There has been a real stink over the last few days over the subject of female characters in video games. How should this be of interest to us here on a library blog you may ask? Well, for more than one reason, as I hope to demonstrate. Firstly, I interpret the role of librarian quite broadly, and strongly believe that a library must work to improve its users’ critical skills. People who visit libraries regularly are, in my opinion, much better than those who do not, at understanding the different sides of a story (it is said there are two sides to a story, but in reality, there are usually many more). The news is, of course, nothing more or less than a collection of stories; stories which have been chosen in preference to others, and stories which have been told in one way rather than another, formed, as every story is, by a series of choices made by the author. Given this fact, I think that practically any big news story is fair game for being presented here so that you may practice upon it your skills of interpreting stories, asking how they are being told, why they are being told, and, in whose interest they are being told. Secondly, though, video games are very often now driven by narrative, that is, by stories plain and simple, and these stories shape people’s understanding of reality as powerfully as any other form of stories have throughout history.
So, why the stink? Well, it seems that though video games are as contemporary, as ‘now’, as twenty first century as anything you can probably think of, so too are they very last century in other ways. As science fiction writer William Gibson says, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” In this case, even within a single industry, two mind-states, one backwards-looking and the other forward-looking, can co-exist.
If you were to take an in-depth look at the books in the library, indeed, in any library, separating them into piles by publishing date, earlier at one side of the room, later at the other, you would find that women and girls feature less at the older end of the room. This would be clear from the titles, from the artwork, and certainly from inside the pages themselves. Not only this, but women’s roles in those older books would be smaller, less active, and girls and women would, increasingly as you go back in time, be there to support those more active boys and men, the heroes of the books. Often, in the older books, the women would be the ‘prize’ of the men fighting monsters real and metaphorical.
Now, to refer to Gibson’s words again, the future is not evenly distributed, and though you will find some great books with some great female heroes as you get to the most recent books in the library, so too would you find books with women given only supporting roles. This trend is still around. I am very much aware as a librarian that girls in my library read books about boys much more often than boys read books about girls (you really ought to try that sometimes by the way, boys, you might learn something).
Books do better than film, it has to be said. Women in film are too often still there to look pretty, and too often are there to be ‘won’ as the prize for the boys who literally fight for them.
This problem in film is so bad that author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel wrote a scene in a graphic novel that outlines what has come to be called the Bechdel test. A film passes the test if it has a scene where two named female characters have a conversation about something other than a man. A pretty simple test, you might think. But it is incredible how few successful films pass it.
But if films are bad, video games are much worse, and this is where it has turned ugly over the last few days.
You’ll hear the word feminist sometimes. Words, like stories, can be used, and they can be abused, and this is one that has sometimes be abused. A feminist is somebody (male or female), who believes that women are not shown the same respect, and do not have the same rights and freedoms as do men, and who believes that this is wrong and should be changed. One such feminist recently produced a series of videos about video games and demonstrated, using tens if not hundreds of examples, that video games barely ever have powerful female characters. Instead, women in video games are shown to be passive. They are fought over. Usually, they are shown to be in need of the help of powerful men. Very often, they are kidnapped.
The videos make for worrying viewing, but are entertaining and informative. The feminist in question is not ‘bashing’ (criticising) men. Neither is she ‘bashing’ video games. She loves video games and has played them since she was a kid. But she thinks it is very sad that she usually cannot play these games as a strong female character, and she thinks it is sad that computer games can be, at one and the same time, so cutting edge, and so backward.
Sadly, the reaction to her videos has been rude at best, threatening at worst. She has been forced to leave her home to stay safe. All for expressing her opinion in an intelligent and entertaining way.
Here, as I hope to do with any later pieces I may write about current affairs, I would like to ask what you think about some of this. Why are female characters so often forgotten, added in almost as a second thought, or given such rubbishy parts to play? Why should films be worse than books (if indeed you agree that they are)? Why should video games come in last place? Why should there be such a nasty reaction to this being pointed out? Finally, what are your own experiences?