We have a new writer in town, a self-proclaimed feminist by the name of Alex Raymond, who at the time of writing has graced our site with three op-eds on the representation of women in video games. While I think issues of gender representation in video games are a perfectly valid and worthwhile topic, I'm consistently finding Alex's articles to be misguided and occasionally misinformed attempts to promote dubious and unscientific ideals about female equality. But it's her attack on the creative freedom of game developers that I find most worrisome- by Mike Doolitle
Consistently, I find myself disagreeing with Alex in her views about the sexual representation of females. In her article about Mass Effect, she suggests that the Rachni (a sentient insectoid species in the game) queen's purpose of "breed[ing] lots of children" is patriarchal, as if bees, ants, or any other species of insect could be accused of being patriarchal simply because they've evolved such that the female does exactly that. Nor was I persuaded by the questionable "commodity model" of sexuality that Alex references in her article on Alpha Protocol, a model which I feel greatly oversimplifies the evolutionary and cognitive roots of human behavior (being an enthusiast of evolutionary psychology I'd love to expound, but that would be an editorial unto itself).
There's a branch of feminism that seems hellbent on promoting the absolute sameness of men and women, a school of thought that suggests that women and men are not, biologically, all that different; that the gender roles we attribute to men and women are insidiously cultural rather than biological. But the cultural ubiquity of various gender roles suggests that there is something biological about the roles that men and women tend to assume. The fact that men and women do play often very different roles in any culture does not mean that they can only play those roles, nor that any given role is inferior or superior to another, nor that either gender is being oppressed or pigeonholed by playing those roles. It simply means that, like any animal, human males and females are biologically hardwired to be more adept at different functions. This shouldn't be taken as an endorsement of the oppression of women, of course, as if I'm suggesting that it's fine for women to be forced to wear Burqas or live like Stepford Wives; merely an observation that we homo sapiens aren't, at our core, that much different than any other primate. It's important to understand that equality and likeness are two completely different things.
I'm tempted to go on, but this is a website about video games, and that's where I want to place the most focus. Even if I fully agreed with Alex's opinions on the allegedly sexist representation of women in games, the greater issue is whether game developers have any ethical responsibility to portray these issues to Alex's (or anyone else's) liking in their works of fiction. Homosexuality, for example, represents roughly 5% of the population (exact statistics vary, but this will suffice as a ballpark). Does that mean that in any game where there is sexual choice, that 5% of the characters should be gay? Does a game like Alpha Protocal commit some sort of moral transgression by portraying a wholly fictional James-Bond-like chauvinistic "alpha male" who manipulates and coerces his way into the hearts and bedrooms of droves of gullible damsels?
This is the fine line I feel Alex's articles cross; it's one thing to raise the issues of gender representation in games as a topic for discussion. Games are, of course, artistic reflections of our cultural ideologies, and it's worthwhile to consider how our culture is reflected for better or worse in the arts. But when Alex starts suggesting that games ought to portray women this way or that, that having an insectoid queen bearing lots of children is patriarchal, that there should be more ugly females, that there should be more homosexual and transgendered characters, it's going too far. Artists in any medium have no ethical obligation to create works that are accurate representations of reality.
These are works of fiction, and while I would certainly welcome and applaud more games that portrayed women in less traditional roles and/or explored more complex themes of sexuality (of which, as many readers have noted, Mass Effect is a fine example), I draw a line before saying that the creative minds behind video games are under any ethical obligation to do so. Just as I feel a rocker like Trent Reznor need not apologize for vulgar, graphic and controversial lyrics, I do not think developers need to apologize for creating fictional representations of common gender roles simply because some people believe these roles to be derisive. We can discuss these issues and encourage developers to break the mold, but ultimately we must respect their creative freedom, even if we don't endorse it.
Originally appeared at gamecritics, click view for more information