Bad news for me means good news for you! My paper did not get accepted into the Film conferences I submitted it to, so I have decided to put it up, in its entirety, on my blog. The writing has been modified to be less academic. At some point I plan to add pictures, so if words aren't your thing, just wait.
Without further adieu, here it is:
Now the Controller has Cooties:
Identifying Across Gendered Videogame Avatars
Avatar and Diversity: Politicizing or Empowering?
These days, at the dusk of 2014, there's hardly a hotter topic that's causing more controversy in the gaming industry than women in games. More people of more races, ethnicities, sexualities and genders are craving a wider amount of representation. While some enjoy the prospect of playing characters of many kinds, many underrepresented groups, including women, are more interested in being widely represented as interesting characters. For this, women need to be able to see themselves on screen with abilities just as impressive as those of men. At the same time, however, women want to see more variety in the type of women shown - sexy women, powerful women, sure, but perhaps also complex women who cannot be defined by a single word. That said, one of the chief complaints about this diversifying in gaming is that adding members of different races, genders and sexualities will politicize games and take away from their inherent freedom. Players who want more representation disagree, and it can be assumed that the ability to have a wider array of avatars to choose from will add to the freedom and choice in gameplay for mass market. In all instances, the topic of gendered gameplay is complex, but I believe it is possible to break it down in a way that explains why more diversity in gaming will be good for all. To do this, first we have to establish what an avatar is and what it means to create avatars with identity -- in this case, gender. Most importantly, this essay will focus on the relationship between avatar and player, unraveling the confusion between gendered play space and gendered avatars, and on how players can identify with female avatars, and how playing as a woman can add even more freedom to gaming.
Context: Why Doesn’t Lara Croft Have to Stay in the Kitchen?
At the moment of this article’s creation, the videogame community, IRL, is undergoing the most turbulent schism in regards to gender and minority representation that it has ever experienced. The movement, coined in August 2014 #gamergate by actor Adam Baldwin, may have begun as an attempt to delve into the ethics of journalistic techniques, but was commandeered by many on the Internet to attack not journalists, per se, but women within the industry. These women are seen as threats to ‘pure gaming’ – a gaming where ‘political dogma’ like diversity and feminism does not take time away from escapist fantasies. Reading between the lines of this increasingly vicious ‘debate’, it has become clear that many of those who feel threatened by adding diversity are afraid that their play space, that has stubbornly been one of the last remaining ‘boys clubs’, will be destroyed by the addition of real world issues minorities face. To simplify, take into consideration the concept concerning gender: Many men, who mistakenly believe they dominate the consumer market (women make up roughly 50% of the videogame market as of Oct. 26th according to the Washington Post) feel as if they would be inherently unable or unwilling to identify with the feminized gameplay that must be linked to a feminine avatar. However, their fear lies not with the avatar but the misguided linking of avatar gender and a particular gendered play space.
For many, the relationship between play-spaces and gender have little to do with one another. However, Henry Jenkins, author of the article Complete Freedom of Movement: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces explains how socially linked space and gender have become—through some devices dating back as far as Victorian novels. He argues that these tropes persist today, especially in early video games. He defines the parameter of two types of game spaces: The ‘Adventure Island’ (male) and the ‘Secret Garden’ (female). Essentially, his argument suggests that modern day play space in videogames can be linked back to their precursors in literature. Male play space he defines as an “Adventure Island”, where there is “’no place to seek cover’ and thus [the male play space] encourages fight-or-flight responses... the narratives offered... larger-than-life enactment of those values, staged in exotic rather than backyard spaces, involving broader movements through space and amplifying horseplay and risk taking into scenarios of actual combat and conquest.” He likens it to “manifest destiny” and explains how male games “often took the form of quests, journeys, or adventures into untamed and uncharted regions of the world” thus aligning with the stereotypical male dominated video game (Jenkins 346). Meanwhile, female play space competes with a differing definition: He describes traditional female game space as “girls’ books” with “open fantasies of being alone and then [requiring] the female protagonist to sacrifice their private space in order to make room for others’ needs... [the spaces] describe naturalistic environments, similar to ... daily experience”. Unlike their male counterparts, much of the exploration involved rediscovery of an interior setting, where “the exploration of space leads to the uncovering of secrets, clues and symptoms that shed light on character’s motivations” (Jenkins 448-349). To clarify, just because a character is a woman does not mean the character will only explore a typically female game space. The kitchen and all its utensils, the cleaning supplies, the pregnancy and baby raising are not attached to the character as sexist baggage, and the female avatar, regardless of personality, can penetrate into a male play space and perform active ‘manly’ tasks. Men can sit, wander around the home and collect clues in a feminine game space; women can run amok and gun NPCs down in a masculine warzone. Such assignments of gender, men as active and women as passive, while traditional, are arbitrary. Nowhere in Jenkins’s work does he laud the segregation of genders into their appropriate biospheres. In fact, his entire goal in writing his essay is to promote the concept of a gender-neutral game space where both masculine and feminine spaces are provided for play.
