Gotta admit, I’ve been putting this one off for a while. Part of it’s the fact that, although I’ve been watching for a long time and done some work on the fringe, I don’t have the same type of background for discussing the social factors as I do the business and creative factors on female representation in video games. But most of it’s the fact that this part of the subject is particularly depressing, and I don’t like having to face it.
Here’s the deal; we, as humans, are just bad to each other. And we don’t even think about it. We’re a society that’s been built on social groups, and the belief that our social group is better than everyone else’s We’ve stepped into an era where surrounding us with people just like us is not important anymore, but we still hold to that old tribal thinking.
And every group does it. In the west, we often point the blame at the WASP men because that’s the easiest and the socially safest, but in countries where other races are in power, they do the exact same thing. Same in micro-cultures were women hold the power. It’s the unfortunate interaction of people’s habits of attempting to mentally understand something completely the moment it’s introduced and so filling in their concept of a person based on stereotypes of the most obvious features until further information is gained and of thinking of themselves and the people like them or in their groups as inherently superior to all others.
Us vs. Them. It’s one of the most addictive ways of thinking, yet one that leads to ugliness in life like few others. Us vs. Them is the enemy. And if we want to start treating each other well, we need to identify and eliminate it wherever it comes up, and whether it benefits our group or not.
But that is a large task. It starts with understanding, in small pieces. So, in pursuit of that understanding, let’s take a look at one facet among thousands of that comprise of this, and dig into some of the social challenges of having women as the main protagonist in video games.
Actor vs. Observer
Let’s start by ramming our head straight against gender roles, shall we? In writing fiction, two big ones come into play. Men are active/women are passive, and men act in response to outside stimulus/women act in response to emotion. That’s the little boxes the collective minds like to slip us into.
Protagonists are, by necessity, active characters who act in response to outside stimulus in most stories. Unless you have a plot that runs off of something unique and/or a lot of skill in writing, passive protagonists will be unsatisfying, while protagonists primarily acting out of emotion will be unsympathetic.
Which is total bunk. In real life, people are complicated. You find many, many people of all types. Active men, passive men, emotional women, reflexive women, none of them are any better, more successful, or contribute more than anyone else. They all make their way just fine, and we know and love them all.
When it comes to fiction, though, we’re addicted to our boxes. The general expectation with characters is that we’ll sympathize with the ones who are more like us. And that’s true, we do. But there’s also science saying that when it comes to protagonists, both men and women prefer male characters in those roles. For that exact reason. As a whole, people don’t like to spend a whole lot of energy on thinking. We already know the boxes. The boxes are easy. The boxes say men are the ones who go out there and get stuff done, and thus, are the protagonists of the works. We understand and prefer it that way.
Now, this is more of a tendency than an absolute. As I said in the beginning of these series, we could sit down and put together a list of strong, sympathetic, action-oriented woman protagonists a mile long. They just have a bit more to prove and require more establishment than do the men. A male in the protagonist role, most audiences are ready to get behind that. An active woman, well, you’ve got to work to get us to believe that.
Again, like most all of these factors we’ll be talking about here, this is a double-edged sword, and cuts both directions. We’ll sympathize with the action-oriented men, easy. Same with the mission control/ supportive women. Active women take work, but you can bring us there.
So what about the passive men? The intellectuals, the mission controls, the healers, the supporters? The Shinji Ikaris, the New Mutant Cyphers, the Vaans, the Spoony Bards, the Roy Campbells? They have to work hardest of all to build sympathy. Again, tendency, not absolute, but it seems they have to have more work behind them than all others to get them to the same point of audience connection. There’s just no place outside the box for men.
Characters, and people, of all types should be celebrated. Down with the box.
Violence Against Women is Special
Once, when I was a young child, I was riding my bike around the neighborhood. The street in our neighborhood went in an oval. There were a group of girls of around my age hangout out in the yard of one of the houses in that circle. I have no idea why, but after I went by their house a few times, they started throwing rocks at me every time I went by. When I stopped going by, they started setting up spots around the neighborhood, to throw rocks at me there. They started getting other kids around the neighborhood in that, too. After my umpteenth time getting pelted, I got fed up with it. My parents had set some rules for when I could and couldn’t fight with other kids, I believe to make sure I only did it in what passes for self-defense when you’re 8, and getting hit with rocks crossed the line. So I ran up to the nearest girl hurling stones at me, and kicked her ass. After I was done fighting, someone ran and got her mom, she came out and yelled at me. That was a new experience for me. I’d had other kid’s parents complain to mine about what I’d done to their children, but never any that had come after me directly. Moreover, her objection was a bit different from normal. I don’t remember much about her spiel now, but I do remember her saying over and over again “You don’t hit girls!” When my dad got home, I asked him about it, and got the response “Yeah, you probably shouldn’t fight with girls.”
