Gender in Video Games

Indie games and AAA games have many differences such as production costs, audience, and many more. They even differ in how they typically portray the different genders. Masculinity in AAA titles, for instance, tends to have an “in your face” approach where the protagonist tends to exert all forms of physical and emotional manliness. In AAA titles the men tend to be the strongest man in the world in all aspects. For example, Snake from Metal Gear Solidwhose big, strong, ripped, and has the overused gruff “manly” voice. In more indie titles, the creators are not as hesitant in going against traditional masculine values. For example, Unmanned, in which the main character who, although admittedly has the traditional masculine physique, battles with his own emotions and struggles with PTSD. In this game, the producers take a break from the idea that men must always be strong both mentally and physically and bring awareness to the fact that men are humans and have emotions. Women and femininity are also portrayed differently in AAA titles and indie titles.

In AAA titles women typically have their place as the “damsel in distress.” This can be seen early on in video games, like Super Mario Bros. where Mario, an Italian plumber, has to fight a big, masculine, turtle-dragon hybrid to save a princess and get her love. When women aren’t a “damsel in distress” in AAA games they are either hypersexualized or given typically masculine traits. A perfect example of this is Lara Croft from tomb raider who has all the traits of the classic male video game character but is instead a woman, this part of her character is highly emphasized through her exaggerated chest. In indie titles, production teams do not need to follow these typical qualities of women that AAA audiences expect, rather they can make their characters how they see fit. In The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, for example, it’s hard to even tell the character is a girl until you reach dialogue where she feels weird about liking video games, which is usually viewed as something for boys. Some indie games make female characters actual people rather than a “damsel in distress” or a typical male character with a female skin.

Things are getting better for women in games. A good example is the Life is Strange where Maxine Caulfield, a female high school student, finds that she has powers to rewind time. Maxine’s character is believable as a female. Not that she is weak or feeble in anyway, the opposite in fact, rather she has characteristics and mannerisms often associated with female characters. This is not the only game that is showing progress for women. Going back to Lara Croft example, in more recent games, her exaggerated body has been altered into something more realistic. Lara Croft now is portrayed as a strong woman who does not have to be hypersexualized to be appreciated and respected by the player. One final example of women’s role in video games improving is in Grand Theft Auto Online. In Grand Theft Auto Online, the player can create a female character who is not hypersexualized and not constrained to typical masculine traits. Although the women characters still commit the millions of crimes that can be committed in Grand Theft Auto Online, crimes in which are often associated with men, there is no form of stress on the character’s gender. Although there are some improvements, the video game industry still has a long way to go in order to create good female characters who are both strong, but not given typical male traits.

Mafia III Critique

From gunfights with the Italian mob to boating through alligator-infested swamps delivering crates of weed, New Bordeaux, Hangar 13 and 2k Game’s reimagination of 1968 New Orleans, is the home of Mafia III, a story based on revenge and fueled by crime. Mafia III tells the story of New Bordeaux native, Lincoln Clay, a mixed-race decorated Vietnam War veteran and Black Mafia member. The game follows Lincoln as he seeks revenge against the Marcano Crime Family, an Italian gang, for the murder of his family and attempted murder of himself. His plan for revenge consists of completely destroying the mob from the ground up, piece by piece, one person at a time. To do this, Lincoln recruits three underbosses: voodoo practitioner and Haitian gang leader, Cassandra, Irish mob boss, Thomas Burke, and ex-member of the Marcano Crime Family, Vito Scaletta. While only the setting of this story, New Bordeaux is an important factor of the game, it puts the player into the culture and society of the 1968 American South from the perspective of that society’s worst enemy, a Black man.

While the story does not contain a historically accurate narrative, nor does it claim to, Mafia III exposes the harsh realities of life as a Black citizen of the American South during 1968. For example, the blatant racism the game portrays. While playing through the game’s story or exploring its open world, the player will hear racial slurs hundreds of times. “F*ck the ni**ers. F*ck those unwashed, debased, big-lipped, bug-eyed, savages, who grow fatter and lazier off everything the White man has ever made,” is only one of the many racist statements I heard through my playthrough of the game. The game’s city, New Bordeaux, also houses many businesses with signs on the front windows stating things like “White’s Only” or “No Coloreds Allowed,” a direct reference to the racial segregation that plagued America, especially in the South, during the 1960’s. While those are some more obvious examples, there is also more subtle racism in the game.