These two play spaces would seemingly create a binary between how games can be played, however such systems are illusory; like most binaries, this one really exists to create the extremes of a spectrum: From these it is possible to define different shades of videogame play space, with varying levels of masculine islands and feminine gardens.
Setting up the Spectrum:
Masculinity and Mario
With all this talk of masculine and feminine game space, one must be wondering what it means to play a Masculine game verses what it means to play a traditionally feminine game. To understand the available spectrum in gaming styles, we must first establish the binary to be broken down. To do so, the quintessential Masculine and Feminine examples must be established. The easiest example of a masculine game is Mario, the famous Italian plumber with a mustache, a penchant for pipes, a princess girlfriend and one extremely jealous turtle-rival. Mario began as “Jumpman”, a monkey-mistreating plumber in the 1981 game, Donkey Kong. In the game, and many of its following incarnations of side scrollers, the player guides Mario on a linear journey to rescue a kidnapped damsel. The game works towards an objective, saving Princess Peach (or, in early incarnations, “Pauline”), while traveling across foreign landscapes—from the familiar, hometown grass and mountains to Egyptian influenced deserts, mysterious caverns, and painful underwater levels. The linear format, combined with the simple objective and lack of character development creates the quintessential masculine game space. Putting a female avatar in place of Mario would do nothing to change the type of gendered play space the avatar inhabits: Treasure Island is Treasure Island, whether Jim or Jill Hawkins finds the map.
Girls and Gone Home
On the opposing side of the spectrum is the female game space. The creation of this seemed like a theoretical task, but thanks to indy developer, The Fullbright Company, a game exists that oozes with textbook feminine game space. Gone Home caused quite a controversy amongst gamers who felt they were cheated out of their money. Cited often was the misleading promo, which they believe sold them on a creepy, puzzle-horror game complete with hauntings and undead enemies. The game opens as the protagonist, Kaitlin, arrives at her family’s new house after a year abroad in Europe. The night is thunderous and the house, being both unexplored and antique is spooky. But this is a society piece: as the player explores the game-world, it eventually becomes clear that this will not be an action, run-and-gunner, but a subtle game that focuses on building the narrative of Kaitlin’s sister, Samantha, and the exploration into her sexuality. This Gamefaqs review from Snight01 sums up the opinions of many indignant gamers:
I happened to pay 20 bucks for this game off steam. I finished this game in 30 mins. No indication or warning that the game is a hardcore LGBT title( If i knew this, i wouldn't have bought it) and every audio log you recover goes in detail of samantha carrying out her sexual fantasies...The ending leaves you with that familiar feeling of being ripped off and lied too.. There were no ghosts, no deaths, a surprise LGBT story and a empty house with one working tv.
There is a lot we can learn from this angry gamer: The issues they cite include the expense for “thirty minutes” of playtime, the LGBT content, the lack of Non-player character avatars to interact with, and the lack of violence. What Snight01 finds problematic with the game are actually the components that mark it as a feminine play space: The events of the game take place in a domestic setting, where the player is unable to explore new worlds. The main action of the game consists of roaming around the halls of Kaitlin’s new home – a process which, at its quickest, can take as short as a half an hour, supposing that the only objective is to “beat” the game.
