Gender equality among video game protagonists
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 August 2013, 2:46 am
Gamasutra recently wasted the perfectly good headline of We Don't Need the Haters with a perfectly good introduction about game developers receiving death threats on a post that then narrowly defined the problem as one of gender equality among video game protagonists. Although most games are either gender neutral or give the choice of gender for the protagonist, the author reduced the problem of haters in video games to statistics on how in the minority of games where you can't choose your gender the protagonist is male. Really? If only there were exactly as many games with female protagonists as with male protagonists we would have solved all problems with haters? I don't think so!

The problem with hate around video games has two dimensions, and the more serious one doesn't even take place in the games itself, and thus can't possibly be solved through game design: The problem of people taking their problem with a game out of the game and into real life. If video game developers get death threats for modifying the stats of a weapon in a game, the solution is not to never make balance adjustments to game any more. Rather the solution should be increased criminal prosecution, with internet companies forced by law enforcement entities to reveal the real identity of the people making the threats. There is absolutely no reason why a disgruntled gamer making death threats to a developer should be treated any more leniently than a disgruntled customer in a supermarket making death threats to the employees there.

The other dimension of the problem is that video games are disproportionately about extreme violence. This is where much of the gender inequality comes from: In the real world, physical violence is not gender equal, but mostly committed by men. The reason why World War II shooters have male soldiers as protagonists is one of historical accuracy, not sexism. And trying to force gender equality in violence is not necessarily desirable. I recently watched a modern take on Grimm's fairy tales, the TV series "Once Upon a Time", which evidently had undergone that sort of gender equality treatment: It ended showing Snow White in a murderous rage going after guards with a dwarven pickaxe and killing lots of people. Is that really better than the original? I doubt it! My childhood memories were ruined, I say!

As another example I have seen several reviews of the latest Tomb Raider which remarked how the sensitivity of the young Lara depicted in the cut scenes clashed with the cold-blooded murder gameplay the same Lara shows when controlled by the player. How can anybody suggest that we can solve the problem of hate in video games by showing more women in the role of murderous lunatic?

The first step towards a solution has to be creating less hateful and less violent games. Why is multiplayer almost synonymous with players working against each other and killing each other? We need more collaborative multiplayer games, and more games about other things in life than killing and blowing stuff up. And if games become more constructive and more about collaboration, having more female protagonists will come naturally. At best gender inequality among video game protagonists is a narrow symptom of a much wider problem. Just trying to heal the symptom without going after the root cause will achieve nothing.
Tobold's Blog

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