A Binder Full of NPCs: A Convergence of Thoughts on Female Protagonists in Games
So this has been rolling around in my head for a couple of weeks now, but I’m just now getting a chance to sit down and write about it. When the thought first came to me I wanted to write about Aisha Tyler’s comments about the increased numbers of female characters in video games, as she mentioned the diversity in the NPCs milling around Chicago in Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs as well as the fact that TellTale’s The Walking Dead games had Clem, who was also “probably half-Asian.” In that same response she talked about being able to make your own characters in games like Mass Effect and Fallout (but ignores the fact that the only thing that really changes about the character when you change sex in those cases is the skin) and MMORPGs (don’t get me started on the issues there with armor and jiggle physics).
While other folks have questioned Tyler’s ability to speak about games on the basis of her celebrity (and I suspect the fact that she is a nontraditionally aged black female gamer…sound like anyone else you know?), I want to make it clear that I give Tyler made props as a gamer. She probably has more time (and definitely more resources) to play games than I do and I study games. My questioning of Tyler on this issue comes from a place of objectivity. Tyler has been Ubisoft’s E3 show host for 3 years running and you’d be a damned fool to think that she was going to badmouth them for making you play another emo, white guy in Watch_Dogs (despite there being lots of decorative women milling around), for them giving us another Assassin’s Creed game with multiple male assassins because women are just too difficult to include with all of their special animations and costumes and such, or for only coming within “inches” of having a playable female characters in Far Cry 4 even though the game itself is packed “to the gills” with women (like chum I suppose). Again it was all an issue with the timey-whimey stuff, because women take a lot of time and effort to animate. Unless, it seems, they are gyrating, having sex, or doing some other such important things…but maybe they just have lots of stock animation laying around for that.
The truth is that we really shouldn’t be surprised by Ubisoft’s refusal to give us a fully fleshed out, full fledged, not released on a handheld console that has a seriously limited install base female protagonist considering their past track record with female and minority NPCs even. Sadly (and ironically), Aisha Tyler is right, female characters are everywhere in videogames. On every street corner, on every stripper pole, in every trash can, and in every situation where being scantily clad could be a possibility (or not).
After the latest installment of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women series focusing on women as background decoration was released I almost didn’t write this post, but I decided to anyway because Sarkeesian gives us a good general view of women as decoration she and I aren’t exactly in the same place, but I do give her much respect for pointing out that, contrary to Aisha Tyler’s claims about fully fleshed out female NPCs, most female NPCs are just gyrating bots that say the same oddly sexualized things over and over again regardless of what situation they are in.
In the end what we have to consider is what a game “chock full of women” actually means and to determine when women in a game are actually a hindrance to the cause rather than a help. And we further need to consider what avenues need to be taken to get us to a point of having solid female protagonists that are not just male characters in drag…but that drag thing is a totally different post. And at first blush this solution is going to involve getting more women involved in the games industry (via education and mentoring among other things) and demanding that game companies step up their “games” (pun intended) as well.