Feminist is such a loaded word I almost didn't use it in my title. But really it is about equality nothing more and nothing less, so I think it is appropriate for what I want to write about. I want to take a look at some of my favourite games, that also managed to handle gameplay related gender in a new way or that made me think, hopefully both.
This game is amazing, it also happens to have an all female cast, but this is no Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball or the Newton defying girls therein, our heroine wears an asexual orange jumpsuit. It is a FPS games, so you aren't aware of your gender in the game at first, but most FPS games have male protagonists if not an all male cast and involve lots of shooting and killing. In portal you don't shoot bullets, but large portal holes which seems almost so obviously pseudo-sexual as to be crass, and perhaps would be if they weren't such a beautiful and fundamental part of what makes this game outstanding; it shifts the aim of the game from killing your opponents to outwitting the AI that has you trapped. Ultimately any game that offers cake as a reward knows exactly which of my buttons to press.
Primal turns the traditional Mario plot on it's head. At the beginning of the game Lewis is abducted, and it is up to his girlfriend and our heroine Jen to find him and rescue him. Not afraid to kick ass Jen literally morphs into a formidable warrior across the course of the story and thanks to some great voice acting from Hudson Leick and Andreas Katsulas and a descent script we get a much more well rounded character than someone like Samus from the Meteoroid Prime series. The game is based over a series of elemental worlds that thematically support the Gaia hypothesis, named after a Greek mother goddess. Also there is a yin yang relationship between order and chaos throughout the game.
Much has been written about Lara Croft, but the original game was great fun and ground breaking. Released in 1996, a year after TV's female action hero Xena: Warrior Princess hit the screen, gaming saw it's first female lead, one that would give Indiana Jones a run for his money. Unfortunately the Tomb Raider series has failed to develop significantly enough to retain it's leading status in gaming culture, we have seen Lara's exaggerated figure fall foul of ridiculous physical design changes that pander to the fan-boy pin-up fantasy, rather than any real character development. Even the latest instalment which takes some interesting lessons from Assassin's Creed in terms of character movement falls short of the innovative seen in Mirror's Edge.
Beyond Good & Evil
In Beyond Good and Evil, Jade is our main character, but we also see female characters in positions of power throughout the game. In the game, although you can use martial art skills and a Dai-jo stick your main tool is a camera to collect information, document creatures, solve puzzles and ultimately to look for the truth. The story is also interesting because it deals with a corrupt government and notions of the freedom of the press. The characters are well developed and the subtlety of Jade's character is offset by Double-H who is an archetypal masculine hero with a code of honour and a preference for brute force solutions, but he's not dislikeable.
Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Dreamfall is a sequel, but since I haven't played the original I shall not comment on it. I really enjoyed this game, mostly because of the depth of the plot and the characters in the story. It has obvious comparisons to Beyond Good and Evil; our main heroine is also 20 years old, street smart and trying to crack open a massive conspiracy. April Ryan, the character from the original game, also appears in Dreamfall, but Zoe Castillo is our primary character, who is searching for her missing boyfriend in a similar fashion to Primal and who also travels across multiple worlds to reach her goal. The story also examines themes of religious fanaticism through the third character that you play in the game; Kian Alvane who's faith in his Azadi rulers offers him a means to justify his acts of violence.
So there it is my top five, there are however a few games that deserve an honourable mention; Urban Chaos, released in 1999 was a game with a black woman, Darci Stern, as the main character. However gameplay was lacking and I never finished it, so I can't include it on my list. It was also filled with hookers as Darci was a cop who's task it was to clean up the streets. But nearly ten years later and there is still a very real lack of black female characters in games, all the women in my list are light skinned and dark haired, to the point where it has almost become its own stereotype. Only in Beyond Good and Evil is her ethnicity vague, and while I have seen Jade being described as a black female character, to my mind it is ambiguous rather than explicit. Sexuality is also marginalised, with very few examples of lead characters being explicitly gay. Fear Effect is one game where there is a lesbian relationship alluded to, but since I've not played it I can't comment on its portrayal. Most games are passive about same sex relationships, such as RPG games that allow the gamer to decide, for example The Sims or Fable 2. Jade Empire allowed you to play from a selection of set male and female characters, which can romance different male and female characters depending on your gender, however even with the set characters it is at the gamer's discretion.
Another lacking representation of women in games is in age. Old women just don't exist in games as far as I can tell, and certainly not as primary characters. If there is an old woman she will often take a narrative role, such as in Fable 2, but even then age isn't explicit. Given that older women gamers is a huge growing market, I wonder if this will change as casual gaming becomes even bigger. But I imagine as with other media, where women over fifty seem to disappear as though consumed in a modern day Logan's Run, it will take some time for this to be addressed. Second Life may have unleashed a plethora of virtual furries but few want to play as old people, after all no-one likes to think about getting old.
With the increasing flexibility of RPG characters or gaming avatars and the increase in MMOGs, perhaps we will see this change on-line first. We can use these tools to create change and to challenge our own expectations of our gaming experiences.