Is it any secret, or surprising, that games are overwhelmingly told from a “stereotypical male” perspective? If so, how does this matter for humans in the 21st century? And, if it does matter, what can, or should, be expected from games as a popular medium? These questions might seem important, as individuals within the gaming world (journalists and Anita Sarkeesian) have recently produced a lot of articles aimed at commenting on gender equality in both the gaming industry and the software being created. Making a case as to whether or not readers should consider the arguments woven into their writing is a task both difficult and something I choose not to deal with, because, while my profession involves testing and reviewing games, I’m also a poet. Perhaps being a poet-gamer gives me the means of seeing potential flaws other gamers and relevant journalists might fail to see in writing their opinion pieces about a mostly-nascent medium, but I am more interested in whether or not games should be expected to provide gender-balanced gameplay, and, more importantly, if that matters.
Polygon published an article entitled It’s time for more leading women in games. While the opening content of the article cites an artist call for a project called Gender Bustin’, the actual thrust of Polygon’s article is aimed at making comments about “a growing community who want to play games where character variety is adequately represented.” The author makes some decent, though shot-in-the-dark kinds of suggestions about how game developers, and games in general, might provide “adequate” “character variety.” But really, the author means “gender variety,” as the entire article is about gender and nothing about character. It is another stupid conflation of video-game narrative, from journalists that cannot produce challenging critical writing and instead turn toward writing evocative garbage pieces tailored to the political climate…and for what? For post-hits. Good job.
Instead of trying to argue against the still-born, Alpaca-evolved mess that is the source Polygon article, I will just make a brief set of observations about the development of gender portrayals across mostly English narratives. If I seem brusque, that’s not my intention. I just do not want to write more than is needed, so, here we go.
Centuries ago, on one hand, Dante wrote his masterpiece for “hits” like any author today seeking fame might. He was close to Rome and wrote ghastly scenes of Biblical terror in verse. In another way, we have Shakespearean sonnets and plays that were as political as Dante but are cast in so much doubt there are -arguably- pointless debates about authorship and, by extension, intent. Does it matter if writer A wrote X using a fictional version of some person or idea? I want to know if, written under similar constraints, Dante’s Comedy or anything by Shakespeare, would work from any other perspective…
The answer is, “no.” And the same will apply to the work of Homer, the work of both Brownings (Aurora Leigh from a male perspective?!) and uncounted poets and writers. The reason for this limitation is because writing is one way of transcribing forms of consciousness, while reading such writing is a way of interpreting it. This critical framework (which I think I know more about than most video-game journalists) is fine for non-interactive fiction, but video-game journalists love controversy, and using literary history and tropes to draw attention to potential gender biases present in their medium of focus is amateur at best. Again, post-hits!
Whether it is necessary to provide gender-balanced games seems less a player issue as it is a design one. Racing games and countless puzzlers provide totally gender-neutral experiences because of the objectives presented that players must try to complete. By design, these types of games are less about a kind of narrative and more about objective challenges: how to best out-speed an opponent or efficiently solve the problem set by the game. Character variety for these kinds of games is limited for many reasons, but, really, it’s just that developers want a certain experience delivered and want it that way without diluting their ideal experience for the player, thus, they tend to seem gender neutral. But what about narrative-heavy games? The fact is: some games welcome diversity and others cannot (or would suffer detrimentally) due to design.
Some games fit certain narratives, and transcriptions of consciousness, better than others. Planescape: Torment casts players in the role of an “un-named one.” While the avatar was male, this character could have easily been female, and, arguably, given the way the story was revealed, nothing would have been lost had that been an option. In retrospect, though, why did the devs stick to a physically male protagonist? Maybe it was just because that’s the story they wanted to tell. Whatever the case, the structure of the game, though told from a male perspective, still provides diverse options for character development…and remains a fantastic role-playing game. But let’s flip this over and look at it from another view: Mirror’s Edge.
Mirror’s Edge, a game written by the daughter of author Terry Pratchett, stands as a stellar execution of a first-person free-runner/platforming game. The game requires precise timing and reflexes, and was marketed for giving players a strong female character to play as. While the sequel is in development, part of me wonders if EA will provide a gender option for play, much like the GTA series has not provided a gender option. Is this oversight or just…well, because devs want gendered narratives? I cannot say, and, honestly, the problems of story-telling in games is no different from literature: some writing must be told from certain perspectives. Asking for gender-equality from any narrative that is clearly not compatible with the premise, is just hot air.
I would totally welcome a slew of gender-neutral games…but I also welcome strong female and male narratives, and would not want to compromise that quality for some arbitrary gender option for my avatar.