Manic Pixel Dream Girls: On The Importance of Playable Female Characters
Published Feb 06, 2015It's 2015 and we're finally living in a post-GamerGate world, so let's address an issue the reactionary online protest raised. (Ha ha no, not ethics in games journalism. That's like pretending the Tea Party cares about Obama's policies.) Let's talk women and gaming.
Specifically, female playable characters — not distressed damsels or kidnapped princesses, San Andreas prostitutes or Templar love interests, but actual interactive avatars.
Perhaps the reason GamerGate gathered so many angry white males is the same reason the Tea Party did — fear that eventual equality will reduce their overrepresentation and disrupt their dominance. And dominant they undoubtedly still are. The gamer audience may be a mosaic but playable characters aren't, especially when it comes to gender.
One of the flashpoints of GamerGate was Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in Videogames webseries, which began by blasting Princess Peach for existing solely to be rescued by Super Mario.
That '80s-era thinking has hardly gone away. Studies have found only a fraction of playable characters are female — Rockstar Games, for instance, couldn't find a room for a female even in GTAV, which had three separate playable leads — and only four percent of games are female-only.
The risk-averse industry theory is that female playable characters hurt profits, either by decreasing sales (because bros won't play as chicks) or increasing dev costs.
The latter argument was trotted out at E3 when Ubisoft admitted Assassin's Creed: Unity wouldn't have a female playable character in co-op because, said one developer, "it was really a lot of extra production work." Another dismissed it as "a reality of game development."
Ubisoft responded to the ensuing controversy by recognizing "the valid concern around diversity in video game narrative" and pointing out past lead Aveline, though she starred in a PSP Vita spinoff, not a main title. Then they boasted about Unity's strong female character Elise, the male lead's non-playable love interest.
But being playable matters in videogames because it forces the player to engage that character's perspective and share an experience — it's the narrative bonus that games offer over other storytelling forms — and both genders need to be included for gaming to reach its potential as an art form.
Thankfully, it's already happening, even amidst the grossness of GamerGate, right down to Princess Peach herself, one of several female fighters throwing down in Super Smash Bros. (Though, yes, the game's title remains unnecessarily masculine.)
The biggest action and role-playing games of this past holiday season, Sunset Overdrive and Dragon Age: Inquisition, both allowed gamers to design their own character, including gender.
Sunset makers Insomniac Games even mocked Assassin's Creed in a video showing their female character in familiar AC robes with the rep saying, "Self-expression is super important to us. You can be female. You can be male. You can be different skin tones. You can be different body types. And all of the clothing is gender neutral. So if you want to be a dude in a skirt, you can be a dude in a skirt. Just be who you want to be."
Meanwhile, my female elf protagonist in Dragon Age: Inquisition added diversity to a fantasy setting that is traditionally male-dominated in book and film form, but which has always made a point of complete character customization in role-playing games. Accordingly, women make up more than half the RPG market.
But as important as it is to let people reflect themselves in their avatars, it's also important to force people out of their comfort zones — something women and people of colour have been doing forever.
So it was great when The Walking Dead made previously non-playable Clementine the main character in season two, and that The Last of Us expansion Left Behind (packed into the now-gen updates) starred the male lead's young female companion Ellie just as Bioshock Infinite's DLC Burial at Sea finally let us play as Elizabeth.
It's also great that Bayonetta 2, one of 2014's best-reviewed games, is female-only, though admittedly its hyper-sexualized bespectacled action star has sparked controversy.
Sarkeesian dismissed the game outright, despite the character being designed by a woman, tweeting "Everything about Bayonetta's design, mechanics and characterization is created specifically for the sexual pleasure of straight male gamers."
However, game culture journalist Leigh Alexander, whose progressive writing has also angered GamerGaters, tweeted "i actually rlly like bayonetta, personally... just wanna remind everyone that feminism doesn't mean 'women's bodies are bad.'"
This was a follow-up to a piece she wrote last year: "I still think Bayonetta is empowering. She is provocative, but she owns it. Her camp sexuality is a conversation-starter, a threat. She evades your judgment in a flurry of cloying flower petals. We're uncomfortable with her because she is in control of that weaponized body. She is supposed to make you uncomfortable. Good for her."
Ultimately, there needs to be room for female playable characters to range from Bayonetta's sexy badass and tween tomboy Clem to pink-clad cartoon Princess Peach and Child of Light's hand-painted duke's daughter Aurora.
Not to mention Alien: Isolation's Ripley, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare's Illona and playable pioneer Lara Croft, now starring in her latest Tomb Raider spinoff Temple of Osiris, with another big-budget main series sequel in development. Faith, the female Asian star of Mirror's Edge, is also parkouring our way in a prequel. (Fingers-crossed for that long-promised Beyond Good & Evil sequel, too, which stars investigative reporter Jade.)
Women are gaming's fastest growing demographic — they make up 46 percent of Canadian gamers, 38 percent of Xbox Live users and 50 percent of Nintendo users — and they deserve to play people who look like them.
But men also deserve to play people who don't look like them. Seeing a story unfold from an unfamiliar perspective — consider the intensity of Lara Croft's first kill in last year's Tomb Raider prequel — may actually help male gamers develop empathy.
Perhaps it could even prevent the next GamerGate.