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Gaming’s Mom problem: Why do we refuse to feature mothers in games?

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Joel cradled his daughter’s head in his hands, pleading with her to be okay. "Come on, baby. Please." And then she was quiet. "Don’t do this to me, baby. Don’t do this to me, baby girl."

The scene’s edge wears off once you realize you’ve seen this repeated in several other games.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us, Child of Light,  and certain games in the Metroid series.

As the gaming audience has grown older, so have the protagonists. Joel from The Last of Us, from the above scene, is what many of us as kids would have called "old." The fathers and father figures that have come to fill the ranks of video game heroes in games like The Last of Us, Bioshock: Infinite, Heavy Rain, and The Walking Dead are an interesting step forward for gaming heroes, but there has been no such movement towards video game mothers.

Fathers are portrayed as heroes for their sacrifices and willingness to do anything to protect their family. The strong patriarch mourns his wife and children, or he goes out of his way to protect them. The death of a loved one is used as justification for more violence or dramatic tension.

Even when the older male protagonist is not biologically a father, he assumes the role of a father figure or leading man to protect the people most important to him. Now that we’ve had several years of fathers leading stories in games, it’s about time varied women with a family, biological or not, had a place in games’ narratives.

This isn't just academic; I’ve looked for moms in games I could admire even since my own mother died. Over and over, I see fathers on the frontlines while women are kept to the back. As I’ve reflected on my mom’s strength, I’ve become more and more frustrated that I do not see it celebrated in games.

Mothers are the ones you leave behind

Mothers are frequently found in games, but they rarely play the role of protagonists. Often, a mom is synonymous with the home. In the core Pokemon series, the protagonist’s mother remains at the house to say goodbye to her child and also to welcome them home when they return.

Leaving your parents and your home is a common cultural signifier of growing up. Children move into a dormitory or an apartment for school, or they leave the house when they have the financial stability to do so. However, games often frame mothers as the signifying tie to home.

Games often pour us into the role of the child leaving the home, or the weary surrogate father-figure who protects and cares for younger, often female, characters.

Even when you’re out of the house and on your own, moms are the parental figures in video games who often ensure you’re well. The Mom character of Animal Crossing periodically sends letters and gifts to the player. These letters will speak of old times while keeping the player up to date on what their fictional Mom is doing.

As a caring mom, she includes gifts with her letters. Meanwhile, Dad rarely writes, choosing to do so only on Father’s Day in games prior to Animal Crossing: New Leaf. In New Leaf, he’ll write a few more times a year, but it’s the player’s Mom who keeps in touch.

Mothers often have minor and simplistic narrative roles, if they exist in the game at all.

This fortunately isn’t always the case, as we see in Ubisoft’s fairytale-inspired game, Child of Light. The game begins with the young princess Aurora waking up in a strange world. Her father is sick, and she’s desperate to get back home to him. The player learns Aurora’s mother died before the events of the game, and much of the beginning focuses on her relationship with her father rather than her deceased mother.

It later turns out Ubisoft didn’t make a game about a girl and her father – it’s Aurora’s mother whom the narrative favors. Aurora’s mother appears throughout the story to guide Aurora and to imply to the player she did not die of natural causes. When Aurora is at her most vulnerable, her mother gets her back on her feet. Aurora saves the kingdom thanks to strength from her mother.

Mothers often have minor and simplistic narrative roles

This occurs in other games as well, such as Mother 3, and we see conflicted mothers like Bioshock’s Bridgid Tenenbaum and surrogate mothers like EVA of the Metal Gear Solid series. None of those characters are protagonists, and in Child of Light the mother character had to literally die before she became a larger part of the story.

Yet we see men like Joel from The Last of Us, Booker from Bioshock Infinite, Ethan from Heavy Rain, Lee from The Walking Dead, Harry from Silent Hill, and even Ludger from Tales of Xillia 2 populating games. Each of these men has his own story shown to the player, and each is motivated by their familial or familial-like relationships. They are all also different from each other.

The diversity of these father figures is commendable, but why do we see so many mothers shoved into the background stories of other characters?

The legacy of Samus Aran

When I asked friends for mothers or mother figures in video games, they could name a few off the top of their heads, but almost none of them were playable characters. One of the few playable characters with a mother-child narrative was no-nonsense, bounty hunter Samus Aran.

Samus is the protagonist of the Metroid series. Once a soldier and now a bounty hunter, Samus is one of the earliest female protagonists in video games since her introduction in Metroid in 1986.

At the end of the second game, Metroid II: Return of Samus, the bounty hunter stumbles upon an egg as she’s escaping to her ship. After spending the game killing tons of Metroids, Samus watches a baby Metroid hatch in front of her. The child assumes Samus is its mother and helps Samus safely escape to her ship. Samus drops off the friendly Metroid for study and goes on her way. However, this is not where Samus ends as a mother.

In Super Metroid, the story continues as Samus returns to the colony after a receiving a distress signal. Samus is powerless to stop her common antagonist Ridley from stealing away the hatchling Metroid. The next time she encounters her "child," it has grown much larger and confuses her for an enemy. Once it realizes who Samus is, it runs off in shame.

In recent games with older male protagonists, the father or father figure spends his time sacrificing his well being to protect his family. Lee from The Walking Dead prioritizes Clementine over himself. Joel chooses Ellie over the world’s survival. In Super Metroid, the child is the one who performs the sacrifice.

Just as Samus is about to die, the child restores energy to Samus and protects her, taking every hit to allow time for Samus to recover. Just as the Metroid can take no more, it makes the ultimate self-sacrifice by giving up its life to save its mother. Its remains fall over Samus, granting her new strength, and the player can avenge the child through an aggressive battle. That new strength is what allows Samus to escape safely.

Super Metroid was released in 1994. In the 20 years since then, there have been so many games but so few narratives from mothers’ perspectives. A few do exist — you can be a mother in Fire Emblem Awakening, and there are several mothers in fighting games — and we occasionally see older women in the roles of mentors, such as Lightning to Hope in Final Fantasy XIII, but these do not use motherhood to the same level we see of fatherhood in games like Heavy Rain, where the majority of protagonist’s character is his role as a father.

Even with Samus’ brief motherhood role in Super Metroid being an interesting development to the character, she isn’t primarily a mother. The role was so brief that it’s easy for audiences to never realize that happened to Samus.

There are so few older women in games that by extension it’s not surprising there are also few mothers. It’s staggering how many mothers are in our world with diverse voices and different ideas on what motherhood means while their voices aren’t seen as important enough in video games as primary characters.

For years, our wider culture has portrayed mothers as clueless when it comes to STEM and women in general as technologically-challenged. There’s even a meme about moms not understanding technology. In games specifically, a Jimmy Fallon segment from last year asked for videos of children playing video games with their moms.

In a supercut on Fallon’s show, the majority of the mothers shown struggle to keep up with their young kids, often sons. Advertising reinforces gendered spaces; we see images and videos directed at women about correcting physical flaws or keeping houses clean while men are often shown as inept around the house.

We see fathers as overweight, bumbling idiots (like Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin) or rugged heroes whereas our classic idea of a mom is someone who’s either loving or nagging. Mothers are people with their own journeys, too.

What are we waiting for?

Carly Smith is a freelance journalist located outside of New York City. When she’s not crying over amazingly done narratives, she’s talking gibberish to her cat.