The debate on the depiction of male vs. female characters in games is loud, screechy, and depending on who you talk to either vital to the survival of our species or toxic and unnecessary. I’m throwing my hat into the ring because I think our answer is self-evident.
First we need a game, so I’m going to make one up. We’ll call it Fallcry. Now Fallcry is your typical post-apocalyptic adventure game, where the player can choose a male or female avatar. For this exercise we’ll say the developers abide by two basic convictions:
1) They aren’t trying to repair the real world order of social justice through the medium of video games.
2) They don’t want to build a game that makes some gamers feel unwelcome or excluded.
So here’s what they do. In Fallcry you have complete control over your character’s body type to start with- if giant breasts are what you have to have, go for it. If you want to make an obese male with long hair and short legs, more power to ya. Then we have a cosmetic armor system- the armor you wear to protect and progress through the game can be visually replaced by more “costume” style clothing, ranging from leather g-strings to diving suits. You keep the stats and powers of your original armor but precisely control how your character looks. This allows you to make everything from pop diva impersonator to cross dressing male stripper, from navy seal bad girl to average joe in a suit, from sex-forward superheroine to hockey mask wearing freak.
As far as enemies in the game this same cosmetic costume system could be used to generate a staggering variety- depending on the story of the game, from rogue camps of leather wearing death strippers to grease monkey ninja pirates.
Naturally additional factors like plot, violence level, characterization and genre will appeal to some gamers and to others it won’t, but in Fallcry at least you won’t have a gamer pick up a copy and feel they can’t create an avatar they connect with.
The problem we have today is that no such game exists. So what do we do until then? Well boys and girls until then we are just going to have to settle for games with strong females like Lara Croft sitting on the shelf right next to a game featuring a big breasted bubble-gum chewer who kills zombies in a bikini. We won’t find one game that satisfies every type of gamer, but if you look at the entire gaming landscape the variety is truly enormous- and there is something for everybody.
Thus when it comes to developing games it’s time for the dialogue to be about including ALL gamers, rather than shaming one group and excluding another. And until that day comes, developers can learn to appreciate that females make up nearly 50% of gamers, so if your only character options are stripper-with-sword don’t expect a lot women to buy your game. But as a developer expressing creative freedom, if you don’t mind losing the sales you shouldn’t be judged or labeled over it either. The camp that would like to retroactively lecture developers and claim real world behavior is affected, or gender relations damaged by characters in video games, would do well to put in the research and settle in to the fact that there is no real data to support that position. In fact there has never been a study or experiment that connects real world behavior to mass consumption of video games, and making such claims only serves to divide and enrage, which will never build a bridge or effect real change.
So when it comes to the future of games, tearing them down is a non-starter. It’s time to start building.