No, the Internet, YOU shut up

Anita Sarkeesian's call for more female protagonists in videogames attracted the standard level of vitriol. Here is why that's an important issue.

When I read the awful responses to Anita Sarkeesian's tweet about wanting more games with female protagonists, my heart didn't sink. It barely dipped. I'm used to the kneejerk responses from a vocal minority when you talk about women in games.

At first, I thought about responding to the points raised by the many angry gentlefolk of Twitter, thusly:

No.

Tell that to Samus Aran, GLaDOS, Chun Li, FemShep, Lara Croft . . . or Kiki Wolfkill, Siobhan Reddy, Rhianna Pratchett, Margaret Robertson . . .

Hey, could you force another human being out of your body? Don't knock it until you've tried it, buster.

No, no, sir, I insist - YOU shut up.

Yeah, maybe if you actually read the latest ESA report, you'd know that in the US women make up 47 per cent of gamers. 

Clearly you do, Patq911, if that is in fact your real name.

Are you working on a game? You seem to be Mr Opinion, and yet I somehow doubt that you are secretly Jonathan Blow.

 . . . and then I got to this one. And I thought, as fun as shooting sexist fish in a Twitter barrel is, it's probably worth laying this argument out. 

Why do games need to have female protagonists? Because women exist. Women have lives. Their experiences of life can be shaped by the things that only happen to women - pregnancy, childbirth - and by the things which happen to women more than men - being the only one of your gender in a room, rape, harassment, objectification, people being a prick to you on the internet, that sort of thing. 

We have expectations about how women behave, what being a woman in a given situation means. A great storyteller (male or female) can use that to tell more interesting stories. Tropes are not inherently bad; they are shorthand, which means they can be used lazily, or they can be used creatively, subversively, interestingly.

Let's take a couple of examples. Anita Sarkeesian has talked about the "damsel in distress" trope, and it's one that comes up a lot in games because of the format of quests and objectives. You can use that trope in a boring, unthinking way, where some slab-of-meat guy pounds across an identikit wasteland to rescue a one-dimensional princess, or you can do something with it.

Because tropes are shorthand, they rely on a sense of expectation built up by their many previous uses. That's gold dust for a creator who wants to surprise her audience. Joss Whedon's original pitch for Buffy The Vampire Slayer was to show people "the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie"; except in his show, the little blonde girl and the monster would go in the dark alley, and only the little blonde girl would come out. (Incidentally, for all dudes who worry that what feminist game critics want is Joyless Dungaree Simulator, Buffy manages to be funny and sexy, as well as feminist.)

Or, to move on to videogames, how about one of the most critically acclaimed indie games of recent years, Braid? That gets its emotional punch entirely from the fact you assume that you're a gallant questing leprechaun rescuing a lovely lady, when - spoiler alert - it turns out that knight "abducting" her is actually saving her from you.

You don't even have to subvert totally the trope to make it interesting; you can also approach it knowingly. When I interviewed Ken Levine before the release of BioShock Infinite, I asked him why the "Little Sisters" of the first BioShock were female. Would the dynamic have been the same if you'd had to rescue Little Brothers?

He answered, honestly, that he'd drawn on memories of a girl he had known in real life who had died young. Replaying the game now, I can see the fact that Levine drew on personal experience makes the game richer, more affecting - no wonder I felt the desire to protect the Little Sisters so keenly. If a trope speaks to you on a personal level, and you are confident that you can make it feel fresh again, then of course you should use it. 

There is also the bonus that the depiction of Little Sisters gives Dads an adorable way to take their daughters to conventions in cosplay:

 

I'd make the same case about Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite: on the surface level, it looks as though she is "the princess in the tower", the most archetypal form of the damsel in distress. But as the game develops, not only is she bloody useful - where is she finding all that sniper ammo and cash? - but by the end, you realise that far from saving her, she is there to save you from yourself.

In the end, the argument is the same one I was making last week about the need not to "ban" rape jokes, but to ask for better rape jokes. If the only people talking about rape are male comedians relying on the premise that it's funny simply because it's a taboo, that gets tired pretty quickly. Similarly, in games, calling for more female protagonists - and more interesting female protagonists - isn't censorship, it's expansion. It's about telling more stories.

The Angry Gamer Army need to know that women aren't coming to take games away from them. First person military shooters are still incredibly popular, and companies will continue to make them. If you want men with implausible facial hair to shout about being Oscar Mike while men of whatever the current acceptable ethnicity for baddies is throw flashbangs at you, the games industry will still provide. 

But look at your record collection. I grew up listening to Radiohead, Oasis, The Beatles, Bon Jovi and more terrible Europop than I care to admit, but I also listened to Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Elastica and Madonna. The latter group offered more than just a set of songs I could sing along to without feeling slightly self-conscious about the pronouns. Yes, you could read books only by male writers and never be short of a paperback, but why would you deny yourself the unique perspective on the world brought by Jane Austen, JK Rowling or Hilary Mantel?

In Portal and its sequel, GlaDOS could just have easily have been male - but the player would have missed out on the richness of her backstory as Caroline, and her relationship with Cave. We'd also have missed out on Ellen McLain's incredible performance. In those games, you barely notice that the protagonist, as well as the nemesis, is female - but Chell is a girl, because, you know, some people are girls. Maybe as many as a fifth of people, I hear.

Games are exciting because they are a relatively young medium, and no one knows exactly where they will go next. But can we all agree that the silent tortured beefcake protagonist has been pretty well explored now, and it's much harder to make a game exciting if it has one? Can we agree too, that more variety generally in protagonists and secondary characters would make games better, not worse - that Daisy Fitzroy's race and Jester's disability add more depth to those characters than yet another white, straight able-bodied man?

Games need more female protagonists not because of a quota system, or "political correctness", or because feminists want to stop you having any fun. Games need more female protagonists because that will mean we get better games. 

A Little Sister in BioShock.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

BBC
Show Hide image

Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit