Spoiler Content: Spoiler Free!
Warning: I wrote this for a class I’m taking, and it assumes the reader knows literally nothing about gaming, so some of the stuff might seem a bit…obvious…at times.
Video games have an issue with women. As an ardent defender of the medium, I have to acknowledge and face this fact every day. From the pixelated rape sequences in the Atari 2600′s Custer’s Revenge, to the ridiculously disproportionate character models in Tomb Raider, to the Grand Theft Auto “Hot Coffee” interactive sex mod, gaming has had a tenuous to outright juvenile relationship with gender and sexuality. Until the last console generation, beginning in 2004, there were hardly any good female characters in gaming. Well-written female protagonists in games are even rarer. If there is a medium that most represents the Standpoint Feminist critique of “the neglect of women’s perspective and experience,” this is it (Lorber 173). The gaming industry appears to be created by and for men. Why, then, do I think that video games could be one of the greatest tools for the feminist movement since the birth of the modern novel? What can the movement possibly gain from a medium where the “woman is the other” (Simone de Beauvoir, qtd. Tong 191)? The answer, I believe, lies in the very nature of games themselves, and the gaming industry is beginning to realize this. Unlike other mediums, games directly craft experiences, ones where the player inhabits the world the developer is creating for them. In his iconic essay on New Games Journalism, British author Kieron Gillen famously stated that, “The worth of gaming lies in the gamer, not the game,” emphasizing the centrality of player experience over authorial intent. Through the use of games as an experience instead of a piece of consumable media, I believe that feminist game developers and writers can foster a view of gaming as a way to explore alternate sexual and gender identities, encouraging a larger acceptance of diversity through a consistent and focused experience of the other.
At the beginning of almost every role-playing game, a player is presented with a Character Creation Screen. In this screen, the player can change an exorbitant amount of variables about a character. The basics are sex, skin color, weight, personal back story, profession, etc., but the player can – and indeed, many do – spend hours tweaking variables from exact hair shade to hand size to nose width. During this time, the player creates a character that they feel personally attached to, one that they identify with, and one that they have constructed from the ground up. In short, “for every fan, there is a different [character]” (Munkittrick). For example, many entered the sci-fi role-playing-game Mass Effect as a straight, white, male Commander Shepard, while I entered as a straight white woman, and still others entered as a lesbian black woman. From there, the player begins a process similar to the kind of “self-naturalization” that feminist writer Judith Butler describes (Butler 33). They slowly accumulate experience that reinforces their role as their character, instead of themselves. As they have conversations, fight battles, and form relationships as their character, they generate a form of “repeated stylization of the body” that Butler defines gender as (Butler 33). This process of relearning one’s identity creates a fluidity of roles that is uncommon in the rest of our lives, similar to certain kinds of method acting. Role playing, unlike books and movies, does not encourage the player just to empathize with the character, but to actually be the character and make real-time decisions as the character would. An experienced role player is able to easily dive into a role, and transform themselves into an amalgamation of themselves and their character to interact with the game world as such. My Commander Shepard is a different person from my roommate’s Commander Shepard, as she makes decisions based on the part of her personality that I created and define, continually blurring the line between self and other.
The way the player sees the world, through this newly constructed role, results in a similar “mutual transformation” to that which Shannon Sullivan describes in her book on Standpoint Feminism (Sullivan 228). If a male player is playing as a woman, they are forced to work within their role and “ask questions from women’s point of view, ” subtly changing the experience (Lorber 173). In addition, because of the player’s role as the primary agent of the story, their taking action reinforces the idea of women as subjects, as actors, instead of objects to be acted upon. One great example of this trend is in the recent game Assassin’s Creed Liberation, where the player plays as a creole woman, named Aveline in 18th century Louisiana. Aveline’s default clothing is the armor of an assassin, which is relatively gender neutral, and allows her to go unnoticed by the general public but not by guards. However, the player can switch to the expensive dress of a lady, which will result in guards leaving her alone, giving her the ability to sneak into otherwise inaccessible places, but will cause men in the street to harass her, and even shove her around. The player is injected directly into this world, not as a swashbuckling action hero but as a hero who is also expected to be a woman following traditional gender roles. Through changing the seemingly mundane game mechanic of level traversal, the game “reframes questions and priorities to include some band other marginalized people” (Lorber 173). Aveline is under constant social pressure to conform, and, because of her gender, her outward appearance almost completely defines what other people think of her, instead of her identity as a human being. The game allows the player to explore this through its mechanics, through having to be Aveline and experience a similar kind of restriction and pressure that someone in her position would have felt.
