Women and Gender in Games

In twine and non-AAA games women are subjected to the same types of generalizations.As “Unmanned”  so boldly displayed in its portrayal of military man struggling with different aspects of life, the same stereotypical characterizations are used. On the one hand the playable character has his wife, at home with his child, and on the other he is being tempted by his female co-worker in a not so subtle way. Two overused and played out caricatures for women in video game can be seen here. Their story arcs are entirely dependent on what the white male character does in the game. These trends have remained as a pervasive strand in all games, and their effects should not be underestimated. Games that tend to do poor jobs of inserting stereotypical characters such as Grand Theft Auto, especially the older editions, but GTA V is pretty bad as well. Portray women sometimes as prostitutes and in other variously degrading roles. While the overuse of stereotypical women in games largely stems from an earlier time it still exists. Though progress does seem to be moving away from such notions.

            In “Against All Odds” another non-AAA title that does a much better job at portraying a female character. The player at least has the option to choose a female character. Truthfully, upon play through of the game it makes no difference whether one chooses the male or female character. The seriousness of this game creates a feeling of equal disdain and suffering for either gender. In providing a number of scenarios that could befall anyone, or any society the player can choose to be a female in any of them. Providing a welcome relief as too many games restrict the player to a single male character. It does seem like real progress has been made in this area though in the past few years with games such as Assassin’sCreed: Odyssey and even Battlefield V. By inserting females into the battlefield arena, the creators of Battlefield are taking some historical license for sure, but why should that really matter? These games are meant to be fun too, and many women play them. There is not claimed intent by DICE that the game is even meant to be accurate historically.

            Assassin’s Creed similarly in bothOrigins and Odyssey installments have increased female agency to some degree.Origins pushes the narrative of the Assassins further back in time than it had before, and attributed the establishment of the Assassin’s as an entity through Aya, and not Bayek; spoiler alert. Odyssey pushes the story back even further to the time of Athens and Sparta. The game begins though with the choice of a female or male lead. So it does appear that the times are changing in regards to both AAA as well as non-AAA games. Though a game such as Odyssey has the option to be a female character she ultimately does not play any differently than her male counterpart. But why should she? Can the game not be just as enjoyable as a female character that can run, jump, and assassinate all the same? It certainly should be, but as aforementioned, the awareness of a need for female agency and depiction in games seems to be growing.

Rome Total War Critique

Many games fall prey to the pervasiveness of colonial, or imperialist narratives. Simply put this style of game appeals to the masses on a basic level, for most gamers are likely not considering their own morals and values when playing. Yet for those who do care about such things games with imperialist narratives raise a ton of questions about historical veracity, believability, and the effect that these types of games can have on the consumer; whether intended or not. The Civilization series is a perfect example of such a game that has reached a wide audience, but really lacks in portraying anything outside of a colonial mindset and the values associated with it. The intention here, however, is not to bash the more than biased narrative in the Civilization series, but to analyze a game in a similar vein that has its flaws certainly, but also takes a more fluid approach, and that game is Rome Total War.

On the surface Rome Total War has much the same gameplay style as Civilization. It is played from an even more macro perspective than Civilization, with a map of Europe at the heart and the edges of Africa, and Asia on the perimeters; mimicking the actual span of roman territory. In building and managing an empire the player attempts to subdue the world around them through militancy. The player controls a number of units on the map including military generals and their armies, diplomats, spies, and conquered settlements, and they all have their own abilities and responsibilities. The player can choose to be an aggressor by conquering, killing, and destroying all in his or her path. Diplomacy is a limited option where one can pick and choose whom to be friendly with as well. Now it might be easy to say that Rome Total War has almost exactly the same kind of imperialist narrative as Civilization, but there are important differences between the two.

Ancient Rome historically was undeniably imperialist, so playing the game in a military way is somewhat accurate in this regard. There are no branches of discovery in the game that can lead any side to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, or anything that was not present in the ancient world. In this way Rome Total War scores huge points over its competition by at least attempting to stay within the realm of possibility, and not basing the power in the game upon what makes modern western nations powerful today.  On top of this, the player can choose to be an enemy of Rome, and while there are some disadvantages to this option, world domination can still be had by the Gauls, Carthaginians, Greeks, or Egyptians. Different unit choices are offered to the races other than roman, and they are loosely programmed to represent the actual strengths and weaknesses that these ancient cultures have been recorded to have had. For example, the Greeks run an army of heavy infantry focused around the phalanx while the Carthaginians are more centered around experienced cavalry units, all of which adds to the authentic feel. The game is not stacked against these cultures in other words as even the romans have their own unit limitations. This all ultimately helping to make the game closer to an accurate representation of the past at least from the get go. The caveat here is that most of the races, such as the Gauls, are conglomerates of what would have been numerous tribes in ancient times. It does make it seem that the past was more monolithic, and that there were other quasi empires fighting back against the Romans which really was not the case. All the while the Roman faction themselves are split into three separate pieces, of which are all Roman, but act independently of one another. Here can be seen the biggest mirror of western colonial thought, as the mighty Romans are given much greater detail and thought than their adversaries. Here is where the most liberty with the historical record is taken, but most likely its intent is to make the game more palatable for the average gamer, and not the historian. Whatever path the player decides to go down obviously will alter the historical reality, but the framework of the game will always remain intact.

