E3 2018: Female Leads in Games
This year’s E3 revealed the next installments of several game series. It also revealed a proliferation of female characters in these games, with some celebrating it and some pushing back. Two titles that have received extra attention on this front have been Wolfenstein: Youngblood and Battlefield V. I think these are both useful areas of focus because they allow us to look at the issue with some level of differentiation and nuance, so I will primarily discuss them as well.
Before I do that, one thing that is useful to sit in the back of our minds at all times on this topic is that fact that female lead characters are nothing new to video gaming. Nintendo broke major ground in this arena back in 1987, with the release of Metroid and the character Samus Aran, who is revealed to be female at the end of the game (if completed quickly enough). That was over thirty years ago.
Since then, there have been other female leads in gaming. Just the next year, Princess Peach was one of the four playable characters in Super Mario Bros. 2, alongside both Mario and Luigi, rather than merely the damsel in distress (and three-year-old me tended to play as her). A more iconic example, of course, is someone like Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series, who debuted in 1996, and unlike Peach, she does not have to share that lead with male characters.
Still, the opposite of this social trend has more often been the case. Peach has frequently found herself in the position of needing rescue from Mario again and again (Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Galaxy). Women who take a more proactive place in a story are often still supporting characters to their male counterparts. In the critically acclaimed Final Fantasy X, the female members of the party are the white mage, the black mage, and the thief classes, while the men are the ones with the big swords who charge into the fray.
Even in titles where a woman is the undisputed lead can have negative implications. Bayonetta presents a rather sexualized heroine, her positive traits of intelligence notwithstanding. Life Is Strange almost seems to work because Max is a timid, non-violent person in a game that largely relies on socializing as means of progression. In other words, she fits very well into the conventional idea of the female, even if Life tries to challenge conventions throughout its plot and characters. With the next releases of Wolfenstein and Battlefield, we see an attempt to address this perpetual puzzle on how to include women in a positive manner. Just how successful have developers been?
Like the public response, I would say the success has been mixed, with Wolfenstein ultimately laying out a more positive way forward, and I think this is because Muse understands the canvas on which it paints a bit better than DICE.
For one, Wolfenstein: Youngblood takes place in an alternate history of an alternate 1980. The setting, therefore, is bound to deviate from what we associate with Nazi-fighting and that period of time. We have no expectations to be upset. If the premise is one that is heavily divorced from reality, we can toy around with the execution more. The only thing that the Wolfenstein series needs to do is to give a convincingly realistic idea of how Nazis would have re-shaped the Earth, had they won World War II, and there is a lot of room for plausible creativity in that.
Battlefield generally does not take on the conceit of alternate history. If we look at 2016’s Battlefield 1, we observe an exercise in historical fiction, but one that tries to anchor itself to reality. Actual units, such as the 369th Infantry Regiment, and actual events, such as the decisive Battle of Cambrai in 1918, are part of this game’s campaign. The Europe of 1918 is made to fit the era and does not resemble the Europe of 2016. With V’s trailer, we see a kind of a wrench thrown in that style through the introduction of female frontline soldiers. Of course, it remains to be seen what exactly Battlefield V will do with its female characters in the campaign, but we all know that this is something that simply did not happen in World War II, except in rare and weird circumstances.
Addressing the criticism of this, Oskar Gabrielson, head of DICE, tweeted:
First, let me be clear about one thing. Player choice and female playable characters are here to stay.
He went on to add:
Our commitment as a studio is to do everything we can to create games that are inclusive and diverse. We always set out to push boundaries and deliver unexpected experiences. But above all, our games must be fun!
There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to make games like this. That said, there is a problem in setting a goal that does not paint well onto the canvas that you want to use, and I think this is the point of contention in the community. If you want the aesthetic of the game to suggest inclusiveness and diversity, maybe centering your game on an event in which the chief actions were conducted by white men is not the right move. Otherwise, it is hard to read Gabrielson’s comments as anything other than sanctimony and pandering. Granted, there are few examples from Western history in which non-white non-men had an equal or major role, but as Wolfenstein demonstrates with its alternate history, and as Call of Duty demonstrates with its alternate futurism, the limit on canvases is not as great as one might think.
You can bet that every misogynist in the gaming community is against female soldiers in Battlefield V, simply because they are misogynists, so let us make no mistake that some of the protests have some malice behind them. Yet, let us not make the additional mistake of assuming that malice is the exclusive progenitor of protest. A desire for historical accuracy, in order to magnify the effect of immersion and suspension of disbelief, is not altogether unfair. Successful immersion is often what separates the good games from the bad, as the BioShock and Assassin’s Creed series have proved.
Still, another thing to keep in perspective is that DICE is only one developer. Their making a game the way they want to make it does not mean that we will never see another immersive, realistic game about events such as World War II. If it is really that much of a problem, just spend your money on a different shooter game.
At the end of the day, though, the key takeaway for consumers and producers alike is that DICE puts off the more “conservative” base of the gaming community, while still failing to advance a truly positive and genuine experience for the underrepresented peoples of the world. This does not have to be the case. Nothing says that inclusiveness should come at the cost of other dimensions in a game that make for great experiences, and it seems to me that the main problem is the assumption, whether conscious or not, that dimensionality is a zero-sum endeavor, that we must sacrifice certain qualities of a game for the sake of social advancement.
Furthermore, preserving some thematic aspects is not the same as opposing social advancement. If I play as the Zulus in a Civilization game, my units should probably not be white-skinned. If a failure to distinguish this becomes the status quo in gaming, then we might actually start to see a problem.
Wolfenstein: Youngblood shows a solid grasp on this distinction. We should celebrate this example for meeting any social goals that it might have had, without compromising the game. Now, if the game ends up not being that great, let us also remember that it has nothing to do with having female characters and is purely a product of bad design. Anyone who cannot parse the two like that gives credence to the claims of misogyny out there.
With that said, I am looking forward to just how these games are executed. Until we play them, we should keep an open mind.