The following is a guest post from Sun Tzu:
Tzu is a mixed race gamer who has been involved in the gaming scene since Doom. He enjoys writing about social justice, feminism, a wide variety of game genres, and writing about himself in the third person. Any personal inquiries or comments can be sent to Tzuofthesun@gmail.com.
It’s a tense moment. There’s an uneasy stalemate at the top of the map, with little AI soldiers duking it out and an enemy hero, the fire mage Lina, watching over them and hoping to catch myself or my ally off guard. I’m on my toes because while there appears to be only one enemy in our presence, the hero who was attacking our middle lane has disappeared. I suspect that there might be an ambush in the works, but don’t want to leave my nearby tower undefended lest it be sieged. Anxiety fills my heart as I realize I was right-Pudge, the undead butcher who went missing from middle, bursts out of the cover of nearby trees and darts past the oblivious AIs, then throws a vicious meat hook out in our direction. While my comrade and I barely manage to dodge it, I notice that both Lina and Pudge are retreating and immediately pursue. “Overwhelming odds!” Tresdin, my hero, cries as I call down a barrage of arrows on my enemies and sprint after them with renewed vigor. Lina panics and flees at top speed while Pudge attempts to disappear back into the trees, but I managed to narrowly catch him. “Fight me!” Tresdin roars as she plants a circle of banners around herself and Pudge, forcing him to turn around and engage in single combat. I sit back and watch the fight unfold, my hero now trapped with her foe in a duel to the death. Seconds later, my ally, a sniper, makes the fight less than fair with a crack of his rifle and Pudge is no more. Despite not scoring the kill herself, Tresdin laughs triumphantly and the first real confrontation of the game is over.
It’s easy to dramatize even the briefest of exchanges in DoTA 2. Part of this is because of the high stakes nature of the game, but it’s also because every single hero has an expansive set of lines that are recited under more circumstances than I can count. “Nice beard!” Tresdin will say as she meets an ally with facial hair. “If I cannot out fight them, I will out smart them!” she exclaims as she respawns from a rather messy death. Occasionally, I’ll even hear her quoting Patton. I could go on at length about all the little things I love about DoTA 2, but the feature that stands out for me is the fact that the voices of the female characters avoid most of the pitfalls of video game stereotypes and provide a great model for representation of female voices. While it might not seem like a very important inclusion upon first glance, speaking is one of the most basic forms of agency.
The women of DoTA 2, while they number only 17 out of 107, are more than digital barbies meant to entice the coveted 14 year old boy demographic. None of them have “sexy” lines that just feel like auditory fan service. For example, Queen of Pain, who is by far the most sexual of all, is mostly creepy. Her voice often has a suggestive tone to it, but it’s always in relation to tormenting her enemies with exquisite agonies. Were she the only woman in the game, I would take more issue with her faux-dominatrix voice and script. However, Queen of Pain’s enthusiasm for torture is just part of the spectrum of personalities that DoTA 2 presents in its female heroes. Windranger is puckish and sarcastic, Lina is pyromaniacal, and Tresdin is dauntless. They don’t pander to sexist fantasy or fall into the trap of becoming clones of Ellen Ripley in an effort to seem progressive. They do not exist as peripheral quest givers or singular romantic interests to be fridged. They’re heroes that have a role to play in the grand conflict of DoTA 2 and their voices reflect that perfectly. They despair at their failures, exalt their successes, and can pun with the best of them. This kind of representation is refreshing because it presents the idea that women shouldn’t be narrowly defined as just housewives or Rosies. Women can be weird. Women can be aggressive. Women can be contemplative. Women can ride around on tigers and turn invisible. Broad, inclusive representation of the many facets of human expression enriches any medium it blooms in and DoTA 2 is evidence of this. Lively, varied characters are just plain fun to play.
While this article may have sounded like a longwinded promotion of DoTA 2, I think that the strengths it presents with regard to gender representation in gaming are significant. Women are often commodified, fetishized, and/or “affirmative action’d” into games just to make a quick buck. Just take a look at games like Dead or Alive, Call of Duty (Modern Warfare and onward), or even the ever popular League of Legends. The first is essentially interactive fanservice that made “independent breast physics” a face-palm worthy reality. The second is a franchise that spouted the questionable excuse that its technology couldn’t handle the rigors of female character models (it’s not like Quake 2, a 1997 release, could do it). The final title’s developers seem to base many of their female heroes/costumes on fetishes. DoTA 2 bucks that trend, and I think that when a giant like Valve voluntarily treats its feminine roster with respect of its own free will, it means a great deal. DoTA 2 is a popular, visible game with an esports community and a dedicated player base. The voices in this game matter, and the message is clear: women should be heard.