Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A step away from misogyny

Games are for men, or more specifically they are for teenage boys. Despite surveys that tell us that the average gamer is around 30 years old and that 47 per cent of them are female the demographic that the majority of releases, be they triple A or bargain bucket, are aiming for a predominantly male teenage audience. With this week's furore over John Hemingway casually calling Borderlands 2's easy to co-op skilltree 'girlfriend mode', to the immature and frequently frightening responses in June to Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes Vs Women Kickstarter project, it is clear that attitudes in the gaming world, including reluctance to address a female audience combined with the casual misogyny slowly bubbling away in male-dominated studios and awareness of these issues are causing focus to be more frequently placed on these subjects.

Whilst reactions remain varied from the audience, these community wide missteps have been covered extensively by other more prolific writers and I shall leave their deconstructions of the holistic issues aside to instead concentrate on a few of the games out there, those that can be viewed as partly progressive, and potentially even gender neutral, and how even a developer who gets it right can subsequently mess it up.

It's all to easy to simply lay blame equally across all titles and genres and point the finger indiscriminately, but there are titles that appear to have grasped the concept of gender neutrality, if only where it matters most: the player's avatar.

Pokmon doesn't care either way
Nintendo are a company clearly indebted to those childhood stories that shaped our outlook on life as grew up, and even if Mario is a great move away from the chiseled marines of standard Triple A fare, he is still a man on his way to save an ever imperilled Princess, a fact that is made light of in many of the Mario RPG titles. Luckily the overwhelmingly popular Pokémon series now enables any player to assign either gender to their character, and the vast majority of the Pokemon available to capture are split between male and female with absolutely zero statistical difference between them. Gym Leaders throughout the game are of both genders and although there are quite a few of them that are played traditionally 'girly' there are plenty of women with steel wills willing to beat down your carefully selected group of critters.

Due to their prolific status as a developer primarily aiming their releases at younger gamers, Nintendo are really in an ideal position to begin shaping ideals and utilising their assets in a way that encourages more forward thinking. There is certainly no shame in leading the field with Princess Peach in Mario Kart, but it would certainly be nice to see her in cahoots with Mario in a future 3D title, much in the same way that Zelda often becomes integral to Link's success in recent Legend of Zelda titles.

One of the boys?
We can't just lump Nintendo with the responsibility of thinking differently though, after all, there are plenty of folk out there who cannot abide their predominantly cute image and would rather be sinking their teeth into something altogether meatier, something the majority of Publishers know. Despite being the smaller market, testosterone-fueled teenage males are doubtlessly the easiest audience to mine for cash through endless paid additions to the infinite conflicts present in multiplayer modes. Epic's Gears of War series isn't known for its light touch and diverse characterisation, but I find it hard to dispute their efforts in broadening the spectrum with the third title, if only a little. Anya Stroud is introduced without flair or lingering and suspect camera angles and is simply accepted by the story as one of the soldiers. Clad head-to-toe in the series' eminently identifiable bulky and exaggerated COG armour, she seems a world away from the stereotypical 'warrior babe' characters frequently added to more male-orientated games, such as (Soul Calibur's) Ivy, characters that permeate the medium with worrying regularity.  

Hardly fitting armour for a duelist
Epic don't get it all right of course, the series defining "roadie run" appears to have required them to spend a silly amount of time on the female character's posteriors, and the ideal framing of that part of the anatomy, but overall they are making movement within a game and genre that is the stalwart of 'Burly Male Action', but here women have a place in armour that is as brutalist and effective as their male counterparts, and are never in need of rescuing. Even the gruesome Locust antagonists, taking their hierarchy from the insect world, are headed by a no-nonsense female figurehead, and the hulking Berserker monstrosities that so easily mincemeat your allies are creations that rival James Cameron's Alien Queen in their imposing nature.

My personal favourite flag bearer for all things brilliant about gaming can handily be applied to this quandary as well. From Software's word of mouth sensation Demon's Souls is a game forged in the old school sensibilities of the 8-bit generation in Japan. From seem to carry over some of that pixellated ambiguity in their design choices, and create a game full of wise and cruel entities for whom gender is no issue. The player character is presented with the initial Pokémon styled choice of being able to play as a man or a woman, with only a handful of armour sets being gender restricted. Two NPCs within the game demand the death of other surviving humans and neither let their gender affect their roles. 

