I was recently asked to comment in an Associated Press story on the potential effect the lifting of the ban on women in combat might have on military-themed videogames. The story was picked up today by NPR and elsewhere.
I had much more to say on the topic than I initially expected, and certainly more than would be useful for this piece. Below are my long-form responses to the interview questions. They are pretty raw still, but I think there is something here that I hope to flesh out soon.
With the Pentagon lifting the ban on women in combat last week, do you think gamemakers will be inspired to include female characters on the frontlines in military games?
Certainly, game developers who want to reflect the modern US military should include women in active combat roles, perhaps even as playable characters. But of course women currently make up something like 15% of the US military and I don’t remember any significant female characters in the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series. With those numbers it is possible for developers to continue to ignore the role of women in the modern US military and still be relatively statistically accurate, even if unbelievable.
This assumption, however, that the commercial military shooter desires to accurately reflect life in the US military is simply untrue. Commercially successful games like Modern Warfare and Battlefield are entertainment products. The cynical answer is that they will include woman on the frontlines of their games if they think it will sell more games. And, given the current climate around both the gender politics of the military and violent video games, doing so will probably create the kind of media attention that would be attractive to videogame distributors.
One of the multi-player teams in EA’s Metal of Honor was named “the Taliban” seemingly for this reason. After the swarm of media attention decrying their decision, they renamed the group without making any changes to gameplay, which signaled that they had no interest in representing the actual Taliban and were more trying to cash in on the Western revulsion toward that name. ( btw, Ian Bogost has written about this.)
If and when women are included on the frontlines in video games, the real question will be in what capacity. Will they be playable characters, for instance? Will they need to be saved or do the saving?
The increased presence of woman in the military and now active combat scenarios is drawing out and challenging gender biases that have long been codified in videogames. Just last week Lt. Gen.(Ret.) Jerry Boykin argued that woman shouldn’t take these roles because they are too weak and too seductive. Now, consider the upcoming Tomb Raider game. Crystal Dynamics attempts to get away from Lara Croft’s anatomically-impossible image and make her more ‘real’, but do so by implementing an attempted rape scene intended to recasting the fiercely independent archeologist as requiring the players protection (see the Kotaku interview).
Female characters in games are often the motive or the motor of events and little else; think Princess Toadstool in SuperMarioBros or see #damselindistress on Bits of Tropes Vs Women in Video Games. Femininity gets bound to these motivating logics. In the critically acclaimed Bioshock, players must decide what to do with the Little Sisters, whose characterization relies on an expected helplessness that is gendered female. Similarly, when the Russians invade England in Modern Warfare 3, their attack is introduced with the death of a defenseless little girl, which is supposed to be so galling that it justifies the player’s retributive actions over the rest of the game.
Commercial games trade in a spectacular, theatrical presentation of conflict. They have to find not only strategic, but graphic and narrative ways for players to care about what happens to these virtual characters. Tradition would suggest that one of the ways to do so is to portray brutality toward (defenseless) women as a spur or justification for violent action. Having female characters on the battlefield would make it that much easier to contrive such scenarios in which highly-trained, fully-capabale military personel become another princess in another castle.
I honestly do wonder how women will enter these games as combatants. It seems just as likely that women will join the frontlines of military games as characters identical to their male counterparts in ability and performance, differing only in physical appearance, and that might be just as bad. In that case, we’d just have masculinity skinned female. To implement women in these games well, you would have to represent the specificity of a female soldier’s perspective and experience and videogames are notoriously bad at negotiating that kind of specificity, regardless of genre.
What effect do you think the inclusion of female characters in combat would have on players?
Not sure what you mean. I supposed it depends on how they are implemented, who is playing them, etc. Plenty of female characters have participate in onscreen violence and elicit a range of responses. Several major release games feature female (space) marines in far-future sci-fi scenarios: Halo Reach has female Spartans; the Gears of War 3 introduces female COG soldiers; players can guide a female Shepherd in the Mass Effect series. How that will work for a military shooter in a contemporary setting will depend on what these characters end up doing, how they play, etc.
Do you believe women who previously didn’t play military games might be more inclined to play if they see themselves represented?
Probably not, but again it depends on how female characters are implemented. Players from every demographic have controlled the same Nathan Drake character–white, handsome, brown, spiky hair–in countless games. It is not like that stops folks from playing the Uncharted games. Moreover, even when games offer players the option to customize their avatars, they frequently do not create characters that match their gender and ethnicity. Identity gets articulated in a range of ways in and through videogames.
Generally speaking, though, people who like to play games are going to play games. Perhaps there is a subset of people interested in modern miltary shooters, but only if they get to play as characters visually marked as women, but I seriously doubt it. Those of us who take games seriously hope–and sometimes advocate–for games to be more inclusive of the full range of identity positions, just as we have for all forms of cultural production. Until then, if a game is good, people will play it and put up with questionable treatments of gender, race, sexuality, and class.
Now, certain representations are so egregious that they turn gamers off. Take for example the most recent Metroid. Here again, though, the issue isn’t *that* a woman appears but what she does that matters.
How do you think the existing audience for military shooters, which is mostly young men, will respond if more female characters were introduced?
This belief that these military games are the domain of adolescent males is a pernicious fiction. I actually don’t know the player demographics for military shooters and I imagine it changes for each game (Kuma isn’t Call of Duty isn’t Full Spectrum Warrior isn’t America’s Army, etc.). I do know that the average age for gamers is over 30 (and older if you limit to just platforms that play the games you’re interested in), and more than twice the number of women over 18 play games than boys under 17 (See Entertainment Software Association statistics).
In a 2009 survey of the most popular Xbox Live multiplayer games, both men and women had Halo 3, Gears of War, and Call of Duty 4 in the top five. (See slide 14 of this presentation by Jon Radoff, CEO of GamerDNA). The audience for these games includes women and always has.
I’m not really a market researcher so its hard for me to speculate how the established audience will react. I imagine they will only care if the games are any good. A subsection of the gamer community will unfortunately be misogynistic, but they don’t speak for gamers. Recent research has noted how the male gamer’s vitriol attempts to mark these spaces as originally and essentially his (See Lisa Nakamura’s (@lnakamur) recent work). But, that has little to do with a woman’s ability to serve in the military or with the military shooter in particular. The truth is that women have long participated in these virtual spaces, and those who respond with misogyny will likely continue to do so regardless of women’s role in the military. Funny how sometimes reality is more progressive than fantasy.