So, GamePro did this feature on The 55 Greatest Moments in Gaming (you may have to reload the page to get past the ad). I check it out ’cause, hey, I’d like to see what others find memorable about video games. Now, mind you, when I clicked on the link I knew what I was getting into: the video game industry is historically a “boy’s club” environment and I’m going to take a wild guess and say that the three editors who created the list are all guys.
But, hey, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t call the list out on its gender representation, so here goes. I’m going to look at some numbers regarding the games chosen and the way the article framed said games, then I’m going to organize the relevant games into three categories: 1) Sex and Sexuality, 2) Sacrifice as Heroism, and 3) Miscellaneous. The tropes that I criticize here, I might add, are not confined to this list; indeed, they are pretty common when looking at women in fiction and that includes gaming.
I. Crunching Numbers
So, I’ve done a little breakdown of the gendered references in the list. Mind you, there is a certain element of subjectivity to these lists, especially with the second one because I chose designate references of “you” to mean the character as N/A, even if the character was obviously male. But, still, I think it’s worth taking note of.
So, what do these numbers mean? Well, firstly that the editors found more memorable moments in games with male protagonists than with any other game. This is, no doubt, due in part to the prevalence of male-only games — heck, they list Fable, which was supposed to be this amazing game where you could choose everything about your character down to his sexual preferences, and yet, somehow, they thought that “gender” wasn’t one of those important choices players would like to have.
Anyway, aside from lack of availability, another possibility is that we tend to grativate towards characters like us in a lot of cases. Growing up, if there was a time where a female character was an option, I’d take it. Unfortunately, those times were very few, so I had to settle for male characters more often than not. But the men out there don’t have that problem, so I can see why there would be an imbalance.
As for the references, well, overall I believe most of the references fell under “N/A” because they were highlighting specific features of the game — most of which weren’t relevant to gender. That the “male” references outnumber the “female” ones is, I think, a product of the games chosen — if the games focus on men (male protagonists, male main characters driving the storyline, etc), then it’s only logical for them to have more references. It should also be noted, that the “female” references outnumber the amount of games highlighted with female protagonists, though not ones with female player characters.
Now that the background is out of the way, we can move on to examining the way that the references to women were treated.
II. Sex and Sexuality
That the number one type of reference to women is in relation to their sex and sexuality is in no way surprising. How many times have we heard the old “sex sells” adage when yet another game sexualizing women comes out? In this world, women are always viewed through a lens of sexuality in a way that men are not, and that lens extends to video games and other forms of popular culture.
55. Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball (Xbox): That very first game with the D.O.A. girls changes your appreciation for game visuals. It’s rumored that the release of DOAX coincided with an…er, spike in the demand for computer animation courses in high schools and universities as gamers across the country sought to better understand the exquisite mystery that is “jiggle” physics.
Though last on the list, it’s first to be seen. The DoA series has become legendary because of its so-called “jiggle physics”. While the game is entirely populated by women — something pretty much unheard of in most video games — their purpose is primarily for titilation and the gameplay is made secondary to that. Not exactly the most memorable in terms of making strides for gender equality in video games.
Which brings us to the next one on the list…
47. Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (PC): Walking out of the bathroom with toilet paper on your shoe in this masterpiece of crude humor and soft-core debauchery, from the days when there was no ratings system and sixteen color EGA graphics were state-of-the-art.
I’m not sure what kind of fame the Leisure Suit Larry games had, but when I was little I knew about them, and if you search Abandonware sites you will find that it has no shortage of games in the series. While there’s no specific references to women here, seeing as the entire premise of the game is to get Larry laid, I’d say that it has a firm place in the “sex and sexuality” category. While this series is certainly memorable in terms of being one of the pioneers of adult PC games, I’d have to say that it gets a “pass” on gender parity, or, really, anything relating to the positive portrayal of women.
41. Smash TV (Arcade): Laying waste to countless foes, collecting ten keys, progressing to the correct part of the map, and making it into the elusive (and babe-filled) Pleasure Dome.
I can’t comment on the game itself, as I haven’t heard of it outside of this reference, but I think that the goal of the game being the “babe-filled” Pleasure Dome says it all. Again, male entitlement to women’s bodies isn’t exactly the most progressive idea here.
21. Combo Pack: Super Mario 64 (N64) and Tomb Raider (PS): The one-two punch in the polygonal revolution changed video games forever– moveable cameras and true three-dimensional gameplay put these two games a full step ahead of everything that had come before. Remember what it was like to look at those games for the first time?
You may ask why I include this one in this section. To those of you, I have two words: Lara Croft.
Love her, hate her, think of her as helping women or hurting them, there is one truth of her: she is a sexualized character. Even as the capable protagonist of her own series, made into not one but two movies, and still going strong many years later, when we think of Lara Croft, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t usually her puzzle-solving prowess, but rather her T&A.
I can’t say what affect the Tomb Raider series has had on the portrayal of gender in video games, but I’m not ready to put Lara into the “solution” category when so much of her fame is dependent on her sexuality.
III. Sacrifice as Heroism
Women as nobly sacrificing themselves, or otherwise dying to aid the cause of the (normally male) protagonist is a longstanding trope in fiction. So, again, it’s not surprising that it made a couple appearances on this list.
25. Breath of Fire II (SNES): Mina sacrifices herself to become Nina’s “wings.” Tragic, but sacrificial game progression earns Breath of Fire II bonus style points.
