The Role of the Role Model in Gaming

Saints Row 4 - Early Game Guide

There’s been a lot of talk lately about role models in gaming, especially regarding positive female role models. The 2012 Tomb Raider was both praised and criticised for its character arc, in which Lara Croft goes from naive to deadly through the course of the game. More recently, Volition’s Associate Producer Kate Nelson gave an interview where she spoke about the positive female role model options in Saints Row 4:

“You can be an important female character – you don’t have to have a D cup either. You can be large woman, a small woman – you can be blue. You can be who you want to be in the game and you have powerful female characters written into the narrative. I think our game actually does represent women in a positive way, but the press will focus on, oh hey, there are strippers, or there’s a dildo bat – it’s unfortunate from my perspective that that doesn’t come through. Because I hear women talk on panels and they’re like ‘there are no people that look like me in games’. Well, actually in my game [the main character] can look like you as our customization system is so extensive. We don’t get that across in our marketing or in the press because it’s difficult – we only have 30 seconds to explain.”

Reading this kind of made me scratch my head a bit. Apparently all games have to do in order to have “important,” “positive,” or “powerful” female characters is allow for character customization? I mean, I get that in this game the main character is going to be the President of the United States, but from previous experience with Saints Row as a franchise, I can’t say that any of the characters involved are people we should identify with or idolize, male or female.

Gaming as a whole gets a bad rap as being very hostile towards girls, but are there even any good male role models in gaming? When I think of role models, I really think of entertainment aimed at a different audience. I think of people like Nichelle Nichols, or the impact of The Cosby Show, or even the Indian cast member of Sesame Street, Nitya Vidyasagar.

I don’t believe there are a large quantity of positive role models in R-rated movies or adult entertainment in general, but homicidal gun-toting action heroes don’t really qualify as powerful, positive role models or people we should identify with regardless of their gender. Lara Croft racks up a body count regardless of her gender or how powerful or actualized she is. She’s a stone cold killer by the end, and I don’t really associate stone cold killers with people I can identify with.


Rhianna Pratchett, the writer on the Tomb Raider game, responded to this criticism in an interview:

“It’s about balancing the needs of gameplay with the needs of narrative. The needs of narrative don’t always trump the needs of gameplay – in fact, it’s usually the other way around. And so I’d say from a narrative perspective, we would have liked the ramp-up to be a bit slower. But, you know, there are other factors to be considered! When players get a gun, they generally want to use the gun. We were brave in going such a long time without giving players a gun in a game where you end up doing a lot of shooting. We tried to innovate a little bit, but narrative can’t always win. Ideally if you can find a sweet spot, that’s great. But sometimes combat, or gameplay or whatever, has to win out.

Is this tendency towards violence non-negotiable?

It can be tough to look up to or identify with a video game character, period. I know some people look at the “plot” of Super Mario Brothers and see a helpless female princess rescued by a macho guy, but I can’t say as a kid I really looked up to Mario and thought “Some day I really want to be like that, a hero, which only a guy can do, obviously.” Were many guys or girls’ minds changed when Samus Aran turned out to be female? Is Doom a guy-only game because of the little picture of the guy in the bottom center and occasional views of his hairy arms?

But maybe I’m biased, since I’m a guy and perhaps my perspective is skewed.

So I sat down with tlc, my resident girl gamer expert. If EBongo could be considered my online co-op partner, tlc is my offline co-op partner of more than a decade. She’s been gaming since the NES, and most recently we tackled the biggest challenges Borderlands 2 has to offer together. (Well, that and we’re married and have kids. I guess that’s important too. ;)

a86: What’s your opinion on all of this? Are there positive female role models in “mature” gaming? It seems to me that a large percentage of these games are power fantasies about wealth, authority, defying the law, being a “hero,” having the biggest guns, etc…

tlc: I don’t think most “mature” games are really aimed at girls. Most of these games are power fantasies, sure, but if you look at most of them the main characters are all male and they measure their worth by which of the female cast they’re sleeping with.

a86: So, if there was a game where you could play as a female and have male love interests and do all the “hero” stuff, you’d think that was more targeted at girls?

tlc: Yes, I think that would probably work a bit better.

a86: Mass Effect as a series was very famous for this. It’s hard to make sweeping generalizations about how it resonated with a particular demographic, but it was a talking point when ME3 came out that you could reverse the cover and have the female Shepherd on the cover instead of the male one, if you so choose.

tlc: I think part of it too is that the fantasies are very male-oriented. What was socially acceptable in prehistoric times for men has changed significantly compared to how it has changed for women. The whole male/female gender roles discussion is related to this, and these stereotypes are something we’ve worked hard to dispel.

a86: I suppose mature entertainment aimed at males is this way, even outside of games. James Bond, Batman, Iron Man, etc.

tlc: Yes, society’s “ideal” man is an alpha male action hero, which would get you arrested in real life. Mature games bring that fantasy to life a bit. Society’s “ideal” woman doesn’t need to fantasize about the things she’s supposed to want. Even if she did want to fantasize, it’s hardly a “violent” or “mature” fantasy.

a86: I suppose we have that fantasy in game form – The Sims is very much about the stereotypical female fantasy. You take care of your Sims, worry about money, food, the state of how they live and where they work, and so forth.

But perhaps we’re stereotyping a bit – we both really enjoyed Borderlands 2, despite the fact that we’ve characterized that as a stereotypical “male power fantasy.” Perhaps if the ultraviolence was a bit less, and we toned down the misogyny?

tlc: Leaving some of the misogyny out would be a good start. I primarily enjoyed the writing and characters in Borderlands 2, for what it’s worth. Tiny Tina, Handsome Jack, Mr. Torgue, etc – they were all fun and funny.

I also think it would be interesting to have a “rise to power” arc that wasn’t focused as much on direct violence – something without just straight-up killing. Maybe a “smart” power fantasy, where direct violence was out of the question, and you had to intimidate and outwit your opponents to win, perhaps.

a86: Breaking Bad: The Game. Play as Walter White and build your own drug empire. I AM THE ONE WHO PLAYS! Gunpoint seems somewhat related to this – beyond that, almost any stealth game, if played non-lethally. Playing non-lethally tends to be more of a challenge than a key game element.

tlc: Or imagine something like GTA – open world, but you’ve got to keep a low profile lest you get busted and your dreams of drug entrepreneurship vanish.

Even having consulted an actual quote-unquote hardcore girl gamer, we’re still only a tiny fraction of the population. What do you guys think about role models and the way gender differences should be involved in gaming and game development?