Monday, 5 October 2015

Women and Gaming

When people think of video game franchises, the two most popular names to come up are likely either Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda. Outside of being made by the same company (Nintendo) these are more or less very different games. Mario is generally based on getting through strange environments involving floating platforms while stomping on enemies and eating mushrooms to gain special abilities. Zelda is more of a fantasy puzzle-based adventure. However, underneath the differences in gameplay mechanics, there is a very similar story to be found with few differences between them.

They usually begin with a “princess” being abducted by a designated villain, forcing the (always male) hero to progress through various worlds in an attempt to rescue her only for the entire cycle to be repeated as soon as the next game comes out. That basic description actually provides a fairly accurate summary of both the aforementioned games. As different as they are in terms of gameplay, they are both structured entirely around the same old cliché of the helpless woman (Peach/Zelda) being kidnapped and the male hero (Mario/Link) having to go to great lengths to save her. This has been more or less consistent since the beginning of both franchises (the only major difference in early Mario games was the presence of a different love interest).

The fact that the two most popular gaming franchises are still video games centered entirely around the male hero having to rescue a damsel in distress is a clear indication that there is still inequality in modern video games. Even today male protagonists greatly outnumber female protagonists. One would think that the consistent success and popularity of video game heroines like Lara Croft and Samus Aran would be evidence that women do in fact sell and that players want to see better representations of women. Despite this, many gaming companies still seem reluctant to make strong women, or if they do they'd rather reduce them to supporting non-playable roles.

Some games get around this problem by allowing the player to choose their character’s sex, though even this is not a perfect solution. Mass Effect, for example, allows the player to choose the gender of the protagonist; also keeping it purely aesthetic (having little impact on the plot); and yet nearly everything in its marketing favors the male version. There is not a single cover for Mass Effect which displays the female version of the hero even though she is in every respect no different from her male counterpart.

This modern understanding of gender is especially evident when one looks at modern combat simulators. The lack of female soldiers is understandable in some cases, such as in early installments of Call of Duty that took place in World War II. Those games were set at a time when most countries still barred women from active combat duty. Russia did allow women to serve, but the original Call of Duty games were generally showing the American perspective. Historically, the American military had still barred women from service so this would have been realistic.

However, when the developers decided to move away from that time frame, they still continued this practice. One of the first games in the series to move away from World War II was explicitly titled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The “modern” part was very clear, and yet there still were no female soldiers to be seen throughout the game. The closest thing to a female soldier was a single unnamed cobra pilot who had a background role in one mission. Once again, the male player character also has to save her when her chopper goes down (though this proves to be pointless as both are presumably killed in the nuclear strike immediately after).This continues throughout the subsequent games, regardless of whether it actually makes sense for female soldiers to be present.

Over the course of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the player controls a total of four characters; three of whom are explicitly identified as male. The game did seem to keep some ambiguity in the main character, whose face is never shown, never speaks, and is only referred to by the name of "Soap" MacTavish. In that sense, while the game does not specifically ask the player to identify the character's sex, one could theoretically play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare imagining Soap as a woman. However, later games seemed to take steps to avoid even this. Soap was eventually confirmed in the games to be a man, and by Call of Duty: Ghosts the games seemed to be very insistent on ensuring the player understood they were playing as a male character, making sure to give them a male first name and to be referred to as male by other characters. 

This is not to say that Call of Duty is sexist. In fact, if anything Call of Duty is one of the first games of its kind to actually make any effort to address this issue. Call of Duty: Ghosts included a multiplayer mode where players can customize their characters, including deciding whether to make them male or female. There is also no overt sexualisation, with the same basic gear being available to characters regardless of sex (though for some reason the game only allows the “special” outfits to be worn by men; trying to put them on a female character immediately changes her into a man). On the other hand, the campaign, much like the games before it, is still very male-dominated, with the majority of the plot centered around the interactions and camaraderie between male soldiers.

However, while the campaign mode of Ghosts still seemed very insistent on emphasizing that Logan (the player character for most of the game) is male, it did feature at least one notable woman in a supporting role, if briefly. There is an early portion of the game set in outer space, during which time the player takes control of an astronaut named Baker and works with a female astronaut named Kyra Mosley. For most of the level it is these two characters working together and she is often the one leading and instructing the player on what needs to be done. This is also the one section of the game which doesn't seem to make a point of clearly establishing the player's gender, so one could conceivably play this level imagining Baker as female.

The upcoming Call of Duty: Black Ops III is also taking the series further in the right direction by officially allowing the player to choose the sex of their character in the campaign mode. In fact, the shift towards a multiplayer campaign means it is technically possible to play as multiple female characters.  It can’t be argued that this should have happened sooner, but the fact that the developers are making an effort to rectify the obvious issues of gender representation in their games can be seen as a positive development. Call of Duty is hardly perfect yet, but they are on their way, which is more than can be said for other games like it.

Compare this to other gritty combat simulators such as Operation: Flashpoint or Medal of Honour. Both game series have installments that purport to be depicting modern combat (in the former’s case, the entire series claims to be this). Despite this, not a single female soldier is to be found in any of them. If the game developers really wanted to represent modern combat, would it really have hurt to put a few female soldiers into Operation FlashpointMedal of Honour: Warfighter also allows the player to serve as a Canadian soldier, but apparently fails to recognize that Canada’s military has been integrated for years.

Attempting to dig deeper into this also reveals a lot of stupidity. Trying to find combat simulators that actually depict female soldiers when it makes sense is next to impossible, and doing so usually leads to message boards in which people make blatantly sexist arguments about how women are weaker than men and therefore should not be allowed to serve. Many of them try to justify this claim by bringing up the U.S. Marines and Rangers as examples even though both have actually integrated women into their ranks. Even the Navy SEALs (the one branch of the U.S. military that is still restricted to women as of this writing) are sick of this nonsense and want to do something about it. Would it really have hurt the developers of these games to even show one or two female soldiers?

The fact remains that there are a large number of issues related to the representation of women in video games, ones that need to be rectified as soon as possible. There should be more video games with strong female heroes, or at least games which allow players to choose whether their character is male or female. There are likely other examples besides those written here that show just how insane this issue is right now, and how people should already know better.  This is not to say that there is anything wrong with playing as a man, it is simply that there should be more of a balance without one sex dominating the entire medium.


  1. This was a very interesting read, John. I don't play video games, but I can see the issue...and you really need to stay away from those message boards full of ignorant idiots!

    1. Okay, this time I stumbled across those boards purely by accident. All I did was look up if there were any combat simulators with female soldiers in them.

  2. I don't think that Zelda and Super Mario Bros would be the most suggested video games franchise I'd go for Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty and many thousands would do so as well. It might depend on what generation you ask.

    Talking of Grand Theft Auto, it's a game that often gets criticised for it's depiction of women, but seriously who is depicted well in Grand Theft Auto? Nobody. The more valid argument in my mind is their contribution to the story, which is very limited. I do feel Rockstar could improve on that.

    Interesting to note that the FIFA games have brought in women's international teams, which is a positive step for equality and the improving women's game. I really do hope they do expand on this because there is only 12 teams and for this reason they have limited usefulness because they can't play the male teams.

    However, the gaming world is terrible for this. You get some pretty vile people, this gamergate, ethics in journalism crap is a good example of this.