Lately, a lot of varied controversies have been springing up involving the portrayal of women in video games. In the span of only a couple of months the outcomes of incidents within gaming news have given us questions like, is gaming going overboard with kitsch representations of women in games? (The Hitman Absolution trailer.) Is a strong female character like Lara Croft made “stronger” by making her more vulnerable ? (The Tomb Raider trailer.) And most poignantly, are video games varied enough in their portrayal of women that women should continue to have the right to complain? (The Tropes Vs. Women kickstarter controversy.)
Let me go ahead and answer that last question first, and with a resounding “no.” At this point in time there are NOT enough appropriate portrayals of women in video games to satisfy the complaints of women. How do I know? The Bechdel test. The Bechdel test was invented by webcomic creator Allison Bechdel and states that in order for a work of higher media such as a movie to approach qualities of feminism it must:
1 – Have two women in it…
2 – Who speak to one another…
3 – About something other than men…
Grab a bunch of your games and see how many of them actually pass this test. Anything from the Atari through the Super Nintendo era can probably already be ruled out, since female main characters did not really become popular until the Tomb Raider era. While Lara Croft’s inclusion as a main character is seen as a breakthrough in the video game glass ceiling, she is the only character, let alone the only female in her own game for very long stretch of time.
The mere fact that women are now part of the landscape of video games doesn’t mean their portrayal is feminist, and we determine which titles do with the help of the Bechdel test. For example, you can say there is an entirely female cast in Dead or Alive: Extreme, but the characters don’t do any talking at all, and the use of the female cast as eye candy is pretty obvious. A game like Fear Effect 2 has the requisite two women speaking to each other, but given that every other line they speak is some sexual innuendo, item three falls conveniently to the wayside. Even a more universally targeted game, like Atlus’ Catherine, fails because the two main female characters rarely interact and their intent remains focused on their affection of the male main protagonist. The main argument against Anita Sarkeesian’s proposed web series is that enough positive female characters exist to make her attempts to deconstruct the portrayal of women in games as stereotypes pointless. However, given that most games don’t even pass the simple points posed by the Bechdel Test, it’s an indication that this is as of the moment untrue.
Which brings us very neatly to the issue of the Hitman Absolution trailer: IO and Eidos showed us a sequence they believed was going to help them to sell a game by making a trailer where the title character kills a group of female assassins dressed in dominatrix nun costumes wielding firearms. Then, to their surprise, a lot of people found it to be offensive! This sort of cinematic has played out hundreds of times to no complaint by the gaming population. Now, out of the blue, people are speaking out against it, and the audacity isn’t so much from how sexist the trailer is; it’s from the fact that people are offended by something that’s been the norm of our medium for many years.
I think the whole situation pretty much speaks for itself: a game company released a trailer where several female assassins dressed in leather short-skirts and nun habits get killed by the game’s main character, and the game company simply assumes that it’s okay. In fact, it’s more than “okay” it’s actually what the audience WANTS to see! We’ve assumed for a long time that people who play games are individuals seeking to eat up every image of sexist ultra-violence put in front of us; an assumption that I’ve personally always considered to be categorically untrue since I grew up on games like Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. Games that never had to flash a gun or a boob to keep my attention. But Eidos can’t be completely blamed for this oversight: we as a community have been perpetuating this stereotype for years despite how obviously negative it is, and in the end it effects not only the women among us, but all of us.
Since the release of the trailer Eidos has shown it is truly upset about the Hitman controversy and has apologized for the existence of the trailer. They admit that their attempts to gain general interest in the franchise through sexist portrayals of women have been mistaken. Sadly, such has not been the case with the latest trailer for “Tomb Raider,” by Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics. The trailer features long time female game protagonist Lara Croft, as a young girl surviving in the wilderness meeting with constant circumstances of bondage, pain, and torture culminating in a situation where she is cornered and nearly sexually assaulted by a captor. Gamers are upset that Lara, a character who they’ve always considered to appear strong and independent, is depicted in this trailer as being afraid desperate and the amorous advances made by her captors are seen as a sexist bid to gain the sympathy of the male-targeted audience.
Crystal Dynamics, who originally fully intended for these themes to be the forefront of their title have since had to defend themselves with the claim that they do not actually exist, and so far, every attempt to do so seems to only dig them in deeper. Crystal Dynamics spokespersons have had statements like “You’ll want to protect the new Lara Croft,” retracted, and hold any implications that the scene in the trailer actually portrays an attempted sexual assault are completely untrue.
It’s been brought up several times that the controversy surrounding the new Tomb Raider is reminiscent of another attempt to add characterization to a female lead character, specifically Samus Aran in the game Metroid: Other M. Like Lara, Samus spent a good amount of her early game career with very little characterization, which made it shocking the moment that writers finally decided to explain the reasons behind her actions in previous games it is revealed that her decision to remain an angry loner was as the result of a series of infantilizing relationships with male superiors in the military. Game developers are sending the unfavorable message with both these games that a female protagonist in a game can’t exercise independence without being driven in that direction by a man, and in the case of Tomb Raider, the path about to be tread by Lara Croft threatens to be the most polarizing of all.
Video games are still a pretty young media, and as gamers we keep a very close eye on it to see how well it grows up. The problem we have with understanding its development, however, is seeing it take a baby step and assuming it ran a mile. A lot of these debates stem from a developers’ tendency to point at a milestone and say something like “Hey! we invented Lara Croft! That means we respect women now!” The emergence of controversies like this only shows we still have a lot of developing to do in this realm of characterization. Fortunately, there are a few great companies that are leading the way, which I will give loads of attention to in my next article.