In the games media at large, there has been an ongoing discussion about inclusivity, especially of women in video games and gaming culture. While I can’t speak on behalf of any other “gamer girls,” I can say, from my experiences, I’ve seen inclusivity in gaming for years, literally as long as I can remember. Women have always played an important part in video games for a multitude of reasons. Despite tropes such as the “damsel in distress” or “fighting f**k toy,” these women have agency; They always have and they always will. Although women have consistently had a role in video games, either as a playable character a la Lara Croft in Tomb Raider or as a partial NPC like Nei in Phantasy Star II, we are being told that the amount of women that were shown in games and on stage at E3 2015 is a gigantic triumph for women in gaming. Supposedly, this will make the industry seem more approachable, especially for younger girls who may be shy about getting into gaming. I’m here to tell you my controversial opinion on this subject: Young girls and women do not need female game characters. Young girls and women need well written game characters.
Let me tell you a story, I have a very specific reason I bring up Nei from Phantasy Star II. When I was very young, before I could properly hold a controller, I watched my brother play Phantasy Star II on the Sega Genesis. I would watch in amazement, cheer when he won, and give him a hug and a “try again!” when he lost (I was so nice when I was like, four). When he started to near the end of the game, it became very ominous. *SPOILER ALERT, ENDING OF PHANTASY STAR II* In the final boss battle, before the fighting starts, Nei is killed in a final moment of true evil from the enemy. Little me lost her damn mind.
“BRING NEI BACK!” I yelled at my brother, grabbing his sleeve and yanking him from side to side while he scrolled through battle options.
“I can’t! Now get off of me!” He yelled while trying to combat both the final boss and a pissed off little sister.
I eventually went to my mom, sobbing. I explained that my favorite character (the girl with the purple hair) was killed and my brother had to have done it on purpose just to be mean to me. My brother came out and explained that was how the game was written, which was then supported by my mom. She explained it’s just like a story in a book, it couldn’t be changed because that’s how it was written.
Why go into this long winded detail about how ridiculous I was at a young age? Because it proves a point; Games are able to create stories and tales that draw us in, and in ways we would never imagine. They take us to places we never knew existed or could only visit in our dreams. They are engaging in a way that no other media is, and that engagement transcends many boundaries. After watching my brother play Phantasy Star II, I became obsessed with video games. How could something like that make someone feel so much emotion? How could we get so attached to characters?
As time went on and I played more games with more varied protagonists, male and female, human and not, I started to really learn something about video games. The gender, race, or any other feature of that type really does not necessarily matter to a character, what matters is how well written the characters are. This has even been found by Adrienne Shaw of DiGRA, in her study “He Could Be a Bunny Rabbit For All I Care.” In this study, it was found that playing as a character who was different than the player, like in gender, did not change or detract from the enjoyment of the game. Young girls and women can find role models in any type of person, regardless of gender, in video games. All it takes is to not judge a game before you play it, and you’ll see the vast amount of positive characters who have been created. These characters are individuals who are all the good things we look for in others; Brave, noble, honest, and fiercely protective of their friends and family. Even non-human characters like Banjo Kazooie show these traits, which is why he has become such an iconic and beloved character. Lessons such as love, loss, forgiveness, and even how to deal with death are discussed in games, by characters of all types and walks of life. Well written characters can teach even the toughest of lessons in the most approachable ways, such as why people sacrifice their life for others, in Final Fantasy VII.
All in all, women don’t need female game characters to feel as though a story is inclusive and “for them”. All these characters need is to be well written, showing the full range of emotions, motivation, and even their wants and needs. There are many stories that are told that have valuable lessons in which you play as a male protagonist. There is no reason why a young girl could not learn these lessons from positive role models of any gender in games. Gender does not play a role in how inherently good or evil someone is. Women do not need to see women doing good things to understand they’re good things. Thinking women need to see a woman doing something to grasp that it is a good thing is, quite frankly, an insult to women.
At the end of the day, great writing will always trump out tokenism. Great role models exist in all forms, male or female, and they should be embraced for their character, not their gender.
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