This kind of exploration inevitably leads to a breaking down of concrete, binary approaches to gender and sexuality. By allowing a white, male player to experience the hardships of a biracial black woman, it “demonstrates the fluidity of gender and sexual boundaries,” and encourages a more diverse worldview (Lorber 267). If a player can become someone completely different and share in their experience with increasingly miniscule levels of difficulty, then, it would follow, people in the real world could do this as well. It “…adds needed fuel to the feminist fires of plurality, multiplicity, and difference, replacing binary thinking with a deeper, more complex understanding of race, gender, and sexuality” (Tong 191). Through this, players can begin to see parts of their world as gendered that they might not have otherwise seen. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the puzzle game Portal, released in 2007 by Valve Corporation to adoring critics and fans, featuring a now iconic female protagonist, Chell. The game is a First Person Shooter, by technicality. As a genre usually filled with military-fetishizing, jingoistic, rah-rah-masculine gunfests, FPSs are rarely marked by the subtle quietude that permeates many of Portal’s levels. While Portal technically falls into this category, since it is in the first person perspective and the player does shoot a gun, it also undermines it completely as “the gun’s masculine symbolism is subverted by the fact that it shoots portals rather than bullets” (McNeilly). The portal, and the game itself, is about solving problems, not killing enemies and exerting power. The game, through subtly, often overlooked cues, tries to tear down the very genre it is technically a part of, and it does so brilliantly. When the perspective of what is now the gaming other is introduced, such deconstructions become inevitable.
Despite the bleakness of the current gaming market, developers have begun to inject bits of feminist thought into their games, and thus allow their players to explore and accept these alternate sexual and gender identities simply by being them. While it is very easy to be pessimistic about the future of the medium, huge strides have been made. Anita Sarkeesian, a powerful advocate for feminism in the gaming sphere, won this year’s Game Developer Convention’s Ambassador Award, chosen from a list filled with influential women. Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider, long hailed as the pinnacle of sexism in the medium, recently rebooted the character as a reasonably proportioned, well-written character, selling over six million copies. Gone Home, a game from a rookie developer which told a both chilling and heartwarming coming of age story about a teenage, lesbian girl, received universal critical acclaim, earning many game of the year awards. The industry is changing, and feminist voices are no longer absent from the medium. I believe this medium has an enormous potential, one that could change the perspectives of the millions who participate in it. The medium is in its adolescence, and there are certainly a great deal of growing pains, but through the constant injection of feminist voices, I believe it can continue to change, and, hopefully, join the ranks of feminism as a force for good.
Rosemarie Putnam Tong, Feminist Thought: A More Comprehensive Introduction, Fourth Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 2008), ISBN 9780813348414.
Judith Lorber, Gender Inequality: Feminist Theory and Politics, Fifth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). ISBN 9780199859085
McNeilly, Joe. “Portal is the most subversive game ever.” Games Radar. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://www.gamesradar.com/portal-is-the-most-subversive-game-ever/>.
Sullivan, Shannon, “The Need for Truth: Toward a Pragmatist-Feminist Standpoint Theory.” Feminist interpretations of John Dewey. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002. Print.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
Gillen, Kieron. “Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » The New Games Journalism.” Kieron Gillen’s Workblog » The New Games Journalism. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/assorted-essays/the-new-games-journalism/>.
Munkittrick, Kyle. “Why Mass Effect is the Most Important Science Fiction Universe of Our Generation.” io9. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://io9.com/5886178/why-mass-effect-is-the-most-important-science-fiction-universe-of-our-generation>.
Janiuk, Jessica. “Gaming is my safe space: Gender options are important for the transgender community | Polygon.”Polygon. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <http://www.polygon.com/2014/3/5/5462578/gaming-is-my-safe-space-gender-options-are-important-for-the>.
Franklin, Chris. “Assassin’s Creed and Emotionally Resonant Mechanics.” YouTube. YouTube, 30 Mar. 2014. Web. 12 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2bsxQZ5JDec>.