Quest Updated: Girl Games?
My girlfriend is slowly becoming a gamer. She can use a PlayStation control now. She has more than one favourite game. Her current favourite allows her to run around, picking flowers and catching butterflies. She can cook food. She has a horse and a pet dog. She can make friends with lots of people by helping them out. There are caves and mountains and pretty vistas to explore and take in. There are pretty stones to find.
The sad truth is that there are many who would like to have the catch-all genre of “girl games”, condescendingly applied to anything with lots of soft pink and ponies. Ponies are a dead give-away. It’s not far from the slightly snobbish distinction between games and “casual games”. And there is another issue tied up to this. Sexism is the elephant in the room at the LAN. The fact is I am expecting one of the first comments on this column to contain the words “kitchen” and “sandwich”.
After reading what Caveshen had to say on EA and LGBT content in games, I’ve been thinking about the possibility games have to break through barriers. I really think that gaming has a lot of potential for pushing through boundaries and creating new ways to explore subjective experiences, if we are willing to allow it.
Vicariousness is something games do best. Better than any other sort of media experience, games can put you into the shoes of whoever you control. This is why we don’t say Gordon Freeman shot that alien awesomely, but “I shot that alien awesomely”. And while most games have male protagonists, we are at least seeing a move towards having the choice between Shepherd and FemShep. What’s sadly telling is that we make up a name for FemShep, as if she’s a knock-off of the ‘real’ Commander Shepherd.
It is upsetting, because if gaming wants to gain legitimacy as a form of art, or at least midbrow entertainment, it needs to be willing to tackle issues such as gender, racism and LGBT rights. What makes me very happy is that companies like EA are sticking to their guns on these sorts of issues. I also love Valve for doing something similar with the Portal series. If there are any games that seem to sit in their own space of gender, Valve’s two classic games are the ones. They take one of the most masculinised genres — the FPS — and play around with it. Instead of firing bullets, the player’s “weapon” (for wont of a better word) is only able to move things around. We only realize that we are actually a woman when we lay eyes on ourselves through our own portals. And then, it isn’t the typical scantily-clad sex goddess fit for ogling. Chell wears a nondescript orange jumpsuit, and in the sequel a not-skintight vest underneath. It also is from Chell’s perspective.
This ability to stick the player in Chell’s body is brilliant. It means that GLADoS’s gibes about Chell’s weight are gibes about our weight. Whenever the homicidal mother-figure of the giant robot verbally assaults the player, he or she gets to react for Chell. A similar approach is achieved in games like Skyrim, where there is no real difference between the reactions of NPC’s for male or female players. This gives us a place to begin imagining a world where you are identified not purely through what genitalia you have and how you match up to expectations of how that should affect your behaviour.
I’d like to say that there is hope in non-gendered stories in Skyrim, or the absolute non-existence of sexuality binaries in Dragon Age 2, where any character, regardless of sex, is available for… well, sex. But these sorts of experiments in challenging the established monotony of chauvinist games are too few and far between. If the lingering negative stereotype of ‘gaming culture’ is to be broken, people who claim sexism is excused in it should not be allowed to speak for us as gamers.
Let me put one thing straight. I’m not saying “Censor ALL the comments” and I certainly have no illusions about the fact we all are at least a bit prejudiced. What I am saying, however, is that we shouldn’t keep quiet on these sorts of issues. Cavie is right, we need to talk seriously about things like LGBT representations in gaming, as well as how games and gamers view issues around gender. And, as Cavie pointed out, we know some of you will troll, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the questions.
I’m not saying we need to charge into androgynous gaming. The interplay between male and female characters is fantastic in many games. Also, realistically sex sells and even a load of pixels can achieve this, and while this is also far from ideal it is something that can’t be magicked away overnight. I wish that I could draft a quick fix solution to move towards a gaming culture that embraces diversity and breaking through boundaries of genre and social norms.