Saturday, 18 January 2014

Game Revolution Asks the Right Questions

Sorry I haven't updated in a while. This was meant to be posted a few days ago but I was suddenly hit with an influx of work. Actually, I still have a half-finished blog post featuring quotes that I found while writing assignments but that one's taking some effort to get back into, since I'd basically be rehashing some stuff I did for college only a month ago.

This one will be short but it's also something I find very interesting; there's a huge gap between the number of male enemies we slaughter in games compared to female enemies, which I've written about before. Specifically, this was about the number of generic, cannon fodder mooks that players slaughter in their hundreds without giving it a moment's thought, rather than named villains and villainesses. The majority of these enemies are male, or at least are male in appearance.

Thankfully, it seems like a gaming journalist has been thinking along the same lines as me; a few days ago, Nicholas Tan of Game Revolution uploaded an article he wrote titled "Can Women Be Video Game Enemies En Masse?"

I don't want to nitpick too much because I think it's a good article. It's the kind of article that needs to be seen more on mainstream gaming sites, something that is thought-provoking and acknowledges that equality for women in gaming isn't all about stomping out online abuse and reducing breast size. You also have to acknowledge that men are unfairly portrayed too and equality works both ways; unless you take the hit and have women killed as often as men (give or take; I'm not asking for a 50/50 split. That would be ridiculous), things will be unequal.

Even so, while the article gives a good overview and I hope will be enough to start a discussion, it isn't as in-depth as I would like. It would've been nice to see some more examples from games, since the only one focused on is Fallout: New Vegas (as an example of a game that gets it right). There are screenshots of Final Fight and Final Fantasy VIII but the author doesn't elaborate on either one. The picture of FFVIII's Edea raises questions, since she isn't specifically a female enemy to be killed "en masse", in the same way that Roxy and Poison from Final Fight are. Not that FFVIII isn't guilty of a lack of female enemies but I think Nicholas Tan could've provided context about why it was included.

Having said that, the author hits the nail on the head with two statements about why we don't see more female enemies in games. After writing about how enemies are more likely to be male in games designed to be realistic, Tan says the following:
"Now since most video games are not meant to be absolutely realistic, it's unnecessary that they need to follow this rule. I've blasted the heads off numerous female raiders in Fallout: New Vegas. But it's a rule that carries over, if but subconsciously, from video game developers who are predominantly men."
Apart from the "predominately men" part -- I haven't seen anything to suggest that either sex would be more or less willing to female enemies -- but the lack of female enemies in unrealistic games is due to real-world gender norms. Think of it this way; developers can introduce any number of fantastical elements into a fictional world, such as magic and monsters, but they can only do so much when it comes to subverting gender roles. If they do, it will only be to elevate the role of women and reduce the role of men; for those of you who have played the Shivering Isles expansion for The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, think about the gender roles of the Golden Saints and Dark Seducers. Both are armies where the highest ranks are made up of women while males don't rise above being grunts.

So that's one of the reasons why we don't see women making up the majority of enemies in games and the second quote I'd like to use from Tan's article shows why we probably won't:
"Then of course, could you imagine a game where a male protagonist goes around murdering women and exclusively women and not just demons like harpies and hagravens? Even if the gameplay is groundbreaking and the story is told with an attention to context, it will become easy prey for the mainstream press. I mean, talk about making yourself a target and bad marketing. At best, the game would be considered a joke and be turned into an infamous meme. (Perhaps such a game would need a female protagonist killing a whole lot of other women to work.)"
Not much to say about that, other than it's correct. There's no chance of a game featuring a male protagonist massacring an all-female army being released and not becoming a target for the gaming press (or the mainstream, as Tan points out). Back when Resident Evil 5 received its first trailer, it faced controversy for featuring a white protagonist -- Chris Redfield -- gunning down black enemies, as the game is set in Africa. With gender issues being a major topic on gaming news sites, is there any way a game like the one described could exist and face a similar controversy? Is there any way it could not become the gaming community's whipping boy (or girl, if you prefer)?

As good as the rest of the Nicholas Tan article is, it ends on a silly note:
"That said, a video game where women are the primary antagonists would be an interesting experiment, so long as it's handled well (say, a devilish male scientist creates a virus that targets women because he thought it was THIS BIG but she said it was only this big)."
It's a reference to penis size, in case you don't get the joke.

