Why you should care
Games are slowly dumping deep-seated themes of masculinity to touch upon softer emotions — often with key female characters.
Since the halcyon days of Italian plumbers rescuing princesses from evil gorillas, narratives in video games have been pretty straightforward. Players control a hero (almost always a man) and are tasked with jumping on unambiguously bad guys until the princess is rescued or the world is saved. But when Sony’s Santa Monica Studio announced a sequel to the popular PlayStation franchise God of War last year, fans were presented with a game radically different from the previous half-dozen games in the series.
Until then, the mythological action-adventure games had been defined by their penchant for extreme violence and gratuitous sex, where the hero, Kratos — an immortal demigod — never had to worry about pesky things like collateral damage or excessive force. However, 2018’s PlayStation 4 entry presented a tale of the same character consumed by not just revenge but also regret: His wife dies, and he has to grapple with the challenges of being a single dad with a violent legacy. That shift in Kratos is part of a larger real-world change in an industry that at $152 billion is more than three times the size of Hollywood ($43 billion). Gamers are growing up, and games are trying to keep pace by finally beginning to abandon long-held tropes.
More and more studios are developing games that move away from deep-seated themes of masculinity to instead offer more nuanced narratives that touch upon softer emotions and often involve playable female characters. In 2017’s Star Wars: Battlefront II, we play as a woman for the duration of the single-player campaign. Her male partner defers to his female commander and later wife in most matters. The Uncharted series’ latest game, Lost Legacy, similarly allows players to embody a previously supporting character, Chloe.
We are seeing games that recognize that their audience is getting older and more sophisticated.
Carolyn Petit, media analyst
In the most recent Grand Theft Auto game, Michael, a key protagonist, visits a therapist: He is shown as having been abused as a child and is appalled by his own toxic masculinity. The Last Of Us’ Joel is a damaged man who has lost his daughter and is living in a postapocalyptic world. Senua, the lead character in 2017’s award-winning Hellblade, is a woman who must deal with her mental health — she hears voices — while battling demons and rescuing her lover.
“Increasingly, we are seeing games that recognize that their audience is getting older and more sophisticated,” says Carolyn Petit, managing editor of Feminist Frequency, an educational nonprofit that analyzes media’s impact on issues related to gender, race and sexuality.
To be sure, isolated instances of games with female protagonists have existed. But many of them also pandered to male fantasies. Most women in games are scantily clad sex bombs, especially in the rare cases where they are main characters, such as Lara Croft in her early Tomb Raider avatars. Now that’s changing too. Croft is less sex symbol and more survivalist in the latest Tomb Raider, where the narrative focuses more on her emotional challenges as well as her treasure hunting.
This shift is coming about both as recognition of the changing nature of the industry’s demographics and from studios’ own experiences. Women today constitute 45 percent of gamers in the U.S., up from 38 percent in 2006. That growth is slow but steady.
“Growth” is also what Cory Barlog, director of God of War, emphasizes as the reason for the game’s shift in Raising Kratos, a new documentary on the process behind making the game. In the original franchise, Kratos, son of Zeus, is on a quest for revenge against the entire Greek pantheon. The character brutally kills any innocent mortals who dare to stand in the way of his and the player’s quest to button mash a gruesome hole in the face of every resident of Mount Olympus.
After eight years and six titles across multiple generations of PlayStation hardware, the hyper-violent series stalled with 2013’s God of War: Ascension, a prequel that was critically and commercially underwhelming. The developers at Santa Monica Studio took the criticism to heart and decided that they needed a new angle if they were going to continue the franchise. “When I made the first and second game, I was a very different person than I am today,” says Barlog in the documentary. A year on from its release in April 2018, God of War has sold 10 million copies. It has won dozens of game-of-the-year awards, making it one of the most successful PlayStation 4 titles — and demonstrating that this move away from unhinged, testosterone-fueled violence can work commercially.
Nuance is also central to Joel in The Last of Us, another Sony produced PlayStation exclusive. Father to a dead daughter, Joel — whom we play — must escort a young girl named Ellie to a secret base in the zombie-infested adventure. At the end of the game, Joel discovers the only way to save the world from sure destruction is to allow Ellie’s brain to be dissected. Instead, Joel murders a building full of people and escapes with Ellie. The violence is depicted as not justified but perpetrated by a man who cannot let go of the past and picks his emotions over the role of a save-the-world hero.
“On the surface, Joel very much appears to be kind of the standard, grizzled, violent, White male video game antihero,” Petit says, “but I genuinely think that as the game progresses, players find there is more to him than that.”
Some games are more overtly critical of reckless violence. Rockstar’s 2018 Western Red Dead Redemption 2 follows a gang of old-school outlaws. The patriarch of the players’ group rapidly becomes more and more unhinged and needlessly violent in his quest to retain his sovereign manhood, leaving it to the players’ characters, including a female gunfighter, to bring him down.
Still, there’s a long way to go, argues Ian Larson, a California sociologist who runs the Sociology of Videogames webpage. “Certain developers are exploring complex identities within gaming narratives, but it’s often still tied to problematic trends,” Larson says. He points out how in both God of War and The Last of Us, for instance, the protagonists have a change of heart after losing loved ones. “This paints a problematic circumstance in which masculinity can only be checked in the absence of femininity or as a result of a life-changing event,” he adds.
Petit agrees. “I don’t believe that we’ve come as far as maybe some other people think we have,” she says. But female gamers are relishing the shift, even if still only nascent. “This change is extremely important and exciting,” says Haley Kirstein from Buffalo, New York, who has played through the latest God of War three times as she awaits the birth of her first child, a boy.
That change, says Petit, is similar to what’s happened with prestige TV in the last 15 years where narratives have similarly become more sophisticated. “There is more of an appetite for narratives and characters that are much more complex and three-dimensional than the typical video game protagonist,” Petit says.
That’s the kind of world Kirstein wants to bring her son into. She took to gaming at a time when women were secondary. “I hope he has zero interest in games,” she says, placing a hand on her belly. “One of my biggest concerns about having a child … is raising him without the toxic masculinity that young men are forced to uphold and young women are forced to tolerate.”
If the shift currently underway in the gaming industry endures, she might not need to worry.