Last week, Leigh Alexander wrote an article on Gamasutra about the lack of female lead characters in games at Activision, and by extension throughout the industry. She relays the story of a development studio that was working on a game with “an Asian female assassin… modeled on actress Lucy Liu,” until an order came down from Activision to “lose the chick.” The original project was subsequently taken over by a different studio and released as the third part of an existing series. Alexander’s unnamed sources draw a connection between extensive focus-testing, a desire to repeat the biggest financial successes of previous years, the perception that there’s no market for games with anything other than male lead characters, and the under-representation of women and minorities in games.
It’s an even-handed article, but there are two pretty clear targets for criticism: focus testing and, for lack of a more convenient word, sexism. I was reminded of Alexander’s article by a post by my ex-coworker Brett Douville’s blog talking about the focus-testing aspect of the story. I don’t have much to add, there, since it’s fairly straightforward: big companies make decisions based on focus testing; making decisions based on focus-grouped metrics and sales figures is deadly to creativity and innovation; individual developers, and studios seeking publishing or buy-out agreements, need to know the extent a publisher makes decisions based on focus testing, so they can decide who to work for or who to make business deals with.
I will say a couple of things, though: first, focus testing isn’t inherently evil. (Whether Activision is, is still up for debate). It’s easy to decry it as the most obvious example of The Suits keeping down The Creatives — I’ve done plenty of decrying myself — but if used correctly, it can be extremely valuable. Back before they merged with the taint of Activision, and were still just known for making preposterously well-balanced and polished games, Blizzard touted frequent play-testing and iteration as one of the keys to their success. Same with Valve, who is, at the time of this writing, yet to make itself known as evil. “Creative control” is laudable up to the point where you’ve clung to your own personal vision at the expense of everything else — the trick is being able to distinguish when you’re getting useful feedback from when you’re getting arbitrary meddling.
And speaking of arbitrary: would focus testing and publisher interference be given so much attention if the situation had been reversed? If a studio had been developing a game with a male space marine as its lead character, and the publisher had insisted that it be switched to a woman, for no better reason than because “women are under-represented” or even “games with chicks sell better,” would that get such a negative response? I’m skeptical.
The only other bit I wanted to mention from Brett’s post was in response to this: “It’s also worth noting that this article received more than ten dozen comments, which is far more than any other news item in the last week or so… clearly this touches some sort of nerve.” And I’d say yes, it touched a nerve because it was designed to: sexism + the current Evil Giant Corporation in the minds of videogamers + creative control ripped from honest developers == instant internet indignation. But I’ve got to point out that the bulk of those ten dozen comments — at least the ones I got through before I remembered why I never read blog comments anymore — were a couple of cranks having a typical pointless internet message board argument. Whenever you’re dealing with Things People Say On The Internet, it’s important not to confuse quantity with quality, or relevance.
And hey, quality over quantity is a good lead-in to what I really wanted to talk about: the sexy, sexy business of making videogames.
Portals versus Rifles
While making the case that games with female main characters do so sell well, Alexander mentions Tomb Raider, Metroid, Mirror’s Edge, and devotes a whole paragraph to Portal [bolding mine]:
And though Portal’s first-person mechanics emphasize the game’s interface and not its jumpsuited leading woman Chell, the Valve team went one step further with GLaDOS, the female-voiced AI whose villainy stemmed from maternal instincts gone twisted. Now GLaDOS is on the fast track to becoming one of gaming’s most beloved characters, and the overwhelming reception for Portal’s originality — plus major anticipation for the sequel — demonstrate that “females don’t sell” could indeed be false logic.
This was the part that caught my attention, because it undermines the entire rest of the article. For starters, I think Alexander is conflating the critical and “mind-share” success of Portal with its financial impact. I don’t know the exact numbers, and I don’t doubt the game has done well for the company. But I can all but guarantee that the types of publishers that are looking to focus groups for their creative decisions are going to be trying to emulate Grand Theft Auto 4 and Modern Warfare before they look to a game like Portal.
