My wife and I sat on the couch watching late night TV and eating a delicious treat from the local grocery story known only as “the cookie”. Actor Josh Brolin sat with Stephen Colbert for a raucous interview. After the interview, my wife turned to me and asked, “Who is Thanos?” She never asks questions about video games or movies so I pounced on the opportunity to show her before she came to her senses.
As we watched the epic trailer for Infinity War, she asked the honest question, “Are there any women in these movies?” I interpreted her inquiry not as a vicious attack, but rather an honest question. A question that I know I have in my core too. Can I be a super hero? Where am I in this movie? How does my story fit in this narrative?
Whether we are watching a movie, reading a novel, or engaged in an intense video game epic, we want to connect with the narrative and characters. To do so we look for characters that we can relate with. Characters that remind us of ourselves, or others we know. We urn for stories that echo our experiences and truth. That echo validates our humanity, experiences, dreams, and journey.
Delving into stories, I sometimes find myself surprised with whom I connect with in a given work. In J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world it seems that the character I should identify with most is Harry Potter. We are both white males. That is maybe how it begins, but as the story unfolds, I find myself resonating most with Hermione Granger. Her nerdiness, love of knowledge, awkwardness, and initial fears of risk/being in trouble all felt attuned to my own nature. The challenge though was that I had to first engage in the story before I found a kinship with any character.
In recent generations, humanity has become more reliant upon our sight in making judgments. Our vision is what drives society today. Virtually all of our media, save music, is reliant upon our vision for consumption. Video games, comics, movies, internet articles, youtube, and social media are a few examples of mediums that we consume on a daily basis that engage primarily with our sight. It should not surprise us then when we look for a character that looks like us to help connect us to a story. Initially, we want to know that there is kindred characters within the context of the story. Characters that share our features become the entry point upon which we are able to become a part of the game, movie, or story.
The inevitable truth is that without seeing ourselves on the cover, then it is less likely that we will welcome that voice into our lives. What credibility can a movie have in our lives if it never earns the right to be heard? Until a story is given a chance, we miss the chance on finding the deeper connection and any relevant truth to our lives.
Retro gaming avoided this issue as a result of limited space. Story was often skipped to make room for gameplay. When characters were involved, their pixelated art style often limited the definition of the character and allowed players to imagine details as they saw fit. Players then bypassed much of the “save the princess/world” clichés and simply enjoyed the gameplay.
As the medium has developed, so have the narratives contained within. I first experienced this with Squall in Final Fantasy VIII. I began as the hero, but as Squall’s character developed, the connection fades (who wants to picture themselves that emo and melodramatic?).
As video games have grown, developers have addressed this issue in a few creative ways. The first is allowing the player to create the look of the character. Creating the look and gender of a character allows the players to make themselves a part of the video game. The story is no longer about someone else, but one that we can immerse ourselves in and experience firsthand. The main character here often is silent, or players choose from text options to respond to questions.
Master Chief from Halo is a perfect example of the second way that developers remove barriers from players being a part of the game. Master Chief keeps his helmet on, obscuring his appearance. When the game moves into first person mode, we are now inside the helmet and have become the character. The actions are now ours. The story is about us. Especially if you have deep grizzled voice! Both options eliminate many barriers from players seeing themselves as the main character.
My wife has no interest in comic book movies. This ultimately makes sense, as it seems comic book movies have little interest in women. Video games have also seen limited adoption from women. For long periods, the gaming industry had no interest in these groups. Women were only featured as rewards at the end of the game, or objects to look at. Not exactly a welcoming first step.
Two implications for the future of gaming. The first is that gaming is an industry. If they want to expand their audience then gaming must continue to push into allowing players to envision themselves as the central character. Millions are turned off when they do not see themselves, as my wife was. To grow the market, these companies will likely find ways to continue this growing trend in order to make the most possible. The Dead or Alive series is a perfect example. DoA was once a symbol of sex with scantily clad women bouncing around the virtual playground. Team Ninja has recently noted in interviews how they added deeper narrative and more combat appropriate clothing. Developers are seeing how they are limiting their audience and art now and have begun to remove some barriers to potential gamers.
The second implication is for the established audience. We as gamers have a choice. We can bemoan fewer representations of white males in gaming, or we can celebrate this inclusion. Gamers can whine about DoA and other games adapting, or we could celebrate and welcome new gamers. I mean, more gamers means more friends to play games with right? I personally would be happy to adapt if it allowed me to play video games with my wife instead of getting eye rolls and sighs of exasperation.