Last week, I read Laura Hudson’s The Videogame that Finally Made Me Feel Like a Human Being. Though no doubt a honest and heartfelt piece, I find I have difficulty relating to where Hudson is coming from when she talks of a world of gaming that is overwhelmingly hostile to women, because that just hasn’t been my experience. Considering how common these articles about how unpleasant it is to be a woman in gaming are lately, I thought maybe it was time for me to share an alternate perspective.
Before I begin: nothing I say here is meant to refute the fact that sexism exists and causes problems. It is an account of how I came to be a female who plays games– and a fairly sensitive and analytical one at that– who doesn’t feel like the entire medium is dehumanizing.
In some respects, it’s luck, because I missed that whole ’80s/early ’90s era of gaming when “save your girlfriend!” comprised the entire plot in a stupid amount of popular video games. When I was a child, my parents didn’t want a video game console in the house; they thought that would keep my brother and I from reading, which they were probably right about. My mother always said that she “didn’t believe” in video games, which always struck me as an odd thing to say; as though she had some kind of religious objection to them. I guess in a way, she did.
However, while my mother may have been quasi-theologically opposed to games, she wasn’t a complete zealot. Once I was old enough to buy things with my own babysitting money, she noted that while she still didn’t like the idea of having video games in the house, she wouldn’t stop me from spending the money I had earned on something I wanted. So when I was 14, I finally bought a Playstation, mesmerized by a Newsweek article about Tomb Raider. I ended up playing a ton of games on the system, but to be honest, I think 99% of my reason for buying it was Lara Croft and her beautiful 3D world.
Lara Croft is a whole ‘nother subject that I’ve already written about at some length; without dragging out that whole debate again, let’s just say that I never thought that the fact that she was sexy stopped her from being a strong character. I went on to discover many other heroines that ended up making quite an impression on me, like Aya Brea from Parasite Eve*, Claire Redfield from Resident Evil 2, and Ayame from Tenchu and Tenchu 2. Fighting game characters are in a separate category since they usually don’t have much personality, but I’ve still always been partial to Jun from Tekken 2 and Xiaoyu from Tekken 3. Even Claire from Ehrgeiz is kind of dear to me, even though I’m one of maybe 20 people who played that game for more than ten minutes.
You could make the argument that these female heroines represented a small percentage of the playable characters available at the time, and sure, I’ll bet that’s true. But it really didn’t matter to me, certainly not at the time and not even so much now, because these were the games I gravitated towards and wanted to play.
I also played games that had male protagonists, but also plenty of interesting female characters that I related to, both playable and non. Both Final Fantasy VII and VIII had some great female characters– arguably better than the females cast as actual lead characters in later Final Fantasy games, but that’s another topic. Final Fantasy Tactics had a male lead, but like most FFT players, I got rather attached to my units, most of which were female. Metal Gear Solid presented an interesting scenario; there were a lot of strong female characters, but the most prominent one, Meryl, gets kidnapped and Snake has to rescue her. In modern parlance, she gets “damseled.” If only Meryl had gotten her hands on one of those handy ketchup packets like Snake did! Truly, if we really want to be progressive, we should be lobbying for equal distribution of condiments.
Here’s the thing about Meryl, though: I never really thought of her as a damsel in distress. In the narrative, she represents the humanity that Snake is afraid he’s losing, or worse, already lost. Fighting to save Meryl parallels his struggle to maintain his self-respect as a human being while trapped in the increasingly violent, treacherous world of Metal Gear. You could say that a female character is being sacrificed on the altar of a male character’s storyline (which I believe would be Anita Sarkeesian’s view) but again, not how I see it; Snake is the main character, thus all the other characters exist to reflect facets of his personality and challenge him, and Meryl certainly does both. So does Otakon who, despite being male, is more of a true damsel-type than Meryl is. While Meryl was always brave in the face of danger, the first thing we see Otakon do is piss his pants. I certainly wouldn’t venture that MGS was never sexist (especially given what happened with the franchise later on), but it was a game that had no trouble depicting women as strong and men as weak at times.
