Shaking the Tree

In continuation of the last post on gender, and the ideals thereof, I think one of the problems with trying to create a strong, inherently female main character in a game is that passivity is widely regarded as an essentially female quality. Furthermore, we in the West are so heavily inundated with masculinity that we're heavily predisposed to think of activity as good and passivity as bad.

The “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy is what everyone learns in grade school makes America great. In reality, there's nothing wrong with that mindset, but like just about everything else, when pursued to the exclusion of other things, it's problematic. So much emphasis is placed on personal fortitude, (“going the distance” as I put it last post) personal ability, and the kind of strength that's required to defeat your foe, that we lose sight of the relative importance of nurturing, passivity, and intuitive understanding.

So, to recap, we've got a double whammy here. First of all, we have a culture that places so much emphasis on the traditionally masculine qualities that we devalue the feminine ones. Second, if the discussion is to be on games, we can't go very far without addressing the fact most people don't think that a game where you don't actually defeat a big enemy at the end would be all that fun. (Even if, like in Fallout, you defeat them by talking) Yes, there are exceptions to this, wildly successful exceptions, in fact, but a majority of games are built around this framework.

I just started reading We by Robert A. Johnson. It's a book that appeared in the wake of Joseph Campbell, applying the concept of Jungian analysis to myths in order to distill universal truths. Personally, I don't put a lot of stock in Jung's concept of the Collective Unconscious, especially as some sort of dynamic information system, but so far the book has had some very interesting things to say about Courtly Love as an institution.

Specifically, that Courtly Love (Check here if the concept isn't instantly familiar to you) is based on the idealization of the lady involved in the exchange. Johnson asserts (and this is debated, as best as I can tell) that the nature of the relationship was entirely non-physical, and the purpose was to bring the relationship up to a more spiritual level. The lady was idealized, so it became necessary for the knight to engage in ridiculous dragon slaying acts to demonstrate his achievement of the ideal of masculinity.

Is slaying a dragon better than being worthy of adoration? Is the sword better than the harp? Is the ability to accomplish your goals no matter what adversity arises better than the ability to remain sensitive to the changing conditions around you?

These questions are way too amorphous to be actually seriously investigated, but I think the point is made that not all of them can be answered with “yes”. Sadly, there aren't very many dragons around to be slain anyway. Either way, I'm not here to make an exhaustive list of feminine and masculine qualities, and it's important to note that everybody has these qualities, the question is to what amount. Likewise, my basis for “masculine” versus “feminine” is not based on any sort of observation on my part, so much as the historical context in which these concepts are frequently viewed.

The qualities that interest me specifically are that of intuitive understanding and passivity. These are generally downplayed in the west, and that's a huge shame, I think, but the question at hand is what these mean in games. Sadly, it seems both have the cards stacked against them when it comes to placement in video games.

Regardless of any axiom about violence and non-violence, it's hard to argue that, in a game, doing things isn't more fun than not doing things. Can passivity really be a viable means to reach some end in a game?

You can definitely craft a satisfying climax out of a moment in which your main character must decide not to fight someone, establishing the value of pacifism over violence, but if that moment came before you had some final test of skill to determine whether you were good enough at the game to beat it, wouldn't you feel cheated? I kind of imagine that I would. Activity turns so easily into challenges in a game because there are so many kinds of activity. The challenge is in picking which kind of activity you need to engage in (and then correctly engaging in the desired kind of activity). Maybe I'm looking at this too narrowly, but can anyone be said to have to chose the right kind of passivity? If asked, I would have said that the only thing you choose is the right time to be passive.

You can't make a game around that, can you? I concede it might be possible in an academic sense, but I think to deal with game design issues, this is a bit of a narrow definition. The true balance of activity and passivity is one that you achieve in aesthetics and narrative, not game mechanics. That seems like the trick here, the word balance.

Do we need more female characters in general in games? Of course. What we really need, though, is characters who act female. We can all agree that another ridiculous fantasy game with a scantily armor-clad woman with a sword is not what I'm talking about. Why? Because they're just the dumb action hero character reskinned for sex appeal to the same male audience. We don't just need realistic female characters (though even just that would be a Godsend), we need male characters that embrace feminine values. (Cecil's conversion into a Paladin in FFIV is a nice one)

Ay yi yi, this has gone on long enough. I'll leave intuitive understanding to be tackled in part three.