Redefining Female Empowerment in Games
Many video games involve violence in some way. Popular examples include games like Grand Theft Auto, Mortal Kombat, and Call of Duty. You’ve probably seen Fox News and the like complain about these games. But even cute, family friendly games use violence. Kirby might be adorable, but he still fights through waves of enemies like no one’s business. And Pokemon is basically a world where animal cruelty is not just accepted, but an important aspect of life.
Now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with violent video games; they have every right to exist alongside puzzle games and such. What is a problem is equating acts of violence with empowerment. This is often celebrated amongst female game characters, and it seems to boil down to two categories: women who commit violent acts are empowered and those who don’t are not.
This is evident in the Uncharted series. The games star Nathan Drake as he travels the world looking for legendary treasure. (It’s a lot like Indiana Jones.) These treasure hunts will often dissolve into shoot outs against waves of disposable enemies. Drake is often accompanied by other characters like Elena, Sully, and Chloe. Now Elena and Chloe are both great characters who are certainly empowered women, but I don’t think part of that should be accredited to them picking up assault rifles and shooting alongside Drake. However, I know that if they abstained from mass murder, they’d be called sexist characters. People would say the only reason they aren’t fighting is because the developers think mass murder should be left to the men. (Because slaughtering hundreds of people is a very healthy depiction of masculinity.)
I know this would be the response because this was many people’s response to Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite. Player character Booker De Witt spends much of the game shooting through wave after wave of enemies while Elizabeth searches the battlefield for ammunition, extra weapons, and medical supplies, which she will then throw to you when needed. The two work together, help one another, to get out alive. But for some reason, Elizabeth's contribution is sexist.
Elizabeth’s initial reaction to mass shooting is very realistic: screams of terror followed by running for her life. Once she calms down and realizes that violence is necessary in order to excape the insane city they are trapped in, she opts to help Booker stay alive rather than grab a gun and start blasting away. It makes sense for her character to do this. It would make no sense for a previously sheltered young woman with no combat experience whatsoever to randomly pull a magnum revolver out of her butt and join in the killing spree. You can’t argue in favor of more realistic depictions of women in games and then criticize a non-violent character for not being violent. Part of “realistic depictions of women” includes the actual quality of writing and making them feel like real people. Elizabeth feels like a real person. The characters in Uncharted feel real during cutscenes.
The larger problem here is the disconnect between story and gameplay. As games try to be more realistic and deep in terms of story and characters, the gameplay has remained largely the same. I understand that games are power fantasies, and so violent games are going to use, well violence to create that sense of empowerment in the character and player. But that doesn’t mean the lack of violence should be depowering. There are other ways to be empowered.
In the Professor Layton series of games, the characters use their intelligence and critical thinking skills to solve a variety of puzzles and mysteries. There’s no question that the characters in these games are empowered even though they don’t commit violent acts; they are smart, practical, and don't hesitate to take action. However, the logic goes, if a character in a violent game responds to the situation with terror or disgust, or outright refuses to par take at all, then they are depowered.
That shouldn’t be the case. A world can be filled with violence without 100% of its inhabits partaking in said violence. Do we not live in a world filled with violence? There are many ways to be empowered and it all comes down to choice. Whether the woman picks up the gun or not is irrelevant unless it is her choice. So Elizabeth deciding not to fight does not make her any less empowered than characters, like Elena, who do. (Meaning the protagonist of the original Bioshock is the least empowered character in all of games. *ba-dum-tiss*)
Because the thing is, deciding to take the moral high ground even when surrounded by danger, knowing full well you could die, is not depowering. It’s actually incredibly brave.