Victim or sex object: Tough women take back video games | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 13.08.2014
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Victim or sex object: Tough women take back video games

From the damsel in distress to the bounty hunter: Women, it seems, are no longer limited in their video game roles. The Museum of Computer Games in Berlin shows that they can play the heroine as well.

John Marston swings his lasso and aims. He captures his target - a woman - throws her on his horse, and races to the nearby train tracks. Then he lays the woman on the tracks and waits for the train to come. The woman struggles to free herself, but to no avail. The train comes and rolls over her. Blood splatters everywhere. The word "success" triumphantly flashes on the screen.

Fortunately, the horrific scene doesn't come from real life, but from the video game "Red Dead Redemption," where each squished female translates into points for the player. Crushing a man, on the other hand, results in no points.

Though this game is particularly cruel, it points to the fact that there are very few roles for female characters to play in video games: They are often either the victim that has to be rescued, or the scantily clad sex figure with exaggerated bodily proportions.

The damsel in distress

Media expert Anita Sarkeesian focuses on the portrayal of women in popular media. In her video podcast "Feminist Frequency," she reviews the various roles females play in computer games. One of the standard roles is "the virgin in need," where women are depicted as weak, dumb and inefficient.

Sarkeesian financed her series through crowdfunding and was able to collect $150,000 and a lot of praise - along with controversy. Pornographic material was uploaded to her Wikipedia entry, and one user even developed a game in which Sarkeesian is hit in her face.

Some critics have accused her of being non-credible because she wears makeup and is said to dislike gaming. Others find the whole discussion on games exaggerated because, as they put it, games are just for fun.

Oh dear, I have played a women!

The producers of Ausstellung "Leading Lady" vom Computerspielemuseum Berlin have taken a different approach by showing games in which strong women are dominant.

"Some people focus exclusively on negative examples. I think it's interesting to take an independent look at women in video games and start by asking what kind of roles they play in the first place," says co-curator Mascha Tobe. And in fact, there are quite a few games in which women are not at all depicted as helpless victims.

The exhibition presents eight games representing a variety of genres from different countries. Among them is the ego-shooter "No One Lives Forever" with secret agent Cate Archer, and the action-adventure game "Beyond Good and Evil" about courageous reporter Jade.

Poster for the Leading Lady exhibition at the Computerspielemuseum Berlin, Copyright: Philipp Frei

The Leading Lady contemplates women's role in gaming - and how to change it

The oldest game is also the most suspenseful one: "Metroid" from the year 1986. The player steers bounty hunter Samus Aran through a pixel world. It's only at the end of the game that the Samus finally takes off his helmet to reveal that he is actually a woman.

"I would love to have a video of all the male players when they're siting in front of their games consoles and realize, 'Oh! I've been playing a woman!'" Tobe laughs for a few seconds, and then say, "Well, the most interesting part of all this is that you wonder why you automatically assumed that the figure you were playing was a male."

Old Lara, new Lara

Perhaps because courage and fighting spirit are generally attributed to men? One of the most famous video game heroines possesses precisely these presumably male qualities: Lara Croft. Since1996, she has been roaming around in the "Tomb Raider" series. Through ancient temples and waild jungles, she races around on her motorcycle, killing adversaries and wild animals.

Video game players at the Computerspielemuseum Berlin, Copyright: Computerspielemuseum Berlin (CSM)

Would you be surprised if the main character turned out to be female?

Lara Croft roves that games featuring a heroine can also be successful. And men seem to take to her. That may be due in the first place to her attractiveness. But it should not be overlooked that over the years, her outlook became less sexy and more natural. Her breasts grew smaller and, instead of hot pants, she now wears jeans.

The early version of Lara attracts more fans, though. Two Lara statues decorate the entrance of theBerlin museum - the old and the new Lara. "The new Lara is not as popular with men as the old one," notes Tobe. "When male visitors take pictures, they all go for the old Lara."

Equally controversial is the role of the new Lara. The initially volatile young woman gradually grew into a tough woman. Producer Ron Rosenberg says the player needss to feel that he must protect Lara. "That's certainly counterproductive," Tobe admits. "But that comes up only in the latest part. We examine the entire series, not just one part of it."

Virgin saves heroe

Most museum visitors - the majority of them are men - take a rather pragmatic approach to the exhibition. "It brings this world of games closer to women," one of them believes.

Princess Peach, Copyright: Nintendo

Princess Peach is tougher than her outfit conveys

To him, he adds, it didn't matter whether he played a man or a woman, all that counted was whether the story itself was good or bad. He also notes with surprise that, in spite of all positive critiques, the series "Beyond Good and Evil" didn't sell as well as one should think.

The same fate was shared by the science-fiction game "Remember Me," in which the female rebel Nilin fights against the manipulation of thoughts. The French production company Dontnod had a hard time finding a publisher for the game. Many companies maintained that a woman as the main protagonist just couldn't work.

One rather unlikely figure which made it into the exhibition is an old-fashioned virgin in need: Princess Peach from the Super Mario series. For the past 30 years, Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Donkey Kong, with Mario rushing to save her. The roles were swapped in 2006, however: Mario and Luigi were kidnapped, and Peach had to liberate them - dressed in her usual pink dress.

Princesses, it sseems, can be quite tough.

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