What players like Snight01 are doing is playing the game like a linear, masculine, objective based one. Gone Home defies this type of game-play in order to promote the concept of story building as objective through the exploration of domestic secrets. At its barest bones, Gone Home is the interactive story of a girl discovering that she is a lesbian in the 90s. No matter what style of gaming you play with, Samantha’s is a story that will get told regardless. However, if more time is taken to thoroughly scour the house, and the player interacts with all available objects then multiple narratives unfold. It is not just one story but several: the story of a mother who is considering cheating on her spouse; a man who was sexually abused by his uncle as a child; a lonely and lost Christmas duck trying to find his nest in the attic. There are no weapons to pick up or enemies to beat because the game is about character development and world building, not an ultimate objective.
The game allows the player to pick up and put down objects but not to use them for anything. In addition, Gone Home is an empty space, with no non-player avatars – thereby disabling the player’s ability to objectify the other characters: Despite seeing through Kaitlin’s eyes, Kaitlin does not have an objectifying gaze. Samantha’s lesbian romance cannot be used as titillation or what Desire and Deviate Nymphos author—Sydney Matrix—calls the “trivialization of Lesbian desire” (Matrix 74), a concept that points out the use of Lesbianism as spectacle to reinforce the false idea that two women are capable only of a sexual relationship, specifically for male titillation, and not a loving, romantic one as two human beings. This trivialization exists in much of mainstream entertainment culture, yet is interestingly absent from many games, such as Gone Home. The player perceives Samantha and girlfriend, Lonnie, in an emotional connection based on love and romance instead of a fetishized state. In fact, when you pick up a journal entry with Samantha’s personal description of her own virginity loss, the player is unable to pick it back up after the avatar ignores the wishes of the player and puts it back down. We, as players, cannot pick it up afterwards: Sam’s relationship is not for our amusement or arousal. What The Fullbright Company’s designer, Steve Gaynor, has created is a game about female relationships with the world, from a female point of view, in a traditionally female play-space.
Deconstructing the Binaries with Bioshock
If Mario and Gone Home represent the two sides of the masculine/feminine game binary, then most games exist somewhere in-between these two. In fact, more and more, the games that receive acclaim by both players and critics alike are the ones that have an almost even amount of feminine and masculine elements. Take, for example, 2K (Later Irrational Games)’s game, Bioshock. With a multiplatform release in 2007, Bioshock revolutionized the process of world building for mainstream games. Instead of being given obvious objectives to defeat the game’s big-bad-guy, the player is forced to gather information from the surrounding world – from the very walls—as well as audio logs. It is possible to play through Bioshock without collecting every log, however much of the character building and world creation would go entirely unnoticed, while the shooting and action portions of the game would remain intact.
A player that plays with a masculine style, ignoring many of the findable objects, will not have as immersive an experience. The extra content in the game provides clues and background information about the world – a dead body lying on the ground can gain significance through context, and often times a subtle horror is created: For example, the dead body lying on the bed in the bordello is much more horrifying when you take the time to listen to the audio-log and realize that she is, in fact, the character’s own mother. What once seemed like a world inhabited by deformed and violent drug addicts known as ‘splicers,’ becomes complex. Even the conversations that enemies have with one another before spotting the player can add new elements to the world. Not every character you meet needs to be killed, though all can be. These logs and other audio-visual devices function in a manner greatly similar to the audio logs of Gone Home and help to not only build up the city of Rapture into a living entity of its own, but also help the game’s plot progress.
To return, for a minute, to Rehak’s gendered playspaces, Bioshock’s city of Rapture has a duality between the masculine and feminine: While Rapture sits as a secret underwater Atlantis, its entrance a lonely lighthouse, the game does not function like a masculine “Treasure Island” but more like a “Secret Garden.” Structurally the city is built up with an interior similar to a shopping mall, a place often associated with the feminine. New maps are not shown on streets but in cavernous hallways where the storefronts of shops, bars, and vice sit in opposite ends. Even the medical wing contains mall-like entrances to the dentist’s office and surgical wing. The entire structure is interior, and because of the games greater focus on exploration within domestic space, this game, often lauded as one of the best games to be released in recent years, cannot be regarded as a male play-space: rather it is a game that takes its complexity from the joint expression of both the traditionally masculine and feminine. In reality, these gendered gamespaces, that many seem to believe will ruin gaming with pink and purple backgrounds and sparkly ponies are actually useful for adding to a game’s depth, not treating the game material like the players are naive and emasculated. If this is true of the spaces the avatars roam, then perhaps the physical manifestations of gendered characters are also unlikely to doom gaming forever.
