According to this video (lovingly crafted by IGN), the role of women in the latest Grand Theft Auto is again limited to prostitution, stripping, and a quick buck when you run them over with your car. Lovely.
Now I really had no intention of writing about this, as it’s already been covered at Feministing and Female Impersonator (and likely elsewhere). Mostly, I wanted to avoid the inevitable resentment of the gamer set. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a gamer too, but the application of critical theory is not well received by the community. If you complain about the lack of female characters in a game or the roles they occupy, they offer that gender shouldn’t matter (read: as long as you don’t mind playing a male heterosexual character). I don’t object to the fact that you can kill women in the game–you can kill anyone, well not anyone–children don’t exist within the games, and all the adults appear to be able-bodied and within the 18-50 age range, apparently Rockstar has its limits. My objection is to the fact that the women in the game that you can get your hands on are all sex workers who the player can then kill*. There are no male sex workers, there is no option for a female main character. The fact that you can kill male characters does not make all things equal. The women are not cued as neutral, they are disposable–and guaranteed to drop a bit more money than the average John Doe that you might run down with your car.
Really, I’m not picking on Grand Theft Auto, although I do find it to be wholly overrated (I’ve played the games and find more fun in causing mayhem than in the missions–but mayhem is only fun for so long as it too has a limit). It is not enemy number one so much as one example of the issue that exists within the gaming industry. Female gamers are an invisible demographic to most companies. They market to young men, crafting heroes that are generally, white and heteronormanitive possibly with a bevy of buxom women to romance. If women want to play, it shouldn’t matter that the characters and plot are designed for a male audience–they should suck it up and play (although I don’t specifically have a problem with male main characters–after all, the prince in Katamari Damacy was a dude and I didn’t have a problem with him or the girls in the game because gender messages weren’t being sent out–his princely attributes were not connected to his masculinity and there was no message given about femininity either). After all, games don’t communicate anything–which is why there’s no such thing as a humorous or emotional game. So surely, age old stereotypes about gender roles aren’t sneaking their way into this media. Right.
Again, it’s not about killing women. No More Heroes is an orgy of cartoony violence, flayed bodies, and spraying blood, and women get killed too. But they’re not just prostitutes or strippers to be killed, they’re competitors on the assassin circuit. They’re admirable foes, not toss away, no name characters. Even the woman he’s panting over for the entirety of the game is too smart for him. This isn’t a ringing endorsement of the game–I would rent it if anything, it’s only around eight hours, and only if I dig repetitive over the top violence.
It’s about how women are portrayed–and this is the same critical eye I apply to any media I consume. Games are not above reproach.
10 years ago I played Baldur’s Gate for the first time, and surprisingly, they didn’t care what gender I chose. Some npcs were women, some were men, and it didn’t affect their ultimate use. It was fantastic. So I wonder why, ten years later, I’m being told that gender is a big deal, and furthermore that there’s no room for my gender in positions of power within the gaming world. Sounds too much like the real world for me. No thanks.
*I think this point should be clarified but it’s difficult to come up with the proper language. All npcs who are female are not necessarily the ones walking around on the street that the player can interact with. Additionally, not all the women with which the player can interact are available to touch. The ones who show up in cut scenes come to mind, that’s an interaction but you can’t handle them. So, I tried to settle on language that indicates their availability of physical in game interaction.
On violence: Someone was stabbed several times while waiting for the game. Now I’m not going to argue that the game had any effect on the attacker’s predisposition to stab people waiting in lines, but it is chilling that the people standing there had no idea that the violence was real, that desensitization to violence extends into the real world.