Feminism and video games are not two concepts often linked together. However, after reading recently about the shifting representations of Lara Croft and her potential as a ‘feminist icon’ I was inspired to reflect on my own experience as a gamer while growing up.
I was never one for playing hard-hitting action games like Tomb Raider; I was more of a Nintendo – and sometimes Sega – girl myself. My childhood was a fusion of Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, and then as I got older games that demanded more of my time, games that immersed you in their alternative worlds. The ones that spring most vividly to mind are Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon. Finally, a preteen, I dabbled in the exciting Playstation 2 games that my brother owned – Grand Theft Auto and a number of car-racing games which I cannot recall the name of.
It’s an interesting thing, thinking back to all those virtual scenes you encountered in childhood, and trying to recount the representation of gender within them. The really retro games played on brick-like black-and-white Game Boys become submerged by the pastiche of all the newer, technicolour versions, with 3D characters that had realistic clothes, voices, breasts.
Yet when I do think of it, I realise just how gendered my whole video-gaming experience was. Certainly, there was a dearth of what might be (cringingly) called feminist heroines. Even the very early Mario games, which involved navigating a barely perceptible pixel man over a flat world of fatal drops and question-mark boxes, bore out the signs of gender stereotypes within their very narrative. Rescue the princess. I remember the motivation for getting to the next level was the little cut-scene where Princess Daisy (or was it Peach) would proclaim helplessly ‘Oh Mario!’ and transform shockingly into a spider-like creature, hopping away as if cursed to a land to be later rescued. This story is hardly surprising, given the perpetual presence of damsel-in-distress narratives within our culture, and I’ll admit that throwing an Italian plumber rather than handsome prince into the works is a little subversive – but Mario is always a good place to start.
Maybe Sonic is a little more interesting. Although the characters are weird, anthropomorphised talking hedgehogs, echidnas and the like, they still carry conventional gender distinctions. Well first there’s Amy Rose (strangely enough, that was almost my name), the pink-haired hedgehog with the obnoxious girly voice who is desperately in love with Sonic, the hyper-cool protagonist who frequently shirks her advances with an air of embarrassed affront. The game thus dramatises a kind of courtly love, but in parody, with Amy represented as silly, indeed somewhat ridiculous, in her affections for Sonic – who is evidently so totally out of her league. The unequal power balance reinforces ideas about female irrationality, and the deprivation of agency in the face of love. I won’t go too far with this though; after all, I didn’t play all the games, or watch the TV show. Maybe Sega threw a bit of kick-ass feminism into Amy’s character somewhere down the line?
They did have one character, at least in my favourite game, Sonic Adventure 2 Battle, that could give Lara Croft a run for her money. Rouge was a lipsticked bat with knee-length leather boots, a sassy, femme fatale always teasing Knuckles – the dread-locked echidna always punching the air and grunting to show his strength. Although she had her shortcomings, being on the dark-side of the game’s narrative, Rouge was perhaps one of the first feminist video game characters I encountered.
Following my Sonic and Mario phases, there was a period where Harvest Moon took over much of my Friday nights. I loved this game; it had a slightly surreal, old-fashioned atmosphere, with its sweet music and appealing graphics, but reflecting back the gender question is pretty damning. You played a young man who ran a farm, and got to grow your own crops, milk your own cows and keep the village tramp, Murray, out of your food-stash. Moreover, one of the central aims of the game was to choose and court a wife. There were three options, each embodying female stereotypes of a sort. First there is Celia, the warm-hearted farm-girl who can be easily wooed by presenting her with flowers. She is a bit pathetic; she wasn’t even offended when I gave her a bit of ragwort. Then there was Muffy, the blonde barmaid in a red-dress with a ‘fun’ personality. I don’t think I have to elaborate much further there. Lastly, Nami, a kind of New Age type with vivid red hair, who was a bit more interesting – a wandering traveller. The whole ‘wooing’ process, looking back, is a bit farcical – not just quaint but pretty hilarious – but I realise that maybe for the young children to whom this game was designed, playing a game that trains you to court a wife by giving her flowers is probably not the healthiest of socialisation processes. On that note, there was a Harvest Moon game where you got to play a girl, but I couldn’t comment as I have never played it.
A similar style of game to Harvest Moon is Animal Crossing, where you owned a house in a village of charismatic animals. The chief aim of the game was to pay off your mortgage, a fact that you were constantly reminded of by the maddening presence of Tom Nook, the local entrepreneur who you are forever in debt to. Animal Crossing lets you play either a boy or girl protagonist, and I would argue is a little bit more deconstructive in its representation of gender roles. At least, it gives you a lot more power over your character. Gender is less prominent – although the villagers occasionally make stereotypical comments, Tom Nook is patronising to your character whether you are a boy or a girl and the hair salon allows you to experiment with an array of bizarre hairstyles which undercut traditional gendered appearances. Playing Animal Crossing allows you to feel in control, to experiment. You can even design your own t-shirts, and decorate your home with a myriad of furniture (at a cost). No, I think this game would be better read from a Marxist perspective (Tom Nook as evil petit-bourgeois tyrant).
This leads me finally on to the more obviously problematic gender representations in games like Grand Theft Auto and all the racing titles. Women are stereotypical, red-dressed, often voiceless prostitutes (indeed, ‘picking up’ is often part of the storyline), or else draped over flash cars, offered as rewards for race-winning but never racing themselves. Indeed, I’m sure there was one game where the amount of money you had from winning races determined the kind of ‘girlfriend’ you could have. Persistently, women are absent from the action except as hyper-sexualised commodities.
What seems consistent in the very different games that I played throughout my childhood is both their underrepresentation of women and their portrayal of women as objects. In Mario, the princess is the goal object, spurring the player onto the next level. In Harvest Moon, women are presented merely as potential brides, whose courting is in itself a ‘level’ to be achieved. In the more violent (and should I say 18+) games, women are basically sexual commodities to be bought and abandoned at the player’s will. In Sonic, female characters have more autonomy, but still fall back into stereotypical roles: helpless, childish lover-girl and femme fatale. Perhaps only Animal Crossing offered a bit of transgression of rigid gender binaries, with its largely asexual characters and emphasis on player choice in terms of outfits and style.
My readings, I’ll admit, are of course narrow, and perhaps all of the games have now not only changed with the times (it’s been a good few years since I’ve picked up a game console) but even the ones I played may have had exceptions to the gendered rule. The point of this article is to flag up the more obvious problems video-games present for feminism, in reproducing highly-conventional stereotypes in their representation of female characters. Achieving gender equality is difficult when children and adults are like are literally immersed in virtual realities where characterisations mirror all too vividly the limited representations of gender that have for decades pervaded society. Art and life are always going to bounce off one another, and this is why, reflecting back now with the maturity of a critical mind, I am able to realise the stereotypes I was exposed to – stereotypes which back then probably seemed normal and natural. I am sure there are numerous games which dissolve stereotypes in their representation of gender, and maybe Lara Croft could be a postmodern feminist icon. I won’t know until I play.