I realise I'm overanalysing this but there are four things wrong with that idea:

1) It paints the male scientist as the bad guy. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, since games with all-male enemies have had female antagonists (such as Final Fantasy VIII again) but I think Tan could've used a better example.

2) I don't see how that could be considered "handled well". Surely, the best way to handle a game with women as the primary enemies would be to avoid referencing it at all. We don't acknowledge men as the primary enemies being "the norm", so why reference the female enemies as being out of the ordinary?

3) It doesn't put the female enemies in control of their own actions. Having a virus that makes them evil is a lot different than the women choosing to be evil (or at least members of the evil army, whether it's because they were intimidated into joining, they signed up because they needed money, etc.). There's already criticism from feminist circles about female characters lacking "agency"; being active participants in the game's story, rather than passive ones. So if the game is going for true equality, the women have to choose to be the bad guys.

4) The male scientist lashed out at women because a woman said he had a small penis? Really? That's like Lara Croft's quest beginning because a guy said she was fat.

I don't want it to sound like I'm criticising Nicholas Tan or the article here. Instead, let's pretend we're playing "Fantasy Video Game Storyline Writer" and coming up with our own ideas for how predominately female enemies would work instead. That's more along the lines of what I'm criticising rather than the article itself.

Like I said, I've overanalysing but there are more sensible reasons to have a character gunning down hundreds upon hundreds of men rather than hundreds upon hundreds of women. That could just be part of the fictional universe's mythology rather than for any reason for it occurring in storyline.

So if you haven't read the article, go and read it and feel free to praise Nicholas Tan for writing about a subject we don't often hear about on gaming sites. I hope it receives more exposure and makes a few more mainstream gamers think outside the box.


  1. the tide is turning against feminism, and it is the youngest generations that have turned first.

  2. This was hailed as the greatest atrocity in the history of human evil when it came out:

    Hitman: Absolution

    They actively, but randomly, decry the use of female mooks in games.

    1. They only really decry the use of female mooks in games if said female mooks are heavily sexualized beyond what's necessary (if necessary at all). The Hitman: Absolution thing is an example where the mooks were wearing sexy nun outfits, which is really unnecessary and makes us not take the scenario all that seriously. I mean, why even dress them up that way other than for some attempt at shock value of seeing chicks dying in such outfits?

    2. I'm going to go off on a bit of a tangent while writing this but a Kill Screen Daily article from 2012 went into the Hitman: Absolution trailer and gave a good explanation for why the Saints were dressed the way they are. It's been taken down but you can read an archived version here:

      It was a response to a blog called Critical Damage, which I recommend nobody read if they value their brain cells, since it falls back on typical misandrist comments like:

      "And, gentlemen, that really kind of angry defensive feeling you got in your gut while you read this post where you felt attacked? That was your privilege kicking. Every time you think something is sexist towards men, there is a pretty good chance the playing field is just being levelled out"

      Anyway, the writer of the Kill Screen Daily article explained the Saints' attire highlighting a contrast between them and Agent 47:

      "In contrast to otherwise similar depictions of unnaturally skinny and sexualized characters like Resident Evil's Jill or Bayonetta, the point of the nun's sexual depiction seems to me to be primarily a matter of contrast with the stark asexuality of 47."

      He didn't mention that the Saints' method of assassination was also in contrast to 47's, even though it supports his hypothesis; the Saints are loud and about as subtle as ... well, as a rocket launcher blowing up a hotel, while 47's methods are silent. His working method is to assassinate his targets without being seen. Thematically, the developers created characters on the opposite ends of the assassin spectrum.

      What frustrated me about those two articles -- and this is another tangent, so if you were just looking for a theory about the scantily-clad assassins in Hitman: Absolution, you can stop reading now -- is that Jamin Warren actually posted an apology for the Kill Screen Daily article. But what for? The article didn't have a single offensive piece of content in it (with the possible exception of the title, whatever it used to be, but that was changed) and it has the best defence/attack against the "games can't be art until they stop offending me" statement that I've ever read. It irritates me no end that they issued an apology for that article solely because it (maturely) challenged the (immature) viewpoint that "man defending himself against scantily-clad women = rape culture".