That’s how I learned that violence against women is supposedly different than violence against men.
I remember when the Tomb Raider reboot was young, just out on the market. There was a lot of discussion about the game, what was working, what wasn’t, how the gameplay didn’t necessarily match up with the narrative themes, etc. One smaller piece of discussion, but one I remember well, was about how a lot of people just weren’t comfortable with the levels of violence the game leveled at its women characters.
To be clear, the Tomb Raider reboot is absolutely brutal to Lara. In fictional depictions, it takes something particularly gruesome to make me cringe, but Tomb Raider has that happening all over the place. Some of the death animations in particular are truly haunting. So yeah, I can see how some people would be very uncomfortable with it.
But the problem I had wasn’t that they were uncomfortable with that level of violence inflicted on a character. They were uncomfortable with that level of violence inflicted on a woman.
As a culture, we’re rather protective of our women-folk. When it comes to violence, we look at them the same way we do children. We assume both that any damage they could inflict to be so inconsequential it’s a sign of weakness to actually be impacted by it, and we assume they are so utterly defenseless that even a minor attempt at damaging them is an extra-special type of wrong. It’s instinctual, tying back to the days when our clan’s survival depended on our ability to maintain its population and that depended on the safety of our female population. We’ve long since grown past the need for that, but still, as a society, the irrational drive for it is still there.
Let’s be clear. In the real world, violence against anyone is a bad, bad thing. But we treat violence against women as if it’s somehow more harmful than violence against men, and doing so carries negative implications for both sides.
In particular, for the purposes of our discussion here, it leads us to taking women protagonists in any media dealing with violence less seriously. Video games in particular are combat oriented. Combat translates very well into game form, and the safe and consequence-free environment in video games lends itself well to its use. That’s not a bad thing, in itself. But given that games by default are going to be violent environments, if we’re uncomfortable with even fictional women being exposed to fictional violence, it really doesn’t leave much room for them in there.
Particularly in the protagonist role. The protagonist is at the center of it, most games. So when we don’t believe women are as capable of violence as men, and we don’t feel comfortable with them being the target of violence in our media, it naturally makes them more of an odd protagonist.
This is potentially a reason why we saw women as protagonists dwindle as our technology brought video games into more realistic spheres, and as Otaku Judge had pointed out in an earlier post, women are more common in anime-styled games and other less realistic styles than the more real than real visual designs that make up the majority of AAA offerings these days. A sort of uncanny valley-like effect, where the more realistic a computer simulation is, the less apt we are to be comfortable with women characters in prime roles therein.
Again, this is something we may see change. We’ve seen women in very visible leading roles in plenty of high-profile games recently. The more normalized they become in these roles, the less apt this instinct is to pose a barrier to their representation.
We Assume Romance in Mixed Interactions
This is more of a minor issue than anything else, and it’s not necessarily related to the issue of female protagonists in particular, but still, it’s an issue all the same, so we’re going to go ahead and talk about this here because this is my blog and I can put as many words as I want into it and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Well, I suppose you could stop reading, but that’s not going to stop these words.
Please don’t stop reading I need your validation.
Anyways, I used to go hiking with a friend pretty regularly. She had a very young child, whom she carried around in one of those giant hiking backpack/baby palanquin things. Now, you know me, so let me get ahead of those assumptions you’re already making and say that we were not romantically involved in any way. Yes, I know I am utterly irresistible, but there’s a lot of types of relationships out there, and ours was not a romantic one. But remember that assumption for later, when I blow your mind and make you feel bad about yourself.
Like I said, two of us, she hiking up steep trails with a large and obviously heavy baby carrier on her back. It was amazing the amount of people we passed by who made a comment directly to us about how I wasn’t carrying it for her. She would say something like “Well, he’s not carrying her because she’s mine” and they’d just get a look of confusion on their face.
