Despite provoking controversy with irresponsible comments on the portrayal of sexual assault in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot, Crystal Dynamics is at least going some way to address a serious issue that has plagued our industry ever since its inception: the portrayal of women in video games.
Ever since video games stopped using 8-bit spaceships and started using human characters, the portrayal of women has been pretty poor. Most female game characters fall into two patriarchal categories: the helpless damsel in distress and the sexually objectified woman. There have been notable exceptions along the long road of history, but they’re few and far between. Despite the technical advancements and the maturity of the industry, mainstream games continue to churn out under-developed female characters that fall easily into these oppressive roles.
The birth of modern video games starts with the arcade and early console titles of the 1980’s; a period not particularly known for gender equality. Damsels were being taken captive all over the place: Lady was being kidnapped in Donkey Kong, Princess Toadstool couldn’t escape Bowser’s clutches in Super Mario Bros., and Ganon had his eye on another Princess in The Legend of Zelda. And those are just the most famous examples. What about Gwaelin in Dragon Warrior, Ellen in Metal Gear, or the Sultan’s daughter in the original Prince of Persia? Despite her brief stint as a playable character in Super Mario 2, Princess Peach was back to her helpless ways by the time Super Mario World was released for the SNES in 1990, casting the mould for further damsels in distress for the next twenty years.
The industry had to wait for technical innovation until the second category of female characters became prominent – though this didn’t prevent Nintendo from having Samus strip down to reveal pink underwear in the original Metroid. New consoles with improved hardware may have offered better graphics and more playable female characters, but along with more detailed character models came objectification. In 1996, Core Design created perhaps the most famous example of female objectification in video game history: Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Despite being intelligent, resourceful and fearless, Lara boasted absurd physical proportions, becoming a recognised sex symbol across the world. Ask yourself this: would the game have been as successful if the protagonist wasn’t an overtly over-sexualised woman? Tomb Raider wasn’t the only guilty party in the 1990’s however. The Dead or Alive series has been portraying female characters with incongruous physical proportions for over a decade, as has the Final Fantasy series. By the time Perfect Dark launched on the Nintendo 64 in 2000, a woman running around wearing inappropriate skin-tight spandex was an old idea.
The legacy of the both PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 undoubtedly defined the future of video games for the years to come. With the next generation of consoles arriving, the industry continued to create the same types of games that had been popular for years. But with the accomplishments of the past came the same failures of old. The Grand Theft Auto series dominated the sixth generation of home consoles; over the course of GTA3, Vice City and San Andreas there were female prostitutes, violently deranged female psychopaths- and more than a few damsels in need of rescuing. Rockstar seemed to epitomise the atrocious state of the portrayal of women in video games and continued to conform to the same stereotypes outlined by the legacy of the games that had come before them.
So where does this leave the current generation of video games? More importantly, have we learned from the mistakes of our past? Well, take for example the portrayal of women in the most successful modern game franchise, Call of Duty. COD4 features a rare inclusion of a female character in a game dominated by men. In a matter of seconds, however, she goes from a skilful helicopter pilot to being shot down by the enemy, transforming her instantly into an incompetent damsel in distress. Totally helpless, she relies entirely on the strength of the male protagonist to literally carry her to safety. Whether or not Infinity Ward was intentionally conforming to the sexist stereotype it highlights what little progress has actually been made in the industry. Regardless of positive female characters like Zoey in Left 4 Dead, or Faith from Mirror’s Edge, when one of the most successful franchises of all time is still making the same chauvinistic mistakes as the games of thirty years ago, it suggests that the problem is simply being ignored.
Even Valve’s Chell or Alyx Vance from Portal and Half-Life 2 can’t make up for the abomination that is Bayonetta. It seems no matter how many positive, dynamic female characters are created, the industry will always swing back around to the overtly over-sexualised woman, as if female objectification is a giant safety net for the gaming industry. Not only is discrimination masquerading as video game tradition, it’s condescending and insulting. If developers are attempting to attract a male, heterosexual audience by creating bland, two-dimensional, absurdly objectified female characters, as well as undervaluing their customers they are alienating a huge demographic of potential female players. Trying to create a game for men by shoving naked women down their throats is as idiotic and insulting as those Ubisoft Imagine DS games for girls that promote hideous patriarchal gender roles.
So what are we left with? With the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Battlefield and Mass Effect dominating the charts, too few modern games feature women in the central playable role. Fewer still give a portrayal of women close to anything that might be described as positive. Portal 2 may be the obvious exception to this, but games like Lollipop Chainsaw threaten to undermine almost all of Valve’s good work and hold up the objectification category all by itself.
Their comments on sexual assault notwithstanding, Crystal Dynamics is at least attempting to challenge the stereotypical portrayal of women which was once the cornerstone of its own franchise. The newly rebooted Tomb Raider has not only scaled down Lara’s absurd physical proportions, but is attempting to create an accomplished, full-realised human protagonist. And with developers like Quantic Dream creating narrative games that change the way we experience and interact with characters, the future for women in video games at least looks a little brighter. We can only hope that the mainstream industry follows the example being set by the few and can avoid the offensive stereotypes that have shackled women in games for over thirty years. If the industry is able to mature beyond its current adolescent phase, and to challenge the failures of the past, we might see more interesting, dynamic characters in more stimulating and enjoyable games for everybody.
Sex might have been an easy sell in the past, but it’s simply not good enough anymore.
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