Female Leads

12 Jul

So this piece on Kotaku from Stephen Totilo today made me stop and think about the fact that one of the biggest pushes in gaming from the feminist perspective is to have more games with female protagonists, or at least female protagonist options. It’s about Gavin Moore, developer of The Puppeteer, who doesn’t want to allow players to play his game as a female character.

Here’s the thing. I don’t necessarily think that anyone should make Moore include a female option for his game. I also think that we need more games that have female protagonists and female-protag options. So how do we reconcile what amounts to basic freedom of creativity with the desire to open up the games industry to more inclusive titles and features?

That’s a damn good question, and one I don’t really have the answer to, but I think it ultimately lies in a multipart approach that includes community, publishers, and developers. First, I don’t think that any developer – like Moore – should be forced to include a female-protag option if it doesn’t fit with the story they’re telling. While I love that BioWare always allows a male-or-female option, I don’t think that’s going to be the right fit for every game and every story. For instance, no one is saying that we should have a Lawrence Croft option in Tomb Raider (although there is an hilarious satire on The New Statesmen about him here that’s totally worth a read) or a Samuel Aran in Metroid. Nor could I really envision a Marcia Fenix in Gears of War or Betty DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite. That’s not to say that those games couldn’t support female protagonists, but that their stories, as they are told, don’t really work that way.

There are, of course, games that can and do support either gender – Fallout games, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Skyrim, Fable games, and so on. But that doesn’t mean that every single game out there has to do the same in order to arrive at the kind of egalitarianism that we (read, feminist gamers) would like to see in the industry.

What we want is to stop hearing the lame excuse from publishers that female-protag games don’t sell. We want to see more games with women in leading roles, but that doesn’t mean we want then shoehorned into those roles. It means we want to see more women on development teams, more stories that are designed to include or feature women, more stories that can allow for either gender in the leading role. But it doesn’t mean that we want to eliminate all games that have male protagonists. Personally, I like male protagonists and generally prefer to play them over female protagonists (although that’s in part, as I’m learning in Fable III, due to the face that many female protagonists are annoying beyond belief).

So while I do think that we need more female-protags, I also think that we shouldn’t be giving developers like Moore backlash for not personally telling a story that requires one. Instead, we should be supporting games that do have female leads so that we see more of them get green-lighted by publishers, instead of hearing about cases like Crystal in Starfox, who was supposed to be the lead, but then became a crystal-encased victim, instead. Yes, I do want to see more developers pushing projects with female leads, but I don’t want to see developers being punished or criticized for telling stories that don’t.

What needs to happen, really, is that gamers need to speak up about their desire to play as women (or to have the option to play as women), causing publishers to pull their heads out of the collective sand and say “Oh, okay, we’ll let those projects go through,” so that more developers want to make games that feature female leads, but so that developers like Moore can still make their games with male leads, too. Because feminism shouldn’t be about yelling at people for making games with male heroes, it should be about asking for just as many games with female ones.