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One of the issues that *WiG’s bring up entirely too often for my taste is whether the playable characters in a game are male or female. There are multiple reasons why this issue irritates me, but my basic summary of the problem is this: it has no solution. Far too often, people don’t ask about female characters in games because they want to see more female characters--they ask because they’re trolling for a fight and they’ve decided in advance that you’re the Evil Sexist Enemy. Answering the question and dealing with the issue then becomes a no-win situation for developers AND publishers, your basic Kobayashi Maru.
Most developers male and female choose to dodge this question for a reason. If you have the resources to develop only one character for a game--no matter how human, well-written, and appealing--you’ve already lost if you wanted that character to be female. The male option is heavily weighted, far beyond its merit. Developers and publishers are constantly hammered with the “Gamers Are Men” stereotype, so the pressure to make the one character you have to work with male is overpowering. Top brass and marketing departments will crush you with the need to maximize revenue for the resources invested, even in situations where you can convince your co-workers that a female character is the right for the game or that women are a desirable audience.
On the other hand, if you make a game which allows the player to choose one of two characters, and you deliberately choose to be egalitarian for some reason and make one male and one female--how do you choose to depict the female character? Do you go to the effort of creating genuine differences in gameplay and game balance based on the gender of the player? Do you make the male and female gameplay experience identical, the only difference being the cosmetic appearance of the player’s avatar?
Either way you go, you’ll be stepping into a minefield wearing clown shoes. If you make the game significantly different based on gender, you’ll offend some people who believe that men and women are equal and that any depiction of difference is sexist. If you make the difference between male and female essentially cosmetic, your playable female character will be dismissed by many angry WiG’s as “not a real woman at all”, and “nothing but a man with breasts”.
And once you do manage to get a woman into a game, the conflict has only begun. The female body has become a battle ground in the arts, and all the battles are not fought between the artists and audience, or between the artist/audience and the publisher/marketers. Conflict also arises within the ranks, behind the scenes, when men and women are trying to cooperate to create a female character. Men and women who are willing to work with female characters, and even to depict them in challenging ways, can still end up disagreeing about how best to express feminine ideals of strength, beauty, sexuality, and competence.
Humorous example: years ago I co-wrote a bit of background fiction for a game called Ground Control, which had two factions. One faction was led by a male battlefield commander, the other by a female. Fortunately the depiction of the human body was not a huge issue in the game itself, so there was never any trouble with the appearance of Major Sarah J. Parker in the game. On the box cover they chose to depict tanks, or a faceless figure wearing a battlesuit (not a battlesuit with breasts).
However, there were also promotional materials associated with the game which I was tapped to write: a comic book script which was to appear in a European gaming magazine. When Sarah J. Parker was drawn by a comic book artist for the promo materials, most of the notes I had jotted into the script on her physical appearance were completely ignored. I found it pretty funny, actually, how she was re-packaged by the male artist and the marketing folk who eventually released those comic pages. The scene as I had written it was deliberately erotic and provocative in the first place, and Sarah Parker was intended to come across as both sexy and intimidating in the scene. However, I described her in her two introductory panels for the comic this way:
“Full-body panel of Major Sarah J. Parker. She has stepped out from behind her APC and stands with an oily rag in one hand and a wrench in the other. She is dressed in a thin military t-shirt and underwear, nothing else. Her blonde hair is gathered up into a pony tail, although some of it has escaped while she’s been working. Although she’s a nice-looking woman, she shouldn’t stand there in some stupid cheesecake ‘supermodel’ pose—she’s covered with grease and dirt, she looks strong and capable, and the viewer shouldn’t have any doubt that she’d brain you with that wrench if she didn’t like the look of you.”
“Parker sitting on the ground, pulling the rubber band out of her blonde hair with one hand. She looks tired and strained. Hair only comes down to her shoulders. Her face is dirty, and she looks her age—over thirty.”
And this is what the artist chose to draw.
The fact that Parker has gone from blonde to brunette is relatively trivial. And while I don’t recall having specified the size of her breasts, I think if anyone had asked, I probably would have said “not zeppelins--if only because people will wonder where she puts them in that battlesuit”. And remember that supermodel/Playboy pose that I specifically mentioned he SHOULDN’T use?
In any case...I am certainly not at all ashamed of my limited participation in making Ground Control the game it turned out to be, and I didn’t have noteworthy issues with this comic. I wasn’t embarrassed or livid that Sarah Parker ended up wearing more clothes, having darker hair, or packing larger caliber guns than I had intended. I bring this up just to illustrate that words like “strong”, “beautiful”, “sexy”, “powerful”, “intimidating”, “commanding”, “dangerous” etc. can be very, very subjective.
And sometimes people have a tendency to take offense at the depiction of a woman without realizing that very often, no one person--male or female--is solely responsible for the image you’re seeing. And who knows? Maybe if the woman behind the scenes had gotten her way, you'd be even more offended than you already are.
*W.i.G.= Women in Gaming