Second, I would love to see the industry learn lessons from Portal and follow its example. But of all the interesting things about that game, the fact that the lead character and villain are both “female” is the least relevant. Is this really the prime example of how we can reach better representation of women in games?
The main character is a complete cipher, even more devoid of personality than Gordon Freeman. Her gender — and the use of the phrase “take your daughter to work day” — is completely arbitrary. It’s a case of favoring representation over relevance. Much like how it’s become standard practice to use “she” as the gender-neutral third-person pronoun, e.g. “If a customer wants to buy a beard trimmer, she can find one at Target.” It’s every bit as arbitrary as continuing to use “he,” no more correct but now with the false connotation of being more “respectful.”
GLaDOS is more of a character than Chell, but there’s a problem with that, too: she’s not female. She is, as pointed out, a female-voiced AI. I wouldn’t call out Bobby Hill or Bart Simpson as increased exposure for women in the media, and whenever I’m waiting for a BART train or I reach someone’s voicemail, I don’t think “Girl Power!”
As for GLaDOS’s personality, I think that the idea of “maternal instincts gone twisted” is an enormous reach. I’ve played through the game twice now, and I never once perceived any aspect of femininity in the GLaDOS character. If anything, it varies between phone-operator-neutral, and sarcastic dude in his mid-30s. That could be because I knew going in who wrote the game, or it could be because of my own bias. By the end of the game, I pictured not a female AI or even a computer, but one of my ex-bosses, and I wanted nothing more than to destroy him/it completely. But whatever the case, there’s no dialogue in the game that suggests a maternal relationship.
So the question is: are you just looking for games that have arbitrarily female characters, or have something inherently feminine? Portal is, for the most part, a non-violent game. It emphasizes problem-solving over direct violence. If you want to get Freudian with it, you have a gun that shoots holes instead of bullets. One of the main characters is a box with a heart on it. The game involves baking. At what point does this kind of analysis of a game cross the line from “equal gender representation and empowerment” to “insulting sexism?” I just know that my own take on Portal is that it’s an absolutely brilliant puzzle game that was written like an Old Man Murray post. That’s a compliment, not an insult, but it’s still the direct opposite of “feminine.”
Ciphers versus Sex Objects
So how about the other examples? Samus Arun from the Metroid series is about the worst example possible, considering that the big surprise of the first game was that she was a female at all. If your main character’s gender is secret, you can’t use it as an example of gender making a difference.
Lara Croft? Alexander delivers a good line in saying that the recent incarnations “show more spine than skin,” and I’ll have to take her word for it, since I haven’t played any Tomb Raider games since the first one. And in the first one, she was the worst kind of female character: she was female solely to titillate the predominantly male audience, and her value was measured only in how much money she’d inherited, and how she could do the same things that men can do.
I haven’t played Mirror’s Edge, either, but even on the surface I can recognize it as a step up. (Or maybe leap up followed by a backwards roll?) I never saw any press devoted to the fact that the main character was a woman — or for that matter, an Asian who isn’t a wise sage or a math genius. And it’s not completely arbitrary that she’s female, either: the game requires a lead character who’s athletic, limber and flexible, the opposite of the huge-necked Gears of War dudes.
Because it’s a fairly subtle distinction: I acknowledge that Alexander is not making the case that female characters sell games, just attempting to refute the claim that games with female characters don’t sell.
But there does have to be a stronger justification for making a character female than just “it does no harm” or even “there aren’t enough female characters in games.” I’ve seen too many cases of its being done to pander; for the sake of arbitrary tokenism; or lazy, disingenuous faux-feminism.
