Thursday, 21 January 2010

Chix in Pixels

I think the time has finally come for me to write about female video game heroines. I say "for me", because the rest of the gaming press and indeed all other kinds of press have already expended a vast amount of time and energy to discussing this topic. In fact, the number of column inches devoted to women in video games only really come second to the anguished reams of press allotted to video game violence. I think this is because whereas discussions of video game violence tend to be beard-stroking affairs regarding the psychological and sociological implications of allowing children to dismember Nazi vampires, it is hard for even the most ponderous of academics to come up with anything sensible to say about this:

Such depictions of women are so brazenly silly that it's actually quite hard to take criticism of them seriously. I also feel that if one is concerned about images of scantily-clad women, the magazine, television and music industries are perhaps more constructive places to direct one's irritation. Video game characters are, after all, imaginary.

That said, I do understand that shallow and reductive characterization is something that plagues games, and that criticism of it is valid. However, it is hardly a gender issue. Gaming's menfolk are on the whole as pumped, pneumatic and preposterous as their female counterparts. For every Ayane, Nariko and Ivy Valentine there is a Dominic Santiago, a Duke Nukem and a Guile.

These characters make me rather nostalgic for the 1990s UK television show Gladiators, in which ex-body builders with names like "Diesel", "Lightening", "Rhino" and "Fox" dressed up in spandex and challenged members of the public to beat them in tests of speed and strength. They, like ol' bubble guns Guile (above) are not really sexualised, but rather physically overdeveloped charactures of their genders, dressed in garish costumes for the purposes of entertainment. They're like the Thundercats would be if they had lived in Birmingham.

I would be willing to end the dicussion there, were it not for the rather unsavoury images I encountered whilst trawling Google for the pictures above. When I searched for pictures of our male game heroes, I found almost none that were not official screenshots or publicity art. When I searched for pictures of female characters (Google Safe Search "off", mind you), I discovered a vast well of... how do I put this politely... fan art... depicting our heroines in various states of undress. And by "undress" I mean "congress". You see, I can argue until I am blue in the face that silly game characters are silly regardless of gender, but I can't change the fact that the female characters are often fetishised by the players in a way that male characters just aren't.

It might be true that half of all video game players are women. But research suggests that a vast proportion of female video game players play either online or casual games on PCs as opposed to console games. In these cases, either the player doesn't actually play as a character at all (such as in casual puzzle games like Bejewelled) or they play large online role playing games in which the player gets to design their charcter, such as in Second Life or World of Warcraft. I think it's fair to suggest that if a player decides to play as a charcter with large breasts and a metal bikini in a world where are there are infinite alternatives it is not the same as if a player is required to play as a character with large breasts and a metal bikini.

It is true to say that the majority of console gamers are male. There are a variety of sociological and economic reasons for this but I am not going to go into them now (they would require more research and I have video games to play). The point is that most big-budget third person games (in which, laymen, you play as a specific and set character who you watch from, erm, third person for the duration of the game) are released for the consoles, not the PC. As a result, a lot of the recognisable and defined "video game characters" you are likely to come across live in the beer-splattered box under your television as opposed to the dusty leviathan in the study. And consequently, they are statistically more likely to be controlled by a man than a woman.

Now I suspect that most men, when playing Heavenly Sword are more concerned with weilding their sword effectively (steady now) than checking out Nariko's outfit. But, as my eye-opening Google search revealed, not all. I suppose it has something to do with the fact that she's dressed in little wisps of gossamer held together with fetishistic leather belts. Why is this? Why doesn't a sword-wielding warrior woman think it's appropriate to wear, oh, I don't know, a helmet? Cheastplate maybe? Shin guards? And is she not concerned that her hair might get caught in an enemy's teeth?

Hmm. We'll have to look further back than this. Because gaming has always been (and still is, to an extent) viewed as a predominantly male medium regardless of the actual state of things, it's always had a little trouble with its women. The first women in games were non-playable characters (NPCs) who provided an incentive for the protagonist (male, dungaree-clad, Italian) to make his way through the game. Take the original Donkey Kong. The protagonist wasn't actually called Mario at the time, though he and Donkey both became Nintendo's flag bearers. The princess in question wasn't actually Peach, current paramour of our mustachioed hero, but Lady, subsequently Pauline. But call her what you will, she was a passive princess in a pink dress who despite having a small vocabulary and limited critical faculties still managed to persuade Jumpman (his PR people advised him to change his name to Mario) to stare into the jaws of death for her whilst she fannied about on some scaffolding filing her nails. Hardly a feminist icon.

Donkey Kong actually came out at the same time as Ms. Pac-Man. As you may have deduced from the title, Ms. Pac-Man is Pac-Man with a bow and eyelashes. She's a far more independent woman the Lady/Pauline/Peach, chasing down dots and slaughtering ghosts for herself rather than waiting for her husband to do it for her. All very well, except Ms. Pac Man originally came about as a bootlegged copy of the original Pac-Man, and was given a sex-change only as a fairly weak concession to copyright. As it happened, Ms Pac-Man was snapped up by Pac-Man's distribtor (Midway) when the developers of the original game were taking too long to make a sequel.

That said, I suppose a feminist can't complain. Having a female heroine might have been Medway's last resort, but at least she's not over-sexualised. She just seems like the kind of girl who enjoys a night out after a hard day's ghost hunt.

