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!