Saturday, April 11, 2009

Nostalgia Game Design: Surprise! You're a Girl!

This entry is inspired by the research I was reviewing on InvestiGaming. This time I was filtering through the "avatars" tag and summarizing the research and finding highlights. Since all the research is specifically about gender studies and gaming you can be sure there was LOTS to be said about female avatars. The one that I reflected on the most was an article about Samus Aran from the Metroid Series. So on we go.

Back to the Past
Personally, I have never played the Metroid series, but I know it well enough from videos, research and reviews from other players. And mostly from a presentation someone gave in a college class about gender and minorities in film and television...but branched off into video games. (Which was a LANDMINE).

At that point in time, I had learned that Samus Aran was female through Super Smash Brothers where she is a fighter character. (I read her bio which described her as female.) But I had no clue about the series until this presentation. The gentleman said that (and research confirms) that when the series first came out it was a SHOCKER to all. The pixel rendition of a space suit is what the player was shown throughout the whole game. It was not until the end when the space helmet came off did the player come face to face with a pixel head with lucious 80s hair! WHAT!? I WAS A GIRL THE WHOLE TIME? (Correction...you were a woman the whole time.)

It was that shock that gave the Metroid game a spot in the Hallows of Gaming history. Was this a postive role model for female players? A hero who you assumed was male was actually female? Unheard of!? However, it becomes somewhat clear that Samus was not for women but for men. As the presenter told us that if you beat the game in an hour or less, you were rewarded with human Samus in a pixel bikini. Okay hardly anything to shreik about visually but conceptually it's kind of a bummer.

Samus and Me
As I mentioned before I too was surprised by Samus' female identity. Although it was through Smash Brothers. You did not get any reveals in that game, she remained in her suit the whole time. How was I to know? And then looking at the suit you would not guess that it was a female inside.

That changed of course with Smash Brother's Brawl for the Wii and the advent of Zero Suit Samus. The armor comes off again this time to reveal a blue cat-suit and a VERY shapely form. To say the least I was not sure if I was pleased or displeased with this. On one hand, it's clearly eye-candy for the male player and on the other, it IS the only female character in the game that is NOT wearing a dress. AND on the other hand, gender role inforcement in Japan is much stronger I think than here...however...Japan does make more gender friendly games that are equally enjoyed by boys and girls. (Another rant when I research the subject in greater detail.)

Playing a Female Character
Back in the early days of Metroid, it was revolutionary to play a female character in an action-shooter game. And the series continues to flourish with mostly male players. Weird right? Much of the research I show reaffirms that female players prefer to play female characters if such an option is given to them. (However, if game play depends on the gender of the avatar female players try to pick the avatar that is more adventageous.)

The vicious cycle continues as female protagonists are rare in console games of nearly ALL genres. I'm not kidding about this either. It's just NOT getting any better!
If you want numbers I've got some from 2001 - 2008. The balance remains, ALMOST consistantly with male only characters making up 80-some % and females only 12%.
You are more likely to be able to play a non-human or animal character than playing a female human character. WOW. Seriously WOW.

Statistics of course are just numbers. The interpretation is up to the writer. Which is why I always take statistics with a grain of salt. This is what the number IS but what it MEANS is influenced by the writer.
The Divinch Tapes
Video Game Content Analysis
Children Now!
(Just to prove I do my homework...sometimes).

The Action Genre and the Female Protagonist
Some of the articles I read were of course about Lara Croft. But surprisingly there wasn't too much literature on her. It's hard to place her. Because some studies show that when female players choose an avatar to represent them in a game they choose something that is hyper-sexualized or "attractive" to them. Which makes sense to me. I'd rather play an ideal in a fantasy game.
But the thing is that female players don't like to see that hyper-sexuality be objectified or obviously there to satisfy male-gaze. Lara Croft has this problem of not only being a hugely disproportionate design (which was different than the original design...which I got to see. And wow...they should have used it. She was very attractive and wore a cool yet sexy outfit. WHY? WHY DID WE GET BOOBZILLA?), but the cinematic male-gaze and improper outfits. Hot pants, wetsuits that glisten, erotic stretches, and camera angles that get the most beautiful shot of her figure.

At the same time though (so much happens at the same time) Lara is in a traditional male environment and conquering it like Indiana Jones. She needs no male companion to rescue her and her sexuality is never brought up. As far as I know. This is mostly literature review which I admit would be a stronger case if I had played the game for myself.

But there's MY problem. I'd never want to play that game. First of all the box art just have these giant chesticles in my face and a "come hither" expression. BUY ME I'M A SEX TOY!
That's the message I get. Not to mention a lot of negative reviews that surround poor Lara.

But quite recently...very recently...I mean at the past GDC, I found a "booth-babe" statue of the Lara for the newest installment for the series. I was walking around with a male friend and exclaimed, "WOW, she looks normal! I really appreciate that!"

But are there OTHER female protagonists besides Lara in this genre? Again, I only know of those I've read about because I clearly can't find these games at my local Gamestop or read about them in my Game Review Magazines...which I consider trash. (A rant for another day). Anyway, these games were "Primal" which I guess looked cool and Buffy the Vampire Slayer which I feel no connection to.

What Are You Getting At In This Post Anyway?
Ah the point probably would be good to get to. There's lots of literature about negative stereotypes of the female figure throughout ALL visual media. And no matter how much we roar about it, little has changed. Not to bash any guys out there but seriously, who are these chauvanists? Clearly they must be a minority because I haven't really met one! Have I really just been that lucky?

I look at the games I do play most often and a lot of them are actually action-adventure or RPG games. And for most of them, I don't mind the male avatar...as long as I find him attractive. And here is where I wish game developers would get some ideas.
We need more Prince of Persia and the pants of time. (AKA handsome male strippers!)
...
I kid...sorta. Really though, someone not super muscular, lean and athletic is WAY appealing for me as a female. I think real life athletics are smoking hot. That's part of the reason I enjoy watching sports. (It's partly why my mother watches too.)
Same with my female characters. Someone lean and athletic is very attractive to both male and female audiences. And for land's sake wearing something SENSIBLE!
Again my favorite bit of research: Gender Aspects on Computer Game Avatars.
Male and Female participants prefered avatars that were modestly dressed!!

Please, if someone you know and love works in character design for a game company, let them know that both men and women want a positive role model for their female protagonist. Like Samus Aran or Chris from Suikoden 3.

Lastly, womengamers.com reviews their top-ten favorite female characters. Check it out!

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