Thursday, 21 March 2013

Men are the Expendable Gender

Sorry I haven't updated for a while. I know I'm a slow updater anyway but I was sick all of last week.

It's a given that if a game developer needs some generic enemies to kill of in a game, men will be the ones to fill the role. Unless the game features monsters as the primary enemies, men are the ones who will be the main victims of the hero's gun-toting, sword-swinging adventure.

It's no secret why this is the case. If I may wear my Anita Sarkeesian historian hat for a moment, we're used to society portraying men in combat roles. In real life, men make up the majority of soldiers and the most hazardous jobs are performed predominately by men. In popular culture, we see men being gunned down by James Bond in movies, Jack Bauer on television and The Punisher in comic books, just to list a few examples. Of course, they occasionally fight a female villain or two but the average person they shoot or beat up is male. The standard enemies, usually without names and who only serve to provide token resistance for the hero, who quickly kills them to show off his/her abilities. It's so frequent and the audience is so used to seeing it by now that we don't bat an eyelid when they die. This is part of being expendable. The same goes for enemies in video games.

Right away, I'll say that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. I don't want it to sound like I'm crusading against violent games or even ones that predominately feature men as enemies. That attitude leads to things like the German version of Half-Life, which featured robots instead of marines (as well as no blood and doctors/security guards who sat down and shook their heads instead of dying). It's completely fine to use men as enemies in games. They're as good as anyone else, such as women, monsters, robots, etc.

The key words there are "as good as". The problem is when game developers go out of their way to portray violence against men as more acceptable than any other victim of it.

For example, back when the side-scrolling beat 'em up Final Fight was released in 1989, the Japanese version of the game featured two female enemies called Roxy and Poison. For the American release of the game, Roxy and Poison were removed from the game and replaced with two male punk characters called Sid and Billy, because "hitting women was considered rude". It was originally suggested that Roxy and Poison be considered male-to-female transsexuals -- this is how the famous confusion began over Poison's sex -- but supposedly, Capcom's developers figured that "wasn't enough" to deter critics of the two female enemies (wisely, in my opinion) so they replaced them entirely.

There's a site I found that has a good name for this trend; "Sidbillies". The writer of this article at ScrollBoss shows examples from other nineties' games like Sonic Blast Man, Ninja Warriors Again and Sunset Riders. The most interesting game mentioned, however, is Final Fight 2. The reason being that the second game in the Final Fight series had a playable female character, Maki. So it seems like the Final Fight series was embracing equality for the first time, having both heroic and villainous male and female characters ... but once again, the female enemies, Eliza and Mary, were removed in the American version and replaced with male ones, Robert and Leon.

In a way, this is actually worse than the German version of Half-Life replacing the marines with robots. That was done because someone determined that violence against human beings was completely wrong, so the human enemies were replaced with something non-human. It was ridiculous but morally, I can't fault them for it. The makers of Final Fight (and the other games listed on ScrollBoss) decided that violence against women was wrong ... but violence against men was completely fine, or at least more acceptable. It's one thing for this to be the case in the first Final Fight, where the three playable characters were all male, but it's quite another in the second, where one was female. You could justify having Sid and Billy in the first game if you were wary about encouraging male-on-female violence. The flipside to that, however, is because there's a female playable character in Final Fight 2 but there are no female enemies, Capcom are inadvertantly encouraging female-on-male violence. It makes me wonder why Maki was left in the game at all; is beating up men as a woman considered progressive in a way that men beating up women isn't?

Capcom aren't the only ones guilty of this and it certainly didn't die out with 2D games. Even though sprites are gone, so female characters can't simply be papered over with male ones, developers have come up with a much easier way of avoiding controversy; leaving out female enemies altogether. 

Lots of game developers seem to have (figuratively) taken their cues from Final Fight 2 by doing this. Back in one of my first blog posts, I said that the villainous Civil Protection in Half-Life 2 probably did feature women in its ranks but their voices were altered and their feminine physiques hidden underneath the Civil Protection’s bulky security outfits (or perhaps their bodies were altered too). However, this doesn't let Half-Life 2 off the hook because they still appear to be male to the audience, while the good guys -- resistance members -- feature both men and women in their ranks. During development, Valve apparently intended to make the Overwatch Sniper enemy female but, looking at the concept art, there's very little there that I could describe as "female". It looks very robotic, so there aren't many female qualities to be found. Unlike the Civil Protection in the final game, who still look human, act human and fall like human beings when they're killed.

