Let’s compare notes: how many big-budget contemporary video games have a female protagonist? Here’s an informal list that the New York Times just put together: Rise of the Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Horizon Zero Dawn, ReCore, Dishonored 2, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst.
I might add a few more entries (e.g. Fallout 4, Splatoon, Life Is Strange) — my list would get longer if I didn’t limit my scope to “big budget” games. The reason I’m sticking with triple-A titles for the moment is that those are the companies that we know are more risk-averse, due to having tons of money at stake.
The inclusion of women characters in big-name franchises with ever-ballooning budgets proves that more companies are willing to take the supposed “risk” of making a game about a woman. Admittedly, several of the games I’ve listed include the option for playing as a female character as opposed to only featuring a story about a woman, but the trend is undeniable. Given that The Force Awakens‘ diverse cast allowed the film to clean up at the box office, it should come as no big surprise that video game executives might also be interested in going that route. Why wait?
Put another way, why has it suddenly become trendy to put a playable woman character in a game? I would argue this trend dovetails with this year’s press surrounding the ongoing harassment of women in the games industry; that sort of harassment has actually been going on for years, of course, but it didn’t become a hot-button issue until recently. Women have been playing games all along, too — but gaming marketers have been trying to brand gaming as “for boys” since the ’90s. It does seem that all our shouting has achieved something, though, doesn’t it?
I’m not going to tell you to feel satisfied with massive companies making “baby steps” towards incidental progress. I’m not that impressed that the result of our discussions about online harassment — particularly harassment within gaming spaces — has been to highlight a handful of slim, pale heroines, many of whom have been written and designed by predominantly male, predominantly white teams. There are exceptions, of course, and I fist-pump about every single one of them. But I see these heroines as a first step and not a final one.
As of the past year or so, diversity initiatives within the tech and gaming industry have become … well, trendy. I would say that putting a female heroine in a big-budget game is also very hip, very current (so long as she still looks like a Disney princess, but I’ll save that argument for some other day). It’s cool to claim to care about hiring diverse teams. The hard part is actually doing that. And then, after that, ensuring that your new employees are happy and able to do the work they want to do. Sounds hard. But not impossible.
I like the idea of female heroines taking the video game world by storm. But I worry about how few women actually work on those games — and how few of the women who do work on them feel happy and satisfied and fulfilled by the career path they’ve chosen. But, hey. Baby steps, right?
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