Though better than the Civilization series in a number of ways, Total War games still have some of the same western imperialist tropes embedded within. Conquest makes the game operate. Plainly and simply it is how the player acquires money, slaves, and territory. The moment that military campaigns are suspended is the moment that all the tax burdens of the empire come crashing down. It is more than incentivized to conquer, and even when a settlement is taken over the player is presented with three options on how to deal with the defeated. Of course though the best is to exterminate the settlement and take all the booty associated with. The biggest oversight by far is that while diplomacy is an option, it is severely limited in both practice and scope. Trading and resource management in this game is a footnote at best. Very limited dialogue is presented, and one can quickly determine how formulaic the responses from the artificial intelligence will be. When faced with imminent invasion and destruction adversaries in game will repeatedly reject any overture for parlay; essentially inviting war.

Even Rome Total War is couched in the idea of civilizing one’s barbarous adversaries. It could be argued, however, that this was the time period that colonialism was borne out of, and nurtured in the western mindset. Overall, Rome Total War is less motivated by a singular mentality, and the player is invited to take part in historical counterfactuals throughout if they so choose. Making it a more useful game from a historical perspective, even if it does have a number of weaknesses it its own right.

The Oregon Trail

In simulating the experience of what it was like to cross a large portion of North America during the nineteenth century, the Oregon Trail hits on some major themes. The narrative of the game revolves around the hardships that American pioneers would have experienced as they traveled to the Oregon territory. The player is put on a linear pathway as a caravan of pioneers with the singular endpoint in Oregon. Along the way the player faces decisions that can change the outcome of the journey. The narrative dictates play in this game, as the characters would simply die off after a certain amount of stagnation. Different pathways can be chosen with either good, or bad consequences. Death of the group is always a possibility, and if the player does not provision properly many ills can befall the journeymen and women such as disease, injury, or snakebite. Yet if the player holds their resolve and can withstand the hardships of the American frontier, the Oregon territory is definitely attainable. The Oregon Trail overall is a fun representation centered on the incredible difficulties that the people who really did this amazing feat experienced. It is oftentimes whimsical in dialogue, and a bit separated from the true struggles of disease on the frontier, or bodily injury, but that is what keeps the game lighter and more enjoyable in general.

Women and people of an ethnicity other than white are included in the game, but overall not instrumental elements. A number of Native American, African American, and even children can be traded with and conversed with over the 2000-mile trek. It is not to say that they are completely disregarded, but they are mainly dependent on the player’s willingness to engage, and are largely passive. At times the dialogue can be a bit stereotypical in regards to ethnicity and gender, but in truth, if the game is meant to be somewhat of an accurate interpretation of the time period then it probably falls short of the reality in this regard. Besides being characters along the trail, the player can also choose to have a group of travelers of whatever gender they want. This has no effect on the game as far as can be told, yet the player never actually sees their virtual pioneers at all, so here again the representation of women plays somewhat of a secondary role. But in holding with its happy go lucky feel, the game has a muted representation of minorities and women overall.

The primary protagonist of the game is the leader of the caravan, and the other four who journey along with. The other four are somewhat secondary, but are still reactive to the player’s choices in game. It is a player driven game, where the decisions made by said player can reap rewards, or not for the entire group. Not much can be done to subvert the agency of the historical actors in the case of the Oregon Trail. Many of the true to life pioneers both made it, and died along the way, so whether the player makes it or not is all part of the general narrative. There is not a way to veer from the prescribed path, even forks in the road all end up at the same point; they just represent different risks and benefits. Ultimately the lack of agency on behalf of the player makes the game less repeatable. The Oregon Trail is a fun game, and can be comedic as well as enlightening of this nineteenth century experience, but the path becomes restrictive after a play or two. For its age it holds up, but in comparing the experience to today’s games and agency it obviously lacks.

If the goal is to make the game feel antiquated through both the narrative as well as from a graphics perspective then it succeeds. It may have been a graphic innovation for its day, but the game is not overly exciting from a visual standpoint. The later version of the game with its updated graphics add to the pioneering feel of the game surely, but the text version required a greater amount of imagination, and in some ways the experience was more cathartic. The later version was easier to navigate with more streamlined and less cumbersome controls, adding to enjoyment and somewhat morbid irony of the whole situation presented by the game. From an education standpoint the original text base game stands out, though convincing today’s gamers to play that style of game would indeed be a challenge. In reiterating the point that it left more to the imagination it innately causes the player to analyze it deeper, and give a bit more thought to the experience itself. The 1990’s version translates into a more visual experience, yet falls short in being educational material. The game places the problems that real pioneers faced as obstacles in the way of making it to the main objective. Historical terms and ideas are there, but not explicitly explained or emphasized. The Oregon Trail is a fun, imaginative representation of the past without a doubt, but has its flaws as well.