So today’s grand internet explosion related to gender and gaming has to do with a comment made by the lead developer of the Grand Theft Auto series Dan Houser at Rockstar games and printed in The Guardian, and picked up by Polygon:
Despite Rockstar’s sometimes secretive aura, Houser is very direct and has strong views on GTAV’s relationship with the movies (“We don’t need to hark back to film when technology allows us to produce our own response to real places”), on the lack of playable female characters (“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story”) and on game conferences like E3 and Gamescom, which he no longer attends (“You don’t play a videogame in a room with 20,000 people doing the same thing unless you’re a lunatic”).
The reason there aren’t playable female characters in GTA is that “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story” that having a playable female avatar seemed inappropriate. I am a staunch advocate for more playable female protagonists. I think a lot of games could be improved – and reach a broader fan base – by making gender one of several customizable options in character creation.
But I don’t care that GTA wants all their protagonists to be men. (And not just because I have no personal interest in playing it – I played Braid and I think that needed to be a male protagonist, too.) The reason I’m entirely unconcerned by Houser’s comment is because I think that telling a story about masculinity is the only reasonable explanation for having only male protagonists. Could they talk about masculinity from a female protagonist’s perspective? I’m sure they could, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is a story about masculinity, machismo, and its relationship to an urban environment replete with vice and crime. It’s a very particular story and it actually has a legitimate claim to a specifically-gendered protagonist.
Yes, you could have a woman or a gay man or a trans*person in the same setting, but then the story wouldn’t be about cis-masculinity. It would be a different story, and one probably worth telling, but that isn’t GTA‘s story, any more than the story of a young man coming of age is Tomb Raider‘s story.
So while I do think there should be more female protagonists in videogames, this isn’t another Call of Duty: Ghosts problem; where Activision proffered a lame excuse about ‘technology’ being the limiting factor for their lack of women in the COD series, GTA has an aesthetic, meaningful reason for their choice, and that, in my estimation, is actually a justification for the continued exclusion of female protagonists from the game.
This is not to say that I consider GTA to be a paragon of games. While its open-world layout has revolutionized the industry in many ways, I find its depiction of prostitutes and women in general to be rather heinous. I despise the fact that the player can beat women and is even praised for doing so. But in this – and possibly only this – case, I think they’ve given a justification for why their protagonists are and will remain (for the time being) men.