Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Female characters in video games: Good female characters

Seeing how it's still March, and thus Women's History Month, I have an excuse for a feminist post (why I should feel like I need an excuse is another issue...). Having read some interesting pieces on female characters in video games in the recent past, the topic has been on my mind. In this series of posts, I will share my thoughts on various issues of female characters in video games, as well as articles that helped provoke these thoughts.

Post #1: Depiction of women in video games
Post #2: (below)
Post #3: Female protagonists in video games

Good female characters in video games

Extra Credits did a great video on the subject of what makes strong, realistic female video game characters. Concise, thoughtful, and amusing, it makes better points on the matter more eloquently than I could. So check it out:

You can also watch the video here.

Did you watch it all? OK. As the video points out, the traits that define a good female character are the same traits that define any good character, since a good character should not be defined by gender. That said, there are both genetic and societal differences between the two genders, which may be mined to strengthen a character of either gender.

I don't have much to add on the ideas in the video about societal pressures put on women, other than that I agree with them that women who neither fully accept nor reject the societal standards placed on them are the most realistic and engaging. Also, it can be very interesting to explore societies in fantasy or sci-fi where the societal expectations for men and women are different from are own. The drow of Dungeons & Dragons, which I've encountered in Baldur's Gate II, make an interesting (if somewhat evil) example of this, as do certain aliens in Mass Effect (such as the Asari, a single-gender species). I'd like to see more of this.

As far as genetic differences go, in fantasy games that already have magic and mythical beasts, it's not any more of a stretch to imagine that some of the genetic differences between the genders, such as men's greater strength and suitability for combat, do not exist or are altered. In sci-fi featuring a future version of humanity, there is also some flexibility here, since the use of advanced technology may allow women to be as capable as men in combat (Ashley in Mass Effect argues a woman can shoot an assault rifle as well as a man; I'm not going to argue with her). In almost every game I've played, female characters are males' equals in skills and attributes (including strength). I think it works and makes sense. But some genetic differences can't be eliminated without redefining what a man and woman are. And by that I mean woman's ability to bear children.

As the Extra Credit video points out, issues of motherhood could make for a very interesting character. I've had several party members over the years who have been fathers, but only one mother as a companion (not counting the DTB for the Human Noble origin story in DAO): Samara in Mass Effect 2. However, she was a very, for lack of a better word, alien mother. Her children were all fully grown (hundreds of years old, in fact), and she had made rather un-motherly vows as a Justicar to hunt down and kill her somewhat monstrous daughter. The story is made far more poignant because she is the mother, but her actions could have been done by any Justicar who made it her mission to kill a dangerous member of her species. I can't think of a prominent video game character I've encountered who was really a more "normal" mother. And I've certainly never played as one.

Healthy mother-daughter relationship

In the Baldur's Gate 2 expansion Throne of Bhaal, if you play as a male player character and romance party member Aerie, she becomes pregnant and actually gives birth to a child, which you carry around in your backpack for the rest of the game (it's very safe, stuffing it in with all the swords and daggers and things). This makes me wonder what it would have been like if it were possible for a female player character romancing Anomen to become pregnant. It could have been timed so that the child would not have come to term during the events of the game, and the character would still have been in the early stages of pregnancy at the end of the game. How much harder would it have been to choose between remaining a mortal with Anomen to have the child or becoming a god? (I don't know what would have happened in the latter case: Would the child be lost during the transformation? Would it be born a demigod? Would it be born mortal, and the mother as a god would have to give it up, watching it age and die?). Maybe for some that would have made the decision easier, but for me it would have been much more heart-wrenching.

It would be interesting to see a game featuring a mother character trying to protect her children as they cross a war-torn country (as the video suggests). But really, I'm happy any time I meet a dynamic, believable, engaging female character not defined by her sex (and this goes not just for games, but also for movies, TV shows, etc.). I'm lucky, actually, that I play games with a lot of strong, interesting, complex female characters. BioWare (and others...but I mostly play BioWare) excels at making good characters, and many of them are women.

Both men and women like to see female characters in games. And great games, for the most part, have great characters. So let's see more great female characters in games. Then everybody wins.


Samantha said...

The more I think about your idea of a mother character as the main protagonist, the more I like it. Personally, I think a natural disaster would work, too, like the tsunami in Japan, as an obstacle setting with plenty of room for heroics, gaming tactics and puzzle solving. There's plenty of data now (from companies like Zynga) showing that women, and specifically mothers, are interested in gaming. Somebody smart could make a lot of money in that market with an RPG that appeals to women who enjoy a challenge but don't like the type of violence they see in first-person shooters.

Eleni said...

That's a great idea! I often forget about the huge audience that enjoys non-violent games (e.g. The Sims is hugely popular), but I'd imagine that audience is probably largely female. And just because certain gamers don't want violence doesn't mean they don't want a chance to be heroic. Someone needs to make this game!

Anonymous said...

Well, Jade from "Beyond Good and Evil" is not a biological mother but she runs a small orphanage and is a loving foster parent to all the kids she takes care of. Large part of the game is about obtaining money to keep her orphanage going.

Eleni said...

Oh, I don't know that game. That sounds very cool! Thanks for the example :)