For the record, I hated that part of BoF II. Hated, hated, hated it! Tag-along sister sacrifices herself so that her sister can carry Ryu, the hero, and his band of merry followers to challenge the evil goddess? Annoying, not tragic. Ranks up there with Tiga asking Ryu if he could marry Katt. I hated that scene so much that I retconned it in my mind that she kicked the crap outta Tiga and he respected her after that. Too bad the reality was that she coddled him after he treated her like property.
But, personal opinion aside, I’m insulted that they chose that as the defining moment of BoF II. I mean, hello, if we’re talking game dynamics (which they do), what about the Shaman system? It wasn’t exactly user-friendly, but it was one of the most innovative gameplay options I had seen since Dragon Warrior IV. I mean, is it just me, or is that a hell of a lot more memorable than some cliche trope of sacrifice?
1. Final Fantasy VII (PlayStation): Aeris is killed by Sepiroth in one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever in a video game. Those big, cute eyes will never blink again under the wrath of Sepiroth. You’d only be lying if you said you didn’t cry.
Which brings us to the “most memorable event”; the death of Aeris. I’m going to admit something right off the bat — I never saw this scene. I got my PSX waaay after FFVII came out and, well, I never played it. I heard about it when my friend came in one day wailing about how Sephiroth killed his favourite character. I heard that it was very well done.
So, really, I can’t offer too much of a comment on their choice to include this point — which, in terms of what I saw of fan reactions, really does seem to deserve the title of “most memorable” — but rather that it’s interesting that the most memorable event is of a woman who died so that she could later protect the hero, Cloud.
Then there are one-offs that are stand alones or I don’t really know how to categorize.
53. Final Fantasy VI (SNES): The opera house sequence with Celes and Locke.
I was always a fan of Celes, although the whole attempted suicide thing rather bugged me. Locke was okay, but I was never all that into the idea of them in a relationship. Regardless, the opera house sequence was my all-time favourite part of FFVI aside from, maybe, the fact that Terra was this kick ass esper who, despite her emotional issues, was the love of my life. I mean, green hair, devastating attacks… GREEN HAIR. Did I mention that my all time favourite FF character is Rydia? I sometimes wonder how much of my personality was molded by that character.
But, I digress. I’m not entirely sure how to categorize this one, except perhaps tagging it with being romance related. But I dunno.
11. Prey (PC): We won’t ruin it for you, but suffice it to say that the big reunion with your abducted girlfriend isn’t quite what you were expecting.
Never played this game, but from the blurb it seems to be some sort of play on the “Damsel in Distress” trope. Would have to play the game, or talk to someone who did, to figure out how they utilized it. It seems like there was some sort of twist, but that could be anything from the fact that your gf wasn’t kidnapped but was rather part of the organization that “kidnapped” her to the people who kidnapped her turning her into a monster who is the final boss. Like I said, didn’t play it, don’t know, can’t offer a real comment.
Update: A reader has e-mailed me with a visual walkthrough that reveals the truth about the twist. At the risk of being spoilery (though the original list completely spoilered the ending of Shadow of the Colossus, which would have pissed me off if I hadn’t already beaten it, so I don’t feel too bad here) I guessed right about the “twist” — it was my latter supposition. Aside from it being a horrible cliche — having a person guess the “omg memorable twist” without having played the game and knowing nothing of it aside from a screenshot and a blurb ain’t exactly the paragon of excellent writing — seeing as it wasn’t a “twist” on the concept of a damsel in distress, I gotta give this one a thumbs down for gender as well.
3. Metroid (NES): You beat the Mother Brain, race through the tunnels, and when you reach the surface of the planet…blammo! You discover that your hero Samus Aran is a woman. The sneaky game manual referred to Samus as a “he” making the revelation all the more surprising. Cool feature: you could replay the game with Samus sans spacesuit.
That last line almost had me put it into the “sex and sexuality” category because even Samus, this hardcore fighter who kicks the crap out of metroids in a non-sexy space suit, has to have the lens of sexuality applied to her as soon as her true gender is revealed. Not exactly Empowerment 101.
But, still, I remember when Metroid first came out, and how happy mom and I were when we beat it and realized that our kickass Samus was the same gender as us. And, if we look at later Metroid games, it’s not like she’s running around in a bikini, but rather continues in her traditional suit. So, at the very least, it seems that aside from that “shock reveal” Samus is still Samus, even if we now know that she has boobs and a vagina.
I’m not saying that I think these items shouldn’t have been included, but rather that the list is unsettlingly unbalanced. The game industry is not exactly known for its female-friendly games (and no, I’m not talking Nintendogs here, I’m talking games that don’t patronize women in some way), but have the editors never played Beyond Good and Evil? The Longest Journey? Kings Quest 7? Kyrandia 2? I’m not blaming the editors, or GamePro, or even the developers who made this game. This isn’t about blame; this is about noticing a pattern and putting a stop to it.
You want more women to game? You want more women buying your products, subscribing to your magazines, and participating in the gaming community? Then stop boxing women in games into a small subset of tropes like those seen above, stop believing that the only people you’re writing to are young, white, heterosexual men and boys. And, for those games, publishers, magazines, and people who have started catching on that women — yes, even women gamers — are people, too, good for you. Keep up what you’re doing because this gamer, for one, appreciates it.