Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Video games need to be more female friendly

I've been playing the new Spelunky game on Xbox that was released this morning and as much fun as I'm having wandering through the levels, my favorite moment so far has been the options menu.

Spelunky pays homage to Indiana Jones-style pulp stories and one essential part of the game is the blonde-haired red dress-wearing damsels in distress that give you a kiss after a successful rescue. I was happy to see that the four playable characters includes a woman, but I thought the helpless damsel would rub lady gamers the wrong way and push them away.

That is, until I saw the options menus.

After the sound level adjustments there is an option for "Damsel Style." The helpless blonde can be replaced with a beefy blond guy wearing a red bow tie and speedo.If neither of those are your thing, the damsel can take the form of a pug. The choice of damsel is independent from the choice of playable character, so if you want to play as a dude who kisses other dudes, you can. Spelunky doesn't care.

Well played, Spelunky designers, well played.

This isn't the norm, of course. Female gamers are often forced to play as a male protagonist, and that knocks down the immersion factor a few notches. There are some wonderful exceptions, of course, like modern role-playing games that let you build your character from scratch.

I don't think Gears of War 3 gets enough credit for its presentation of racial and gender diversity. There are important characters from every major nationality in the plot and there are multiple playable female characters - with no ridiculous bikini armor. Both genders have the same amount of protection.

I usually play as the blond-haired Damon Baird in Gears multiplayer because I want a character that somewhat resembles me. In far too many cases, female players are hopelessly out of luck and can't even select a character of the same gender, let alone race or hair color. Maybe this is too nuanced to be listed as a male privilege, but it is inherently unfair.

I understand that story-focused games often don't have the luxury of making the protagonist moldable. Grand Theft Auto IV was a masterpiece of storytelling and the protagonist had to be a man from Eastern Europe. That's the way the plot was written.

Some games aren't as story focused and there's no reason the game designers can't provide a female option the way Spelunky did. We shouldn't expect anything less.

I realize I'm not usually on the same side of feminists on a lot of contemporary issues, but when it comes to the culture of video games, there's a lot of room for improvement. This includes both the way women are portrayed in games, such as the bikini babe warrior archetype that is so absurd it's an insult to players' intelligence, to the terrible way some cretins treat female players online.I'm glad to see Spelunky is taking a step in the right direction.


  1. Gamers are predominantly male. Game developers are predominantly male. So it's natural for games to be designed from the male point of view.

    But more importantly, it doesn't matter. When you read a book with a female lead character, do you curse the author for not providing a more male friendly version? Games are fundamentally about the mechanics of competition and cooperation, not making sure every gender and culture are properly represented. These are the kinds of standards that turn art into a saccharine meaningless thing, and worse. Ultimately, you are promoting cultural Marxism by insisting on "diversity" in your games.

  2. You're going to make me sound like a liberal, aren't you?

    Mark, I understand all of that, but there's a large market for female players and a lot of those players want female sprites to control on the screen.

    When you play a game, you are taking the role of the protagonist and it's a good thing when you can insert yourself into that role easily. I'm not saying there should be legislation on the subject, just that I'd like to see more of it.

    Like I said in GTA IV, sometimes the protagonists race and gender are part of the story and not subject to be shaped without screwing up the story.

    For what it's worth, I spent a long time going through the GTA IV multiplayer options and found no opportunities to play as a WASP. There were equal offerings of both male and female characters, as well as all of the major races covered, but nothing I could relate to. I know exactly how it felt.

  3. But if it's not a story driven game like GTA IV, you hold, then its unjust to not create character options for every gender/culture. Yes, not unjust in a "let's make a law" way, but in a "hey, you priveleged white male, let's voluntarily smash the patriarchy" kind of way.

    I've played games all my life and I cannot recall ever purchasing a game because the protagonist looked like me or had a penis like I do. Nor can I recall basing my enjoyment of a game on such trivialities.

    I think the Gears thing is the height of silliness. You can say there's a HUGE market for female gamers, and there is, but it ain't FPS games (and the games aimed at women tend to feature female avatars, surprise surprise). The GoW devs were wasting their energy pandering to cultural Marxism. No one cares. I'm sure the 5 girls who play Gears are celebrities offered up as proof of the GRRRL gamer, however.

    If fantasy bikini armor and huge breasts are wrong, then so is an overly buff Duke Nukem. Everything should be naturalistic and politically correct. Most people are overweight so our avatars should be also. Hollywood should fire all the hot actors and bring in the schlubs.

  4. I agree with Mark. This isn't a political issue. I'm confused why you tagged your post with "feminism" and "gay rights". It's those sort of trivial non-issues which, when focused upon, push proponents with actual progressive views out of the mainstream.

    It's somewhat touching to think that someone shows concern for this, but perhaps it could be more appropriately channeled toward legitimate causes.

    I can insert myself into a role without concerning my personal identity. The role of a protagonist involves virtue, justice and so on. I don't need to identify either as male or female to act justly in the storyline. It's not a prerequisite to gaming experience. My enjoyment of the game relies on game-play. I'm not sure how gender fits into that.

    I think the root cause behind this pandering to minority groups stems from self-perception issues. That a game features a male protagonist is not a political or otherwise meaningful statement. There is no statement to respond to by creating a female role to 'balance out' this 'inequality' in 'representation'.

    The size of the player base across the spectrum isn't even. It's granted that representation will be biased toward one side, and frankly, it doesn't merit any real attention, because it doesn't actually inhibit gaming experience.

    1. I should state I have no intent of making you sound like a liberal (as if that's a bad thing).

  5. You seem to base most of your opinions on basic market economics (supply/demand), which makes this blog post come off as hypocritical. As someone else alluded to, gamers are mostly male and therefore video games are geared towards males. If there was a market for female based games, it would pronounce itself on its own (according to theory). You can't fault the video game companies for giving their customers what they want, which is violent games designed for (often sex crazed) dudes. They are in the business to make money, not to keep the industry politically correct.

    You can't have it all...

  6. Dear sir, I got so angry at Spelunky when my bf was playing because of that. I just informed him that if he goes into the settings and changes the damsel, it might be my new favorite thing :-p