual games you can see how often the protagonist is a strong, gruff dude that sounds like he’s been gargling sulfuric acid since he was seven. Gears of War, Halo, Call of Duty, Splinter Cell, Metal Gear Solid, and Max Payne are just a few of the franchises that immediately jump to mind that feature a somewhat cliched video game hero. And I’m kind of getting tired of it.
Whatever happened to strong female characters in games? Were they ever really a thing in the first place? I remember how floored fans were when they discovered that Samus was a chick at the end of Metroid for the NES. Since then, girls in games have become no more than glorified sex objects tailored to please the males that dominate the demographic of video game players. I say enough is enough; it’s time to get some respectable women in the limelight. And I’m happy to report that this idea may be gaining traction. Here are some games that show women the right way.
This franchise started out innocently enough. The player controlled the busty babe Lara Croft, an explorer that braved ancient ruins around the world in search of powerful artifacts. Along the way, she fought dangerous creatures, collected objects, and solved multiple puzzles. The third-person action game was a commercial and critical success. But in the sequels that followed, it seemed her waist to chest ratio steadily declined. I have no doubt that at least part of the franchise’s success is due to the fact that you play as a sexy, gun-toting adventurer.
Why are people okay with this? Do players really turn gaming icons into sex objects if they have boobs and carry a gun? A possible reason it took so long for gamers to be respected is simply because of our view on women in games. I’m not necessarily saying the developers made a mistake when they designed Lara as they did, but somewhere along the way she became more than a video game hero and become something to ogle.
I’m happy to say that this is changing. The Tomb Raider franchise is getting a much-needed reboot, and the new design of Lara Croft is exceptional because she looks, well, real. Her body proportions are finally natural, and that alone is reason to rejoice. She’s still attractive (what video game protagonist isn’t?), but at least she looks like a actual girl rather than a digitized Barbie doll, and she’s got a personality to match. In demos of the new game, you hear Lara constantly panting, grunting, and even yelling in fear and pain, characterizing her as a lost, frail girl in a place she doesn’t belong. I have much respect for where Crystal Dynamics is taking this character in an effort to make her respected not just for her looks but for her story and personality as well.
Gears of War
Gears of War is a frat boy’s dream come true. It doesn’t get more manly than chainsawing through a grub’s torso amongst a group of beefy, testosterone-fueled war heroes in an effort to save the world. But Epic Games’ violent trilogy said more in what they left out than in what they included: scantily clad women.
Games such as these always include that stereotypical sexy female role that exists only to get male gamers more hyped up. I think of RPGs where men run around in full suits of armor but the one female in the group is swinging a sword in a bikini in the middle of the battlefield. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s almost insulting. Even as a male, I find it tasteless to ruin the consistency of the fiction of a world by including something so outlandish as a half-naked chick amongst a pack of warriors. Where’s the immersion in that? Despite Gears of War’s clear catering toward the male gamer, I’m proud of them for how they treated females throughout the game, especially in the third title where women entered combat.
In Gears 3, characters such as the protagonist Marcus’s love interest Anya Stroud along with the elderly, dreadlocked brute Bernie Mataki take up arms to fight the Locust menace. Not once are these women treated as less than the other soldiers fighting for the world’s salvation. Never are they sexualized or used as simple eye candy for the player. Epic Games did women a true service with this franchise, putting realism, respect, and equality above stereotypes, and that act is pushing us in the right direction.
Valve’s hit puzzle game is one where who you’re playing as doesn’t matter as much as the incredible level design, hilarious voice acting and writing, and genius puzzles. The entire game is played without your character muttering a sound, and you have to go out of your way to find out who it is you are. Only by using portals to view yourself in-game do you realize that you’re actually a woman, a revelation that doesn’t really matter. Or does it?
Valve could have easily made the protagonist a silent male lead, as they did with Gordan Freeman in Half-Life. It wouldn’t have made a difference to anyone. Only those who scoured over forums and online speculation by fans ever discovered the name of Portal’s lead: Chell. And even then it still didn’t matter. At least it doesn’t seem that way at first. But really, Valve made a decision that’s more important than it seems on the surface.
By making Portal’s lead role a woman, a role that could have been filled by a male without any difference in story, gameplay, or reception by fans, they proclaimed their opinion on female protagonists in a subtle way. By giving Chell the portal gun, they silently invited women into the world of gaming that hasn’t been so receptive to them in past years. How would girls feel playing games if literally every time they picked up a controller they were controlling a male hero? They’d probably feel isolated and out of place, which might turn some of them off to gaming. Because of decisions like Valve’s for Portal, the gaming industry is on the right track to making everyone feel equal and welcome.
Sexism will probably always exist in media to some degree, especially in a medium dominated mostly by males. But as time moves on, and games become more and more integrated into society, it’s the industry’s job to break the bad habit of objectifying women. And on the path we’re on now, I think we can do it.