Speaking the unspoken truth about gender inequality in videogames

, | Features

Gender discrimination in videogames has to stop. In the nearly two decades I’ve spent covering the industry, 2013 was one of the most egregious years I can remember in terms of how women were portrayed in videogames. I am astonished at how blatant it is, and at how few people are talking about it, and at how few developers are willing to recognize it. I can no longer stand idly by. It’s time to speak out.

After the jump, I call out the entire videogaming industry.

In some of this year’s most critically acclaimed videogames, why am I playing characters oblivious to their true nature, as unselfaware as Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite or as emotionally crippled as Joel in The Last of Us? Why is the most powerful character in Bioshock Infinite a woman? Why is the savior of humanity in The Last of Us a girl? Why are women the focal point of these stories, all at once the McGuffins, the central mysteries, and the catalysts for redemption? Can’t men be these things?

Furthermore, can’t these games be about men who aren’t defined by their relationship to a woman? In the latest Tomb Raider, Lara Croft doesn’t have to define herself by her relationship to a man. Sure, Roth is a father figure, but a crippled one, only capable of supporting her from afar with a convenient sniper rifle. She’s mostly busy saving him. Furthermore, why are the two strongest characters besides Lara female? Three, if you count the villain. The main villain, not the ineffectual lame one who chews the scenery before being summarily killed by a QTE. He doesn’t even get a boss fight. Why can’t Tomb Raider treat men the way it treats women?

Similarly, why are there no male characters with the character arc of Lara Croft in this year’s Tomb Raider? Are men incapable of growth, change, and empowerment over the course of a single videogame? Why do they have to start out as steadfastly badass and remain as consistently boring as Marcus Fenix, or whoever those dudes were covering his shift in this year’s Gears of War? Why is it that the best narratives of the year feature strong female characters, self-aware, empowered, and far more memorable than their male counterparts?

Why is Beyond: Two Souls, a game about a character who can do pretty much anything and everything, about a woman? I remember when Cate Archer, a smart funny clever woman whose most lovely asset was her eyes, was an anomaly because the closest thing to smart funny clever characters were all men like, uh, Lo Wang and the guy from Monkey Island and Kane from Red Alert. Back then, Lara Croft was defined chiefly by her cup size and the ponytail swinging back and forth across her ass. Remember that? Remember how simple it was back then? What happened?

In Saints Row, is it fair that the sexiest, smartest, most together, calmest, most collected, most competent, funniest, most memorable character is a woman? Can Kenzie not be played by a man? Why are Matt Miller, Johnny Gat, and Keith David one-note jokes? And furthermore, why is there no commitment to the gender of the hero? Does Volition feel that men shouldn’t always be protagonists? Did they learn that from Bioware, a developer who doesn’t believe that marriage should be solely between a man and a woman? Why don’t these developers take a stand on whether their heroes are men or women? Aren’t the traditionally strongest stories the ones where someone is definitely a dude or a chick? Hamlet. Medea. Hunger Games. The Bible. Thor: The Dark World. Beastmaster.

Furthermore, with their romance options, do Volition and Bioware feel the need to demonstrate that men and women each have sexual appetites? Speaking of which, why is it that the romance in Gone Home, one of the best love stories yet unfurled in a videogame, doesn’t even involve a man? Why is it that its only male character in that game is weak, creatively exhausted, and possibly even a cuckold?

And what are we teaching our kids? Take the male characters in Lego City Undercover, a well-written game that especially adults can enjoy. Why are all the men, including protagonist Chase McClane, such dolts whereas the women are competent and perceptive? Similarly, why is the only memorable character in Skylanders Swap Force a woman? And I’m not even talking about the main villain, who’s also a strong dominant woman above the fake main villain, who’s a dude.

Let’s do an experiment. Quick, name an NPC from Borderlands 2. Don’t think! Just name one! Did you name Tiny Tina? I knew it. And this from the studio who did Duke Nukem Forever?

