As I talked about before I think it is important to be critical of the media we consume because it can often point to a larger societal problem that needs to be addressed. While it is important to point out things that are problematic, it is also important to point out places where things have been done right and look at why they work.
I first learned this from a class I took in college, Feminist Introduction to the Bible. It could be easy to dismiss the story of the bible as a misogynistic book that looks more at men. Our professor talked to us about how it is important to examine where females are present in the Bible versus trying to point out where they are missing. Now obviously the Bible is a different than video games, but it is still important to note where and how female characters have been done right in media spaces to understand the importance of having characters that are similar.
This will mostly look at more recent video games because I think there has been some great examples of positive female characters in video games recently.
Borderlands 1 and 2 (Spoilers for Maya’s character in Borderlands 2)
I love Borderlands, it is such a great game, and while I have attempted to play most of the playable characters, I have definitely leaned towards playing the female characters (Lilith and Maya). Some of this maybe that when I have a choice in gender I like to play female, or because the female characters tended to fit my play style, who knows. The thing that I really appreciated about Lilith and Maya was I never felt that their characters were overly sexualized. They were women, but they were dressed just as practically as any of the guys, which is so nice to see when there is a history of over-sexualizing almost any female character in a game.
In Borderlands 2 I think they added a little something extra to Maya to make me love her more. As you go through the game in different areas you will get recordings that reveal the histories of various character. When you find Maya’s you learn that she was raised by monks who were going to use her to keep the populace in line. In the end she very strongly says “no way” – and that is how she ended up on Pandora. It is great to see a female character that was supposed to be enslaved and she said “see ya” and ran off to be bad-ass.
So lastly, one of my favorite non-playable characters in Borderlands 2 is Ellie. This just shows the range that the creators were willing to go with making a wide range of female characters. You have Moxxi who is highly sexualized, but there are women like that, then you have Tannis who is a crazy – but brilliant – scientist, and then you have Ellie. Everything in Borderlands is exaggerated and Ellie is no exception. Big, bold, and beautiful, she is Scooter’s sister who works on cars and is probably the size of Brick. It would have been so easy to make the character of Ellie a guy as the big fat mechanic, but they chose to make Ellie a female which is fantastic. She is just an awesome person who is confident in who she is even though others are making fun of her. She stands up for herself; in murderous ways, but this is Pandora after all. Over all it is just great to get characters that are so multifaceted instead of one dimensional.
Dragon Age 1 and 2
Dragon Age is another game that I loved to play. This was one where I got to decide my race, gender, class and even decide how I looked. What you chose mattered for how other people treated you, but did not matter for whether you could accomplish the task. In some ways this is a nice thing to see in a game, where showing that even though someone else may doubt your ability based on your race or gender that does not mean you do not have the ability to do something. Since you can pick who you play it makes it very open and relatable to play a character that is you. This is always great because whether you want to be someone entirely different or you want to play someone exactly like yourself you can.
The other part that is great about the Dragon Age games is they also have a range of women characters. Just like a player can choose different paths, they show women in the world choosing these different paths from fighters, to religious leaders, peasants, and noblewomen. Two of my favorite non-playable characters are Flemeth and Aveline. Flemeth is this great and powerful witch who looks like she is just an old lady, but you quickly learn that appearances can be deceiving. Aveline is a fighter whose husband was a Templar who died in the Blight. She then takes up the sword and shield to defend others. They are both strong women and Aveline even becomes head of the city guard, earning the respect of the men who follow her. If she has any problems it is not because she is a woman, but because others are corrupt.
Okay, so Dragon Age and Mass Effect are both made by BioWare and both are a choose-your-gender-and-look options game. The interesting difference between the two is that in Dragon Age being a woman caused different reactions from people in the world, but in Mass Effect I do not know that my gender ever came up really. As in Dragon Age I chose to play a woman character, I really think as a woman I like to be able to play a woman because it is more relatable for me. If I have the choice I like being able to think I am that character as opposed to just controlling a different character. When I played Mass Effect I was Shepherd. The only difference between the dialogue for the man or woman Shepherd is whether the voice sounds like a man or a woman. The only thing that made a difference, really, is who you could have a relationship with, which really is not much of a difference.
It seems that Mass Effect tried to create a universe with a lot of different races and representations of women. It even shows the different societies and how they look at women; at the same time, being a woman in the military did not seem to matter. Throughout the game there is a pretty equal number of men and women characters. One of the more interesting gender dynamic is the Krogan whose women have been turned almost literally into breeders because the Salarians, in trying to slow down the Krogan growth rate, decided to make the women less fertile. So any woman Krogan that is fertile is viciously fought over as a power object. When we finally meet a woman Krogan we find out that the women are really the wise ones of the race and are almost like Shamans. The Krogans really need the power balance between the genders for their race to survive. The women Krogan are very different from the men and provides an essential role beyond simply physical power and strength.
The games I looked at are just a few of the examples out there that I have actually played. There are probably plenty more that I have not played, including the new Tomb Raider – that I am starting after I write this post. The traits though that all these games have in common is showing women participating in society in a variety of roles and with a variety of skills. They are not relegated to one corner of the society, they participate in a variety of ways through a variety of actions. Now, is it great when one of those women is a playable character? Yes, but if there are really no other women represented than that one playable character, it becomes more a novelty than part of the greater working of the world.
I love finding positive representations of women in media. Now this is not to say that every game needs to have a woman protagonist, but how a game treats women in general is an important examination – thinking of what we want the future generations to see when looking at these same games. Do they see women marginalized or do they see the true complexity of what being a woman really means, which is that you are more than the some of your biological parts?