I remember talking to her about it later, and she didn’t have an idea of what was going through their heads. But let’s run that down. That was a large number of people we were coming across, who were all seeing a man and a woman together, immediately assumed we were a couple just by simple virtue of us having compatible genitals, then made a bunch of further assumptions on her child being mine and my physical strength compared to hers and a whole bunch of other gender role things but that’s getting a bit farther from the point. But just like that assumption I strawmanned you into making earlier, they all assumed man+woman+social interactions=romantic interest.
That’s one that carries over into consuming fiction, as well. I had noticed that early on in my own writings, through a man and a woman together, audience will automatically assume there’s something between them until proven otherwise. Two characters of the same gender, they’ll wait to start making assumptions until you give them a little bit of context, a bit of interaction, but mixed gender, the assumptions already there that on some level, they want to be hitting it off.
This is something our own media may have led us to expect. With how ubiquitous love stories are in fiction, even in stories where it’s really askance to the point of the plot, it’s no surprise that this expectation has become so ingrained in us.
Again, it’s a really minor point. It doesn’t take much to drive that romance expectation underground to the realm of the fanfiction writers. Really, just show interactions that don’t have to deal with romance, and once the audience knows what to expect, they’ll react accordingly. But in works with a minority gender among its setting as the lead, it’s an assumption that would have to be managed more often, leading to a bit more work in creating the thing.
Making Enemies of Allies
Urgh, this is probably going to be the least fun one of the series.
Identity is a sensitive thing. How we define ourselves is one of the most important things to us, and we will react to challenges to that identity more than nearly anything else. It bypasses any conscious thought, strikes right at the emotion. And a lot of us, most of us perhaps, derive part of our identity from the groups we’re a part of, and oftentimes part of that is the groups opposed to us.
Any group that large enough, there’s going to be a lot of negative examples of their type. People who adhere to the party line without thinking of it, people who use the group as a mouthpiece for their own hatreds and prejudices, or people who are just big ratbags. And it’s really, really easy for those people to take over your perception of groups you aren’t part of. Negatives tend to stand out more than positives when you’re coming from a relatively neutral point of view.
So where does this come into play? Well, remember that people have a tendency to attempt to see others as instant wholes, rather than a sum of their parts. That applies to groups, too. And the women in games argument has gotten too tied up with the general gender roles argument on the internet, that has gotten way too steeped in Us vs. Them and the Twitter-bred lack of nuance and just general blind hate.
So the argument for better representation in games, for a lot of people, feels like it’s coming from the same point of view that claims that all hetero sex is rape or accuses developers of sexism for simple bad animations/models or uses social justice as a mask for its own sexism and racism and targets the very demographics making up most game developers. Again, thanks to that same Us vs. Them thinking, that makes it a lot harder to think of those arguments critically, rather than tapping into that emotional reaction of shutting it down straight out because, after all, it’s coming from the same group that feels totally fine with their own ism’s against you. I mean, just think about it. Let’s say you have one of those classmates/coworkers/bosses/Mass Effect fans who never passes up an opportunity to make you feel like crap. No matter what you do, they’re going to hate it. If they’re pointing out something you honestly should be doing better on, are you going to be able to accept that point when it’s coming from the backdrop of all that hatred they’ve already been spewing at you?
Hell, I consider myself one of the more patient and understanding people out there, and even I feel enemied by the movement even though I agree with what their stated goals are. I can’t imagine all those other
lesser people are much different.
And, in the interests of keeping us all relatively civil with each other, that’s all we’re going to say about that.
Fiction will Always stay within Arm’s Reach of Reality
Fiction has a really weird relationship with reality. On one hand, we use the stories we tell as vicarious experiences of reality, and in doing so, it effects the way we perceive reality. It sets our expectations of things we don’t have conflicting direct experience with. It’s how most people know what to expect from the legal system or differing cultures or dealing with different people or a million different things. It’s how we go beyond our limited frame of reference. That’s what a lot of the people with less selfish motives than my just wanting more variety and quality in my stories are looking for when making the claim for why they want more diversity in media.
But on the other hand, fiction is also reflective of reality. How reflective depends on the work itself, but it needs to be at least somewhat grounded in what we already know and experience, or it just loses us.