The game’s 1968 setting puts it in a time where racial tensions are high and key civil rights events have taken place. Because of this, not everyone in the world was as openly racist. Although the racism was not as obvious, it was still there. This can be seen in the game as Lincoln walks down the street in White neighborhoods and people try avoiding him. Another instance I came across was when I met someone for instructions on a mission and the first thing she said was “you’re not what I expected,” commenting on Lincoln’s race. Police are also a main factor in the subtle racism the game exposes. For example, while they will not stop the player for no reason, radars in the game show that the police closely watch Lincoln as he passes by, trying to find a reason to detain him. Another thing police do is respond quickly to calls in the game’s White neighborhood while they respond much slower, or not at all, in Black neighborhoods. These forms of racism, racial profiling, and racial subjectivity show the player exactly what it meant to be a Black man in the 1960’s American south. Although the game’s racism is a huge factor in its portrayal of the 1968 American south, it is not the only driving factor in the game’s historical elements.

1960’s pop-culture is a huge element in the world of Mafia III. From driving a classic car while Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” plays on the in-game radio to collecting vintage Playboy magazines, the game is filled with popular culture references. The game’s soundtrack is filled with classics that one would hear on the radio in the 1960s. Another key element in the game’s homage to 1960’s popular culture is references by NPCs. The game has many references to 1960s popular culture and politics. NPCs talking about the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and Star Trek’s infamous interracial kiss is just a few of many of the references in the game. The game’s collectibles are also pieces of 1960s popular culture. These collectibles consist of the magazines: Hot Rod, Repent, and Playboy, along with pin-up artist, Alberto Vargas, paintings and communist propaganda posters. While the game is a good representation of culture and society in this time, it is not completely accurate or realistic.

By creating a fictional narrative in a fictional city, even though New Bordeaux is based on New Orleans, the game developers show that Mafia III does not claim to be completely accurate or realistic. In order to preserve its flow and overall playability, the game’s mechanics had to be unrealistic to a certain extent. For example, in real life, no one can get shot a million times and live, even if they take an adrenaline shot to boost their health. Other realistic elements the game must sacrifice in order to flow well is police behavior. In real life, police would not watch someone speed past them or run red lights without pulling them over. Police also would not give up searching for a suspect of serious crimes after a couple of minutes, or hours in-game time. If any of these factors were completely realistic and the player would die from one shot or have to deal with police the whole time they were playing, it would be a huge inconvenience for the player and completely destroy the game’s flow and playability.

Mafia III’s 2016 release and its usage of a Black protagonist is no coincidence. The game’s development took place during a time of reclamation of Black Identity in America. During the years leading up to its release, America experienced a boom of Black social activist groups promoting Black pride. This was also a time of a growing political divide where Blacks felt that they were unfairly discriminated against, especially by the police, while their opposition claimed they were exaggerating. Mafia III’s development came at a time where America was hostile, and the game’s themes directly relate to the emotions carried by Black Americans during this time.

Mafia III’s historical representations are driven by 1960’s American southern culture and society. The game makes the player feel uncomfortable with its obvious segregation and racism. The city of New Bordeaux is also alive and filled with NPC conversations regarding 1960s pop culture. Overall, while this game does not attempt to be a completely accurate narrative, it is a strong representation of life for a Black man in the 1960’s American South and, arguably, today.

The Oregon Trail

 

The classic game, The Oregon Trail, is an adventure game that puts the player in the shoes of a pioneer traveling across the historic Oregon Trail. In this game, the player can choose for their character to be a banker, blacksmith, carpenter, doctor, farmer, merchant, saddle maker, or teacher. Each occupation has their own perks whether it be more money to start off with or a higher point bonus at the end of the game. The primary historical argument being made in The Oregon Trail is that the trail was dangerous and many people risked their lives in order to take the trip across the trail. The usage of occupations and wealth in the game also shows that for those who were wealthy, like a doctor, the trail was simpler than someone who was not, like a teacher, because they had more money for supplies and were less likely to need to ration food.

Despite giving a good idea of what life on the trail was like and how some people were more likely to survive on it than others, The Oregon Trail, arguably, does a bad job at representing different minority groups. For example, Blacks. In The Oregon Trail, Blacks are given the stereotypical Southern accents and are not given much depth into the actual story of the game. The lack of depth given to Blacks can be seen across other ethnic groups as well. Native Americans, for example, also do not have much impact on the story for the game other than trading and small snippets of dialogue. Native Americans also do not seem hostile towards, what the player could assume, the white-male protagonist of the game. This is an issue because of the hostility between the two groups that likely existed during this time, especially along the trail. Women, like the previous two minority groups, are also underrepresented in the game.

Overall, The Oregon Trail is an effective game. Despite the representations or lack thereof, regarding different minority groups and women, The Oregon Trail gives the player a good sense of how random and threatening the trail could be. The graphics are a huge help with the game’s overall effectiveness. Through the graphics, the player is given a visual representation of their distance traveled and how far they have left, the people they come across, and more, including mini-games like when the player decides to hunt. All of these things, and more, cause for greater immersion in the game and a broad, but clear, understanding of the Oregon Trail.