In a recent interview in the New York Times, video game executive Jade Raymond explained to the world how her industry has begun to push towards previously uncharted diversity in game characters and themes. While Raymond estimates that this reactionary change has emerged from a desire on the behalf of audiences for more realistic characters, original ideas, and engaging plots, both friends and foes of video game culture are left to wonder about the significance of these changes for our society. Just how far into the political arena do video games belong, and what does this mean for the game enthusiast?
The Political Influence of Art
One place to begin this discussion is in ancient Athens. More than two millennia ago, Plato put forward his argument that the arts should be censored in an ideal society because of the danger they posed to individuals by appealing to the irrational size of the human mind. While modern politicians may have different reasons for wanting to censor and restrict modern media, most people can agree that this sentiment is nothing new to society. In 2011, a move was made to ban sales of violent video games to minors (this decision was struck down by the Supreme Court) and in 2013, the video game industry is seeking protection from threats of regulation.
It would be remiss to not point out that as media capable of being an art, video games have already been firmly within the political arena for decades. From feminist critiques of the appearance of female game characters to the moral objections surrounding games that include and promote forms of gambling or violence, to say games are becoming more political can only mean that more games are headed deeper into the already thoroughly explored territory of politics and art.
Video Games: The Gender Debate
Perhaps the best context to understand the relationship between politics and games can be found in the great gender debate that has spanned the past three decades of game development. Certainly any long time video game enthusiast has heard time and time again just how miserable gender role stereotypes are in their favorite game; and for perhaps for good reason.
Not only are video game heroes predominately male, there’s even some arguments that studios avoid female protagonists because games without male leads tend to make less—this is despite the fact that an estimated forty-seven percent of gamers are women. To make matters worse, whatever few exceptions one can conjure to the rule of the male protagonist is usually burdened by every feminine cliché imaginable, making the game’s heroine make Barbie dolls look like the height of realism by contrast.
One important reason for the prevalence of physically exaggerated female leads within the linage of videogames has been the restraints provided by early graphics engines, especially during the late 90’s and early 21st century. When a game character is being rendered in 64 bits and is barely distinguishable from the background it’s placed on, exaggerating feminine traits may be the only way to get across the gender of anyone. (The earliest example of this may be Mrs. Pac-Man and her bright red bow.)
But while the push towards more realistic characters and themes in videogames may end up producing a few less caricatures of women, it may be too optimistic to think that the core of the problem facing gender roles in videogames is likely to change, even with the astounding advancements in computing power since these earliest stereotypes emerged.
The simple truth may be that game audiences prefer to play attractive characters, so studios will continue to produce them. A “less chesty” and more covered-up Lara Croft in the new version of the game might have the appearance of progress at first glance; however, in the end, while the race towards realism and originality may in fact drive video games further and further into political territory, for better or worse, the essential character of games may only be as sophisticated as the audiences for which there are to receive them.