And in the real world, women just aren’t making up a huge percentage of the type of physical occupations that lend them to video game protagonists. Currently, they make up about 15% of American active duty military, and, as of the latest data available to the great research site Wikipedia, about 12% of the American police force at latest tally. There’s a billion things we could theorize as to why that is, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. It’s just what it is. In the real world, women don’t make up a large chunk of our action heroes.
So? These are video games? They don’t have to match real world demographics. You’re right, and they shouldn’t. Most of the time, gender mix is not material to the plot, and creators would be free to have things however they want.
But we’re still in a world that expects certain things from certain genders. It sucks, but it’s what we have to work with. Part of those expectations come from those roles they represent in the real world. Then go in to reinforce them, and yeah, it turns into a big ol’ blundercuss.
Anyways, because of reality, those expectations are there. You can stretch them by having a good mix of women in combat roles, but you can’t break them entirely without losing your audience. You don’t have to stick to the line, but you do have to keep its borders in sight. So it’s hard to necessarily make huge gains in that direction, at least until reality changes to allow it.
I think the industry as a whole could do with a lot more constructive criticism. Indeed, it says something that after years of people having said that the narrative and the gameplay don’t tend to jibe in Naughty Dog games, they entitled a trophy “Ludonarrative Dissonance” in Uncharted 4 as a joking reference to it rather than make any substantial effort to resolve the issue. I made a joke about it in my review, but after hearing what you have to say about people masking their own prejudice by ostensibly fighting for worthy causes, I almost can’t blame them. Almost. After all, the mainstream outlets haven’t lodged any substantial criticism their way, and the irony is that with independent critics, their typically acerbic nature worked against them in the end. After all, if they can’t go a whole review without being unduly negative, how do they expect developers to improve? They could touch upon a legitimate flaw, and artists would never be able to distinguish that from a case where the critic blew a minor issue out of proportion, resorted to ad hominem, or let their openly cynical biases cloud their judgement. It’s exactly as you say, when someone spews nothing but hateful comment after hateful comment at you, you’re not going to want to listen to them even if they offer legitimately helpful advice. In other words, artists in this medium have two choices from whom they can get criticism: yes-men/yes-women and grown-ups with the same amount of maturity as that kid in school who was incapable of finishing a sentence without insulting someone.
Another problem is that some people then take what could have been legitimate arguments a step too far by insinuating that the creators are maliciously enforcing these gender stereotypes when it could just as easily be chalked up to laziness and an unwillingness to experiment. Honestly, it’s difficult to blame them for that. Independent critics keep yelling at the AAA industry to take more risks and be more innovative, but it’s easy for them to say when theirs is not the money that’s lost if it doesn’t pay off.
The gaming community at large has no shortage of problems, but following the advice of the kind of person who is quick to call sexism at the slightest provocation would be like if the AAA industry took all of the criticisms Jonathan Blow has lodged toward them over the years to heart: it would only succeed in replacing the current problems plaguing the community/industry with new ones, meaning at best, they would break even.
You remember Old Man Murray? One of the OG’s of what would become this internet gaming community thing we have now. Sure, they could be just as negative as a lot of the reviewers now, but they were both a lot more well-thought out and creative with it, and they used that negativity to actually raise their points. The negativity wasn’t the end result.
And developers took them seriously. It was a different age then, like twenty years ago, but what they were saying did resonate with game makers.
And yet we’ve moved on in a lot of ways since then. The professional reviewers became easier to game, the indie scene blew up in such a way that it’s really hard to separate signal from noise so the modern Old Man Murray probably wouldn’t be noticed, and negativity started to draw more views than the actual points behind it.
So, you’re absolutely right. It’s not just a gender thing that negativity has made impossible to sort the valid views from the blatantly hateful. I’d imagine it’s all over the medium. You can talk about what really works for something, but negativity always stands out a lot more than positivity. Eventually, so many discussions will be drifting that direction, and when that’ gets too overwhelming, it’s going to be hard to pull the constructive bits from the rest of the criticism.
Which gets very tricky. As a creator, you always want to be listening to your audience to an extent. But when the vocal minority gets to be too much, and that’s all going in one direction that’s not going to be very useful to you, it leaves you with no compass on how things should be going. Possibly the reason for a fair amount of the industry’s problems, come to think of it. The negativity for things in general clouds the negativity for the things that truly deserve it, until it reaches critical mass.
