Last week, not one but two news stories served as reminders of just how problematic the thinking of some huge, powerful developers remains when it comes to putting women in their games. Why does this matter? Because these developers have the power, through their games, to shift the way people think about women in games (and media in general) in a positive direction. Instead, they choose to reinforce the status quo by continuing to relegate women to second-tier roles--when they even acknowledge women exist at all.
First, there's the ill-fated Aliens: Colonial Marines. A Reddit post, picked up and reported on by Kotaku, indicated that female marines, rather than being part of the game from the earliest stages of development, were a last-minute feature request. Let that sink in for a second. Female marines were a feature request, a special addition, a change made to the game at the last minute. This is difficult for me to wrap my head around. During Colonial Marines' development, people working on the game declared their abiding reverence for the film Aliens. It's hard for me to believe in this reverence, not just because the game ultimately failed to deliver an experience worthy of the Aliens name on any level, but because any reasonable understanding and appreciation of what made Aliens a great film acknowledges the important role of women in it. Women are not hard to come by in the film. In fact, they're pretty damn important. One might even say that they're the equals of their male counterparts. Crazy, I know! The notion of a vision of the Aliens universe without women in it seems like about as major a betrayal of the source material as I can imagine.
Any reasonable understanding and appreciation of what made Aliens a great film acknowledges the important role of women in it.And yet, somehow, for years and years, development on Aliens: Colonial Marines progressed, apparently without anyone stopping to say, "Hey. You know how there are women in Aliens? Remember Vasquez, the tough-as-nails marine? Remember Ferro, the dropship pilot who says, 'We're in the pipe, five by five'? Remember how Sigourney Weaver was the star of all the Alien movies? Well, I just had this crazy thought. What if we put some women…in the game?!"
Women should not be an afterthought in an Aliens game. In fact, women should not be an afterthought in most games. Women are human beings; it's weird and wrong that people making a game about human beings would not start from scratch operating under the assumption that women, like men, will be part of their game. But they do; men are so often regarded as the "default" gender, the necessary gender, and women are secondary, optional, disposable. The notion that a whole gender can be left out when a big-name developer is creating an Aliens game isn't just a discouraging reality about that particular game; it speaks to the larger problem of games often shying away from opportunities to present women as strong individuals, on equal footing with men.
Demonstrating that this is not an isolated problem, Chris Perna, art director at Epic Games, told OXM last week, "If you look at what sells, it's tough to justify [a female Gears of War protagonist]." My feeling is that he's looking at this issue all wrong. Did players steer clear of 1994's Super Metroid or 2002's Metroid Prime because of their female protagonist? (One may as well ask, "Did moviegoers avoid 1986's Aliens because the film's hero was a woman?") What about the Portal games? What about Lara Croft, one of the most iconic video game characters of all time? And of course, who could forget Ms. Pac-Man?
Of course, in games like Super Metroid and Portal, you can ignore that the protagonists are women; the stories rarely call attention to this fact. (It's an approach I actually find refreshing in Portal; Chell is human, first and foremost. Like so many male protagonists of first-person games, she is essentially you, whoever you are.) Nonetheless, I think the success of these games supports the idea that if you make a great game that has broad appeal and is properly marketed, people will flock to it, regardless of whether the protagonist is a man or a woman. Perhaps that's just wishful thinking on my part, but in any case, I don't think this issue has been properly put to the test enough to support the idea that such games simply won't sell. In a Penny Arcade Report article last November, Ben Kuchera wrote, "There are so few games with exclusively female heroes, and those few games are given such a small marketing budget, do we even know how well a large-budget, marketed game with a female hero would perform?" I don't think we do. I like to think that all it would take to disprove the notion that a Gears of War game with a female protagonist wouldn't sell is, well, a great, aggressively marketed Gears of War game with a female protagonist.
Right now, the fear that big-budget games about women won't sell is self-fulfilling.
Unfortunately, when women are the stars of big action games, their femaleness is more often capitalized on purely for sex appeal than simply treated as one facet of their humanity. The Lara Croft of the classic Tomb Raider games was at least as much a pinup girl as a heroic figure, and in some Metroid games, your reward for completing the game quickly is a sexier glimpse of Samus at the end. There are numerous rich portrayals of women as people in games, from The Longest Journey's April Ryan to Cart Life's coffee cart proprietor Melanie, but such portrayals are all but nonexistent in action games, where you're more likely to see sex objects like Lollipop Chainsaw's Juliet than the sorts of non-objectified human women that inhabit the world of the film Aliens and that you might expect to find in the Gears of War universe.
And maybe this is where the anxiety many developers feel really comes from. Maybe they're comfortable putting women in their games as long as those women are either relegated to supporting characters (like Sam in Gears of War 3) or the creators can treat them as objects to be ogled and don't have to bother making them actual characters with the same degree of complexity and humanity that is afforded to their male counterparts. In a blog entry posted on Gamasutra last month, Ryan Creighton, a designer on Spellirium, confessed that his game is dominated by white male characters "for fear of someone calling me out for my non-white or non-male character being stereotypical, offensive, or - at the absolute worst - outright racist or sexist."
The world of writing and designing games is tremendously male-dominated; sadly, this absurd fear of creating complex, human women who star in games is not limited to Creighton, but is a widespread problem. If you are a man in this position, paralyzed with fear about creating female characters who fit into the human mold rather than the sex object mold, I have some information that may help you. Women have hopes, dreams, and fears. Women experience joy and sorrow and anger. Women can be strong. Women can do what needs to be done. In short, women are people. Watch films like Trucker and Red Road and A Separation if you need to see some portrayals of women as people to help you understand what that looks like. As long as you conceive of women as human beings first and foremost (which you should), it really shouldn't be much harder to write women than it is to write men, even if you're a man yourself.
Right now, the fear that big-budget games about women won't sell is self-fulfilling. Developers are afraid to make and properly market big games with female protagonists out of a fear that they don't sell, but if developers don't make and properly market those games, they don't have a chance to sell. It's time for industry leaders to abandon the antiquated notions and tired excuses they sometimes trot out when talk turns to female protagonists, stop being cowards about this, and take the bold step of treating women as (gasp!) just as human and essential as men.