What About the Avatar?
The concept of ‘avatar’ lies between the sphere of the imagined world and the sphere of reality. Gaming has the most tangible and personal relationship with the visual avatar, as the character you are supposed to identify with is literally under your control. Unsurprisingly, the player and the avatar have a relationship far more complex than the common Monkey see, Donkey Kong do apparatus. Bob Rehak’s Playing at Being explains, in detail, the history of the videogame avatar from its inception with Spacewar! in 1962 all the way up until its publication in 2003. (Rehak 1). Rehak introduces the idea of avatar as vehicle, as a form dominated by the ‘inorganic’ spaceships and cars of early video games, before the avatar was transformed into a representative of the ‘organic’ in Pac-Man (Rehak 6-13). First living, eating form on screen, Pac-Man’s revolutionary developments in gaming did not end there; Ms. Pac-Man’s arrival demarcated an important point in the development of the avatar. With Ms. Pac-Man, and her vivid red lips, gaming had become a coed sport. Women were available personas for the playing.
Since Ms. PACMAN’s introduction in the 1980s, the variety of avatars has increased a thousand fold, even far beyond the scope that Rehak’s Playing at Being delineated. Avatars today have tons of personal identity markers and players can relate to their avatars on entirely new levels. Because this topic has become so broad, and because I do not wish to generalize, the focus in this essay will be limited to discussing the effect that gender has on playable 1st/3rd person human (or humanoid) characters with predesigned avatars. This will limit the context in which I will discuss games and thereby acknowledge the differing relationships between an avatar you can design, in games such as Skyrim and Mass Effect, and games where your character has a preset human identity, such as Bioshock Infinite and Tomb Raider. Given these limitations, how does a player interact with an avatar when their coded genders differ? Its easy to say that the gender of the avatar does not matter, as the player has full control over the action of the character and should, in theory, play the game as if they themselves were really in a warzone, or medieval kingdom, or spaceship. Yet this ignores the fundamental purpose of a videogame: a world where the player can react to the world and the world can react right back. But the world can only react to what it sees the player as – and as any player of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time can tell you, there are two very different reactions to the Hero of Time, Link, depending upon whether he appears as a child or adult.
With a basic understanding of the avatar established, its best to go back and look at a similar, older and more well established art form: Film. If the theories of Laura Mulvey could be applied, with no significant changes, then the relationship between avatar and player should be obvious. Mulvey argues:
Women then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning. (Mulvey 15)
On the one hand, Mulvey assumes this theory is being applied to primarily the use of film and this leaves out the undeniable difference between games and film: the audience of a film is passive while the audience of a video game is active. But this in itself raises more questions: When female NPC (Non-Player Characters) exist in a game, especially when they seem to serve no other function than as healer, someone to escort or love interest, does this character's role immediately fall into Mulvey's theory that she is a “male other”? That is to be voyeured at? More haunting, in my opinion, is what this theory says about characters, particularly female and minority characters, that you do play: re-read this quote, replacing the idea of the looked-at woman with a playable female character, for example, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft:
"[Lara Croft] stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through [controller] command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning."
In spite of every single attempt to make a powerful female character, what this sentence does is argue that no female avatar, however sassy or well written, no matter the story line, has still come no further than to be a version of the “male other” to be controlled with no will of her own. So now what do we do? As women, we wish to have better representation in video games with more options to play as a female character, yet at the same time, that very ability to choose a female avatar immediately subjects her to a patriarchal standard - to be viewed as both an object of desire and a method of anxiety in the form of a castration symbol.
So what do we do? Should we make playable female characters for more games but only give women access to play them? Of course not. Luckily, the concept of fantasies and obsessions is applicable to pretty much any video game character regardless of gender. If you replace Lara Croft with Uncharted’s Nathan Drake the quote still makes sense. It is simply in the nature of the avatar to be a vessel of control. Her concepts of relationship between men and male characters vs their relationships with female characters boils down to controversial ideas as well: she regarded men as “bearers of the look “ while women inherently held the title of objects. Any attempt at reversing these two constructs is, in this view, going against the “straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference" (Mulvey 14). In effect, this argument suggests that women naturally transgress gender boundaries when watching film as they must take on the male persona of the objectifiers to correctly watch a movie. According to this, the male player, must identify, through Mulvey’s construct of ego-narcissism, with the active playable male character, and when confronted with a female avatar, control her through a solely voyeuristic gaze as an object.
