Damn Straight

“Girls want superheroes, and the boys want superheroes.”

Why is it that it takes a four year old girl to tell us this?  The answer of course is that it doesn’t, but you wouldn’t necessarily get that view by looking at one of the world’s premier entertainment – and storytelling – industries: video games.  Here’s Riley Maida, telling us how it is:

I found Riley after she was mentioned in Polygon’s excellent editorial, No girls allowed.  I’d recommend you go read it; it’s an excellent piece.  The editorial got me thinking, because I love video games and the stories they can tell.  I was thinking recently that I’m playing less games despite this, and not just because of “life;” I’m playing less games because less of the stories being told are interesting to me.  War simulators and sports games don’t have great stories (generally predictable, if there’s a story at all), and some of the games with appreciably good story have unrealistic characters, musclebound freaks of nature I just can’t relate to, or near-naked women who couldn’t fight a horde of demons let alone make it through a mall.

As a storyteller, I find it kind of odd that there are books and stories made where people are not equal.  I don’t mean not equal as in, a story about apartheid; it’s necessary for inequality to be a part of that story.  I mean not equal as in, because you’re a woman your role is to have a) breasts and b) poor dialogue options.  Being a dude who’s white, I kind of have life on easy mode, but that doesn’t mean I need to tell stories like an asshole.  For me, I feel like the telling of stories is an honour, and I’d do a great injustice if I was to make the women in my books less than human.

Because that’s what they are.  Sure, I’m a guy; I don’t have life experience as a woman, but I also don’t have life experience as a werewolf.  I just try to let the people in my work tell their own stories.  George RR Martin is an excellent model to follow; not only is he a Jedi at writing epic fiction, but his stories are full of powerful characters – their sex is irrelevant.

Having now got that rant out, things are not all bad.  As mentioned, Martin exists – his work is top notch.  But what about where this started: video games?  Again, the news is not all bad.  For all that there’s a mess of generic dudebro games that make me want to throw up my shoes with their grotesquely muscled men and women wearing chain mail bikinis (neither of which are good examples of humanity), there are cogent, relevant, and thoughtful works out there.

Remember Me, whilst a little flawed in its execution, has a main protagonist Nilin who is smart, streetwise, and working outside the law for greater good.  Mirror’s Edge, a critical if not commercial success, has hero Faith who thinks and works differently yet still in an action context, a powerful context.  Neither Nilin nor Faith walk around half naked; they wear clothing appropriate for their environment and their tasks, much like any human being might.  And The Last of Us is great; it treats its subject matter with dignity and great respect, and I can’t praise it highly enough; both the main roles, reprised by Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, have some of the best humanity I’ve seen.

Companies like Ubisoft are employing game designers like Jill Murray who are challenging the industry, trying to ensure diversity in game characters:

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I love games for the stories they can tell, and I don’t mind if the avatar I’m experiencing the story through is male or female.  If companies make games with great stories, I will buy them, irrespective of whether the protagonist is male or female (or a robot, whatever).  I want better stories, real stories, that make me laugh and cry and cheer for the hero and hate the villain.  I want stories told by women and men, for all of us.

Is it too much to ask?

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8 Replies to “Damn Straight”

  1. I don’t think it is, and thankfully there are some great companies out there producing quality games for people like you and me 🙂 Things seem to be swinging around to where men in particular are no longer as concerned about having to play a female character, which is great and allows for more interesting kinds of story telling when you can flick between characters etc to get a fuller story.
    Funnily, I’ve had similar conversations with women who don’t get how I can get along so well with men – what’s the secret? Well, I treat them as people, and they tend to treat me as people in return… (I think it’s kind of simple, but I guess this ‘men and women are so different!’ thing that has been touted for generations has build up some barriers there).

  2. Maybe it’s a sign of our changing times, or rather, a sign of older stereotypes dying away? I know in the business world there’s a lot of faulty thinking at the top, driven by dinosaurs who are unable to change. If the world is a greater model of that (which it probably is, as it can be about population and demographics), as those people die (true story) we start to get the fresh thinking coming in.

  3. Do you really think George writes females really well? Because I think all his female characters (with the exceptions of Arya and Dany) are SUPER DUPER ANNOYING. I give him credit for acknowledging that Cersei was pretty much handed a raw deal and is forced to use her sexuality as the only tool in her arsenal but how come her brother has been allowed to grow and develop and she remains essentially the same? She has tremendously poor judgment, as does Catelyn. I personally think that Ned also displayed a great deal of poor judgment but he is somehow redeemed because he is so noble (blergh). thus far I actually haven’t seen any of his female characters display any type of great strategic thinking. Dany is doing ok coz she is badass and she is so GOOD (but again I would argue she is rather one-dimensional where the male characters are far more complex – i.e. Jamie and the Hound).

