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Big Ideas: Gender roles in video games

The last Big Ideas focused on the idea of identity, and what it means to see yourself truly represented in a video game. In this installment, we take a look at gender portrayals for both men and women and try to shine a light on some invisible assumptions.

To begin with, it used to be a commonly-held -- and trumpeted -- belief that "girls don't play video games". Certainly, the Boys Clubs that most video arcades became in the 1980's managed to make video games unattractive by sheer atmosphere. Dimly-lit, smoky, and raucously loud, is it any wonder that gaming might not have been a draw to females until it entered the home? Peering over the shoulder of a big brother as he played Combat on his Atari 2600 might have sparked some interest in a dormant gamer if she weren't brusquely told to go away.

Similarly, the rise of media coverage of the pastime perpetuated the stereotype of video games as a male-only pursuit, bolstered in the main by the focus of its advertising. Typically featuring sexy female models clad in ridiculously fetishized fantasy costumes, these ads titillated pubescent males into buying games based solely on the perceived value of the model. Sadly, content in the games themselves followed suit.

Take an all-too-common game story scenario: Game protagonist relaxes with his girlfriend. She is suddenly abducted by the antagonist. The hero must rescue her. Nothing more complex than that in either plot or ideology. The message: females are objects of worth, destined to be fought over merely for the sake of possession. After all, what was the antagonist going to do with the girl? It's never explicated. She's just been taken, and that's enough to rouse the hero to action.

If you are a female gamer, is it satisfying to play as the male? Do you identify with either figure? Because the medium was so new, perhaps these issues were simply dismissed in favor of enjoying the novelty of the experience. Yet the dissonance remained, unaddressed. Why is the hero always male? Why is the female always a girlfriend, never a wife or colleague -- never an equal? At best we see a developing industry built by socially stunted individuals with very little first-hand knowledge of what it's like to have positive interactions with the opposite sex; at worst, a closed society of chauvinists living out their puerile power fantasies, vicariously living through their creations. Either way, a change needed to occur -- or, rather, to be made.

At the opposite end of the equation is the representation of the male as fearless, super-capable, with an unrealistically-muscled body prone to superhuman feats well in excess of applied physics. Not only were game-playing males taught to view as acceptable only the mythically-stylized female form, but their own self-images could only suffer in comparison to the avatars they played in their games. With this much of a disparity between the video game aesthetic and reality, was a reversal just around the corner?

Now and then, a female video game combatant would appear as a playable choice, though functionally she was no different than her male counterparts. To be fair, it could be argued that this was an example of gender equality -- males and females having equivalent value on the combat field -- but it was more likely a response to some dimly perceived notion of innovation. Imagine, being able to play against your own gender! Games like Golden Axe and Streets of Rage opened the door to increasing usage of female characters able to stand on their own as more than just trophies to be won, but it wasn't until the arrival of Lara Croft that a woman would take center stage as the hero of a game.

Finally, here was a hero that female gamers could call their own, a "strong female character" able to stand among the until-then male-dominated field of gaming heroics. Lara Croft, however, calls into question the notion of the "strong female". Lara had all the qualities the strong male characters held at the time -- combat ability, proficiency with firearms, no-nonsense attitude -- and combined them with the by-now expected supermodel physique and skimpy costumes that showed off her figure to best advantage. Does behaving like a man make for a strong female role model to female gamers? Isn't this just an image swap, posing as equal time for women? Does it take having to be a man for a woman to be acceptable to men?

A different sort of backlash began to be seen in the 1990's. As competitive gaming grew as a phenomenon, and then later as a viable sport, gaming clans featuring recognizable player luminaries were on the rise. It was only a matter of time that the first all-female clans appeared as a reaction against them. Considered the best answer to the "girls don't play games" stereotype, clans like the Frag Dolls counted as members young attractive females with strong gaming skills. Yet even there can be found the further pandering to the male libido: these girl gamers presented themselves as much as models to be gawked at for their beauty as for any actual skill they possessed. Rather than advancing the cause of gender equality, some argued, this simply extended the life of the common preconceptions. They adopt a double standard: Give us respect because we're good gamers, yet afford us special notice because we're pretty.

If we are to try to find some relief from this trend, we must look at the rise of the role-playing game. While also full of stereotypical female roles, there can be seen true growth in the portrayal of both sexes as complex individuals beyond their action game counterparts. No longer one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, characters in most Japanese RPGs like the Final Fantasy series, for example, began to develop their own presences outside their functions as vehicles to push the story forward or as stand-ins for obvious symbolism on the part of the storytellers. Arguably the most realistic portrayals of the way men and women truly interact can be found in this genre of video games, and their continued evolution has affected the rest of the industry in notable ways.

There is still a predominance of women as sexual objects in modern games, but there is finally a bit of pushback observable. While there are now more females playing games, there are also more females involved in creating games as well, and both of these camps are vocal about what they will accept as worthy entertainment, leading to a slow but inexorable change in the way gender roles are perceived by both sexes. The issues contained are more involved than can be easily explicated here, and the rhetorical landscape is constantly in flux. Now more than ever, we have the opportunity and ability -- as both audience and developers -- to change the way we portray gender roles in our games, and it's high time we started the work.

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