However, such binaries are never able to give full scope to any system, and Mulvey’s theories, while a concrete basis to build upon, are far from complete. Mulvey’s thesis directly states that men generally cannot be the object of an erotic gaze. As a woman interested in men, I can say with certainty that the male form can be objectified and that Mulvey’s theory ignores the active gaze produced by both women and gay men. Steve Neale, in his prologue Masculinity as Spectacle, argues that the male form, while not directly objectified, can have a male body as object, so long as it is “motivated in some other way, its erotic component repressed" and redirected into the appreciation of the physical form through its ability to achieve a goal (Neale 14). Really, who doesn’t love an underdog?
Steve Neale is also one of the first to give voice to the problems of Mulvey’s identification/objectification binary. He cites John Ellis’s book, Invisible Fictions, quoting that “identification is never simply a matter of men identifying with male figures on the screen and women identifying with female figures. Cinema draws on and involves many desires, many forms of desire. And desire itself is mobile, fluid, constantly transgressing identities, positions and roles. Identifications are multiple, fluid, at points even contradictory." (Neale 10). This is an incredibly important piece to take away from an analysis of film. When talking about apparent binaries like male and female, it is so easy to forget that gender is shown now to be a spectrum, and also only one facet of our identity as human beings. Being a woman is not the opposite of being a man, it is simply something that differs in one sense of our identity. To that end, there is not one way a player relates to an avatar, but a varied spectrum. They can relate as voyeur, as identity maker, as self and as other. The idea that a male gamer could not relate to a female avatar, or vice versa, particularly within the construct of a fantasy space is a fallacy. As Neale reminds us, “identification involves both the recognition of self in the image on the screen, a narcissistic identification and the identification of self with the various positions that are involved in the fictional narration" (Neale 11), not just gender. The players, as individuals, may relate to differently gendered avatars on different levels and to different degrees, but they will relate on the level that makes all avatars – male, female, genderfluid—a representation of the human condition.
Why Cross-Gender Identification is not as Far Away as You Think
Male Body Tourism
Despite the clear differences between the two, there is an important relationship between the avatar and the gendered game space. While the avatar is the representation of both self and other, ultimately it is the world’s reaction to the avatar that players witness. These encounters with the world give the player rules upon how they will be treated and how they should react to the environment. For instance, the backlash received by Gone Home has more to do with the different world interaction rather than because the playable character is female—an important distinction to make, as some gamers attempt to argue that they are unable to relate to Kaitlin. Even in the strictest sense, it is unlikely any man would be unable to relate to a female avatar on some level; women are human too, after all.
Despite this, claims of women characters hurting the freedom of videogames still run rampant because somehow adding diversity disrupts the nature of gaming and ruins them. But the concept of crossing gender lines isn’t unheard of: women have had to cross that gap for years, because all of the interesting games were played with heroes, not heroines. Even now female gender, when it is used, defines certain game characteristics and playing styles. Women are used for stealth, while men fight in a Rambo-esque run-and-gun style. When a member of one sex plays as a member of another, they are able to tour the worldview of that gender, and have the potential to learn more about the world – supposing the character is portrayed in a fair manner.