Upon my original playthrough, I was initially worried by the framing of one of the main foes, Maiden Astraea, a woman who has given up her faith and retreated to tend to souls abandoned by god with her companion, bodyguard, and speculative lover Garl Vinland.

A damsel in distress?
In a move that curtails to tradition, Vinland is silent, hulking wall of wrought silver armour wielding a hammer many times his size, whilst Astraea is a sorrowful Maiden, only able to cast sorcery to ward of her assailants. The game only requires you to off one of the pair to successfully win the battle and Garl certainly presents himself as the more obvious target. Upon his death Astraea will give up her defense and commit suicide through a lack of hope. This is easily lumped as stereotypical until you try the opposite solution and defeat Astraea first: Garl will simply stand there, resigned. Re-entering the area later will cause you to discover his corpse and equipment. Assumptions cast upon either character are quickly taken apart through a bizarrely powerful yet wordless acknowledgement that both are total equals in all respects.

The story and setting of Demon's Souls, although arguably my favourite aspect of the game, is often overlooked and the incredibly inventive and challenging gameplay was the driving force behind the sequel which argued that it would be bigger, better and harder than before and offer more exploration for the player. Sadly with this attitude they marginally let down the predecessor by creating a world without the same equalities, a world where a weak prince is brought up as a girl and a vital plot macguffin is delivered by Gwynevere - a questionably rendered Goddess.

Entirely pointless
There is little-to-no arguement for Gwynevere's anatomical prowess being necessary in any way, and it could be seen as From employing tropes consistent in other fantasy titles to secure Dark Souls as part of the established crop of existing landmark fantasy works, but it is at odds with the supremely balanced nature of Demon's Souls, and feels like a step back towards the standard ideals present in much of Japan's media output. It is a shame, as between them the titles have attracted a sizeable audience. In the end it felt slightly disappointing to me and Dark Souls sits on the tower of titles that I love struggle but with due to their either faint or powerful misogynistic stances; Bayonetta sadly belongs here, as does Okami, even though it is about a female god who takes the corporeal form of a wolf, there are still plenty of overtly buxom beauties present. This affliction appears to be a distinctly Japanese problem.

There are plenty of other instances that I could look at, but the consensus is still easy to call: gaming is still for men, specifically boys, and I struggle to justify the purchase of titles now that the idea of Feminism is in the forefront of my mind more frequently. After looking forward to Borderlands 2 for a year, how does one reconcile supporting a developer that clearly needs to grow up and adjust its attitudes for a modern world? I know girls and women who play games. My Mother was a Tetris savant whilst I was growing up and had no issue with platformer titles such as Sonic and Rainbow Islands. The reduced fidelity enforced more abstract design, but also allowed titles to go beyond stereotypes of the time and concentrate on outlandish designs. Nowadays she would probably not be seen playing a single title outside of WiiSports today for reasons beyond just 'growing up' as there simply aren't that many titles out there that invite our female counterparts to involve themselves: as fidelity has increased so has our willingness to recreate what already exists in mainstream entertainment, which includes the epic action sequences, which I heartily endorse, as well as the everyday sexism, which is becoming tiring.

Neutral, but dat Freudian gap...
As the anti-misogyny movement gathers steam in the gaming press, I can only hope that developers begin to pick up the fact that an entire audience out there is being neglected due to the adolescent attitudes being perpetuated in the most prolific of titles. It is entirely possible for a brooding, challenging and supremely influential title such as Demon's Souls to embody progressive ideas with regards to gender association, and even the meat-headed Gears of War has stuck its hand in.

A rise in female protagonists will never stop us from having mountains of muscle clutching grubby guns, hard-boiled law enforcement agents, or stoic gunmen with chiseled jaws as the go-to heroes, and I'd never wish that to happen, but hopefully the winds of change can continue to present us with more varied characters in the future, and that a medium still in its infancy can identify the need for forward thinking in this area, to allow the Princess to rescue the Knight, to ignore traditional assumptions of what characters should be and to find some of that magic that lower fidelity titles displayed. As the most profitable entertainment industry in the world, games have the biggest challenge ahead of them, to grow up, and show that it can be done, and that it is blatantly a good thing.

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