    I don’t know anything about video games but I remember reading somewhere one game where you could choose the lead to be either male or female which sounded kind of cool to me 🙂 Also, Riley is awesome. it’s astounding how soon gender norms are established.

    1. We probably need to differentiate “equal” from “good representation.” In his world, women are powerful people who do interesting things. Cersei makes bad calls, but is nevertheless more than just a producer of kings – she has tremendous influence. I’m not sure I agree that she only uses her sexuality, the caveat being I’ve read two books out of the 321 he’s written 🙂 In the TV series, she doesn’t get her tits out on a regular basis except for her own pleasure with her bro (…which is a slightly disturbing topic left for another time).

      The whole issue of good choices is another interesting topic – you may not feel that the women are well represented (realism?). I can’t comment on that due to lack of experience being a woman, but I would offer that men in that series make some stupendously bad calls as well. The Red Wedding says hi, for example. I think Dany has good examples of strategic thinking – her choices in terms of allies shows insight into the way people work.

      But to answer your question, I don’t know if he writes them well. That’s a subjective thing, and whether or not he writes Tyrian well is another point of question (e.g., I don’t think the Imp is “realistic” in terms of how he operates in the world, but I think he’s awesome despite that – equal, powerful, but with his own set of shitty circumstances to work with adn around). I think he definitely writes them as interesting and powerful.

      1. she only has influence as a producer of kings AND someone men would like to sleep with. I have read all the books and she seems to have less insight into herself and her decisions as the series progresses. for sure there are some people like that. however I think the GOT has more women with bad judgment than men and that men are allowed to grow and develop as characters whereas the women remain somewhat static (except for the children – Arya and to some extent Sansa are permitted some personal growth but we’ll see where that gets them once they are fully grown). Cersei thinks she has influence but is knocked off her high horse again and again. by men, of course.

        I really love how George allows the men to grow and change and in doing so, upends the notion of “purely” good or “purely” evil. I would just like to see more of that personal growth with the women. in that sense I do not believe he writes the women as fairly as he writes the men.

        Bet you that the reason you don’t see Cersei’s bosoms more in the show is she has a rider in her contract because she is not just a throw-away actress.

        Jury’s out on whether the Red Wedding was a strategically bad call. it was an AWFUL thing to do but that doesn’t make it a bad idea (although I do hope it will turn out to have been a bad call). it’s been a while since I read the books but my take-away vis-a-vis women is more Madonna/whore than really one would like to see in a set of books written in the here and now.

        could be I am just sensitive. I AM a woman after all.

  4. Sensitive or just with a perspective view? I don’t think any of this dialogue’s wrong – I see it differently to you, but that could be a bunch of factors. Is it because I’m a guy? Is it because my attach with the story is much more recently through the (excellent) TV series?

    Men vs. women with bad judgement is quite a subjective measure – it might be a valid metric, but it could also be said that their mistakes are spectacular when they do it. The whole genus of the story is pretty much because Ned fails to assess character correctly, relying on a lost nobility.

    I guess it boils down to whether or not you think you’d rather Martin was writing, or someone else. Do you feel he’s pushing the mechanism of storytelling, especially from a women’s equality perspective, forward or back?

    1. well, don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed reading the books (I have read all of them). But I certainly don’t think he is doing anything for the feminist cause. books can be misogynistic and still enjoyable (I am looking at YOU, Ken Kesey!). any he probably isn’t a misogynist exactly. he just doesn’t seem to think women are as capable as men. I wouldn’t say he is going backwards necessarily but more that he is maintaining the status quo. I was thinking last night that maybe he writes Arya as less being less annoying than the other girls because she essentially “acts like a boy” in the conventional sense of the term.

      I haven’t seen the show but I was reading a bit about it and I think the show is quite different from the books in terms of character arcs. it may be that Cersei is more sympathetic or at least more admirable (smarter) in the show, ditto Catelyn.

      1. Yeah that sounds reasonable. I know the show cuts huge chunks out of the story arcs, some characters aren’t even there and others get bit parts. Other areas are made larger than life – all for the better TV drama. Maybe the TV version has the more mature approach?

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