Why do women get all the cool powers in Don’t Starve, like starting fires, getting a technological leg up, and having ghost sidekicks? Why are the cool heroes in Marvel Heroes chicks? Emma Frost’s mind control, Squirrel Girl’s badass version of Francis of Assisi, and whatever fiery stuff is going on with Jean Grey and her mind bullets. I guess we have Stan Lee to blame for that. The most memorable and powerful character in Starcraft II is a woman. Well, half woman. Female, at any rate. That Jim dude is a total stuffed shirt dud next to her dramatic transformation and rise to power. Remember when Kerrigan was a man named Arthas? Even the most memorable character in the brightly burning indie game, Little Inferno, is a woman. A real go-getter, too. Did you play Little Inferno? Did so few people play Little Inferno because the main character was a dude?

Why is a woman the most competent soldier in Metro: Last Light and a key to the main character’s redemption after he has nuked a superior intelligence? Why are almost all the men in Metro treacherous at best, and downright genocidal at worst? Why is Grand Theft Auto V one of the few games this year to eloquently speak to the cynicism and derision of the male experience, where none of these down-on-their-luck and often hapless men have the benefit of a strong woman in their lives? What does it say that the most cynical game of the year doesn’t even spare male characters from its deep-seated and deeply nasty derision?

And why are most — yes, most! — of this year’s male characters as forgettable and stereotypical as the new Sam Fisher, Edward Kenway, and whatever the guy’s name is in this year’s Call of Duty? Should men also get interesting storylines and meaningful character development? I know we’re often dull-witted, slow, and narrow. But we have other qualities, too. We can do things women can’t do. Like, uh, well, playing men’s sports. I’m pretty sure women aren’t allowed to do that. But the point is we’re not just muscle-bound gun-bearers. We can, uh, build things and sing and, uh, do gene science as well as anyone named Tenenbaum.

I know what you’re saying. “Ugh, stop being so political. It’s just a game, bruh.” But to write these issues off so flippantly causes tremendous damage on multiple levels. Multiple levels! As in, “more than one”. For one of those levels, it pre-supposes that the majority of people pleading for inclusiveness aren’t doing it for the benefit of other people or because they feel they’ve been unjustly left out, but simply because they want attention or power. Often both. Wait, I lost track of what I was saying after you said that whole “bruh” thing. Do people really talk that way? “Bruh”? I thought we were still using “bro” or even “bra”. But “bruh”? Okay, now you’ve made me forget my point.

Anyway, newsflash: nothing is simple. Nothing is black and white. Especially not people. And certainly not newsflashes. To assume otherwise is to live in a dome of willful ignorance, a pristine bubble of false safety that’s doomed to burst the second you stop reinforcing it with increasingly flimsy supporting evidence, a self-righteous biosphere de facto tabula rasa sine qua non ad absurdum, round and smooth and protective and really bright in the sunlight, a convex plane that’s concave if you look at it from the other side. A dome. Did you ever notice how close the words “dome” and “dumb” are? Because I did just now.

Games are being increasingly developed by men and women with children, approximately half of whom are girls, and it shows. What happened to a time when games were the exclusive domain of lonely nerds who only knew about women through comic books and fantasy novel covers drawn by Boris Vallejo? When did Julie Strain stop being the ideal model of femininity? When did so many people not even know who Julie Strain is? I think about this every day as I play Tomb Raider and Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite and Gone Home and other critically acclaimed games that continue to marginalize men by portraying us as if we were only one part of the human condition, and maybe not even the main part, and often the less interesting part. It makes me sad. Sad. Tears-welling-in-my-eyes-as-I-type-this sad. One of my greatest fears on this Earth is that I might someday sink to that level of cynical jadedness whereby I don’t acknowledge how dramatically videogames are changing every year, how far they’ve come, how proud we should be of them for being so often progressive, equitable, interested in exploring different kinds of experiences, and just flat out admirable in a way unique to a creatively thriving new medium.