It’s always been very easy to look at video games and find the obvious female stereotypes strewn across our thirty year history. Since we’ve been able to identify adventure characters by gender, they’ve been largely male. Pitfall Harry, Jet Set Willy, Mario, Link. In fact the big revelation at the end of Metroid (Samus was and remains a woman) was pretty groundbreaking back in 1986. When females turned up it was usually either as damsels in distress to be rescued (Final Fight, Mario, Zelda) or weaker, faster fighters to balance the mediocre man and the beefy guy (Streets of Rage, Golden Axe). Then with Street Fighter II we got Chun Li, the token female who was actually pretty good at holding her own and was followed by Cammy and eventually a deluge of lady Street Fighters, each tougher than the last. But women still hadn’t too often been the stars of games.
So it’s 1996 and Lara Croft is up on the posters, her gigantic polygonal mammary glands making all the adolescent boys dribble, and giving developers ideas. The move to 3D meant everything changed for one (well two) reasons. “Hey, let’s make some games with a sexy girl as the star,” they said. “I mean who wants to follow a guy’s tight, supple buttocks around for ten hours? Certainly not girls, they don’t even play these things.” And nobody thought to ask why. Surprisingly following Croft, developers actually managed to hit the mark a few times with slightly more well-formed female characters. So we got Jill Valentine (Resident Evil), Aya Brea (Parasite Eve), Darci Stern (Urban Chaos), Hana (Fear Effect), Cate Archer (No One Lives Forever), Joanna Dark (Perfect Dark), and Heather (Silent Hill 3). It wasn’t the done thing to have girls play the damsel in distress any more and the sexes became equals of sorts, albeit that women were still often the weaker choice with the bigger pockets. Until finally we started getting some real characters that weren’t just eye candy and sometimes the fact that they were female played into the story and had a real effect on their character progression; The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3 probably being the best example of this.
But despite this short-changing of 51% of the species, I’d like to argue for the other 49% for just one minute. Looking back on these games it’s pretty obvious that men get just as rough a time of things as women. Possibly more so, because developers don’t even have to think, “Hang on, what does this say about how we view this gender?” they just pump up his muscles, stick a gun in his hand and send him down the chute into the battlefield. Chris Redfield in all his lumbering, sweaty glory exemplifies this point. His arms may look like condoms full of walnuts but does he ever say or do anything memorable? In contrast, Sheva of Resident Evil 5 at least has a back-story and some motivation other than simply, “Umbrella bad, Chris SMASH!”
It’s embarrassing to say but video games in general, still being a medium on the brink of maturity, means that both genders are portrayed in broad brush-strokes and that comes down to lazy writing and a lack of focus on characterisation. But look to the best stories and you’ll find a better class of woman and man. Metal Gear may be absurd at times, and might not rank alongside the best cinematic storytelling, but Solid Snake is as great a male character as The Boss is a female one. Heavenly Sword pitches a girl born into the role meant for a boy in a male-dominated world and though she’s an incredibly strong fighter, her best characterisation comes in the form of her vulnerability. The mistake most inexperienced writers make (myself included at times in my shady past) is trying too hard to make characters look cool, tough and near-invincible. That’s very often boring as hell and impossible to relate to. Our flaws are where the reader and subject join up. Karla Valenti in Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit to my fellow Europeans) for example, is incredibly claustrophobic, a fear which impacts on the game itself as you struggle to push her through a darkened, cramped basement. In this case, it didn’t really matter that she was female, and some games have capitalized on this manner of storytelling. Mass Effect pulls off the perfect balancing act because it’s absolutely immaterial which sex you pick, everyone reacts to you the same. And guess what; my female Commander Sheppard, with all her hard-bitten lines, scarred face and equally damaged personality is the best female I’ve seen portrayed yet. Taking the gender issue out is not the answer every time, but in this case it works perfectly. Clearly BioWare took a hard look at the story of Ms. Pac-Man and saw an equality they could relate to. So in conclusion, it’s not that games are sexist. It’s not even that game developers are gender-biased. It’s that bad writing is just that. When games get consistently good stories, written by mature adults, both men and women will be portrayed in a better light. We will get the rounded individuals who resemble real people. We just have to hold on through all the meat-headed heroes and buxom, gun-wielding vixens until the culture catches up with our ideals.