Digital Girls Have Real Cooties

My good friend Dori invited me to submit some of my own work over to another site she blogs for that is all about geek girls getting our message on, often with a secular spin, known as Secular View. Here below is the article I wrote up and submitted to them. Hopefully soon, we’ll see a post by me up there.

The gaming industry is no stranger to sexism, always having a “boys club” mentality. However, as the ratio of male to female video game players becomes more equal, the mentality has not shifted to match.

We have recently seen a great deal of issues with female-specific protagonists in games, or major female characters. Now, I love me some Commander Shepard, and to me, Shepard is always a woman, but Shepard is technically female-optional. Female-specific means you have no other options but that character. This is your Lara Croft, your Jade, and your Samus Aran.

In an interview with Penny Arcade, Remember Me creative director Jean-Max Moris discussed how he had to fight to get the production team to agree to let him create a female character for the story. The first argument they had was that a female protagonist just wouldn’t sell the game, that the only way for the game to succeed is to have a male protagonist. Never mind the success of the trio of games I previously mentioned.

Their second argument was even more juvenile, according to Moris. “We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.’” Not only are female gamers being ignored, but the argument is full of homophobia. Such scenes wouldn’t make any male players gay that weren’t already, nor would most players be bothered by it.

In a related pair of examples, both Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us had issues with their major female characters appearing on the box covers. With Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth was relegated to the back cover, which creative director Ken Levine explained was due to focus testing, which he admits was done in frat houses. Bioshock Infinite is very much Elizabeth’s story, and as we go through the plot, we see her go from blindly accepting the faith that has been spoon-fed to her all her life to an independent young woman who thinks for herself and decides what she chooses to believe or disbelieve. Sure, it’s Booker’s story too, but she is just as important to the story as he is, and is the central mechanism that pushes it all forward. So not only did a major character for whom the entire story revolves around just as much as the protagonist get shifted away in favor of a generic character we never really see with a generic shotgun on the cover, but they didn’t even focus test with female players.

This lack of female focus testing followed over to The Last of Us, where the developers had to demand that female gamers be included in focus testing. Additionally, this game faced the same issue of the developers being asked to remove the major female character from the cover, or at least shunt her to the back. To Naughty Dog’s credit, they stood their ground, and Ellie remained on the cover.

So why is there this belief that females on box covers or female-specific protagonists will be the death of the game? Well, because they really don’t sell. Unfortunately, they also don’t get anywhere near the budget for marketing either, genrally considered to be niche titles. Compared to female-optional games like Mass Effect or Skyrim where you can make your own character, female-only protagonist games get only half of the budget, and less than half the budget of male-only games like Uncharted or Gears of War.

We can even see this in comparison between Tomb Raider and Uncharted, two games that are, at their core, the same. Lara was essentially a female Indiana Jones from early in the development process, and Nathan Drake is definitely an Indy expy. Whether the newest Tomb Raider‘s marketing budget was greatly less than that of Uncharted 3, the marketing certainly didn’t help, taking a previously strong woman and turning her into a victim.

All of this makes for a sad gamer girl. As I mentioned, we ladies now make up almost half of the gamer population, but we’re often relegated to playing as male characters. Even the rare female ones don’t get the credit they deserve, and most are blank slates that we make ourselves. And don’t get me started on Metroid: Other M and how it butchered Samus. One day, developers are going to have to figure out that not only are we playing, but we want to play female characters as well. Going further, we want legitimate female characters, not just guys with boobs, sex objects, or back and forth “badass except when the message of male power needs to be reinforced and she becomes a wuss” as we saw with Other M and from what I hear, Remember Me (which is disappointing, as I was looking forward to that one).

All of that being said, I absolutely love my games. From my JRPG to survival horror, action to FPS, point-and-click adventure to puzzle, my heart belongs to gaming. I even play fitness games and used one to get Dori running after she said she would only do so if something was chasing her. However, I firmly believe games can be so much more, not just a toy or way to spend time, but an interactive medium that has yet to truly stand up on its own legs. We have so many more great stories to tell, and until we include the female side of things, we’re missing out on half of those stories.

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