An argument that I've heard both for and against female soldiers in games is about realism; people opposed to them argue that it'd be unrealistic because women only account for a small percentage of the military in real life (and only now in the US are being considered for combat roles). People in support of female soldiers in games point out that realism isn't really an issue when you're dealing with fiction, at least in a lot of games.

Personally, I think the realism argument doesn't make sense for either side when you think about games like Final Fight 2, Half-Life 2 or Final Fantasy VIII, which all featured female characters on the good side but only male characters on the evil one. Unless the developers of these games intended to make the villains out to be huge misogynists -- which they didn't -- there's no real reason for female characters to only be on the heroic side.

I would love to see more generic female soldiers and warriors in games, particularly on the opposing side. Because as it stands now -- and not just in the games mentioned above but Uncharted, Metal Gear Solid, Mercenaries, Tomb Raider and many, many others -- we're used to seeing men being killed. In all of those games, it's our objective to kill men, and only men (excluding the occasional boss). This is developers treating men as disposable and unimportant. So the realism argument falls flat when one side is single-sex and the other is co-ed. It's very unrealistic ... but it's also completely sexist because men are the only ones the player is meant to kill. That overshadows the realism argument.

Interestingly, Bethesda came up with another way to emphasise male disposability when making Fallout 3. One of the perks -- special abilities the player character could earn when levelling-up -- available to the player was to cause ten percent extra damage to characters of the opposite sex. However, because there were many, many more male enemies in Fallout 3 than female ones, the perk was a lot more useful if playing as a female character. It's minor but nevertheless puts a greater emphasis on killing men than women. As a result, two extra perks were added to Fallout: New Vegas to award the damage bonus against members of the same sex.

The Lady Killer and Black Widow perks.

Surprisingly, EA is one of the few developers I've seen with a decent split when it comes to the sexes of enemies in their games. Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Kingdoms Of Amalur: Reckoning all seemed to have a fair balance between male and female enemies (as well as aliens and monsters). Of course, Mass Effect heavily influenced the other two but they're all separate games nonetheless. They all serve to treat women the same as men.

There's an alternative to having an even split between male and female enemies; making everyone in the game only male or female. Surprisingly, it's not as crazy as it sounds. Starhawk only featured a single female character (who picked up a gun and joined the battle towards the end of the single-player mode, just like the men) but it worked for the setting; Starhawk was going for a "space western" theme and, given that most gunslingers were male, it suited the game. All the enemies seemed to be male too but they were just monstrous enough that it didn't really matter. Hunched over, with odd skin colours and bones that were on the outsides of their bodies. However, even though Starhawk managed to make it work, I wouldn't recommend it for every game. Although even that was better than emphasising male disposability with male enemies and mixed heroes.

Long story short, the idea that it's more acceptable to kill one sex over the other disturbs the hell out of me and I hope to see more female enemies in games in the future. This isn't a case of a lack of women in games anymore, as it was back in the days of Final Fight. Gaming has evolved to a point where women are in games now ... but developers are paranoid about making it the player's job to kill them in the same way they kill men.

To close, here's Lara Croft brutally killing men. Enjoy! 



  1. Quite frankly, I don't have an issue with men being the villains in games or the foot soldiers mown down. I don't have a problem with women filling that role either. We shouldn't pursue egalitarianism there and should leave it to what the story demands, such as what MGS4 did with the BnB corps, with the frogs or whatever. The thing is though, we need to stop going crazy when the enemies happen to be female if we want to be egalitarian. There is a constant sort of sense that we should be representing women equally, but when they get represented equally as villains, now there's something wrong.

  2. you usually don't hear men complain about almost any of these situations. men don't mind that they are the majority of people doing dirty or dangerous work, or working boring jobs they hate to provide for a family. we certainly don't complain about mowing down a thousand men in contra or half life or call of duty or any rpg, and we definitely aren't beating down the doors of development houses demanding that more women be made as anonymous mooks to slaughter.

    I would also not complain if someone made a video game that was nothing but a side scroller where you play a man who beats the living daylights out of a parade of female villains. maybe that's because I'm secure with myself as a human being. I can accept that there are stereotypical roles that men fit into, even if I am not one of those men.

    all that having been said, it's good to point out the massive double standard that women seem to be blind to. I don't think it would be right to make men "equal victims" but at least if women are going to take this tack that they should be equally represented (in a field where they already have it), we might as well show them what true equality is and hand them the garbage as well as the medals.

