Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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New England Gamer
July 2012

The Boys Club

I've had gender on the mind. Most likely, this can be blamed on the impending birth of my daughter. I am writing this less than a week away from my wife's due date and my mind has been devoted to over thinking all of the wonderful variables that our first child could bring us. There is more pink in our condo than I had ever envisioned there being and, I have come to the conclusion that if there is a way for a conversation to turn to the subject of "how adorable our baby girl will be," it will.

As likely a cause as my impending induction into the sleep-deprived and perpetually poverty stricken may be, there's also a good chance that the resurgence of gender issue debates in the gaming community have had a hand in it as well. While gender issues have always been a controversial topic in the gaming world, they came to forefront of recent game-centric commentary thanks to a pair of events: the release of a trailer for the game Hitman: Absolution and some details about the forthcoming Tomb Raider reboot.

The Hitman trailer, depicting a flash and violent attack by a team of sexy nuns (a fetish I'll never understand) on the game's protagonist, garnered criticism for a number of reasons. For one, fans of the series (myself included) were annoyed that the trailer was pretty much a complete misrepresentation of the franchise and Hitman: Absolution itself. The Hitman games are, at their core, stealth games. They reward you for careful planning, strategy and, above all else, for completing your objectives undetected. Straight up confrontation, a la the footage in the trailer, is something the games actively punish. The "sexy nun" trailer is essentially false advertising.

Worse than that though, it's advertising that crafts an almost erotic picture of a man killing women. One could, perhaps, grant the protagonist a bit of slack considering these are women who announce themselves by trying to blow him up. That said, it's hard to forgive the lengths taken by the trailer to give you close up views of every minute detail of the violence. One particularly disgusting scene shows, in slow motion, the protagonist punching one of the women in the face; presumably so the audience can savor all the little details of her nose as it shatters and bleeds.

I am not generally one to side with critics of video games but, were someone to suggest that this trailer, what with its scantily clad nuns being viscerally slaughtered, fetishized violence as a sexual thing, I might be inclined to agree with them. I'd be even more inclined to cite it, and other marketing ploys like it, as a problem. Marketing exists to sell us things, and it's a problem if game developers think this is what they need to include for us to buy their products. It suggests that only men would play Hitman and, more worrisome, that such sexualized violence is what men want to see.

This could, possibly have just been a bad idea that came to fruition. It wouldn't be the first time the Hitman series played host to some bad advertising. That said, it wouldn't be difficult to find similar mishandlings of women in other video games old and new. The aforementioned Tomb Raider reboot has worked hard to move its protagonist, Lara Croft, away from her roots as gaming's first sex symbol and reinvent her as a more grounded, strong female hero. One of the methods they've chosen for this? Having her fight off an attempted rape.

I am not a woman and I have never been sexually assaulted. Even so, I have a feeling that most women would not find that situation, even if they managed to escape or fight off their attacker, to be an empowering one. There were more than a few people outraged by the footage of a young, tied up Lara being groped, and then assaulted (unsuccessfully, I should stress) by a man. When asked about the sequence the game's executive producer, Ron Rosenburg, said that it was a big moment for her growth and for the player. "When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character. They're more like 'I want to protect her.'"

I find this explanation to be egregious on several levels. For one, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a game where the player doesn't project themselves into their character to, at least, some degree. I used to have no problem taking on the role of an anthropomorphic woodland creature back when I was playing Star Fox 64. Why would I have trouble putting myself in the role of a character just because they're a different gender? And again, this statement makes that tired assumption that if you're playing an action game like Tomb Raider, then by default you're a man. Does it really need to be said how wrong this is? Do we really need to keep pointing professional game developers to statistics that say that eighty percent of Americans, some of them assumably women, play video games?

Crystal Dynamics, the studio behind Tomb Raider, has since released another statement withdrawing Mr. Rosenburg's sentiment, but the fact remains that, at some point during the game's creation, someone felt it a good idea to include a scene where Lara Croft fights off a rapist. And seeing as this game is meant to be an origin story, a tale meant to show player's how Lara became the strong, confident woman she is, there are only so many assumptions we can make about the meaning of the scene.

Compare that to games that deal with the origins of male characters. While not exclusively an origin story, an early level in Uncharted 3 puts the player in the role of the franchise's protagonist as a teenager at the very beginning of his career. Though young, he's already portrayed as a streetwise and skilled young man. Little service is paid to showing us how he got there; it's just assumed that he is.

It might be an overstep to say that the predominantly male development community feels they can't have a strong female character without some sort of justification or gimmick, but when you look at the examples available, it's hard to come away with a different conclusion. Strong female characters are hard to come by and they often with come male-centric requirements. Lollipop Chainsaw, a game I played recently, has a strong, capable woman as its hero, but she also happens to be a ditzy, highly sexualized cheerleader. It's as if the men behind these games have never looked at their own daughters and thought to themselves "She might play games someday. She deserves better."

In a few days I'll be a father, and my daughter deserves better.

Read more by Stewart Shearer

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