In her article Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Passing on the Internet, Lisa Nakamura explores this concept of “Identity Tourism”—and while her article uses this concept to explain how playacting as another culture is harming to that culture, properties from her work do argue that such tourism, the implicit view of another, is helpful. There are certain gaps she leaves. Nakamura’s essay specifically addresses the method of identity tourism performed by white males in online MMORPG style gaming and their tourism into the identity of multi-ethnic (but particularly Asian) avatars. While she does talk a little bit about gender, she does not systematically go through every variation of identity tourism, i.e.: minorities who play as other minorities, minorities who play as privileged characters, people who exclusively play across the gender gap. While her focus is upon the privileged using racist archetypes as a privilege to demean, there is something to be said for a system that forces a player to put on an avatar and understand how life is to a marginalized group. It involves the process of putting on another mask, in this case a racial identity mask, in order to gain the benefits of a marginalized point of view without the fallout of having to deal with the repercussions that come with having no way out of that identity. This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing : in fact, if used well, identity tourism allows anyone to experience life from another point of view and forces you to question how you treat others who have a differing self identity. The problem with identity tourism comes only in that most representations allow for the spread of harmful stereotypes, which hold with views from a white male society. Nakamura uses the appropriation of an Asian identity online as an example:
The choice to enact oneself as a samurai warrior in LambdaMOO constitutes a form of identity tourism which allows a player to appropriate an Asian racial identity without any of the risks associated with being a racial minority in real life. While this might seem to offer a promising venue for non-Asian characters to see through the eyes of an Other by performing themselves as Asian through on-line textual interaction, the fact that personae chosen are overwhelmingly Asian stereotypes blocks this possibility by reinforcing these stereotypes (3).
While such performative stereotypes of differing cultures occur often in the MMORPG world, in the realm of console gaming, the majority of avatars are created with a white, cys, straight, male as the protagonist: thus, more of this identity tourism takes place when women and other minorities play as the privileged class of people: In many ways it is freeing, and it truly lets games become a play-scape for all types of people. Such games will always exist, and adding ‘politicizing‘ elements is unlikely to ruin the superhuman high gamers experience in the videogame world, and in fact create more nuanced and interesting settings.
Woman for Women vs. Women for Boys
Over the course of the last fifteen years, games engineers have incorporated gameplay options that attempt to include the female gamer, while not making her their target demographic. Male protagonists have still dominated the field of videogames, but as time progresses, these characters have been given more complex backstories and often interesting or strong women to support them.
The next logical step, after the introduction of well-developed secondary female character, was to widen the market through the creation of the female action avatar: In 1996, Tomb Raider introduced Lara Croft, gaming’s first mainstream action hero with two very perky polygons. From the beginning of her rein as the action queen, Lara Croft sparked enormous growth in adding gender diversity to games. However, much of the female characters now available in games are produced with similar body types and personalities. The female avatar, as described in Helen W Kennedy’s Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo?, has come to mean the hyper-sexualized woman who enters into the traditionally male space of foreign worlds. Characters like Lara Croft draw a ‘new’ demographic—women— which now, according to an October 26th 2014 Washington Post article, make up roughly 50% of all players world wide. But these characters have another primary target: to be the object men can look at while they play. Kennedy refers to such characters as “bimodal” meaning that they function as not just for men to stare at, or just for women to identify with, but both modes of the avatar – hence, bimodal. Other examples of these characters can be found throughout gaming: Chun-Li (Street Fighter), Sonya Blade (Mortal Kombat) and Tifa Lockhart (Final Fantasy VII), just to name a few. These characters were created to appeal to the different genders in two completely different ways: traditional male gamers, Kennedy argues, were intended to view these women as an objectified other, while women were intended to identify with the feminine body placed upon the screen.
In many ways, this binary aligns with the one that Mulvey suggests – that the two sexes inherently cannot cross-identify with one another. Yet, as already discussed, Mulvey’s theory is flawed and incomplete. It should be ok to have a sex positive, body positive, powerful female avatar – the only issue is when these characters are created with only male pleasure in mind. Yet often, female characters have hyper-sexualized features that mark them as objects: Croft is infamous for her original design with an enormous chest. Now female avatars have a new binary that is hard to disentangle: Some avatars have had their femininity toned down to nonexistence, while others remain hyper-sexualized. Finding characters that fall between are rare, and when they do occur, they are still stilted with one demographic in mind over the other.
Implicitly, female avatars are designed with women players in mind, but always as an addition to the ‘primary’ male gamer. Because of this, even though bimodal female characters exist, they act as a selfhood of a preteen boy rather than women they claim to represent. This makes it more difficult to discuss how men truly relate to a female avatar: in the design of a male protagonist, no one seems too concerned with creating male avatars that women easily identify with – the same should be true of female avatars, yet the industry standard still clings to a misfortunate idea that images of women should be modified for male comfort. Although this makes cross-gender identity an easier transition for the male player, it also takes away parts of the ‘woman experience’ that could be identified with.
