The title is a little extreme, but bear with me.
There was a time in games, back before Alyx in Half-Life 2, before Jade from Beyond Good & Evil, when female characters in games came in only one variety: overboobified, underwaistified, barely-dressed stripper. For a female gamer like me, it was an easy time championing the fight to include less sexed-up female characters with more clothes on on their body and a few more brain cells in their head. All we had to do was hold up any ad from any gaming magazine that had a prominent female character and point to it. Or just say, "come on...just look at Lara Croft, for God's sake."
Then we were rewarded with the Alyxes and the Jades, and we female gamers were the happier for it. Finally we had some realistic female characters, ones who were smart, ones who wore real clothes and didn't exist solely to serve the male fantasy. We had characters we wanted to be.
So we should be happy, right? We won our fight, didn't we?
I had an interesting discussion with friends and fellow game developers today, and it made me realize that we're in danger of thinking we've won the war when we've only really won the battle. The discussion started with video from Gears of War that I can't link to because it's been pulled for copyright reasons, but the video had a shot of a female character that helps the player through the game -- her name is Anya and she's an intelligence officer that you mostly hear but never see. The video, however, gave us a sneak peek of her and one of my friends raised an interesting point: while Anya certainly isn't scantily clad by any means, my friend found it interesting that in the video she's standing with a fully-armored soldier having just landed in a helicopter. My friend wondered why the one female character didn't have any armor on while the male soldiers had full protection?
I'm not going to pick on Gears of War specifically -- Anya is a great character. She's exactly what a great female character should be: intelligent, approachable, and not oversexualized. I think the way Epic designed her is terrific. But the more I thought about it, the more I felt that she's another character in a trend that I worry is almost eroding the very thing we're trying to get video games to stop doing: perpetuating the idea that women are an unusual commodity unfit for ordinary places in these fantasy worlds.
In an effort to raise video games out of the depths of sexism, more game companies are designing female characters that aren't oversexualized, that are approachable, and that play a pivotable role in the game. This is commendable, certainly. But what do Alyx and Anya have in common? (Or seem to -- I'll certainly be quite happy to retract any of this once GoW is released and I'm wrong about the role Anya plays.) They're helper characters. And they're almost always the only female character in the game.
It's as if the designers have figured out that they need to have a woman in the game in order to help work out this whole strippers-in-games problem, but they didn't broaden their scope enough to go beyond a band-aid solution. So they put in a female character that's certainly important enough to be a key part of the game, but its at the expense of the rest of the game world. (I should note that I'm mostly limiting this to shooters and other "hardcore" genre games -- RPGs generally do a pretty good job of having a lot of characters of both genders in their game worlds.)
Women make up 51% of the population. Women are construction workers, CEOs of large corporations, soldiers, some of whom serve in combat now. Why, when we're creating futuristic worlds, are we not including them among the background characters of our game world? Why is it that when you're walking around a military base in a futuristic world and encountering one generic soldier after another, not one of them is female?
I'm not absolving my own company (Raven Software) of this. We made Quake 4 and we absolutely should have had a good female marine in the game. We have a few women at Raven and all of us told the team that we really wanted a female marine. One of our artists even concepted a very good character but due to memory andtime constraints, we were told, there was no way to put her in. It's unfortunate, and it's something we ought to remedy in future projects.
But the remedy isn't making one very special female character, one carefully crafted to please the eye yet not offend the sensibilities, charged with carrying the burden of representing the entire female gender in the entire game. The remedy is actually a lot more plain than that: just add female characters to your game world. Add them in ordinary positions doing ordinary things. Got a game that has a scene in a futuristic space dock? Make one out of four of your generic dock worker models a woman. Got a game that takes place on futuristic battlefields with squads of soldiers, most of whom are there to add a living element to the game? Make one of them a woman. And if you can't spare the memory for the extra female model plus her voice files, put a couple of generic female voice files on one of your armored-up helmeted soldiers. After all, do men and women soldiers in heavy armor really look that different? (This idea was suggested by my friend who originally asked about Anya's armor, and I think it's a great idea. Okay, the model animations should definitely look different between a man and a woman, but hey, I'm willing to sacrifice that for something so much more obviously female as a voice file.)
Making special female characters is great, but in doing so we shift the focus from wondering why there are only strippers for female characters in a game to why there is only one woman in the game. That just shifts the problem, it doesn't help to solve it. We're an industry that's grown up a lot over the last couple of decades and we're really making strides. Many of the young guys who make games today have gone on to become family men, yet we're still seen as the socially awkward pimply-faced teen who has completely unrealistic ideas about women in games and art. Imagine how your wife, your girlfriend, or your daughter live in a world in which they can do anything they want and be represented, and then look at the game world that you're helping to create and re-evaluate why you might be leaving them out of it.
Special female characters are great and it shows how far we've come in our short history. But when the day comes that the inclusion of women characters in games is as ordinary and unexciting as the inclusion of male characters already is...that's when we've really nailed it.
And by the way, I want to add a postscript here. Some of you may say, "but Caryn, what about the Hellchick model? That's supposed to represent you, and she's the height of oversexualized, underdressed game characters!"
I want to make it clear that I have no problems with these kind of characters existing, and existing especially in game worlds that are suited for them. I like the expression of sexuality in games; I just don't want to see it as the only representation of women. Did anyone play Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K. 2? I did, and the main character was Julie Strain, a stripper heroine with only a few scarves around her that could barely be called clothes. And I loved her, because it fit the world she was in, just like the Hellchick model fits the world she lives in: a succubus creature designed specifically to be shown off in that way.
It's great to have both kinds of characters. We just need a little bit more of the ordinary ones to catch up with the extraordinary ones.