At the recent Game Developers Conference industry players gathered together to talk shop. It was a time for awards but also a time for plenty of presentations and discussions about the techniques and roles of video game creators in today’s society. Some of it can get pretty heavy, with titles like ‘Teaching Students To Make Games Under Fascism’ by Bonnie Ruberg, Ph.D.
#VideoGames are still part of a relatively young medium and it’s taken a lot of growing for them to be taken seriously in terms of artistic value and socio-political commentary. But it’s happening, and one particular issue that’s been raised is the relative paucity of female video game characters. One reporter of no small notoriety decided to weigh in on this issue with a very, um, interesting theory:
There are more male protagonists than female ones in video games because male protagonists allow developers more creative freedom. pic.twitter.com/PGC6BusEeNâ€” Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) March 1, 2017
Let’s unpack this. Ian is explaining the predominance of the white male protagonist in games because white men are ‘allowed’ to be whatever they want, whereas a woman character with any flaws would attract a backlash from the offended.
The hapless yet loveable Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate of Monkey Island fame, is apparently one of these godsends to game developers. If Ron Gilbert, veteran game developer and creator of Guybrush Threepwood, was to chime in then surely he’d confirm Ian’s theory.
Except he did, and he didn’t.
@Rory__Walker @stillgray “male protagonists allow developers more creative freedom” <- bullshit, narrow-minded and offensive.â€” Ron Gilbert (bot) (@grumpygamer) March 1, 2017
Looks like this ‘Galbrush’ theory doesn’t apply to its titular character. And a creator like Ron Gilbert would know a thing or two about making characters of different genders. Laverne from Day of the Tentacle comes to mind as a female character with flaws from the same era.
Guybrush himself isn’t as pathetic as the image presents him either. He’s not a Kratos-style hyper-macho protagonist, but a comedic lead. Despite his flaws, he proves himself to be loyal, intelligent, caring and brave when it counts. Not to mention a dab hand at insult sword fighting when it comes down to it.
Ian Miles Cheong isn’t exactly an ideologically neutral voice (and that’s cool, because who is?). He writes for HeatStreet, a publication somewhat to the right of the political divide, known for its frequent rails against the corruption of video gaming by ‘SJWs’, and actually publishes a section called ‘Culture Wars’. Ian argues that the default male protagonist is a great thing because of this apparent creative freedom, but shouldn’t freedom mean the freedom to create different kinds of characters?
Personal politics aside, this whole ‘Galbrush’ thing actually makes a relevant point. But maybe not the one that Ian intended.
Female Characters Are Still Seen As Representing Their Gender
So white male characters don’t necessarily lead to more creative freedom for developers. After all, the creative freedom should include the freedom to create characters of any gender and background. But is there a problem with the ‘Galbrushes’ of the video game world?
Fortunately, Rhianna Pratchett, lead writer of the Tomb Raider franchise and thus arguably the most iconic female video game character ever, decided to offer her take on the ‘Galbrush’ issue:
However fem characters (esp. in games) do sometimes get held to a different standard to men. Fems represent women, men represent themselves.â€” Rhianna Pratchett (@rhipratchett) March 2, 2017
Rhianna knows what she’s talking about. She took over Lara Croft’s character development for 2013’s Tomb Raider, which did attract criticism for an early cutscene in which Lara appeared to be threatened with sexual assault in an attempt to make the player feel protective of her.
Lara, one of the most visible female characters in gaming for years, made her name as both a sex object and a ‘strong female character’, and fans had some very strong feelings about her characterisation. But would there be so much pressure on Lara Croft’s writers if there was already a more diverse array of high-profile female characters out there?
@rhipratchett Balderdash! Women In games can be anything today, from sexy girlfriend to sexy mission support to sexy evil AI to sexy ninja!â€” Richard Cobbett (@richardcobbett) March 2, 2017
See, here’s the thing. There are far fewer female characters in games, and many female characters in games are side characters, NPCs, eye-candy and not particularly well-rounded. This keeps on happening even though, apparently, some imagine that game developers are too intimidated to create flawed female characters. What seems to be the case is that, although strong action-adventure heroines such as Lara and Samus are successful, there aren’t so many famous female protagonists in other genres.
It’s partly due to historical factors. In the early days of computer gaming, programmers were largely male and their perspective dominated the market. A lot of male characters came out because the developers were simply writing what they knew. The success of the default white male protagonist in the past creates a self-fulfilling prophecyâ€”something was successful so let’s throw money at repeating the same safe formula.
This is the kind thing you see in Hollywood all the time. If anything, the dominance of the white male protagonist hurts creativity by discouraging risk and encouraging lazy repetition.
At the moment, because there are relatively few female characters compared to male ones, the pressure on the ones out there to carry the expectations of the female audience is more intense.
A useful comparison could be made with movies and television. In film, for example, the data shows that male characters dominated in all genres save oneâ€”horror (no prizes for guessing why horror stands out). Video games are reflecting of the culture that makes them after all, and they’re going through the same kind of demographic biases and shifts that also affect other entertainment industries.
Ian Miles Cheong’s ‘Galbrush’ paradox puts the chicken before the egg. Defaulting to white male characters isn’t ‘liberating’ it keeps other kinds of characters in a box. If we’re going to have creative freedom, it needs to include freedom to break traditional formulas.
So, How Do We Get This Creative Freedom?
Just like the historical bias in TV and movies that privileged the white male point of view is being eroded as social inequality for women and minority groups has been gradually fought for, I’m confident that more diverse female characters, whether idealized or flawed, serious or comedic, are also waiting in the wings to make an impact on video games. They just have to be let in and encouraged by current industry gatekeepers, which isn’t going to be easy if they buy this ‘Galbrush’ theory and play it safe.
Even if the traditionally white male writers and developers aren’t comfortable with creating characters too unlike themselves, there is a growing number of creatives from different backgrounds that want the opportunity to tell their stories. And, as video gaming becomes a more widespread and inclusive activity, there’s also going to be a demand in the audience to see themselves represented on screen.
None of this means that stories about white male heroes will suffer. There’ll always be a demand for them. But there are enough of themâ€”flawed, strong, weak, funny, serious, perfect, handsome, ugly, everyman, weird, etc. to choose from that they don’t have the expectation of representing their race or gender.
If we encourage the creation of female characters from different backgrounds, the problem of characters like Lara Croft having to speak for her entire gender won’t be an issue, because there’ll be a diverse representation of other female characters to share that burden. Once we get there, the apparent ‘Galbrush’ problem will dissipate like so much hot air.
Do you think that female characters are less likely to be written with character flaws than males in video games? Would you like to see more?
This article originally appeared on video games magazine site NowLoading.co. The site is no longer online, but I’ve uploaded a selection of articles from my time as a staff writer there (2016-2017) here as portfolio samples.