WARNING! CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS FOR TOMB RAIDER 2013
Violence against women in video games has become a huge topic of conversation in gaming media in the last few years. The work of video game critics such as Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian has caused an avalanche of examination and criticism of the way that video games portray women and the violence that is inflicted upon female characters. Another common complaint of these critics is the disparity between the number of female and male lead protagonists in video games. After the reveals at E3 2013 of new generation consoles, games and I.P’s Sarkeesian tweeted
Recently Sarkeesian appeared on ABC’s Nightline program in which she discussed her work and her belief that portrayals of violence against women in video games reinforce violence and sexism against women in real life. Within the segment there were the obligatory clips of Sarkeesian playing a video game. Watching the segment with my husband we both noticed that Anita’s game of choice was the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, a game that I myself have been playing recently. After the interview was concluded my husband posed the question “If violence against women in video games is unacceptable then how can games have more female protagonists since they’ll invariably face violence?”
I thought this was a question worthy of some exploration. At this time Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women In Video Games vlog series is incomplete and the focus in her videos so far has been very much female NPCs. However I did find this interview with Anita from 2012 before the video series was funded. When asked about what principles developers should keep in mind when creating female characters Anita has this to say
“The creation of great and complex female characters in video games is an involved process, but ultimately developers are going to have to take some risks and step outside of the expected or established conventions. Very briefly, some very basic things I look for in female characters are: protagonists with agency not tied directly to their sex appeal; transformative story arcs where characters are struggling with or overcoming personal flaws; and some emotional depth and expression.”
If we look at the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot (which had just been revealed at the time of the above interview and is very briefly mentioned) it was clear that the design of Lara Croft is intended to be less sexualised then her predecessors, Lara was given less generous proportions, greater choice of weapons and more sensible outfitting to make her seem more realistic.
In the reboot Lara’s story is one of beginning, the educated but naive and inexperienced youth forced to adapt to survive an enormously hostile environment. Her journey is a kind of forced shaping and discovery of self while overcoming her inexperience and lack of faith in herself. In my opinion there is depth and emotional weight in her not only digging deep inside for the resources to keep going but forging her own will. Lara doesn’t just discover herself, she MAKES herself.
Does that fit Anita Sarkeesian’s parameters? In my opinion it does. So let us suppose for a moment that Lara Croft ticks the boxes as a well designed female character. What happens to Lara to trigger this transformative arc? Life threatening situations that mean Lara commits violence and has violence committed against her. Lara suffers incredible punishment, not only at the hands of the island’s completely insane inhabitants but from the very island itself. I guarantee you that you will wince as Lara is smashed into rocks, trees and the detritus of the island’s former residents. Having a women such as reboot Lara Croft face violence in order to develop as a character is often dismissed as lazy writing. Video game writers such as Leigh Alexander have complained that men get to be the hero right away without having to suffer
“Our lead characters have to be hard, and while we accept a male hero with a five o’clock shadow and a bad attitude generally unquestioned, a woman seems to need a reason to be hard. Something had to have been done to her”
Yet this seems to conveniently forget that the Lara Croft of the original games was a badass right from the first game, no suffering to make her a fighter, nothing being done to her, she was simply a woman that raided tombs using only her wits and a pair of handguns. And you know what? We accepted that. We needed no event from her past to reinforce her status as a heroine, no trauma to make her need to fight more understandable. She was just Lara Croft, raider of tombs, solver of puzzles and kicker of asses.
So what does have to do with female characters and violence? Well to start with I don’t particularly agree that having a female protagonist experience violence to solidify her character status is, in all instances, laziness. When male protagonists go through a game taking and dishing out punishment in equal measure it is seen as a male power fantasy. An escapism where presumably male players can project themselves onto the character and imagine they are them. When female protagonists deal with violence they are dismissed as movable sex objects and fighting fuck toys, again, designed to appeal to the male demographic. In the article that Leigh Alexander references in the piece above the author Sophia Mcdougall makes this assertion
“Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.””
