I’ve held off posting on E3 for the last couple of days because I’ve been struggling with my opinion, with what I feel I “should” say as a feminist, and fatigue with the whole debate on gender in games and the gaming community. Between Anita Sarkeesian, the trolls bombarding her twitter with insulting and idiotic comments, stories and snark about “Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon,” and my own personal dislike of pushing political agendae on other people, I’m getting really, really sick of this whole thing.
And that actually is starting to worry me, so I’m forcing myself to articulate an opinion so that I don’t become complacent and apathetic out of sheer ideological exhaustion.
Here’s the recap for those of you unfamiliar with what’s going on. In the midst of hundreds of discussions about female gamers, women in the tech industry, sexism in the media, and the need for more women’s voices, Microsoft launched its Xbox One at E3 with absolutely no new games with female protagonists. Sony, despite claiming it wanted to market to women, launched the PS4 with no new games with female protagonists. There are new games – Mirror’s Edge 2 – starring women, but they’re not exclusive launch titles (it will be available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC). Nintendo, however, announced that Princess Peach would be a playable character in the new Super Mario World 3D on the Wii U. Interestingly, this appears to have been a rather last minute change.
Okay, so we have two next-gen console releases, neither with a major exclusive title featuring a female protagonist, and one already-released console that shoe-horned Peach into the game at the last minute. And all this comes in the midst of one of the largest cultural pushes from women in the industry demanding equality and increased representation as players, characters, and professionals. So what does this tell us?
I don’t think that this means that the evil Men in charge of the industry are completely oblivious to the yelling and screaming going on outside their windows. I don’t think it means that they’re unaware of the female demographic that makes up 47% of their consumer base. I think what it tells us is that the gaming industry is suffering from lag.
Most major AAA titles take about five years to make. Five years. Some can get churned out in two or three if they’re sequels reusing the same engine. But next-gen consoles aren’t going to reuse the same engine, in all likelihood, so these games are probably already three (or more) years in the making, looking forward to release in another one to two years. They haven’t been “listening” to the demand because they’ve already been in production.
I do not believe this is an excuse for not including any women as protagonists, nor do I think that it means that women should “shut up” (to quote one of the anti-Sarkeesian tweets) about women being featured in games. I especially don’t think it excuses the absence of female presenters or developers on the E3 stage, or the recognition that women do make up 47% of gamers. But I do think that it explains what we’re seeing in terms of titles.
And that brings me to another point. Many of the anti-Sarkeesianites suggest that this is because women only want to play “cleaning and cooking” games. While I’m sure that such comments are intended as exemplars of masculine wit, I would like to point out that 47% of games are not cooking and cleaning games, which leads me to the induction that women are playing shooters, RPGs, and other “manly” games, some of which – like Tomb Raider or Remember Me – feature female leads, or at least include gender choice, as in BioWare and Bethesda games.
But many anti-Sarkeesianites make a point that, while based in a sexist code, is valid, and much more reasonably articulated by the Digital Changeling. The point is that many of the lead characters we see in games are physically strong – soldiers, assassins, etc. – and rely on brute strength to mele and/or shoot their way through obstacles. While there are games that do feature women in these positions – Halo Reach, Gears of War 3 – for the most part, these are roles filled in “real life” by men. Biologically speaking, men are physically stronger than women for the most part. Women can be and are capable and physically strong, and since games are fantasies anyway, there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be included in these positions.
However, I think that the anti-Sarkeesianites are missing (possibly deliberately) the point that videogame protagonists don’t have to be realistically physically strong. Especially if they’re in a puzzle-solving context, have a gun, wield magic, or… well… exist in a fictional world where they can do whatever they want. But, as the Digital Changeling suggests, strength isn’t the point. Women in real life may be at a physiological disadvantage in terms of brute strength (in extreme contexts… most women are indeed strong enough for daily activities), but that doesn’t make them any less capable or resilient, or intelligent. Female characters don’t have to be hulking brutes like Marcus Fenix or Master Chief.
In fact, males don’t either, so I’m not really sure what the point of saying that women aren’t “strong” has to do with being a protagonist. Mario and Luigi are not “strong,” although I’d bet anything Samus Aran is. Alan Wake doesn’t appear to be a physically superior specimen, and I’d put my money on Lara Croft being able to take him out in the combat department. But there’s no need for female characters to be any more or less strong than most of the male characters we see – and no reason they can’t be.
But really, what we (as feminists and gamers) are asking for isn’t women who defy the laws of biology and physics (although their breasts often do both). What we’re asking for is that protagonists who are complex, interesting, and capable sometimes be female. We’re asking that the industry not auto-default to male protagonists just because “that’s how it’s always been” with the lame excuse that “women won’t sell,” because both Tomb Raider and Metroid say otherwise, as does the popularity of the femShep option in Mass Effect. We’re asking that the women in games be just as complex as the men – not that they receive special privilege, but that they simply be treated as humans, just like the men.
I do think that this is inevitable, that as more and more women enter the industry as gamers, as professionals, as critics and journalists, that we will see more female protagonists, better female NPCs, and more complex narratives that don’t revolve around (almost exclusively) female victims. But I also think that it will cease to be inevitable if we don’t keep pushing, even though we’re tired of hearing about it, even though I’m sure Sarkeesian is getting as tired of saying it as I am (and she says it a lot more often), and even though it feels like a dead horse that we’re still beating.
The point is that E3 shows us that the battle isn’t over, that we’re still fighting not for supremacy, but for basic equality… and, really, not just for women. For gamers of color, for transpersons, for all marginalized populations. So what we want to see, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, is for you to look at the world around you and replicate it in your games. Include women with brains. Include all cultures and races and sexual orientations and people with disabilities. Make games more real by making them reflect reality.