      Of course, this IS Jamin "Anita Sarkeesian is like Rosa Parks" Warren issuing the apology.

    3. There is something to say about having such scantily clad ladies when so many male mooks wear masks to obscure their features. Of course, this just means the Saints were more characters in their own rights than most male mooks (though admittedly not by much).

    4. I wouldn't describe myself as MRA (I'm for equality of opportunity for everyone), but there is absolutely nothing more infuriating than reading a bunch of racist, sexist and/or otherwise bigoted commentary and being told that I'm not allowed to object to said bigotry because of my "privilege," as if all white males are rich and powerful. No, that's not my "privilege" kicking. That's my revulsion to his (of course) sexism.

  3. The last point is very telling. To the author, a game where women are the primary enemies would only be "handled well" if it was a man who was ultimately the villain and to blame. Some simply cannot accept that women can be shitty human beings just as much as men can; they always have to find some excuse, or some way to pass the blame onto a man.

    1. That's a very good point. I should've thought of that.

  4. I think one of the most critical aspects any game that tried to do this would be to handle the concerns that our society has with the thought of making the representation of violence against women an 'enjoyable' [i.e. possibly arousing] exercise. On the one hand, this is a legitimate consideration given it's clear that there is a far greater number of men who get off on seeing women abused than vice versa. It's well known that women tend to have more submissive rather than dominant fantasies [of varying degrees] and, of course, given we're not encouraged to be nearly as concerned about men being abused [by women or men] the sexual connotations rarely come up there.

    The problem actually becomes a rather circular one here. Since violence against women is so taboo whenever we see a man striking women [and not making clear demonstrations of his own unwillingness] the assumption is that he is probably getting off on it (or that there is at least something wrong with him). Similarly, imagine what questions would be posed to the writers and developers of a game that chose to make a story where the good guy has to hurt or kill women to save the day.

    Honestly, I think you're being a bit too critical with Tan's last comment. It's pretty clear it's a [not very good] joke. That said, I get the impression he may well have chose to end on that note to maybe try and pacify the outraged social justice crowd who inevitably turn up to remind us that any discussion of injustice that doesn't exclusively focus on the oppression of established minorities is, well, an example of cultural appropriation.

    A shame perhaps that he felt the need to be 'silly' but you can't blame him too much. After all, he's obviously trying to cover up the fact he's secretly an MRA pervert who just wants to play a game where he can beat up women without men getting in the way.

  5. Also, it's perhaps interesting to consider that society's protectiveness of women on this issue is similar [but perhaps not as extreme] as our aversion to seeing children as videogame enemies that need to be dealt with violently [by adults]. If I recall correctly the US and European adaptations of the first Silent Hill had to have their "babies with knives" monsters altered to pass the censors. I remember because I played the demo that still had them in- they didn't seem too bad but hey...

    Anyway, regarding a game that would have fulfilled these criteria- shame they never made a game from the Nicholas Cage 'Wicker Man' movie...


  6. Hey, Nick Tan here. Thanks for highlighting my article, and you make a lot of great points about it. GameRevolution style demands some light-hearted humor, but it's true that a game about a male scientist making a virus that affects only women because he's butt-hurt about his penis size would be rather ludicrous. The thought was more about what it would take for a game to have women as the predominant enemies in a video game, practically speaking for the video game market. For sure, a game where a group of women consciously decide to be the antagonists would be far more interesting than women just mindlessly being the villains because of a silly virus or spell. It would also be a far better video game in my mind at least in terms of character design. Though I think the mainstream press would still negatively spin a game about killing women, at the very least some proper context would make such a game easier to defend.

    Thanks for the criticisms. If I write another article like this in the future, I'll keep them in mind.

    1. Thanks a lot for stopping by, Nick, and clarifying that last point. As others have pointed out, I was certainly being too critical of that and I was very pleased with the article as a whole. It may be the first time I've seen an article like that on a mainstream gaming site like Game Revolution. It made for a great read, so thank you for writing it.

  7. That's a very interesting point of viewing to video games. I have never thought that while for example trying to get past the attack or trying to get a new location I should look around and check whether these boomers are women or men - maybe then it would make a lot more sense! I actually feel a bit ashamed for that so I'm going probably to play it again and pay more attention to details like that, thanks a lot!