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Social Construct: Life is Strange and Female Representation in Games

Strong female representation in games requires more than just gender-swapping.

Ian McCamant, Blogger

February 24, 2016

5 Min Read

Like what you read? Visit Ian at his personal blog, or visit the Pulstense Games website.

In the months since GamerGate achieved its terminal velocity, there has been a measure of discussion on female representation in games, both in the industry and in the narrative of the games themselves. While this conversation is crucially important, there has been a prevailing conventional wisdom that claims a strong female character is simply a gender swap of male characters. To write a strong female character, the logic goes, you throw together all the ingredients you would for any standard male protagonist and simply make the character female. This has been formalized in a variety of ways, perhaps most succinctly as the "Mako Mori Test," which states that a strong female character progresses along an arc which does not support a male character's arc.

Like the Bechdel Test before it, however, I fear that the Mako Mori metric is troublingly insufficient. As writers such as Mette Ivie Harrison and Kate Elliott have noted, simply applying the aesthetic quality of "female" to a character written within the same narrative structures is an essentially empty gesture, since it fundamentally fails to meaningfully address the deeper structural issues that give rise to the problem of male privilege to begin with. Put frankly, the "gender swap" method is boring and lazy.

Beyond the discussion of strong female protagonists, GamerGate revealed a greater truth about male domination, not only of games, but of society in general. The controversy arose when game developer Zoe Quinn came under attack by her ex-boyfriend Eron Gjoni. Jilted in the wake of their breakup, Gjoni and a mob of neo-reactionary misogynists from the depths of the Internet launched a sadistic harassment campaign against Quinn with essential impunity. Quinn was forced to withstand arbitrary threats of sexual violence and attacks on her privacy. The framework of this atrocity is deeply significant. It demonstrates the material conditions of strife that women experience within our contemporary societal structure.

Addressing these conditions is much more than simply placing a female character in the same tired structural tropes of narrative. To truly constitute a resistance to the conditions of female oppression, games must meaningfully engage with serious questions about how structural oppression operates. If we take the stance that a strong female character is substantially identical to male characters, we are accepting as fundamentally true the narrative these traditional strong male characters convey. This gives rise to the logic that we can maintain the status quo and solve misogyny simply by dismissing gender as a category of difference. It's tantamount to arguing that one can cure cancer simply by ignoring it.

Of course, like the treatment of an illness, the only way to truly engage the problem of gender discrimination is to address the problem at a systemic level. Games, as a uniquely interactive medium, stand provide a nuanced account of these important themes.

For a fine example of this, turn to Life is Strange. Within this sweeping surreal tale of time travel, themes of structural hegemony are lain subtly, but they are present, and quite effective. Trapped at the center of a conspiracy of art, old money, and murder, protagonist Max finds herself surrounded by male authority figures. After she witnesses wealthy heir Nathan Prescott hold her friend Chloe at gunpoint in the school restroom (a disturbingly relevant depiction of masculine aggression), Max has the option to report Nathan to the principal. Of course, Nathan's father has a hefty financial stake in the school, and Nathan's entrenchment within a corrupt system protects him from retribution. Max is disbelieved, and must set out with Chloe to confront a corrupt system.

At the heart of the conspiracy is one of the most literal depictions of the violence of objectification ever depicted. The Prescott empire enables and protects a violent serial killer who murders women before posing them for his photographs.

This story is set against a backdrop of subtle hegemony. The culture at Max's school is defined by the elite fraternity, the Vortex Club. A secondary storyline involves a photography contest, and Max competes with her rival, Victoria, for the approval of their male professor. That this professor is later revealed as the murderer represents a thematic follow-through, giving a scathing critique of exploitation in the fine art world.

Life is Strange never devolves into fetishistic violence or self indulgent action. The story is intense and deeply relatable, despite its fantastical premise. Max's agency is perhaps even over-determined, represented by her power to travel through time and change history. This grants her de facto immortality and allows her to shape reality, to some extent, to her will. At the same time, the power's limitations serve to underscore the monstrous monolith of corruption, oppression, and violence against which Max must fight.

Max's story is certainly one of enough depths to fill several articles, but at a glance it serves as an example of a truly strong female protagonist and a story that engages meaningfully with the problem of systemic violence on many levels. Max could not just as easily be a male character, because her experience of the world is always shaped by the material conditions that affect her as a woman.

Games cannot avoid commenting on the world in which they were created. Even the supposedly empty narratives of the Call of Duty franchise is bound up with themes of American militarism, though certainly not in the form of criticism. The dream of the self-proclaimed "hardcore gamers" of GamerGate, wherein games can be devoid of artistic, political, or philosophical content, is a shallow and problematic fantasy. It is impossible for games to display content without context, to provide an experience without an ideological lens.

To truly engage with the problem facing female representation in games, we must focus this lens on the societal conditions that give rise to the problem. Anything else simply allows oppression to perpetuate itself.

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