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Defending Video Games

2010/06/22 2 comments

In the most recent issue of Bitch Magazine (No. 47, the “Action” issue), writer Hilary Barlow examined the work of a small Belgium indie video game developer, Tale of Tales. Tales creates feminist retellings of retellings classic narratives, which Barlow praises as a small step in revitalizing the video game industry which “do[esn’t] have a great history as a source of positive female characters.” She argues that “if the token chick isn’t a princess in another castle then she’s sexed up to a ridiculous degree just to get in on the action”, which then perpetuates misogyny and sexism in the largely male audience of gamers. She has a point too, there is an overabundance of video games that reinforces the idea that women need to be rescued/are the sidekick/don’t exist. However, I can’t help but feel that Barlow paints the entire industry with too wide a brush; the video game industry is arguably still less dependent on the objectification of women and the exclusion of minorities than the movie industry, television, music, pornography,  women’s magazines, fashion, etc. I should also point out here that I’m about to delve into my deeply geeky side, so I should assure you that I do actually go outside occasionally and get sunlight and exercise.

Barlow points especially to the existence of the game “Rapeplay” (which you can probably figure out from the title) as evidence of the specific danger video games pose to women. The fact that such a game exists is obviously horrifying, yet there are far more films of all types which not only depict, but glorify rape. In terms of sheer volume, video games represent just a drop in the ocean. To Barlow, “Rapeplay”–a game you can’t get a hold of in most places and wasn’t produced by any reputable party–is a “phenomenon” but why doesn’t she hold all media to the same standards?

One doesn’t need to look far (certainly not as far as Belgium indie developers) to find positive female characters in video games; what follows is by no means a fully comprehensive list, but is instead meant to be a counterpoint to the accused dearth of “complex female characters”. Yes, I realize that I’m cherry picking my examples and that one could possibly find an objectified bimbo for every strong heroine on the list, but they do illustrate that female characters can be more than captive princesses.

One of Nintendo’s largest and most successful franchises, The Legend of Zelda, has not only strayed from the save the princess routine but also transformed Zelda, the titular princess, into a bad ass team mate. The N64’s first Zelda offering, “Ocarina of Time” saw the princess donning a disguise and becoming an enigmatic ninja who knew more than Link, the male protagonist. Soon after, the game “Wind Waker” cast aside the princess role and recast the Zelda figure into a ruthless pirate warlord. The villain of the game is defeated by a magic bow that only Zelda is powerful enough to wield. The latest Zelda game on the DS, “Spirit Tracks”, featured Zelda as a powerful ally the player controls alongside Link in order to solve puzzles together. Zelda has been kick ass, and even cross dressed; Zelda moved beyond the princess stereotype well before 2000’s.

The widely popular survival horror franchise Resident Evil has always starred tough as nails female protagonists who survive the zombie apocalypse but have in the past also saved their male counterparts. The first game allowed you to play as Jill Valentine, elite STARS member and ex cat burglar who could pick locks unlike the male character and was the only one able to handle the enormous grenade launcher. “Resident Evil 2” starred Claire Redfield, Chris’ sister, also surviving a zombie apocalypse (there’s really only thing that happens in these games). Game #3 stars Jill again… you guessed it. Yes, in 3 Jill is wearing a tank top, but there’s at least no cutscenes of her being bouncy or anything that low. By the way, Jill is the crossover character featured in the Resident Evil movies.

In the same survival horror vein, “Silent Hill 3” of the Silent Hill series, is one of the first games I know of that engages in a discourse of abortion and a woman’s right to control her own body. Now, the rest of the Silent Hill series may have tended to the misogynist side in its early years, but 3 focuses on the teen aged Heather who survives some pretty psychologically disturbing stuff. She’s got a cultist chasing after her, she’s surrounded by gross monsters vaguely reminiscent of foetuses, and the anti-Christ is trying to burst forth from her womb. Gross. The ending culminates with Heather defying religious teachings and symbolically aborting whatever got inside her. One doesn’t need to look hard to see a woman making the difficult decision to terminate an unwelcome pregnancy forced upon her against her will, a narrative that unfortunately exists in reality today. Sure the message is coated in spooky monsters and creepy sound effects, but at least “Silent Hill 3” is dealing with the complicated parts of feminism politics and not just easier to handle forms of female empowerment.

The newest Final Fantasy game stars a female protagonist who is just as mysterious, moody, and strong as male heroes in the past. And “Final Fantasy 13” isn’t the first time a female led the charge against whatever evil was trying to destroy the world. “Final Fantasy 3/6” (depending on where/when you played it) had an ensemble cast headed by Terra. The game dealt with themes of motherhood, love lost and love gained, and generally involved women warriors kicking ass and taking names (and loot).

Even Mario Brothers games have moved away from the princess perpetually in another castle; Peach has stood on her own in a DS game, is a powerhouse in the “Super Smash Brothers” games as well as Mario Karts, Mario Parties, “Super Mario RPG”, and on and on. We stopped rescuing Peach a long time ago. Anyone remember “Super Mario Bros 2”? Peach was for the first time a playable character (only 2 games into the NES franchise) and was clearly the best character.

Another retro moment: Samus, the high-tech fan favourite from the Metroid series takes off her helmet at the end of the very first game to reveal that she is a woman, blowing the minds of all the players who naturally assumed that since they were being awesome they were playing a dude.        

And Miss Pacman is faster and tougher than Pacman ever was. There’s even a scene in the arcade version where she chases after Pacman, which I guess could be considered gender role reversal to a certain extent.

Canada’s largest video game developer, BioWare, which is responsible for the megahits “Dragon Age”, “Mass Effect 1 and 2”, “Baldur’s Gate”, “Knights of the Old Republic”, etc. has even begun offering players the opportunity to dabble in a queer relationship, though only for a moment. But the moment isn’t treated as a joke or milked for laughs, nor was it designed to spark outrage and thus create publicity, it existed simply because some player out there might want to see that part of their character represented in-game. I’m still waiting for a genuine same-sex love story in a mainstream game, but we have begun to take the first steps.

Despite the overabundance of objectified women, gender stereotyping, and heteronormativity in video games, I still feel video games allow me more space for creating and interpreting narratives in my own way beyond the regulations of patriarchy than what I’ll find playing at my local movie theatre or on my cable television. At least with a controller in my hand I can actively have some say in what I’m implicit in.

Which brings me back to my point: I’m glad there are indie developers out there like Tale of Tales, but we should acknowledge that the industry (yes, even the stuff by mainstream developers Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) might even be a place we can turn to in order to find some feminist fun.

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