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Sex sells, but women and videogames deserve better

21 June 2012

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, fiercely independent, and – perhaps most importantly – not overtly sexual. In fact, stand her alongside other (less interesting) female protagonists, and you might find that her clothing and attitudes are downright conservative by comparison.

Chloe might be given more voluptuous attributes, but her sex appeal does little to reduce her independence or emotional strength. In Uncharted 2, she is stolen away by Flynn and company onboard a speeding train. Drake immediately rushes off to save her without stopping to wonder if she might have an ulterior motive. Sure enough, when he arrives for the rescue, she rebukes him, saying, “I never asked for any of your bloody heroics.” The male-female power scale is tipped further in Uncharted 3, when she admonishes Drake for the reckless obsessions that place his friends in danger. The words of Chloe and Elena greatly contribute to Drake's character development throughout the story, and each woman does so without devolving into an object defined by her breasts, ass, or cries for help.

It's no secret that Naughty Dog employs one of the industry's best writers in Amy Hennig, and the results show. Chloe and Elena are outstanding examples of talented and intelligent female characters who can also be sexy and badass. They aren't limited by the constraints of an aging typecast, and the stories of their games (and the ladies themselves) are all the more interesting for it. Of course, they also benefit from dialogue and development that happens mid-gameplay - a rising trend that will be key to characterization as gamers lose patience for cutscene intrusion.

Games need not become a political battleground, but if war must be fought over gender roles in gaming, it will only be won through better writing. The very best films avoid narrative shortcuts and strive to give every main character, male or female, their emotional due. Gameplay and interactivity might separate our industries to some degree, but if games are all about escapism, shouldn't immersion count for something? If so, we cannot ignore the emotional attachment that well-rounded characters with depth and personality can produce.

There will always be a place for games like Lollipop Chainsaw and the classic Tomb Raiders – bouts of fun with shallow protagonists who work best as projections of ourselves. So too will there be demand for mature narratives and role-bending characters who engage our minds and our hearts. The two can co-exist, and in a storytelling medium as legitimate and powerful as gaming, they must. If Crystal Dynamics can respectfully walk the fine line between humanization of a one-dimensional sex symbol and distastefulness, then those of us who want to push that medium are in for a treat.

It's not like everyone else will run out of things to play.


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