Vagrant Story deals with some similar themes and uses another male character, Ashley Riot, to explore them. However, VS is different from Metal Gear in that the main female character, Callo Merlose, is sidelined and barely does anything. I would learn much later that the original plan was to have Callo be a co-lead with Ashley, but the development team had to cut costs and dev time and ended up making Ashley the sole playable character for the sake of expediency. That’s disappointing; to this day, I wonder what abilities a playable Callo would have had. But I don’t believe her exclusion from the main character podium was done out of malice or ignorance, regarding women or anyone else; it was logistics. Two playable characters was more time-consuming and expensive than one, and given a choice, it makes more sense to use the male character since the majority of players in the demographic for a game like Vagrant Story were male.
Of course, it’s a bit of a chicken-or-egg situation there; if more playable characters were female, would more females play the games? Sure– in fact, heroines like Lara Croft helped make that happen in a very real way. However, in a volatile industry where the prospect of your game losing money and bankrupting the studio is often a concern, I can’t judge developers as evil for providing what they believe the majority of their customer base wants. Jumping forward for a second, I think a lot of the controversy about Deep Down boils down to this; people are mad at the company for doing something cheap and expedient, rather than doing something more expensive and difficult for the sake of being inclusive. All the talk about inclusivity and gender roles kind of sidesteps the main point, which is: do you really expect a company to do something more expensive and difficult than it feels is prudent? Generally they don’t, as a point of existential policy.
Before I move on from Metal Gear Solid and Vagrant Story, I should point out that while I enjoyed playing females– and sought out playable females to a certain extent– I never had a problem playing as male characters. I don’t know if it’s that I have a particularly good imagination, or I have a “male” side of my personality or what have you, but I had no trouble imagining myself in Snake or Ashley’s shoes even though we were different genders; I don’t consider the core of my personality to be my gender. Apparently, other players don’t have the same flexibility, and that’s admittedly part of my disconnect with the whole topic. It’s just not as important to me to to have a female option available as it seems to be for some.
The last game I’ll mention from the PSX era is Azure Dreams, which was too hard for me at 14; I only recently went back and beat that game a year or so ago. On paper, it’s an incredibly sexist game: you play as a male character, who romances various girls in town in between his explorations of the dangerous monster tower. Yet somehow, Azure Dreams never made me feel like these characters were being exploited. I liked the girls in town, and it was fun going through the conversation options and seeing what they’d say. I didn’t think they were being objectified because they didn’t feel like objects to me, they felt like characters. In other words, even games that had an undeniable streak of sexism didn’t make me feel demeaned, because I’m just not that easily demeaned, I guess.
I never played games as often, as thoroughly, or with as much love as I did during the PSX era. As time marched on and I eventually got a PS2, I had other things in my life. While I still loved games, they weren’t as critical. Still, I found plenty of female heroines to play. I loved playing a team of Jean Grey, Rogue, Storm, and Jubilee in X-Men Legends— and by the way, Jean Grey is the most broken character in any video game ever, just throwing that out there. Then there was YRP in Final Fantasy X-2, and well, if there was any major backlash to an FF game with an all-female team, I must have missed it. Of course Lara and Claire Redfield** were back, along with some new blood. Gwendolyn from Odin Sphere quickly became another cherished favorite: I’m actually looking at a statue of her on my desk as I type this.
Over time, I gravitated away from home consoles toward portables, where I found plenty of female characters to play– mostly, but not exclusively, in dungeon crawlers and JRPGs***, like Izuna: Unemployed Ninja and its sequel. I also dipped my toes into computer gaming, where I played Diablo II and Diablo III as female characters. On the indie side, I played both The Blackwell Legacy and Blackwell Unbound, where you play as a young female journalist and her aunt, respectively.
