Let’s make one thing clear: I am not here to represent girl gamers or females in games in general. I am also not here to represent gender studies. I have no expertise on that, nor am I even interested. I am representing me. I am a gamer. And these are my thoughts.
For the past five to ten years I have been on and off thinking about the topic of female characters in games. It has nothing to do with my game research, but a lot to do with my personal experiences as a gamer.
I love shooters. There’s just something enjoyable in running wild in a virtual world, saving the mankind and making split-second decisions on who lives and who dies. It is not that I am some kind of gun freak. I would never go to army, nor am I that interested in real firearms either. I don’t like choosing for someone else’s life. I am essentially a relativist when it comes to actual suffering and pain. I might cry, but I am the Switzerland. I like petting dogs, doing crafts and having interesting discussions in real life. I also do enjoy my dose of explosions and grenades in game life.
But game life lacks female characters. There are some, but the ratio is unbelievably low.
One of my all-time favourites is Faith from Mirror’s Edge. She reminds me of Leeloo from the movie Fifth Element. She is tough and amazing. One of the most important parts for many players in this game is that Faith is a pacifist. In this way she is not only providing an interesting experience of a runner, nor just stylistically refreshing 3D environment, but she also gives an option to violent games. To me, the most important part is that in her idle animation, she is checking her nails. But not in a girly omg-I-broke-my-finger-nail way: her nails are short and rough like any parkourer’s nails. She probably just wants to check whether her nails are still there. I didn’t play her as a pacifist. But I did stop to idle every now and then.
To me, Lara Croft is not that important anymore. But then again she is annoyingly important. She is one of the few. Also annoyingly, such a big part of the discussion of this raider chick with uzis revolves around her chest. Sometimes by guys, sometimes by chicks. Some think it is somehow sexist to design big breasted women into games. Some might think that a girl with such large polygons in an adventure game is just unrealistic. Are they also saying that big breasts are in general sexist in their existence? That there are no real women with large breasts? Or that chicks with big boobs have to be handicapped from sport activities, even in the virtual life? Or better: games are supposed to be realistic? If you wish, I can create a back story where Lara puts loads of money into the research of an amazingly supportive sports bra. Come on, she is filthy rich!
To me, Lara was never the big breasted girl. She was a kick-ass girl with the coolest “job” in the world. She was nasty, agile and a loner. She (probably) knew everything about history and got to chase fancy artefacts. She lived in a mansion. She had a butler. She was someone I looked up to in the era of Alanis Morissette and rest of the angry ladies.
Some people think that the new Lara has kind of lost the power of Lara Croft. New Lara being younger, softer and more frightened has made some people think that the creators of the modern Tomb Raider do not get the essence of being Lara. However, I would not want to play the power-bitch Lara anymore. That is so 90s. I am so over Alanis. I am ready for the softer, younger and innocent Lara. I hope that they have made her truly modern and not just a damsel in distress, as the makers have kind of promised for the male audience. Or if so, let it be overreacted. I hope the story is really dark and emotional. As long as she is in the lead.
There are loads of females in role playing games. But I do not do RPGs. It is not because I am not that fond of character play. I am just not that interested in magic, potions, wizards, dragons, swords and middle ages. Nor the graphical style of torch-in-the-shady-stony-dungeon. To me they all look the same and they all have the same characters. There simply is no play in characters.
I don’t even know if I want the character play. Perhaps I just want my characters written. And I want them to be written into gals.
I have never been a big reader with digital games. Usually the textual game stories just do not spark me. But as an avid puzzle game player, I got interested in the first Puzzle Quest game. Playing Puzzle Quest on my PSP, I found the dialogues of the game utterly annoying. I just wanted my fix of match-threes. And BAM! Something interesting happened. I, a female warrior, was supposed to escort a bride from one town to another. Arriving to the town of the alleged maiden, I was told that she actually did not want to marry anyone and wanted me to save her from that marriage. I was excited and surprised. The game was talking to me! There was no doubt about it, sisters stick together! From thereon I was reading every single line of the character dialogues. And in the end, I did enjoy every part of them.
I am a Bioshock fan, but not only because it has interesting female characters. I am a fan simply because the game rocks and there is just not enough dystopias on elitism and underwater worlds. But I almost never tried the game. I was totally disengaged of the game before a (female) friend of mine was eagerly talking about the big sisters in the Bioshock 2. I promised to try them out; I played the first one, then the second one: I was sold.
But this is not always working. When I talk about there being way too little female protagonists in games, people usually recommend Beyond Good and Evil. All I hear is appraisal. I downloaded the game, checked it out, and gave it about an hour. Nothing happened. All the characters were just annoying, graphics were boring, gameplay did not interest me and the story was stupid. Still the mere fact that it had a female protagonist made me check it out.
Another case of no-effect is Mass Effect. After listening loads of fan talk from my colleagues, I did my best and tried the game for about an hour and a half. I created my sole survivor lady, made scars on her face, thought about her past and imagined her in my head. She was perfect. Just the way I wanted my space story to go. But the first scene of her totally disengaged me from her. She was sitting like a dude. Who is this person?
Now, don’t start with me that games should have more gender equality. That all gamers of all ages, race and sexuality should have a place in a single game. That just sounds ridiculous. That’s not what I am after. One thing cannot be everything. One game does not have to be played by everyone. I find it a sissy solution to provide several options for choosing your character. Usually then the game has to be somehow un-gendered for the rest of the design. Don’t “unleash the creativity” of the players in order to make a “different” kind of title successful. Perhaps I don’t want to create the character myself. I don’t want to use MY imagination to build that game for me. I want the imagination of the developer, that’s their job.
Shooter games are filled with bold space marines. That’s what people usually say. That the characters are anyway something that you do not feel connected with. That character design in general needs variety. That guys also wish for a change. That an interesting character is just interesting no matter what is his or her sexuality and gender.
So gender, or sexuality, is not interesting?
I want to enjoy simple, yet contemporary, experiences with games – in a way that I can relate. I don’t know if I find sexuality or gender interesting. Playing a female character, whether she’s interesting or not, makes me feel different as a gamer.
Suddenly, when I request a female character, she should be something of a super-character. She should be something “different”, a pacifist, a heroine of a “smart” game, something beyond the stupidities of power and destruction. Now, get off my back! This is my discussion. I do not care about your wishes for more intelligent and ethical stories of modern elite of nerds united. Do not push all the dreams of the gaming world into this discussion. And push the actuality into the year 3000.
Just put a female character in your game.
You might want to say that female gamers are in the marginal. Or that girls are more ok with playing the opposite gender than guys. Do we have an option? Are we really able to vote with our wallets? How can one further grow as a game fan if there are just not enough games that one can buy? I do not even ask for anything ornate or fancy. I watch stupid blockbuster Hollywood movies and tv-series that make me cry out of engagement. I find myself with rather straightforward stories despite the fact that on rational level I really think that those movies and tv-shows are just crap. It is not THAT difficult to make women feel relevant. Just put a female character in your game.
And don’t make her optional. Make the story about sisters, let them save the world, destroy the baddies and reunite at the end of the quest. Give them amazing grenades, advanced snipers and big fucking guns. But don’t force them into a masculine skeleton just because the story is told in a man’s world and guys need to play their space marines in this game too. Let me have MY shooter fantasies. Let MY girls be girls with big fucking guns. That’s what games are (already) good for.