My ex is into all things zombie, so when Left 4 Dead came out last year, he jumped on it and brought it over for us to play together. I had to admit, for a game whose entire premise is simply running down one hallway after another, killing zombies as you go, it was really entertaining. So it’s become a staple of our times spent hanging out.
In Left 4 Dead, you play as one of four Survivors, basically the last non-zombified humans in whatever city or environment you’re in, trying to reach a point where you can call for rescue. You can choose which Survivor you play as, or you can just leave it on random and the game will assign you to one of the four. In the first L4D, you had Louis (the token black man), Bill (a white man), Francis (another white man), and Zoey (the token woman; white, of course) to choose from. Every time I played, I chose to play as Zoey. After a few times of playing together, my ex turned to me and asked why I kept choosing Zoey, if it really mattered. The AI handles Zoey really well, he pointed out; it might make things easier for us if I took one of the other characters.
How do you explain, to a man who has always and will always be represented on-screen for as long as there are playable human characters, what a difference it makes to be able to play a character that actually resembles oneself in some major way? I know gamers, both men and women, who choose to play as a gender other than their own in games like Mass Effect or Fallout, where you can choose the gender of your character. But in games where you don’t get a choice, where there’s a limited number of playable characters – or only one – how often do male gamers have to immerse themselves as a female character? Well, there’s Mirror’s Edge, where you play Faith, an Asian-American woman. And there’s Wet, which just came out recently and features female protagonist Rubi. Heavenly Sword had Nariko and Kai. Going a bit more old-school, there was Samus from the Metroid games. (I’m sorry, the Tomb Raider series doesn’t count, given that Lara Croft was designed specifically to make male gamers go “omg tits!”; you were never supposed to identify with her, only stare at her.) But that’s four games I can think of, versus uncounted dozens or hundreds with male protagonists. An article on Forbes.com cites research firm Electronic Entertainment Design and Research’s numbers on the subject: of the games on current generation consoles, female characters star in only 3% of games, versus 46% with male protagonists (the remaining are games with a customizable lead character or none). In action games specifically, it’s 3% female, 51% male, and if you venture into shooters, it drops to an abysmal 1%-73%.
Representation matters. The overwhelming hordes of male protagonists send female gamers a clear message: This Is A Boys Club. You Do Not Belong Here. It makes of women intruders into a male world, where the only way we get to play is by erasing our gender and pretending to be men. So I don’t care if AI-Zoey is a great sniper. I’m going to play as Zoey anyway, because she’s the only woman. Because that’s what I am, too. And I’m tired of having to pretend otherwise.