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.