The Test of Time
The controversies that surround gender politics, whether you consider it to be a good or bad thing, are well renowned for their ability to creep into almost every aspect of our everyday lives. Even the precious downtime hours of the weekend that we spend tantalizing ourselves with entertainment are ripe with subtle implications towards the creator’s stance on gender politics. It would seem as though with each new age of revolutionary technological advancement, somebody, somewhere has managed to find a way of converting it into a new form of entertainment. First it was the novel, then television and now; well, of course it’s video games. Much like novels and films, video games have been equally affected by second-wave feminism that saw social and political changes in women’s rights throughout the 20th century. However, despite this, games have only recently begun to subvert their outdated gender stereotypes. Certainly there has been a fair share of half-hearted attempts to promote gender equality in the past (think no further than Ms. Pacman) but the more modern endeavors are far more relevant.
So why is it that games like Mirror’s Edge, Remember Me, Beyond: Two Souls and last year’s Tomb Raider stand out not only as revolutionary, landmark titles for pro-feminist gamers, but also as generally good games? For the most part, it’s all down to the writing.
Bridging the Gap
When the shift from 2D to full-3D games was finally made possible by consoles like the SNES and Atari Jaguar, the realisation of telling a story through cinematography excited many budding developers. The Nintendo 64 is one of the best examples of an early home console that benefitted from a wide range of story-driven games – some of which are still passionately defended today as the best in their genre or series. However, games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time didn’t become the cultural phenomenon it is today just for being pretty to look at. Now that games were able to digitally utalise the same techniques that cinematographers and cameramen were using to make movies, the notion that games could actually start telling half-decent stories through angles, colours, ambience, music, posture, distance and facial expressions quickly manifested itself. It resulted in our beloved Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, as well as Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, Resident Evil and a whole host of other titles that have helped bridge the gap between video games and movies. Despite all their early naivety, these forerunners to the games we experience today were rife with caricatures. Whether it’s the damsel-in-distress Princess Peach or the American capitalist-incarnate Wario, it took over a decade for our childhood games to grow out of their dirty habits of relying on pre-existing stereotypes to characterize their casts. Brought about somewhat by the revelations of the feminist movement, games in the last 5 years have featured a flurry of self-sufficient female role models for women. But just what does all of this have to do with writing though?
In the study of linguistics, there are a number of theories that point towards women having a weaker and inferior language to men. Hang on, before you get all riled up, these theories were based on studies conducted by female researchers and psychologists. Robin Lakoff’s work is generally considered to be the most accessible and well-known, even though it dates all the way back to 1975. However, regardless of its age, many of Lakoff’s theories have stood the test of time. Some of her theories include the claim that women use more interrogatives in speech, (that’s just a fancy way of saying ‘question’ for those of you that are unfamiliar with the term) more intensifiers (which is basically just a word like “so” or “really”) and use less expletives (swear words). Jumping back to Princess Peach, you might have noticed that her speech tends to abide with these theories like a Paragon Shepard does the law.
On the other hand though, we have characters like Lara Croft, Faith and Nilin that have risen to the forefront of the fight against video game sexism, armed with subversive speech, desexualized figures and an unstoppable will to thrive. I’m sure by now you’re wondering what exactly it is that makes these character’s speech so subversive. The answer is quite simple. The writer – Rhianna Pratchett in Lara and Faith’s case – simply applies a masculine speech formula to the leading ladies as opposed to the typical feminine one. As a comparison, Zimmerman and West, a pair of language theorists who have conducted studies similar to that of Robin Lakoff’s but with mixed-gender groups, theorized that men are more likely to interrupt women in conversation, use expletives more often (that’s swear words incase you’d forgotten) and speak less frequently than women.
To see these theories in practice, you only need to take a glance back at last year’s Tomb Raider game to see where this is going. Remember in one of the opening scenes of the game where Lara is arguing with Dr. Whitman and she keeps interrupting him? How about all those occasions where her good-girl upbringing slips up and she curses? What about the fact that Dr. Whitman actually speaks more than Lara, yet is passive and exerts less power? All three of these ground-breaking feminist titles have gained the prestige they truly deserve because the developer’s awareness of the gender issues surrounding video games, the media and more importantly our society, has seeped into the writing. For the most part, it is a combination of speech and actions that help us create an emotional connection with a character. As much as we all like video games, it is difficult to deny that many of them still walk into the pitfalls of relying entirely on their female character’s appearance and role within the game as surefire way of crafting the next feminist icon. I suppose the only thing we can do now is keep our fingers crossed that future developers and writers are taking note of Tomb Raider and Beyond: Two Souls’ runaway successes.
(This is a topic I’m particularly passionate about and thus ended up writing an article on for a fake video game magazine for my english language studies. I could ramble on about the gender inequality in video games and the recent boom in subversive female protagonists for days, but alas word counts and specific marking criteria restrained me.)