In my own experience, I’ve written male characters for games and been asked “why not make him a woman?” It contributes nothing, and it puts the writer on the defensive: suddenly I’m having to defend what was originally an arbitrary decision against an equally arbitrary decision, or otherwise I’m misogynist or at best, insensitive. When it’s completely arbitrary, like Chell in Portal, then there’s nothing gained or lost, so sure, why not make it a woman? But if you’re taking an existing character and insisting on the change, you need to be able to justify changing the “he” to “she” or it’s every bit as pointless and damaging as Alexander’s example of changing “she” to “he.” (Example of a valid reason for the change: if you can get Angelina Jolie-level box office).
My Soul is in the Lost and Found
I’ve got to acknowledge that everything I say is going to be immediately suspect, since I’m what Roy Blount, Jr. calls the most politically-incorrect demographic there is: a white, English-speaking, Christian male from the southern United States. But I’d like to see a game that lets me play as a well-made female character, because that’s a big part of what games are about: letting people do things they can’t do normally.
And you wouldn’t believe it after hearing how under-represented female characters are in games, but there’s actually a ton of games that let you play as a female character, many of them huge sellers: World of Warcraft. Fallout 3. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2. Dragon Age: Origins. The Sims 3. You don’t hear much about that, and for good reason: it’s almost purely cosmetic. Granted I haven’t played Mass Effect long enough to get to the hot hot girl-on-girl scenes, but from what I have seen, it makes no difference to the game whether Captain Shepherd is a man or a woman.
I tend to make male characters, but when you get right down to it, it’s for the same reason that a lot of guys make female characters: it’s not who they want to be, but who they want to look at for the next 10-50 hours. I don’t know how it is for female players — and I’d like to hear, in the comments — but among male players, there’s a choice between role-playing escapism and good, old-fashioned exploitation, and each aspect gets roughly equal play-time.
For a perfect example of that, look at Half-Life 2 and its episodes. I said that Chell in Portal is a cipher, and by all accounts, Gordon Freeman should be as well. But he’s definitely not — it’s one of the best-written games available, but it’s still every bit the escapist wish-fulfillment that GTA and God of War are.
Like Chell, Gordon Freeman is completely mute and very rarely (if ever) seen in the game. And let’s be honest here: Gordon Freeman is a borderline idiot. He’s constantly falling off things or running into danger. He’s ostensibly a genius physicist, but he has to be given explicit, repeated instructions on how to press buttons or walk in a straight line. Still, the other characters are constantly commenting on his genius, praising him for accomplishing the most basic tasks, or flirting with him. (I picture him as the videogame equivalent of Jon Hamm’s character on “30 Rock.”)
In a different game, Alyx Vance could be precisely the kind of strong female character that people have been clamoring for. But here, she exists only to support Gordon Freeman, both physically in the game’s combat, and emotionally by being incredibly turned on by his silence and complete absence of personality. When she’s not macking on Gordon, she’s lying unconscious waiting to be rescued by him, or she’s getting weepy about her dad. It says a lot about how well she’s written, modeled, animated, and voice-acted, that you tend not to notice that she exists solely for the benefit of men.
While we’re lamenting the fact that publishers chase after a simplistic idea of what will sell to the still-predominantly-male videogame audience, it’d be a good idea to make sure that what we’re hoping for isn’t every bit as simplistic. Nobody in good conscience is going to propose cooking games and dating sims as “see, girls can play their own games!” But do we want the distinction between male and female characters to be as superficial as hair color? Do we want to measure the quality of a female character in terms of whether she can fight and shoot as well as a man? Do we want to keep the genders completely interchangeable, and make sure that 52% of games have female lead characters and 48% have males?
I think it’d be a lot more interesting to play a game that actually has me playing as a woman, to a degree that it makes a difference. What does that mean, exactly? I dunno, since I’m not a woman — that’s why I’d need to play the game to know what it’s like. Would that game sell? I bet it would, as long as it were a good enough game. Would it sell as well as GTA4 or Modern Warfare? Probably not anytime soon — we’d have to make more games that genuinely appeal to women before there’s enough monetary incentive to make higher-budget games for women. Until then, you can just try it out, and focus test the hell out of it.