Relevant is Carol J Clover’s concepts of what she terms, “the Final Girl”, in her work, Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. She talks of the “Final Girl” as not just being bimodal, but as avatars intended for the male viewer. Clover argues that the final woman protagonist in horror films—the one who survives the horror to triumph—are relatable to the target audience of preteen boys because they have had their femininity stripped from them. They lack their own sexuality; the films, or in this case games, lack a male body to objectify. These women become devoid of sex or are more likely to be sexually curious about another woman’s body rather than a man. This seems to imply that it is more acceptable to objectify a female figure than a male one. The Final Girl wears flannel; she is bookish and quiet and has not yet come into her own body. In this sense, they are the perfect avatar for the young male viewer and must earn their metaphorical ‘penis’ through an intense trial. Clover describes it best:
“The Final Girl is boyish, in a word. Just as the killer [in horror] is not fully masculine, she is not fully feminine—not, in any case, feminine in the ways of her friends. Her smartness, gravity, competence in mechanical and other practical matters, and sexual reluctance set her apart from other girls and ally her, ironically, with the very boys she fears or rejects…” (Clover 40)
It is very apparent that many game heroines are similarly neutered through the use of phallic weaponry, and an undefined sexuality.
Many female game characters are given a traditional place as the ‘mannish’ woman. Some such as Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) and Lightening (Final Fantasy XIII) are made asexual, and any potential attraction is never discussed. The action of the game is more important than the humanizing characteristics of sex or romance. Others such as Vanille and Fang (also Final Fantasy XIII) or Ellie and Riley (The Last of Us) are coded (or explicitly) lesbian. Unlike most film, however, game-lesbian relationships are sewn with sincerity. This is great – showing a loving relationship between two women is a step in the right direction to diversify characters; it does, however, highlight the severe lack of explicitly straight women to play.
Of the straight female protagonists that do exist, many are neutered by circumstance: in Final Fantasy XIII-2, Serah Ferron, the straight female protagonist, has her fiancé, Snow, a protagonist from the first game, removed from view at the outset, so as not to be the object of Serah’s (and by proxy the player’s) gaze. Yet the game implicitly claims, after two years of absence, that Serah is still so loyal to her fiancé, Snow, that she cannot be attracted to the game’s male protagonist, Noel, despite an obvious closeness the two share. Similar treatment is given in the game Lollipop Chainsaw, where Juliet, a sugar-driven, chainsaw-wielding, cheerleader-valley-girl-feminist, is not allowed to voyeur at her boyfriend, Nick, as she literally chops him off at the neck minutes after his introduction. He is not dead, mind you, but becomes a talking head companion instead. His lack of a body objectifies him, not sexually, but as a tool used for various tasks. Nick’s body as a sexual object is so absent in the game that he often is placed on other bodies for humor – a cheerleader zombie, an obese zombie. In the end he is given a shorter, older, and ostensibly less attractive body, and the kicker is, that this less commoditized body does not matter to Juliet in the slightest. His body is not for us to objectify but to accept, something that, if the role had been reversed, would be an unlikely outcome in Hollywood style entertainment; Cheerleaders will date the chubby guy, but hot Jocks steer clear of Fatties. All of this is done to make straight female characters more relatable to the men who play games, rather than the women who wish to see their own bodies, however sexually stunted, on screen. All of these characters, boyish and beautiful, are made for men to identify with, not women. Things are beginning to get better.
Stylistic Gameplay: Booker DeWitt Kills, Elizabeth Knocks Out
A compromise of sorts has crept into the gaming industry: many games are being created that utilize the diversity afforded by male and female avatars to create multiple types of gameplay within a single game. Such games will often create avatars that are given different advantages based upon body type, demeanor, and most recently, gender. Games such as Borderlands 2 use such techniques to offer specific advantages through different characters – Zer0 has the ability to create a ghostly image of himself; ‘Gaige, the Mechromancer’ enlists the help of a robot companion to assist her with the take-down of minion enemies for timed periods; the hulking mass that is ‘Salvador the Gunzerker’ uses his ability of duel wielding (which really means he is able to use more than two weapons at any given time) to ravage the enemies. Often characters are assigned different tasks based on their size, yet female characters are developed for stealth, while male characters are deemed the action run-and-gun type. An interesting example of this occurs in Irrational Games’s Bioshock Infinite and its downloadable-content, Burial at Sea Part II.