I have to admit I didn’t read a whole lot of articles on Old Man Murray, but I did read that one about adventure games committing suicide when that the author of the Chzo Mythos Let’s Play linked to it. It was both funny and genuinely insightful. I wish independent critics had really studied what made it work rather than copy the vague surface elements by ramping the negativity up to eleven. And you’re right, the negativity should be a means to an end, not the end itself. It’s not good what independent critics have done; they’re not a healthy alternative to the mainstream outlets. I would even go as far as saying they’re worse because at least the mainstream outlets have something resembling professionalism. As it stands, we roughly have two factions for gaming criticism – both of which are too heavily controlled by outside forces. One bends to the will of their (frankly) unsavory audience while the other is at the beck and call of the publishers. The only way they could possibly learn from their mistakes in that environment would be to realize it on their own, which might never happen.
Other mediums’ critical circles have their own share of problems when it comes to letting bad trends flourish (e.g. it’s not a well-written satire just because it lines up with your beliefs), but they’re far more reliable. With the odd exception, I can at least see how they came down to their conclusions even if I don’t agree with them.
As a passive guy I resent being grouped up with the likes of Vaan and Shinji 🙂
You’re a mission control type. How about that?
Fiction does have a weird relationship with reality, that’s for sure…
Wonderful addition to what has been a fantastic series. I admit I walk a thin line when it comes to the “it is what it is, but it should be different” idea, because on the one hand, yes, you’re right, art reflects reality, but on the other hand, at what point does anything change? Should we throw ourselves behind societal change, or gaming changes? And honestly, reading that idea made me weary and angry all at the same time (not at you, to be very clear). I get it that women aren’t “action heroes” in real life, and that’s because of many reasons, but it just… it’s a different kind of annoyance knowing you don’t see people like you represented because it’s not cost effective. It sort of comments on your own worth IRL, in a way. And fighting against the almighty dollar can really feel fruitless.
Anyway, I do agree that minorities sometimes make enemies out of the allies they should be trying to rally, and I’m sorry you’ve been made to feel like an enemy. I know that after *being* painted with one sweeping brushstroke, it’s easy to paint others in the same unfair fashion, but I am of the opinion that the minority in the situation has the hardest job: to stand up against the unfairness of the majority (or other minorities) and remain objective. This goes for women, people of different races, LGBT, and the men who are victimized by the patriarchy, as well.
Thank you for writing another fantastic analysis and critique of this topic. As always, your objectivity kept us well above the murky waters that are so easy to fall into, and there should be more people tackling this the way you have.
Most gender roles, we’ve evolved past a need for. But they still persist. And we’re moving in a good direction. Women are making up more a proportion of the police force and the military than they were ten years ago, and even that was more than in ages past. That’s a good thing. So no, if you’re fighting for change, fight for change on both sides. Both social and in the media reflections. If we can make it more acceptable for women to hold those traditionally masculine roles in real life, that’d end up being a better situation for us all.
It’s not just minorities that make enemies, it’s really just human nature, especially when the change we’re going after is hard to achieve. When change is going to take struggle, it typically takes more than just a passive interest to keep motivations going to drive it, and emotion is one of the easiest sources to tap into. But it’s easy, when you’re operating based on feelings, to fall into that same Us vs. Them that’s so comfortable. Having an enemy makes it really easy to drive a group. But Us vs. Them typically leads to the death of critical thought. That’s exactly why Martin Luther King Jr. was so revolutionary, he was one of the few activists of the time not taking that track.
And that’s especially true when, as you state, you’ve already been mistreated by members of an enemy group. Human nature is to try and see things as instant wholes, so your mind attempts to fill in gaps in understanding based on the experience you’ve already had. So when you’ve got parts of a group treating you badly, it’s really easy to see that as the group treating you badly, and therefore being an enemy. It does take a lot of mental discipline to stay away from that, and the larger movements are, the more that discipline tends to wane. Really doesn’t help that, again, we’re just not good to each other as a whole.
Hey, thanks. This series has been on my mind for a long while, I’m glad to finally have it down. Maybe now I can spend some time not being so darn cynical.
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