  3. I've been reading steadily through your blogs (Found you through Viscor), and I want to ask a question about one of your statements on Final Fantasy 8 in this one. Specifically: "Personally, I think the realism argument doesn't make sense for either side when you think about games like Final Fight 2, Half-Life 2 or Final Fantasy VIII, which all featured female characters on the good side but only male characters on the evil one."

    Does Edea only count as a good side character, despite being the antagonist for a large portion of the game? Also, Ultimecia, the main boss pretty much the rest of the time? While I agree that while fighting Balaam Garden that there should have been female SeeD inside it, to dismiss the female villains seems a bit... odd. I don't take issue at all with your overall point in this article, but I do take issue with this example.

    1. Thanks for your interest, Alaric. Glad to have you as a reader!

      Perhaps I could've explained my points a bit better. You're right, when talking about the Final Fantasy series, there are plenty of examples of female villains. It has a better record of female villains than most game series' do. In the case of Final Fantasy VIII, however, I was only referring to the unnamed enemies. The good, heroic students of Balamb Garden had a mix of male and female NPCs, for example, while the Galbadian army was all-male. The reason I focused on them and not named characters is because these are the characters who can be considered "expendable"; unlike Edea or Ultimecia (or Seifer, Raijin, Fujin, etc.), these are the characters we enemies we kill hundreds of times over the course of a game and don't think about ever again. And in FFVIII's case, they're all male.

      There are some games that do the same with actual named heroes and villains too -- Uncharted 1 and 2, for example, had a mix of male and female heroes but only male villains -- but this particular post was just about the expendable, generic mooks.

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    3. Thanks for the clarification! I think I lost track of the 'expendable' point over the course of the article.

      I decided to edit my response, which asked the question "how do you think the average gamer would respond to a game filled with generic female enemies instead." Mainly because I think the question doesn't really serve a point. I'd like to change the question to "Why should developers include generic female enemies at all, when people would strongly object to their inclusion?"

    4. That's an interesting question.

      Something I've noticed while writing this blog is that no matter how good the portrayal of a character or how much of an effort is made, there will always be people who complain. So regardless of how many people object or how strongly, I think the brave -- and equal -- thing to do would be for developers to create at least one game filled with generic female enemies rather than male ones. Perhaps people wouldn't like it but gamers and gaming journalists being placed out of their comfort zone could be a good thing. It would stop people from being so complacent.

      I don't think it would happen though. I think you're right, a game featuring only (or mostly) generic female enemies would face a very strong backlash, possibly one too strong for a developer's reputation to recover.

      It's a difficult one to answer ... I guess I don't really have an answer except for "it's equal, so they should do it" ... but you're right, developers don't really have a reason to if they risk they game losing money by doing so.

    5. You might want to give Path of Exile a look. (So should everyone's favorite, Anita Sarkeesian.) The game features quite a few female enemies, from cannibals to sorceresses (sorceressi?) to mutated monsters to (mostly) anatomically correct statues to a thoroughly evil and despicable villainess. Alongside these female enemies are plenty of males featured the exact same way, the cannibals I mentioned are roughly 50/50 male/female and the statues are noticeably endowed. It's a free-to-play game, so have at it.

      On the protagonist side of the roster you have a four men and three women, none of which felt overly sexualized. On the men's side, the Marauder is a beefstick of a man, but the Duelist is a dashing (non-effeminate!) bladesman known for breaking the hearts of ladies. The Templar is an old, sinewy character with deep faith and a hatred of evil, the Shadow is... well, pretty much a stereotypical assassin. For the women, the Witch is a little bit of a thing, pretty flat-chested. The Ranger has a bit more endowment, but wears ever-so-modest pants and a neck-high tunic. And the Scion is wearing the medieval equivalent of a jumper.

      None of the armor that I've found is the least bit revealing, so I'm curious what Anita would be able to latch onto for her feminist outcry. It's not like any of the protagonists lack agency. Heck, of the NPCs I can think of rescuing during the game, one's simply hiding, another has fought a bunch of enemy soldiers to a standstill, and one was tortured to death before you got there. By the villainess to be specific.

    6. I'll keep it in mind. I don't have much free time at the moment -- which is irritating, since I have games in my collection that I'm desperate to play but can't -- but I'll check Path Of Exile out if I have a gap in my schedule.

  4. I know this is an older article but I had a thing about the Fallout. The Lady Killer and Black Widow perks used to be in the older games too so they stayed for the third one. I recently replayed Fallout 2 and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I have killed almost equal amount of women as men. So the perks made much more sense in the older games that didn't bother that much with being PC (which made them such a good fun when it came to narrative)