Sex sells, but women and videogames deserve better
- Posted June 21st, 2012 at 13:37 EDT by Kyle Prahl
The narrative direction of Crystal Dynamic's Tomb Raider reboot has proven to be great kindle for a raging Internet fire. A young, vulnerable Lara Croft is faced with a world that wants to break her down by any means necessary, including sexual violence. Lara must fend off rape, and no matter how much back-pedaling Crystal Dynamics attempts, the way her captors reach for her backside is all the proof we need. Yes, a girl who was once a largely one-dimensional sex symbol has been pointed, for better or worse, towards humanization, and the debate rages on both sides.
Some say that the trouble Lara finds goes beyond character development and falls into sexploitation – distasteful distress that illogically transforms her into someone more powerful. This argument strikes at the heart of a perceived problem with female misrepresentation in video games. Others are quick to call foul and strike down these arguments, claiming that traditional and possibly sexist archetypes are only what the market demands. 'Quit complaining,' they might say. 'Things are better now than they ever have been.'
The conflict here is emblematic of a larger debate concerning gender issues in games. The feminist perspective claims that female characters are relegated to submissive roles with respect to their male counterparts, and needless misfortune too often befalls them. Anita Sarkeesian of Tropes vs Women fame will soon bring attention to this cause with a video series recently funded through Kickstarter. So, is she right? In some cases, undeniably so. Of the three female heroines in the Kingdom Hearts series, one (Kairi) is in constant need of saving and another (Xion) is a subservient drone. Even otherwise great games are guilty of downplaying the female sidekick. In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, trouble is repeatedly found by the frail Trip, who must call on her masculine bodyguard Monkey (the player) for protection.
I can't claim to know the reason behind this type-casting, but I'm ready to paint a suspect. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung once defined the archetypes that speak to our shared cultural unconscious. These are people we are all familiar with, roles and motivations we can instantly understand. The wise old man, the boy apprentice, the overbearing mother, the damsel-in-distress; think about some of your favorite movies and games, and you're sure to identify these and more. Hollywood has used Jungian archetypes for decades, playing off audience expectations to breed familiarity and ticket sales. And yet, we the audience can still recognize when a movie is shit.
The difference is bad writing. Game makers have had far less time (and far less reason) to develop their narrative craft than filmmakers. As a result, Jungian archetypes are overemphasized and overused in lieu of genuine character development. Make no mistake: a compelling character cannot be made without the latter. That's not to say that playable protagonists need depth to be awesome – the original Lara Croft made a strong case for the independent female with hardly a word. However, a truly interesting person is made that way if we can identify with and intimately understand what makes him or her tick.
When good writing finds its way into a video game, the female archetype we've come to expect gets turned on its head and a genuine person takes its place. A grab bag of simple and repeatable traits is swapped for a complex personality, and gender equality comes with this escape from easy definition. It's a tricky prospect, as many gamers tire of overlong cutscenes and exposition. But if critical praise of titles like Metal Gear Solid and Heavy Rain is any indication, the extra narrative effort is worth it.
In a case for defeating these gender roles, I see no better examples than Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer of Uncharted fame. Each woman is given a prominent role in more than one blockbuster game, and uses her time in the spotlight to subvert traditional gender roles. At first glance, Elena is your typical girl-next-door, an unfortunate archetype weighed down by an image of vulnerability and naïve thinking. We soon see that Elena is anything but. Throughout the series, she saves Nathan Drake's hide on numerous occasions, tempers his rash actions with logic, and nurses him back to health – all between killing her fair share of bad guys. Elena is smart, ... (continued on next page) ----
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