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Lara Croft and the Future of Women in Videogames

Mass EffectSexismTomb Raider

Over the past few months, several happenings in the gaming community have caused the issue of sexism and misogyny to become focal points not so easily ignored. There were three catalysts to this: the reaction to the Hitman: Absolution Saints trailer, the funding of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames” Kickstarter project, and what direction Crystal Dynamics is going with their series reboot, Tomb Raider.

The infamous Hitman trailer, which everyone has no doubt seen by now, shows Agent 47 graphically killing a group of ultra-sexy nuns with guns in what has to be the silliest thing I’ve seen in a long time, and considering I’ve seen Johnny Cage punch Freddy Krueger in the nutsack, that’s saying something. What seemed like harmless fun was called out as glamorizing violence against women, and it’s hard to argue against that assessment as the trailer slows down and lingers on all the gory details. The standout scene for me was where Agent 47 breaks the one nun’s nose in slo-mo so we can admire it.

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The second, and most alarming incident, occurred when feminist blogger Anita Sarkeesian posted a video on YouTube asking for donations for a Kickstarter project in which she would take a critical look at the various tropes used for female characters in videogames in keeping with the theme of her video series. Sarkessian’s videos on YouTube analyze pop culture—TV, movies, games—through a feminist lens. They’re insightful and thoughtful commentary, and the video in question is so innocuous it’s hard to imagine why it managed to spark such a vicious backlash.

The comment section was flooded with less than respectful responses, to say the least. Threats were just the tip of the iceberg—a Wikipedia page bio on Sarkeesian was vandalized and replaced with pornography as a part of an ongoing effort to harass and otherwise silence her. As a gamer, I think it’s important to take a moment and condemn this sort of behavior. It’s not acceptable, and the vocal minority that were a part of this do not represent gamers as a whole.

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Thankfully, the Kickstarter project met and eventually exceeded its funding goal. While this story does have a happy ending, it calls into question just what was it that so upset some people to go to such lengths to silence someone who hadn’t even begun to share her opinion on women and their role in videogames? Why is such a topic considered verboten, so completely off-limits?

The latest lightning rod of controversy has been the handling of Lara Croft and the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. Crystal Dynamics has been going for a ‘what does not kill Lara makes her stronger’ approach to the reboot, and more of a realistic slant emphasizing survivalism. In executive producer Ron Rosenberg’s words, “She literally goes from zero to hero… we’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again.”

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He also goes onto say “She is literally turned into a cornered animal” and that certainly shows during the trailers. The running theme between them all is they go to great lengths to show Lara dragged through the mud, blood, and the crud repeatedly. Some have observed a bizarre likeness to ‘torture porn’ with the things Lara goes through. It was even implied that she faces the threat of rape in the game. However, this was quickly dismissed, as rape is not in Crystal Dynamics’ vocabulary.

This has all been done to make Lara relatable, and it’s unfortunate that Rosenberg has tripped up on his words so many times. Why must Lara be made weak to be relatable to the audience? Crystal Dynamics is in the unenviable position of deciding how the depiction of future women in videogames are going to be depicted. Lara Croft is literally the poster child for strong, capable, independent women in games. As was Samus Aran, who also had much of her prestige and power taken away in Metroid: Other M.

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What’s the message being sent here? That there can’t be strong women headlining a well-known series without any strings attached? That they need to be taken down a peg? I firmly believe none of this was intentional, however, it’s difficult to ignore on a deeper critical level. There are positive female role models in gaming, and strides have been made.

Just this year BioWare acknowledged that quite a few players chose a female version of Commander Shepherd and decided to incorporate that into the marketing for Mass Effect 3, going so far as to have a flippable cover based on what gender of Shepherd they preferred. It’s not a revolutionary step, but it’s a step nonetheless. Still, that doesn’t mean everything’s perfect.

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Let’s face it, the majority of characters fronting successful franchises are guys. Outside of Metroid and Tomb Raider, I can’t think of any series fronted by famous, easily recognizable female protagonists. If any positive lesson can be taken from all of this, it’s that the gaming industry is at the very least learning. All of these incidents were called out for what they really were, rather than being blindly accepted as just business as usual. The role of women in videogames has changed over the past few decades, but the lingering question is how far have they yet to go and can gamers accept those changes?

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in March 2010.

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