Ah, poor Ron Rosenberg, executive producer of the upcoming and latest game in the Tomb Raider franchise. His words have been dissected, examined, and strewn across the blogosphere. And I, like many others, slide in hand, have decided to take my turn at the microscope.
“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character.”
The problem with Rosenburg’s statement is that Rosenburg refers to people when he actually means men. Women, such as myself, who have played multiple games in the Tomb Raider franchise can and do identify with the lead character—even when the similarities are as minor as being the same gender as the heroine. To believe otherwise is to underestimate the audience, something that has been done frequently and consistently in the gaming industry. This underestimation results in a staleness that stems from the refusal of many companies to explore new worlds, new cultures, and new stories. However, there are a handful of companies willing to buck the trend. These companies are often rewarded for their risks with success—Rockstar (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas) and Valve (Left 4 Dead) being two that spring to mind. Though grumbling initially occurred, and the grumbling was quite vocal and widespread, fans did welcome protagonists such as CJ and Louis. Still, let us set aside the slight moral growth of fandom for a moment and assume that though men can accept a protagonist of a different race and “project themselves into” that character (which men of color have been doing since the development of video games), playing as a character of a different gender simply obliterates said projection. What if we accept what Rosenberg says as true?
“They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ … When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.”
That you? Once again, male. And yet, men are not the only purchasers of video games. Men are not the only purchasers of action adventures. I have purchased and played multiple games featuring a fearless and headstrong Lara Croft. I’ve enjoyed that incarnation of the character. Others, female and male, have as well. However, the desires of these individuals are not as important as the need to cater to the chauvinism of a certain subset of men who cannot fathom the idea of a woman, even a pixelated one, as a heroic and powerful lead. And I truly believe kowtowing to the sexist urge to “protect the little lady” will make for a slightly less enjoyable game.
Had I wanted to protect Niko Bellic, a character I adored but did not identify with—and yet still had no problem “projecting myself into”—I would have simply refused to begin the story provided by the developer. I would have taken the character on an endless array of bowling excursions and shopping trips. I would have played Grand Theft Auto IV as I play The Sims 2. Luckily, I do not play action adventure games to protect the protagonist with whom I have allied myself. I play them (1) to be privy to a great story and (2) to amass as much power for the protagonist as possible. I am a calculating strategist and a voyeur, not a caretaker. And I do not think I am alone in being that type of gamer.
“[W]e’re sort of building her up and just when she gets confident, we break her down again.”
I want to delve further into the goal of amassing power. Not only do action adventures provide gamers with a great story, they also provide a form of escapism—a power fantasy to mitigate the stress and tedium of everyday life. I play games because within them, vicariously through the characters I play, I can accomplish things I will never have the chance to even attempt in my lifetime. I can explore alien planets, ram the driver who cut me off on the freeway, and brazenly breeze through shoot-outs with ease. I can be immensely powerful.
“Lara Croft will suffer. Her best friend will be kidnapped. She’ll get taken prisoner by island scavengers. And then, Rosenberg says, those scavengers will try to rape her.”
It has often been said that rape is about power, not sex. It is the removal of one’s power and agency through a sexual act. Ergo, it is the last act to which the lead character of a power fantasy should fall victim. And this rule is closely followed—when the character is male.
It is interesting to note that in Grand Theft Auto IV, one learns about two horrific rapes by playing side missions. The lead character, Niko Bellic, admits that he has kept the news of his aunt being brutally raped and murdered from his cousin. Later, a supporting character, Packie, admits that he and his brothers were molested by his father as young children. However, Niko is adamant that he has not been raped during his stint in prison and snidely makes a comment concerning the difference between European prisons and their American counterparts. In a later sequel to the popular game, lead character Luis Lopez, also an ex-con, clearly indicates that he was not raped in prison and was able to fend off all attacks. We do not want to see the protagonist, our vessel for the adventure, as weak or vulnerable. The protagonist acts; he is not acted upon. Why should this outlook change due to a change in gender? Does such a simple switch make the vessel unsuitable?
If so, perhaps the problem is with the player, not the game.