Here’s the thing, real life IS boring. I am a woman and I am a gamer. Physically I am weaker than my male counterparts and for the most part my life is exceptionally boring and mundane. When I boot up a video game I am looking for fantasy, escapism and entertainment. I’m not looking for games that make me think and explore my emotions like Gone Home and Papo & Yo, though there is certainly plenty of room in gaming for those kinds of games. I’m looking for games that fire up the senses. When I play as a female protagonist I’m looking to experience the flood of excitement that comes of meeting an enemy and defeating them, of exercising power and strength not available to me in real life. It seems that, for me at least, female protagonists are a female power fantasy. My escapism as a gamer requires that the character be at risk of more than just hurt feelings and you know what? I make no apology for that. Why can’t women gamers play characters in games that contain violence in order to feel powerful the same way that men supposedly do? It’s not as if the female characters in these games are the only ones to cope with violence, going back to the Tomb Raider reboot yes violence is inflicted upon Lara. But men in the game? They die. Lara the woman gets hurt in order to build character, men are SLAUGHTERED for her to do so. This includes men that die to save Lara. Multiple men lay down their lives for her survival and to give her a reason to continue fighting and that’s fine but one lays hands on her in a slightly sexually threatening way and it’s too much? How does that make sense?
It certainly seems I am not alone in my enjoyment of violent video games. As much as Sarkeesian and her like wish it were otherwise it is a hard fact that action/adventure games sell, 7 of the top 10 best selling games of 2013 were action/adventure titles. while I’m not saying that violence in video games is always necessary, I am saying it’s what gaming audiences clearly enjoy. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that provided adult material is kept out of reach of children. Anita Sarkeesian promotes the idea that violence against women in video games promotes violence against women in real life, yet the study “Violent Video Games and Real-World Violence: Rhetoric Versus Data.” by Patrick Markey, associate professor of psychology, and researchers at Villanova University and Rutgers University found that there is no evidence that playing violent video games makes people more violent. Other academics agree, in this article Dr. Chris Ferguson, chair of psychology at Stetson University, examines studies conducted into whether video games cause violence and he concludes
“We should accept that, whether we like violent video games or not, if we are serious about reducing crime, our attention is better focused on other issues such as poverty, mental health care or educational disparities.”
Violent video games DO NOT cause violence in real life. Sarkeesian and her supporters should admit that their dislike of violent video games is nothing more than a personal preference, it does not have scientific support. As much as critics of gaming may wish upon a star for game audiences to crave more fulfilling intellectual fare sales indicate that what gamers want is, above all else, to be entertained. Action sells games, adventure sells games and, whether they like it or not, violence sells games.
Anita herself knows this, in 2013 she created a proposal for a video game called “The Legend Of The Last Princess” as an example of a strong female character and a subversion of the Damsel In Distress trope. In the game a kidnapped princess grows tired of waiting to be rescued, breaks out of prison and steals a guard’s armor and weapons in order to become a badass and take back her kingdom.
But wait Anita, that sword in that princess’s hand is not a fashion accessory. For this princess to rescue herself and her kingdom will she not have to commit violence? Will she not expose herself to the risk of having violence committed upon her? Even Anita’s own game idea promotes the idea that having a strong, well crafted female protagonist would mean that female protagonist having to fight, to commit violence and have it committed against her. When talking about the Damsel in Distress trope Anita says “Maybe the princess shouldn’t be a damsel, and she could save herself” but the princess cannot rescue herself because that will direct violence towards her and, according to Anita’s own logic, that will cause violence and sexism in real life. Plus if she’s active in her own liberation, no longer fitting the Damsel in Distress trope, she runs the risk of instead fitting into the Man With Boobs Trope from excessive aggression or even potentially, a Fighting Fuck Toy.
And here is my major problem with Sarkeesian and her supporter’s work, their criticisms do not help the industry to see why having better female protagonists, and more of them, is a good thing. Even if we pretend for a moment that there are not games in which men suffer physical violence in order to aid character growth, if critics are successful in their demand to remove the threat of violence with regard to female characters then why on earth would the industry choose to make more games with female protagonists? The industry’s goal is to make money and they do that by reading consumer trends, seeing what sells well, violence in video games sells well. Sarkeesian’s Jack Thompson-like crusade against violence in video games is DAMAGING the chances of better female representation in gaming. The industry and media seem to think that Sarkeesian is a voice for female gamers and as a result the assumption is being made that we all agree with her and would be happy to see the eradication of violence against women in video games. I cannot and will not claim to speak for all or even most female gamers. I only know, from my personal perspective, that I am happy for video game characters of any gender to kick ass and yes, have their asses kicked too. Because I understand that these games are not real, they are fiction, a fantasy that some of us use to entertain ourselves or escape from our real lives. From what I see in the gaming community I am not alone in this perspective. Instead of worrying about pixelated characters I would prefer to spend my energy working towards reducing the amount of REAL LIFE violence endured by many all across the world every day, and in my spare time, I may also pretend to be the heroine having my ass handed to me from time to time.
Thanks for reading