Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about how we need to have a discussion about gender in gaming:* how men and women are portrayed, and why that might matter. It’s a nice idea, but frankly, I haven’t been seeing much discussion; I’ve been seeing multiple opposing camps that talk past each other (when not going for each other’s throats outright). Maybe I’ve just been hanging out in all the wrong places online, but if thoughtful, meaningful discussion on this topic is taking place, I haven’t been lucky enough to run across it.**
So my plan here, with this series of posts, is to attempt to have that discussion…or at least a small part of it. I don’t want it to be adversarial; there’s no “versus” anywhere. For what it’s worth, I’m also coming into it with an open mind, because I have to; I honestly don’t know yet the full extent of the differences between male and female portrayals in games as a whole, why those differences exist, how much they matter (and to whom), and what any of this means, if anything, the moment we turn off the game. One of my hopes in writing this is that I can puzzle out answers to some of those questions for myself.
I would really like to get into some factual, nuts-and-bolts stuff, like how different consoles and console generations compare in terms of gender representation; I can only hope the math doesn’t get too annoying (yeah I’m playing into the stereotype that girls don’t like math, but I actually don’t like math so DEAL WITH IT OKAY?!), but I want to start with a simple question: What do we want from gender portrayal in video games?
The knee-jerk answer is “equality!”, but I wonder; what does that even mean? Does that require male and female characters to be portrayed as completely the same in all games? Does that require the exact same number of males and females in different roles such as main character, helpful NPC, hostile NPC, etc.? Should the LGBT population be represented in exactly the same proportions as the real world– even in worlds that aren’t our world, but instead take place where everyone is magenta and also a dinosaur? What if the game characters aren’t even people with discernible genders– do they count?
Furthermore, how would we enforce this equality? Quotas? Appeals to conscience? A tax on every male character in excess of 50% of a game’s population– the proceeds of which will go to fund a mandatory week at Gender Sensitivity Boot Camp for grumpy FPS developers?
Obviously, equality is nice as a general, hazy sort of goal, but it’s not any kind of plan; it’s not a call to action. We’re going to have to puzzle this out the hard way. Fortunately, at least for me, this involves dungeon-crawling.
His and Her Dungeoneering
To illustrate some of the problems inherent in defining what we even want from game gender roles, I’m going to use a semi-obscure game: Ehrgeiz, from 1998. There are probably many better-known titles that I could use here, but I have a personal reason for choosing this game. Playing it was the first time I remember being consciously aware of men and women being portrayed differently in video games.
For those unfamiliar with it, Ehrgeiz was a fighting game for the PSOne whose claim to fame was allowing you to play as Final Fantasy VII characters during the height of that game’s popularity. Beating up Sephiroth with Tifa was fun, but once that novelty wore off, I discovered another part of the game: “Quest Mode,” a random dungeon game that was also included on the disc for some inexplicable reason. Incongruous or not, I enjoyed that mode far more than the main game, and the dozens of hours I spent with it sparked a lifelong love of the dungeon-crawling genre.
In Quest Mode, you could play as two characters: Koji and Clair. There was virtually zero story or characterization, so the only real difference between the two characters was how they played. Koji had superior physical strength, so he could wield the heaviest two-handed weapons; Clair’s dainty hands were better suited to magical rods, and her magic usage was more efficient than Koji’s when using one.
Now, on the one hand, that’s a classic gender stereotype: man is strong and dominates with a big weapon, woman is lithe and crafty.*** However, is that such a bad thing? After all, it’s a fact that men are, on average, stronger than women; more likely to be able to handle a huge sword. Is it wrong that the game reflects that? Granted, I wouldn’t like it if every game relegated women to the magic role (and I would have missed out on the chance to play as so many of my favorite characters!), but Ehrgeiz is just one game; a game that chooses to reflect some of the realistic physical differences that would exist between Koji, a fairly muscular man, and Clair, a slender girl who lacks big muscles.
