Both genders are treated equally (badly)
Female characters tend to be naught but bulging bundles of hyper-sexualised cliché, but most male video game characters are no less stereotyped. Where video game women are ultra-exaggerated reworkings of the hoary old breeder/sexy reward archetype, male characters are still the primeval hunter/gatherer type. Just with massive guns. It’s all arm-cripplingly ripped biceps, necks too muscley to turn, emotion dials stuck on “aggressive grimace” and a 50% lack of chest coverings.
Above: Modern man according to video games
However more complex video games’ stories have become, in terms of character depth we’re still dealing with the quick-fix, broad strokes writing of Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Stereotypes are the easiest way to give an audience a fast grasp of who your characters are, but as far as having your story taken seriously, you might as well have them fighting off midget clowns with a rubberised replica of Godzilla’s left ball. In space. On surfboards.
Above: "What do you want to be when you grow up, Jimmy?" "A miserable grimacing prick"
It’s completely understandable that female gamers have issues with the likes of the medium’s PVC-clad talking racks, but no intelligent male gamer is exactly happy about portraying a moody, shaven-headed grunt every single time they pick up a controller. It makes for easy writing, but the kind of audience aspiration value by game characters of both genders is insulting in the extreme. And aside from the above-mentioned problem, of storytelling needing to grow the hell up, we also have the issue that…
Games still aren't really about story
For the most part, anyway. Yeah, we’ve got mythology and cut scenes now, but in a majority of games they’re still just there to justify the action. And when video game action so frequently relates to unequivocally killing the shit out of crap, negative stereotypes are still the first choice of most devs.
And the big problem is that with gameplay to divert our attentions, we accept this crap over and over again. If games were a pure narrative medium like film or literature, the kind of characterisation we’re frequently inflicted with would be decried, lampooned and immolated, leading rapidly to a dead industry. But as it is, we brush it off as a temporary annoyance and then forget it as soon as we get back into the game.
Above: Forget the perils of sexual objectification, there's gore to be had!
Yep, as much as we might moan about offensive characters and duff storylines, they never stopped a fun game from being a million-seller. So is all hope lost? Are we doomed to zero-g boob physics and grizzled, snarling gun-bastards forever? Mercifully, it seems not. Games are styill a young medium, and while that's not an excuse, it's taken a while for talented writers and mature designers to start filtering through to the industry. But it is happening.
Valve is an shining beacon in terms of characterisation, Half-Life 2 and Portal in particular being fine examples of mature, believable and witty writing. In fact it's important to note, as we have before, that despite its silent protagonist Portal is all about a female character using her brains to overcome adversity.
Above: Is Portal a sign of things to come? Hopefully
And Portal's Project Lead Kim Swift joined an increasing number of female designers and producers improving games with those fabled gender-neutral ideas. EA's Lucy Bradshaw has worked on stuff like The Sims and Spore for years, and has a career dating right back to the classic LucasArts adventures. Fl0w and Flower developer thatgamecompany is run by Fine Arts graduate Kellee Santiago and has become one of the cornerstones of creativity within Sony's PSN line-up. And lets not forget the leaps and bounds made by Naughty Dog, its Uncharted series having finally managed to blend blockbuster action games with a likeable and believable cast.
Things are getting better, but it's going to take a while before devs who take their characters as seriously as their gameplay are the norm rather than the exception. But just think back to '70s 'comedy' when sexism, racism and homophobia came by default. At the time it was the mainstream approach, but now it's nothing more than a nasty little museum piece. We'll get there eventually.
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