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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Lara Croft, Feminist Pioneer?

Friday, June 28, 2013

Researching for a conference paper on Lara Croft for the Literary Dolls conference, I came across (via this report) a remarkable statistic from the game-industry research centre, EEDAR. Out of 669 current titles that had protagonists of a specific gender, only 24 of these were exclusively fronted by women. These titles sold less well than male-led games, because they received less marketing. Given that 45% of all gamers are women, and given that the average age of gamers is a mature 30 rather than a hormonal 16, this is an even more surprising gap.

When I started writing my paper, I was attempting to reject the automatic presumption that hyperbolically sexualised protaganists, such as Lara Croft, should be condemned. Or, rather, although I think such depictions are a problem in gendered terms, we need to think about more than just the sexual politics that went into their making. My paper calls for us to adopt a ludological perspective on Lara Croft. We can't just consider the representation of her gender as being a consequence of patriarchy, a role play which (following Judith Butler) demonstrates via the extreme how women should perform in reality. Rather we must consider the reasons why from a mechanical point of view such a representation might, to some extent, be necessary to the process of the game. For example, Lara's long legs are essential to navigate realistically the challenging environment that the designers have constructed. Furthermore, in the process of playing male gamers ironically occupy a female point of view, and the game's risk-reward structure is intended to reward gamers who actively seek to protect Lara and control her body in a sympathetic way; it punishes gamers who simply stand still and "gaze" at her (yep, rolling out the feminist big guns there's some Laura Mulvey in there as well).

Video games are complex, interactive media objects which operate according to a unique set of rules and codes. We cannot simply flatten a game and say that because the two-dimensional image of women that it depicts is biased or patriarchal, it therefore recapitulates gender constructions in exactly the same way as film, or the Daily Mail sidebar of shame.

However, these industry figures on female protagonists give a different slant to the issue. Is there a case for saying that, given the dearth of female characters in video games, any representation of the gender, no matter how hyperbolically sexualised, is a good thing? This is, of course, a parallel debate to that had in other areas of culture. Is it good that Katie Price has become a media mogul through exploiting her body? Should lap dancing be seen as a legitimate means of female empowerment?

Put bluntly, is the fact that players spend hours staring at Lara Croft's pert ass a good thing, if it means that at least such (male) gamers are playing a woman in the first place? Is it necessary to break ground through confirming to patriarchal desire, so that it can eventually be subverted? I'm not sure, and this is something of a tangent to my research (hence blogging about it). However, given this remarkably low starting point with so few female leads, it will be interesting to see how gender depictions play out in the new media of video games in years to come.

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Posted by Alistair at 6:23 am


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