The most recent game I completed was Sorcery Saga: The Curse of the Curry God, starring a female character, but of course. I enjoyed playing through the portable version of Persona 3, P3P, as a female character, and I’m currently finishing off Persona 4: The Golden, where the lead is male, but you’re surrounded by several awesome female characters, both playable and non.
All that time spent twiddling my thumbs playing games and yet, there are so many female-led games I have yet to play! I never got around to playing J’eanne D’arc, which I’ve been hearing great things about for ages. Apparently the Atelier series is fun, and always has female protagonists (although to be honest, I’m a little afraid of Atelier because I’m afraid it might send me into an endless, OCD-fueled item collect-a-thon, but we’ll see.) I still haven’t played the portable version of Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and then there’s all those DS RPGs that I’ve been hoarding for some time….
So, yeah. There are literally more games starring female characters than I actually have time to play. I guess that this is largely because the genres I tend to favor have a higher percentage of female leads than big-budget, AAA titles do. Intellectually I understand how that’s a problem for some, but it’s hard for me to get really pissed off about it. It’s like, “Hey, you know all those games you think are crappy and a complete waste of time? Well they mostly don’t have female leads.” Really? You mean to tell me that my gender is not well-represented in games I couldn’t give two shits about? Oh, the horror.
Of course, I’m not entirely selfish. I know there are women out there who really want to be able to play a female character in Call of Warfare Gun Gears Shooter Medal or whateverthefuck, and if they can’t do that, they have a right to be disappointed; I get that. But the entire point of this post was to talk about my personal experience with gaming, and that experience has always been, and continues to be, filled with female characters who I relate to; sometimes even characters that inspire me. This idea that it took until Ellie from The Last of Us for a non-offensive, non-pathetic female character to emerge is just nonsensical to me.
I just don’t get it: Have Hudson, or any of the other writers who write with such derision about the lack of female characters in games, ever played any of the games that I mentioned above? If they haven’t played them, are they unaware that they exist? Or do these characters that have meant a lot to me over the course of my life not matter, just because others don’t necessarily feel a connection with them? Is it not enough to have female characters in games, even lead female characters, unless they fit some mysterious set of criteria that changes whenever it’s convenient? Shifting goal posts much?
Once again– and I shouldn’t have to repeat this, but I absolutely do– I’m not denying that sexism exists. I’m not denying that it’s a problem in video games, just as it’s a problem with pretty much everything else. But pundits really ought to stop with the histrionics. I’m tired of hearing that there are no good female characters in games, or that female characters in games are always weak, or that they’re always objectified, because I know from personal experience that just isn’t true. When you’re making the point that there’s gender imbalance in games, and you’re right (because there is), you shouldn’t have to exaggerate or lie; let’s tell the truth. And the truth is that while we certainly don’t have a utopia of gender equality in video games, the reality is not nearly as bad as the current crop of myopic commentators make it sound.
I have played as many a female character in video games, and I thought it was awesome. Am I wrong?
*Parasite Eve is an interesting case, not due to anything in the original game (which was amazing), but because of what Square Enix did to Aya Brea in The Third Birthday. That game is one of the cases where a female character was actually demeaned, as opposed to us just being told over and over again by a third party that the character is supposedly being demeaned. In contrast, the characters in Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball can’t really be demeaned because they were intended as sex objects in the first place, whereas Aya Brea was an actual character we were meant to relate to. However, I attribute this choice on SE’s part with the fact that they’ve become increasingly mercenary where their games are concerned, which includes (but is not limited to) being more sexist than they ever would have admitted to in the ’90s.
**Speaking of Claire, I did find that early scene in Resident Evil: Code Veronica where Claire is frightened of the zombies to be kind of ridiculous, since Claire of all people should be used to them by now. That one scene did seem sexist to me, even though I generally like Claire as a character.
***I hesitate to mention games like Etrian Odyssey and Class of Heroes because you don’t so much play a character as a unit, but needless to say there are plenty of female characters in those games as well.