I just read a list on Cracked.com about being a gamer. Some of the things it had to say were right on, and some things tended to pertain to a small portion of the gamer demographic. But it had some interesting things to say about female gamers. I know this issue is talked to death, and I know I’ll probably offend some people, and probably miss some points of discussion. But 1.)it’s my blog and I haven’t talked it to death, 2.)if you’re offended at least you think about things (and give me the opportunity to learn more about others’ perspectives) and 3.)this is such a huge topic that I’m bound to miss things, and accept that. So: what does it mean for me pesonally to be a female gamer, and what do I think about women in games?
Interestingly enough, current statistics show that nearly 2/3 of online gamers are women. Normally I like to defy the statistics in my ongoing quest for individuality. However, this is one case where I’m proud to be part of the statistics, and a member of the majority. I’ve been gaming in earnest since I was young, and owe much of that to Samus Aran of Metroid fame. Growing up I was used to the idea that the Princess was in another castle. So imagine my delight when the end of Metroid revealed that the badass bounty hunter I’d taken all over Zebes was a woman!
I’ve never been one of those female gamers that complains much about the portrayal of women in games. I’m happy to see more and more female characters taking the lead and going out to kick arse and take names, and when I play online (mostly Halo: Reach) I play as my female Spartan. But what was troubling to me was that I recently read that many women prefer to play online as males. Granted the study is nearly four years old, but conversely, I was having a conversation with a friend once about males and females online and he said that sometimes he intentionally plays as a female character because people underestimate him.
Now that got me thinking. Around this time last year, Halo: Reach launched the weekly challenge of 77 online matches in seven days. Luckily we had two snow days and one delay that week, because I spent my time playing online Halo matches. I played as my female Spartan, but I kept my mic off mostly because I find in-game chatting distracting for me. Normally it isn’t an issue, but during one match I got a kill, but then fell and my character made a noise. The chat got very quiet, and then I heard one person say to the other, “I think there’s a girl playing.” I had to ask myself, “Why does it matter?” I can guarantee that if I was playing as a male Spartan it wouldn’t have been an issue; with my mic off, I would just be an anonymous male Spartan trying to kill everyone while they all tried to kill me. But because I played as a female it started question and discussion.
Usually statistics go hand in hand with developing stereotypes. However, the Female Gamer is not one such case. 66% of online gamers are women, and yet people are surprised to learn that they’re playing in a match with a female. Is it because the stereotypical female gamer plays a different sort of game? Or behaves in a different sort of way? For me, when I go into a match as an openly female character, I don’t expect to be treated any differently, and I don’t behave any differently. For me, we’re all gamers and we all have an objective, and it usually involves killing everyone else. Why should gender matter in that objective?
It also seems to me that the perception is that stereotypical female gamers also will spend time complaining about the oversexualization and objectification of women in games. I went to a panel at PAX East last year about female characters, and the focus wasn’t on the necessarily overly sexualized characters, but the ones that were portrayed either as realistic in terms of build or personality (Morrigan from Dragon Age stood out, which I remember because I picked up Dragon Age for the first time about a week later); or the ones who were portrayed not as overly sexual, but as helpless. The princess in another castle, if you will.
For me, I’m less worried about female characters being objectified sexually, and more concerned about them being written as more passive, damsel-in-distress types of characters. People may voice opinions about Lara Croft’s bust size, but at least she’s out there being proactive. Kat, in Reach, would kick your arse if you suggested she was attractive in any way. The stereotye of a female character as overly sexual overshadows the reality of passive DiD sorts of characters. And since the focus is more on how women are objectified sexually, there’s no real look at how they’re objectified through being passive.
Princess Toadstool was always in another castle; theobjectof Super Mario Bros. was to save her. Thank the gaming gods for Samus, coming along and blasting her way through Zebes! Even after she was revealed as a female, she was still blowing up planets like it was her job. Then in 2002, Metroid: Fusion came out. Samus was stalked around a deserted space station by an over-powered clone of herself, and had to rely on the guidance of a computer AI, who reminded her of her dead Commanding Officer if she were to survive. It was a different sort of game, and it portrayed Samus as slightly more vulnerable than in the past. Coming at it from my perspective, where I enjoy character depth and whatnot, it was very interesting to see a new side to her.
The Metroid formula changed some as the technology did, and with it, Samus changed. The lone bounty hunter got teammates in Metroid Prime: Hunters for the DS, and in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption for the Wii. In Corruption, Samus wound up having to kill her team when they attacked her; while it followed the boss fight formula, it was interesting because Samus had worked with these people earlier in the game, and become more of a character defined by those around her as a result. And then came Metroid: Other M. I don’t have a Wii, but even if I did, and even as much as I love Metroid, I wouldn’t play it because of this article. As someone who’s been in an emotionally abusive relationship, these things resonate with me to begin with; but then seeing Samus, who started out so strong and competent and capable and unapologetic reduced to that? To see her written as a lost little girl, when she left that behind with the Chozo long ago? Her strength was something that defined her and made her different. To take that away demeans her not as a woman, but as a character in general.
Not all characters have gone that way. Zelda went from the kidnapped prisoner in Ganon’s dungeon to Shiek, a highly trained fighter. And Dragon Age: Origins has Queen Anora, who will even stand up to her father in spite of the fact that he’s one of Ferelden’s most celebrated generals. She knows what she wants and what she has to do to get it. And most of all, she’ll do that if it means achieving her endgame.
And that’s where I feel I am now as a woman who is a gamer. I’m sure I’ll raise some hackles with all I’ve said, and that’s okay. This is a difficult issue, where even people on the same side will have different reasons for why they’re on the same side. But one thing is clear: the statistic and the stereotype don’t always match up, either in the case of the games’ characters, or the gamers themselves. I may fit a statistic, but I’m not steretypical. And you shouldn’t be, either.