First of all, this is my one-hundredth post for Zelda Lily. I have really enjoyed writing for a blog that I had been reading for years. Thank you for reading my posts—I hope that you have enjoyed them.
I want to address something with which you may or may not be familiar. It’s a problem—it is, specifically, a nerd problem. But since it impacts tens of millions of people all around the world (people who play video games), it is worth mentioning.
So, anyway, sexism at the selection screen. The above piece of art really highlights this idea, and it comes from here (and is the central element of this post). There are a lot of talented artists on the internet, and a lot of people use comics to beautifully illustrate the problems that they encounter in everyday life. This is a great example of that.
I’ve taken several opportunities to discuss strong female characters in graphic novels, video games, and television. Nerd culture is becoming more and more balanced between the sexes, but there is a ways to go, and the selection screen in video games is frequently a problem area.
In some games, the protagonist is already chosen for you. You start a game and you know that you will be playing as Lara Croft or Solid Snake. In most of the games that I prefer to play, you can create your own character. You choose from many many details of the character’s appearance, but, more broadly, you select the character’s sex and race (in terms of species or ethnicity) and hair and what class (for example, a wizard or warrior would be a type of class) your character will be. Different role-playing games do this in different ways, but whether you’re playing Dragon Age, Star Wars: The Old Republic, or World of Warcraft, you typically have a large amount of free will, and may even be able to select your character’s backstory (which will influence how your character interacts with the game itself—how other, in-game characters regard your character).
And this is awesome. You can be a badass warrior-woman or a handsome mage (honestly, I always make beautiful characters, because I do not understand the desire to be unattractive in a video game setting. You can be badass and beautiful at the same time—just look at Buffy or Captain America). But, if you want to be old or scarred or have terrible hair or play as a dwarf, those are also options.
There are all examples of middle-of-the-road games, in which you do not have a protagonist chosen for you but you also do not have total freedom in creating your main character. Less customization can mean a more personalized gameplay experience (that is, the fewer choices that you have as you start the game, the more that a video game can be made to make you feel like the in-game characters are talking to you, specifically). It is also probably less work for the game-designers.
These games give you some choices. Diablo III, for example, has five character classes (types of characters): the Monk, the Demon-Hunter, the Wizard, the Witch Doctor, and the Barbarian. Diablo II had a similar set-up, but Diablo III added the option of choosing the sex of your character (instead of having some classes preset with a certain sex). I was excited about this when I first read about it. True, you can’t customize your character’s face or hair, but choosing to play a male or female character should not mean that you cannot play a barbarian, for example. This is also mildly progressive, as men can have a non-physical, magical role and women can have a close-quarters physical combat role.
But then there’s the problem: the two sexes are not the same. The wizard and the demon-hunter are beautiful whether they are male or female (arguably, they are the best-looking classes). But while the female barbarian is a bit broad and muscular for the “conventionally attractive” sort, she’s just a tall, muscular woman. The male barbarian looks like Santa on steroids and there’s just no comparison. You might think that a male barbarian might have a Jason Momoa look, but instead you’re just thinking: “Wow, it’s amazing that he’s able to fight the demons of hell without that bushy white beard catching on fire. And his arthritis must be killing him.” I get it—there’s a certain type of person for whom male protagonists need to be hypermasculine to the point of absurdity. This is the God of War demographic, basically. The people who are huge fans of Frank Miller’s work.
There’s also the witch doctor. The female witch doctor is a beautiful, mysterious black woman (and yes, the racism in some fantasy stories and video games is unnerving but also an entirely different discussion). The male witch doctor looks and sounds like he is about twice the female option’s age, and he appears to have at least one type of vitamin deficiency.
It’s maddening. I know, it sounds incredibly shallow. But imagine that you are a female gamer. You want to play some sort of rogue (a thief/assassin/spy/ninja sort of character). You open the selection screen, and instead of customization, you can simply choose between male and female. “Okay,” you think. “Let’s see.” The male is wearing leather armor, but it’s no catsuit. He is also wearing a cloak—sensible, given his profession. His hair is short and you see that he is missing an ear and looks grizzled and experienced. There is, you imagine, story potential behind his appearance, but you don’t want to play someone quite that old (maybe you pictured a male rogue as more like Nightwing. Understandable). You then look at the female option, and see that she appears to be about twenty years old and is dressed in a midriff-baring leather catsuit that highlights her breasts and buttocks but seems highly impractical.
Now, I’m not saying that neither of these should be an option. Anyone might want to be a grizzled old man (not me—ever. That’s why I’ve been 19 since first turning 19 in 2006) or a beautiful young woman in an impractical outfit. But while restricted options might be annoying for a gamer, clearly sexist restricted options are actually troubling. A selection like that says that men are rugged, armored experts who act like Harrison Ford characters, and that women are sex objects whose clothes do not have to make sense because they’re pretty.
Those kinds of messages get passed around enough in society. Let’s keep it out of video games.
Male or female, gay or straight, no matter your race, ethnic background, transgender status, or nationality, you’re going to run into video game selection screens that won’t give you exactly what you want (assuming that you care at all, and honestly the people who don’t care at all about what their video game characters look like in contemporary video games in which they see themselves on screen kind of horrify me—it implies that they play the games purely for the mechanics and not for the story).
Video game makers need to, well, remain conscious of the difference between providing options for their players and making clearly sexist distinctions between men and women. It would make me happier, and I’m not the only one.
If you don’t play video games and you’ve read this, thank you. You, sir or ma’am, are a trooper. . . . And if you play a Republic Trooper in Star Wars: The Old Republic, you can be a male or female and just as petite or massive as you like, and whichever sex you choose, your armor will look more or less the same. That is the way to do things. Even though playing a Sith is obviously a better choice.
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