Perhaps it would have been preferable to give players a choice: let us play as either Koji or Clair, with both able to choose either the physical or magical specialty; that way, no one is restricted in what they can do and everyone’s happy, right? Strictly in terms of giving the player options, that route would be superior but…are more options always a good thing?
Now it Gets All Complicated
Often, game characters are defined by their limitations; this was especially true when games had very limited stories (thus the characters were defined by gameplay mechanics rather than dialogue or cinematics), but is still true even today. As it stands, the characters inEhrgeiz are a little closer to being defined characters; you can kind of imagine Koji, the loveable guy who knows what to do with the business end of a massive sword but is a bit out of his element with magic, as opposed to Clair, who makes up for her lack of physical strength with superior skill. Take that away from them, and they essentially have nothing; they’re just character designs that you can slap abilities on.
(At the risk of getting ahead of myself, I think this is one of the reasons why I was a huge fan of Diablo II but couldn’t get that into Diablo III. In Diablo II, the Amazon, Necromancer and Sorceress felt like defined characters that you were inhabiting; in Diablo III, you get a character template that you can customize as male or female. That said, I know the addition of gender preference to that series was widely lauded as a positive thing, so I’m hardly throwing the later game under the bus; just pointing out that sometimes, some players prefer playing a more defined character rather than a make-your-own.)
So, all that said: is gender difference as portrayed in Ehrgeiz– as an actual difference in physical ability– something we can accept in games going forward? It may seem limiting, but it’s consistent with reality; many players prefer that kind of gender difference, rather than having a girl toon that looks like she weighs about 80 lbs. handle a greatsword as well as a huge knight. Of course, in the world of videogames height and weight don’t really matter since it’s all make-believe, so should we strive for making men and women physically equal in all representations? However, doesn’t taking away characters limitations make them seem less like characters, and more like soulless templates? Even if it’s more empowering to see the small girl handling the greatsword with ease, does it break the immersion factor for certain types of games– and is that even a real concern?
It doesn’t really matter in the case of Ehrgeiz in particular; the game came out 16 years ago, and as much as I’d like a sequel, I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed (and thanks a lot, Square Enix). What matters are the questions I posed above: sure, we want equality, but do we want equality at the expense of realism? Or perhaps equality at the expense of realism is what this particular medium lends itself to, more than anything else?
And if we do think that the “Koji is stronger than Clair” model of gender representation is acceptable in our games going forward, how often is it acceptable? After all, some women are stronger than some men in real life; there are exceptions to every rule. If, let’s say, 50% of games followed the “Koji is stronger than Clair” model, is that too much? Too little?
Of course, I don’t have the answers; I know that I personally have never had a problem withEhrgeiz, “sexist” as it may be, but I can understand why others might. I’m curious what you all think: is it sexist to have a preference for character portrayals that reflect reality in terms of the physical differences between men and women– not just in terms of strength as in this one example, but in other areas as well? Or are the differences between the sexes too nebulous, too controversial, to make “reflecting reality” in video game genders any kind of reasonable goal?
To me, real-life gender difference is really the elephant in the room when talking about gender difference in video games. I don’t think we’re ever going to come to a perfect consensus of opinion on how much actual biology (and all of its many nuances and exceptions) should mold our fictional characters, but I think that talking about it will help us get a clearer picture of where we currently are with gender representation in games, and where we might want to go.
Please feel free to respond in the comments, even if you just want to yell at me for beating up Sephiroth all those times in lieu of proper therapy. Next time, we’ll look at some of the inherent problems in trying to collect data on this topic– by which I mean video game gender representation, not beating up Sephiroth; I had zero problems collecting copious amounts of data there.
*For the purposes of this post, I’m going to be talking about men and women as the sole genders available, since that’s true for the grand majority of people. I know that people who identify as neither exist, and while I recognize they have another perspective here, that’s beyond the scope of this particular installment.
**That said, if you do know of a place online where a good discussion is taking place, feel free to let me know. I’d love to see a discussion that isn’t just dogma-slinging back and forth.
***Actually the whole “men do swords, women do magic” idea is very interesting in and of itself, but I’ll come back to that in another installment.