Because of the fairly restrictive nature of the gaming medium over the next decade, it took a while for game developers to create "sexy" heroines (I use inverted commas because, you know, everything's subjective). There were quite a few dominatrix types as well as the unbiquitous wilting princesses (Lady/Pauline/Peach, you have a lot to answer for). The various Final Fantasy games made some effort in this department, putting forward female characters of varying appeal. Silly costumes aside, the "party" format of the games meant that there are generally three controllable female characters in any given Final Fantasy games, which allows for a comparatively decent range: cynical older woman (often a witch); noble and refined princess with the weight of the world on her shoulders (often a healer); squeaky-voiced and perky sidekick (often a tech expert or a thief). Stereotypical they may be, but at least they all play an important role in defeating Enuo, or whoever. Final Fantasy is still much the same as it ever was because, you know, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

My personal favourite female video game character from these blocky times is Dixie Kong, girlfriend of Donkey's monkey buddy, Diddy (try saying that drunk). Dixie is cleverer and more nimble than all the other Donkey Kong characters, and she can use her ponytail as a helicopter.

Around the time Dixie got her first starring role in Donkey Kong Country 3, another heroine was polishing her boots and getting ready for her first adventure. And over a decade later, she is still preventing me from going one week without mentioning her. Yes, in 1996, an iconic British female with big boots, a large chest and no fear was set to conquer the world.

Oh wait, not her. Though The Spice Girls did release a video game (it was rubbish). No, as you might have guessed (if you can pick yourself off the floor after my hilarious joke), I am referring to Lara Croft. Interestingly, Lara Croft was originally conceived as a man, but the designers realised that such a character would be too similar to Indiana Jones. The decision to cast her as a woman was largely based on the fact that the group of largely male designers wanted to look at a woman for twenty hours rather than on an attempt to interest women in gaming. Interestingly however, Lara Croft managed to acheive both.

Althoug she was always more, erm, pointy than sexy, beggars can't be choosers and in the polygonal world of mid-90s video games, Lara Croft became the first real video-game pinup. It helped that the original Tomb Raider and indeed the first three sequels were terrific and original games, but their notoriety to gamers and non-gamers alike was down to Lara. The games' notoriety to a female audience was also down to Lara. Women who were aware of Lara Croft were generally split into two camps. One camp enjoyed her well-spoken approach to casual felony and her taste in active wear. The other (larger) camp were unimpressed, mainly by her waist/chest ratio. I cannot count the number of times I have been told by some know-it-all that if Lara Croft were real, her back would be unable to support her chest. This is a boring and pointless observation because Tomb Raider is a VIDEO GAME in which Atlantean Gods are carrying out genetic experiements.

My attitude to Lara Croft has always been based on the fact that she is the main character in a series of fantasy video games which incorporate elements of magic, mysticism and science fiction, and as such quibbles regarding the believability of her character are largely irrelevant. Germaine Greer referred to her as "a sergeant-major with balloons stuffed up his shirt [...] a distorted, sexually ambiguous, male fantasy. Whatever these characters are, they're not real women". Well, yes. But so what?

Alright, alright. Maybe it does matter. Or at least it would if there were no decent female video game characters. There are some. Not many, but some. Incidently, there are about as many decent male video game characters, but it's not their day. Dixie and Ms. Pac Man are great and all, but there are more complex (and, well, human characters). Admittedly, there are more to choose from if you're not picky about whether or not you actually get to play as the character. Two of the best are Alyx Vance, who is the believably sensible yet flawed heroine of the Half Life series and the disturbingly sexual Maria from Silent Hill 2. Maria is not likeable, but she is intreguing and gradually loosens the keystone of James' sanity throughout.

If you're concerned about actually embodying a character, you can't go wrong with Beyond Good and Evil's Jade and The Longest Journey's April. The dramatic success of both these characters is arguably down to good script writing and excellent voice acting, which goes to show how important they are alongside more visual aspects. They are both reluctant protagonists who get drawn into their respective adventures by mistake, and who survive by being inquisitive and resourceful. They also make me aware that it's very hard to praise something and be funny at the same time. Jade and April, I salute you!


  1. Well. If you are curious as to where the blatant and rather rampant sexualization of male characters is, then you haven't seen all of the fanfiction. For whatever reason, drawing sexy fanart is a mostly male endeavor, and in pretty much direct contrast, fanfiction is where all the raunchy man action occurs. A great deal of it is gay for whatever reason.

    Not to say that there aren't female artists that like to draw fanart of females, or males that don't write fanfiction mind you.

    1. You are absolutely right about fanfiction. Back when I wrote this in 2010, I really had no idea how much fanfic there was out there featuring men or homosexuality. I have since educated myself about it, going so far as to write an article about sexy Deus Ex fanfic (details and sexy fanfic here).

      That said, I'm not sure how much of it is drawn/written by men or women respectively. It is an interesting question. I think someone needs to do some serious research into this. The people need to know.

      The other point is that as incredibly sexualised as fanfic and fanart are, they're made by the fans, not the industry. There is still some rampant sexualisation of male characters in games (my favourite is Jacob from Mass Effect 2), but it's quite rare in comparison to that which women are subjected to.

      Again, I wrote this quite a long time ago and my feelings about it have moved on. Maybe I'm just numb to all those metal bikinis, but I find myself less concerned with the over-sexualised masses and more interested in those characters that have more to offer. I can't say the bikinis upset me, you know?