Unlike the original Bioshock, Bioshock Infinite takes place in a game space that is inherently more masculine. The corrupt society of Columbia exists in clouds, aloft on floating islands, and the initial object of the game is to free a girl, Elizabeth, from her place in a tower. This masculine, linear, plot is intentional and inverted, as Elizabeth becomes, not a damsel in distress, but a guide and partner with astonishing power.
However these gender differences do create for interesting contrast in gameplay, once the player is given the opportunity to don the Elizabeth-avatar in Burial at Sea DLC. In the main game, the protagonist, Booker, plays similarly to the first game’s Jack: he collects various weapons and special powers known as ‘Salts’. Although he gains some defensive powers, the majority of his arsenal helps him better kill the enemies. When introduced to the playing style of Elizabeth, however, one difference is major: instead of beginning the game with a violent melee weapon, Elizabeth finds a blunt object, but is immediately told that she will only be able to knock enemies out with it, and only when they have not seen her coming. Through a voiced monologue, she says that she does not have to be her father: in other words, you should not use Elizabeth to kill because more often than not, you physically can’t. This inability to kill continues as the next weapon you receive is a crossbow filled with tranquilizer darts.
Although Elizabeth does eventually pack some actual heat, the game first establishes that Elizabeth wants to be a pacifist and will play like a pacifist. Such a playing style could be interesting and exciting, had it not seemed influenced by the gender of the character. Even though it is established in the game, the choice seems gendered regardless. In a world permeated by violence, Elizabeth often stands horrified and shocked as Booker kills to protect her. It is a startling and poignant moment in the game when Elizabeth herself is forced to kill someone to save a child. However the DLC takes place years later, and this Elizabeth is one who, it has been established, has killed her own father, in multiple dimensions many, many times. In the main game Booker is not given a way to disarm – he can only kill – odd considering his desire to redeem himself from his violent history as a soldier. Had Booker been afforded the same option of non-violence and Elizabeth’s initial innocence not undermined by her characterization after the ending of the main game, then the added bonus of a non-lethal stealth gaming style would be less subject to criticism. In many ways, it does make sense that Elizabeth would have to play more in stealth than Booker, who is a well-trained war veteran. The story that she moves through, as the avatar is interesting – however it could have been more interesting to do it before she had become jaded and before her character design had so clearly been changed to remind us of the masculinized Hollywood Femme Fatale. The game, while brilliant, is still not perfect, and Bioshock’s attempt at a female character was still clearly created to be more identifiable for young men.
Why it’s Hard to Confirm Cross-Gender Avatar Identification
Identification for the young male consumer is important to explain why cross-gendered identification is difficult to confirm or deny; if the characters are intentionally created to be more identifiable with the male player, then there are not many outlets to see how men identify with female characters created for women. Complicating this further, renderings of female bodies for women are often created by well-intentioned men, yet the Barbie results only further the societal caricature of women. It is between these two binaries, that of society’s caricature woman and the loosely disguised bimodal boy-girl that avatars have yet to satisfactorily combine. Perhaps it is something that new altogether that needs to be created.
I don’t want to reprimand the games listed in this piece for wanting wider market appeal; these games contain many progressive elements that show how games can and should be developed for a wider demographic. The avatar is a representation of both self and other; the more that avatar is placed in a world that gives equal distribution to male and female game-space, while not ignoring the realities of how the world reacts to these identity distinctions, the more likely it will be that the game will resonate with the highest number of players. Even if the player can’t relate to the gender, they can relate to the other qualities that make up a sense of humanness, which is not just gender neutral, but both feminine and masculine in quality.
So there you have it. I’ve touched the controller, I’ve touched the theories, and I have touched upon the positive outcomes that will result in diversifying gaming. I am a girl, and I play games. Hopefully, I’ve given you the cooties that will make you want even more representation so that games can be even freer.
©2015 Lex Vex
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 In Final Fantasy XIII, Snow fights his way through the game to save Serah, who is frozen in an ice-like crystal. Throughout the first game he is a main character, but he does not appear very often in the second game, odd considering his importance in the first. Instead, he acts as a metaphorical buffer between Serah and Noel, as a verbal excuse for why Serah and Noel will not have a relationship that develops.