It’s been a whirlwind couple of months as the GamerGate debacle has morphed into a beast that I don’t think any of us quite foresaw. Depending on your point of view, it’s done a lot of good, a lot of bad or both. But it’s undeniable that it’s cast a lot of light and a lot of mainstream attention onto issues within the gaming community that though they might not have been the initial intention of the movement, are still important issues nonetheless and issues that have been quite prominent with other artistic mediums. One such issue is that of sexism within gaming, though at this stage, I don’t want to focus on the issue of female gamers and how they are treated or represented. That’s another important issue for another time. What I want to focus on is the representation of female characters within video games.
Film has long struggled with the idea of prominently featuring female characters and for a while, the film community and the general public has been wrapped up with the idea of “strong female characters”, without realising that this was a fallacy in itself (when’s the last time someone’s called for a “strong male character?) and became a trope that allowed for bland, stereotypical representations. We don’t want “strong female characters”, we want good ones. It’s a trap that the video game industry has fallen into more often than not. There’s been a lot of bad with female representation in gaming, especially considering that the primary audience for a long time has been young adult males. There’s been a lot of over sexualisation and a lot of bland female characters that exist solely as accessories for the male protagonist. Even female protagonists such as Lara Croft were by and large devoid of personality and hyper sexualised. But fear not loyal reader, things HAVE been improving.
In recent years, there have been a number of female characters who are not just some of the most complex, compelling and endearing characters in gaming, but in recent fiction in general. Characters like Ellie from the Last of Us and Elizabeth from Bioshock are characters who have their own motivations, strengths, weaknesses, fears, aspirations, emotional nuances and character journeys. They’re strong but also vulnerable, they have their own important place and arc within the story and do not exist solely to provide support or emotional baggage for the male protagonist. Even characters like Lara Croft have been given a major update. Croft now has an actual personality besides being an unstoppable bad ass. She’s an actual character now and that’s wonderful. As games become more recognised as art, things are improving at a rapid pace. It’s no coincidence that some of the most artistic games in the last few years are the ones with this kind of diverse and effective representation. That’s not to say there’s not still bad with the good, but female representation is certainly evolving and it’s on the upswing.
Which is why all of this debate and controversy brought about inadvertently by GamerGate and the criticism of sexism is a good thing. Art is ever changing and art is controversial. This debate gets eyes on the issue in both the mainstream and from developers and players. It can shine light on the good that has happened and also the issues that still need to be improved. Sure, things might get ugly, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.