As a white male, middle to upper-middle class, I have enjoyed being the core market for videogames for some time. I need not dwell on issues of diversity because either the default character is similar enough to myself, arousing (if female), or otherwise designed with me in mind. I am, however, very interested in the discussion of female, * of color, and GLBT characters in games.
Metroid is often mentioned in a discussion of women in videogames. The revelation that Samus Aran is actually a woman was a landmark even in videogame history. She is cited as a strong character, and yet her sex is little more than token and fetish. Her femininity is revealed only in her striking appearance and once when she displays “motherly” emotions. It seems that the main point to take away from Metroid, and indeed most dialogue about “strong” characters, is that women can be exactly like men in terms of physicality and aggression. This presupposes the universal goal of women to be men and that they are not full or complete until they have the physical power of men.
Samus is almost a token character. True token characters are almost always secondary characters. They have reduced characterization and importance. Their main role is to increase diversity in the cast. An important feature of token characters is that they must not reflect stereotypes. In this area Samus certainly succeeds. The reason we’re talking today about Samus is because the revelation of her sex was a surprise. The game manual specifically refers to Samus as male, and most gamers would assume Samus to be a male anyway. Whether this is due to the demographics of Metroid players, or to a history of male protagonists in videogames, I cannot say.
The most cynical reading of Metroid is this: women can kick ass and be bounty hunters, however, they must be enhanced by a technological “power suit” prominently featuring a large, phallic weapon in place of the right forearm.
The second aspect of Metroid’s violence is in fetishization. Players are generally rewarded with images of Samus’ face and body upon completion of the game. One game, Metroid Fusion, is particular interesting due to the differences between the Japanese version of the game, and versions for other regions. Whereas the North American and European versions of Metroid Fusion share the same 5 endings, the Japanese version contains 11. The NA/EU version’s first ending shows Samus wearing all her Power Suit. The next ending shows a picture of Samus without her helmet. She is shown as a beautiful blond (though originally Samus was a brunette). The last three endings show Samus in a black two-piece outfit and various poses. The endings accessible on normal difficulty all show scenes from Samus’ life while those on hard mode are mostly the same as those from the American version. The final picture, however, is more stylized, and gives the impression of a sassy, muscled, Samus that would feel at ease fighting Space Pirates or just “hangin’ with the guys.”
The Prime series breaks from tradition. Players earn galleries of images by filling a logbook as they progress through the game. There are now two or three endings and the ending sequences contain more storytelling. The easy endings feature a suited Samus, the normal endings Zero Suit Samus (a blue, formfitting outfit), while the hard endings now reward players with plot twists or cliffhangers.
Character customization is a very common feature of core games today, and the basis for a number of casual titles as well. Players have shown a strong desire to make something their own. Whether that character bears any resemblance to the player is a matter of personal preference.
One issue that has been raised by the myriad options available to players in designing their characters is that their choices rarely matter to the overall gameplay. The few games that include romance usually maintain a heterosexual relationship between PC and NPC by changing the story so that the main character always falls in love with a member of the opposite sex. Some argue that by allowing players to choose skin color just like they choose hair style, game developers have trivialized what it means to be “of color.” To the extent that skin color rarely affects facial features or hair type, one could agree that games trivialize the notion of skin color. To the extent that games rarely comment on the gender of the player character when it is customizable, one can say they trivialize the notion of gender.
I was raised to respect people despite their differences. Along the way, I was exposed to a new idea, one of respecting people for their differences. It has always struck me as odd that in trying to escape prejudice and bigotry we went from “don’t listen to her because she is a woman” to “listen to her because she is a woman” without stopping at “listen to her because she has something to say.”
Do privileged white children play GTA:San Andreas and then believe they understand what it is to be black? I think not, and certainly hope not. I do look forward to a study on such issues however. Until then we are left citing gut instincts and limited experiences and no real argument can be made.
My closing thought is this: If games can be art, if they can truly matter, I must learn something from them. If I am to understand the human condition and develop empathy and insight, do not characterize my character. Have diverse NPCs, have them react to my character in ways which relate to my appearance, actions, and socioeconomic status. Do not force action upon my character, merely show me all that he or she sees and let me understand what it is to be that person.