Video games are not my field of expertise, but I'd like to think that I understand them enough to have a coherent discussion about them with others.
Although, as a male on the Internet, it's easy for someone like me to overlook the fact that I can have coherent discussions about video games without getting comments along the lines of "Violence in video games doesn't affect real-world violence, and if you say otherwise I will break into your house and rape you."
I mean, what's the excuse for the borderline offensive portrayals of female characters, especially when nearly half of all gamers are women?
I'm not a violent person, but at least the argument that virtual violence doesn't affect real world violence has some validity to it.
And while I get that the issue of women and video games is so prevalent and ubiquitous that there are Wikipedia
pages about it, why does it seem like realistic female video game characters are harder to find than appropriately dressed ones?
If a woman in a video game isn't a Princess Peach-style damsel in distress who has to be rescued by men, then she's some kind of bossy, emotionless pushover who hates men (until she gets it on with some rugged anti-heroic white guy, preferably one with a troubled past).
There are some exceptions, fortunately, and I'd like to illustrate the larger point by going into some detail about one of them.
You know, the woman from the highly acclaimed franchise who controls portals?
No, not Chell from the "Portal" games, but good guess.
I meant Elizabeth from "Bioshock: Infinite."
The 3rd installment of the "Bioshock" franchise is an escort mission with ridiculously complicated plot lines and back story stuff mixed in.
That's basically all the context you need to understand the game.
No? Not enough?
The game takes place in 1912, in an American city called "Columbia."
Columbia is a city filled with racists who literally worship the Founding Fathers - which made it all the more hilarious when the ever-reliable Fox News ran a piece on immigration with graphics featuring a banner that suspiciously resembled the game's logo
Columbia was founded by a religious fanatic named Zachary Hale Comstock, who calls the city a "new Eden" and an "ark" that he sees as being higher than the rest of America, or "the Sodom below."
And by "higher than the rest of America," I don't just mean a "shining city on a hill" kind of high, or a "Denver mile-high" kind of high (which has recently taken on a second meaning).
I mean a "school from 'Sky High'" kind of high, as in, the city is literally floating between 15,000 and 20,000 feet above sea level.
No word, though, on how the inhabitants manage to avoid what would presumably be constant motion sickness.
Anyway, Elizabeth is Comstock's daughter, and she has the power to control tears to alternate realities.
Like, if she were real, she could open a tear and access a reality where the Titanic doesn't sink (which would be great for the victims of the Titanic, but not so much for James Cameron).
Comstock worries about the full extent and potential danger of Elizabeth's powers.
So he does what any adult figure in a Disney princess movie would do:
He locks her away in a tower for 20 years.
As if the premise of being locked away by overprotective guardians wasn't enough of a Disney rip-off, she spends most of her time reading (which she constantly brings up when she recalls something she read) and fantasizing about going to Paris (which she eventually does in a piece of downloadable content that comes with the game).
So she's a combination of both Chell and Belle from "Beauty and the Beast."
The job of the game's protagonist, Booker DeWitt, a rugged anti-heroic white guy with a troubled past, is to get Elizabeth (who, by the way, can also pick locks) out of the tower and as far away from Columbia as possible.
Now the "politically correct" crowd will object to the use of the "damsel in distress" trope in this game.
I sometimes find myself on the side of that crowd, but not always.
When the crowd objected to Bryce Dallas Howard's character
in "Jurassic World," or when Selena Gomez was asked to rank her own hotness
on a scale of 1 to 10 and said she felt like a 6 on most days, I didn't get too caught up in the outrage because, whether or not the incidents were indeed sexist, they're far from the worst possible manifestations of sexism.
Although, it's definitely sexist for everyone in the recent Marvel
cinematic universe to call Black Widow a slut when Iron Man can proudly introduce himself to people as a billionaire playboy and nobody bats an eye.
However, people have made valid complaints about the fact that Elizabeth - despite being incredibly powerful - has her imprisonment and rescue carried out by men, as if she has no agency of her own.
But imagine, if you will, that you're Elizabeth.
You've been kept in a tower for, at most, 20 years.
You can't leave, despite your best efforts.
And aside from choosing what books to read, what kind of meaningful agency would you be allowed to have?
Wouldn't a scenario like that, at the very least, challenge your ability to feel independent?
The answer is yes, according to Elizabeth's voice actress, Courtnee Draper.
As she put it, being held captive in a tower had "halted [Elizabeth's] growth in terms of defining her independence."
But it's not like Elizabeth's useless at everything except being a scantily-clad "damsel in distress" Disney princess archetype.
In fact, I'd argue that perhaps the game developers wanted to play around with, or even subvert, that archetype.
- The game's release had been delayed quite a few times; however, the game's developers seemed to have a sense of humor about it. There's a scene in the game with cabinets showing installments of a children's cartoon called "Dimwit & Duke." Elizabeth approaches one entitled "Flawless Flintlock," and says of it, "It's the newest one in the series. I read it was delayed three times." That line is an obvious reference to the delays mentioned above, so the game's developers would not have been above satire like that. It wouldn't be a stretch then to argue that, rather than try to avoid the trope altogether, the game developers made Elizabeth as a satirical take on it.
- Elizabeth tells Booker she has, in fact, tried to get out of the tower. During combat, she helps keep the player/Booker stocked with health and ammo. And the game very clearly tells the player/Booker, "You don't need to protect Elizabeth in combat. She can take care of herself." That is, despite the aforementioned fact that being locked in a tower for 20 years held back her growth and independence.
- Even without her powers, she still wouldn't be completely useless. That downloadable content I mentioned? It's called "Burial at Sea," which consists of two episodes. Episode 1 follows the same format of the main game, which means Elizabeth is also a non-playable supporting character. Episode 2, however, features Elizabeth as the protagonist of a stealth game (i.e. sneaking up on bad guys and killing them).
That's not to say the game is beyond criticism, like how the plot is so ridiculously complex that I couldn't bother to explain all of it in this entry, and there are some well-supported arguments that could be made against Elizabeth's portrayal in the game.
But if this game proves anything, it's that there can be good video games with realistic female characters.
It isn't a "you can't eat your cake and have it too" scenario.
In this case, there can be both.
Now if only the same could be said for non-white characters...