It's getting better: I spent an entire day at E3 playing as women characters

Opinion

This is my second E3, and the first year I decided to make actual appointments. The good news is that this year would mark one of the most positive feelings I've ever had about the industry -- because I saw myself represented every. Single. Time.

Could I really spend the entirety of the day at the show playing as female characters, or finding female characters in the games?

A day of women

My first appointment was at 2K Games, where I played the next installment in one of my favorite franchises: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. I have a deep love for this franchise; my haircut is modeled after Lilith, I have a Marcus Kincaid bobblehead in my car, and my WiFi password references the game.

I would most certainly write my dissertation on the deep characterization of the women in Borderlands if I hadn't committed to studying gender in music games for my Ph.D. As a musician in a hard rock band who studied women in popular music while being a fan of video games, it was an interesting intersection of interests.

Which is a long-winded way of saying my love for the series runs deep.

The latest game gives you the opportunity to play as not one, but two women: Nisha the Lawbringer and Athena the Gladiator. I played as Athena during this particular demo, chucking her shield like a certain patriotic captain and hearing her taunt her enemies.

My next appointment was to see Civilization: Beyond Earth. I was ultimately delighted to see people of color amongst the leaders you will meet, one of them a woman who joyfully greeted us with an "¡Hola!" during the demo

The last 2K Games release I played, Evolve, allowed me to play as the monster. It wasn't so much my character as much as the characters I was playing against that gave me another reason to smile: Maggie, the Trapper, was a woman of color, and was one of the four humans trying to bring me down. She joined Val, a previously announced medic, as another playable woman in Evolve.

My next appointment took me to Telltale Games, where I witnessed the first half hour or so of Tales from the Borderlands. The game features Fiona and Rhys as protagonists, each fighting to tell their side of a new Pandoran story. Fiona was introduced as a grifter, and the "Also you, too," line that made you aware that she would be the second player character filled me with joy.

In addition to Fiona, we met Yvette, Rhys's friend that sends support from an orbiting space station. She was a woman of color with an agenda that appeared to be way more than ancillary or mere set dressing.

Games are culture

I then watched Deep Silver's Dead Island 2 presentation, with its tongue-in-cheek look at a California gone horribly, horribly wrong. When released next spring, the presenter described, I would be able to dual wield, use motorized weapons, and attract zombies with car alarms and record players. This very first game to have motion-captured a cat also boasted four playable classes, two of which, the hunter and the speeder, were women.

This is rare enough that a single note in my book tells the tale. "Two ladies!" I wrote in my excitement.

This is good news

Games are culture. You do not get to produce culture, be praised as art, or be agents of socialization and be absolved from critique, both popular and academic. The ivory tower has  been wringing its hands over representation since long before a thing we could call "games studies" even existed.

A couple of oft-cited articles point to precisely the issues here. Tracy Dietz's 1998 article in the journal Sex Roles examines a sample of games and what roles women had in them. The most common situation for games is a world that is all but devoid of women characters, with the damsel in distress category not far behind.

Burgess, Burgess, and Stermer's 2007 article for the same journal analyzed over 200 video game covers and found not much had changed. Not only were men three times more likely to be found on video game covers, but they were more likely to be shown in active roles rather than passive eye candy.

The study is symptomatic of the wider issues we face in not just the games themselves, but in the way they are marketed and shown to the audience, and an illustration of just how marvelous it is to see a woman capable of exacting change in whatever universe she inhabits.

We can be earthworms, creators of symphonies, defenders of galaxies, yellow pellet-eating pucks, androgynous, amorphous, non-binary, complicated, violent and beautiful. Is it so far-fetched to want to be a woman with the same kind of agency, too?

Not so for Borderlands. Nor for Evolve. Or Dead Island 2. The games don’t make a big deal out of this fact, and they don’t shy away from the technical challenges of introducing female characters, they simple deal with the fact that half the world’s population is made of women and make sure the game’s world have women characters who can make a difference.

I remember sitting at home on the couch watching the Ubisoft press conference where Aveline was revealed as the protagonist of AC: Liberation. As cynical as I was about her initially getting relegated to a handheld title, it was hard to snark with the tears in my eyes. She's a woman! She's brown! Her nose looks like mine! It’s hard to describe this to an audience that likely grew up with games that always presented heroes that looked like them. For me it’s not so simple, and much more rare. It’s an event that’s rare, and worth celebrating.

She's a woman! She's brown! Her nose looks like mine!

I remember playing Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and running into Opia, an assassin of indigenous Taino origin, and feeling my heart swell with Boricua pride at seeing a reference to my distant Caribbean ancestors, even if I did not experience my home island of Puerto Rico itself.

When I look at Ubisoft's recent remarks, I can't even feel anger anymore, just dismay and disappointment. I hoped I could enjoy those same feelings of seeing a version of my gender identity, in co-op, with my husband, a French Lilith and Roland of sorts, overthrowing the monarchy one hidden blade at a time. Knowing just how close they came, and the women they had before them, including in their multiplayer outings, is no salve to the wound. It’s salt.

But, then, I remember Nisha and Athena, Val and Maggie, Fiona, Yvette, and Sasha, and the hunter and speeder. I will still probably play Assassin's Creed: Unity, and I will more than likely love it. But maybe not as much as I know I could. That doesn’t take away from the fact I spent an entire day at E3 playing different kinds of video games as women characters, and in some cases women of color.

The gaming industry has a ways to go where issues of representation are concerned, and of course, not all representation pushes the industry forward, but it’s getting better. We lose sight of this sometimes, but it’s worth pointing out, and celebrating.

Elisa Melendez is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Florida International University focusing on the intersection of gender, authenticity, and music games. In her spare time, she performs in Miami-area rock bands and writes about games and wider geek culture (Fusion, Miami New Times, Slate). You can find more of Elisa's work online.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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