As I wrote my Tomb Raider article for Wednesday and by playing through the latest God of War, I realised that video game character writing was changing and by god it must continue to do so, in particular to change or at least stop reinforcing the antiquated male values that permeate society.
If there’s something consistent about the world is that if there’s internet harassment, there’s a nearly perfect chance that it’s being perpetrated by males of all ages, venting their frustrations and channelling the antiquated values drilled into them and abusing the anonymity the internet provides. Be it towards female journalists, female gamers, transgendered people, members of the LGBT community, people of different ethnicities or even other men that don’t comply to their standards, harassment is the name of the game and it can get ugly.
One of the key elements of these antiquated values and social norms, is the notion that men must never show their emotions openly. A man doesn’t cry, he’s never weak like that, as if emotions were a curse or something to be ashamed of. Being hardboiled or facetious are the acceptable ways and it’s almost expected, even encouraged for everyone else to follow the same norms. Being emotional is seen as negative, inferior and in many ways it’s this kind of argument that harassers cling to when they attack women of all ages. After all, if they can’t take the abuse, they shouldn’t be there in the first place. The world is for tough manly men pounding their chests like King Kong, no? The same values often dictate how these males behave towards gay men, as they’re viewed as unmanly.
Utter nonsense, really, all of it. But with the gaming industry spending decades marketing towards males—and despite the fact that most surveys state female gamers are the majority—with many developers tapping into these widely accepted norms with one-dimensional “chew bubblegum and kick ass” characters, it’s no surprise that some of the worst examples of toxic masculinity use this to claim ownership of the gaming industry and as an excuse to take actions against those they view as unworthy of being gamers.
The history of video games has too many examples of male protagonists that perpetuate the hardened, ultra macho male protagonist standard and ideal, if it can be named thus, with examples reaching well into the modern age and the recent gaming generations, such as the last couple of Deus Ex games, where the protagonist, Adam Jensen is one of the most emotionally stunted characters I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s not uncaring or unfeeling but even though there are no physical reasons for it, he’s incapable of showing any emotion, always maintaining the same stoic countenance.
An even more recent example and perhaps even more toxic is Lo Wang from Shadow Warrior, the 2nd instalment of the reboot series releasing in 2017. I enjoyed the game completely, but it’s undeniable that the character represents some of the worst male attitudes in the world, up to and including misogyny and emotional dishonesty, yet another character incapable of facing their emotions, this one hiding behind juvenile humour. He somehow parodies himself but it’s still played straight, and his views are remarkably in line with what some people actually think of the world, so he contributes to it.
There’s also Nioh, where a historical character is adapted for an action game and swiftly stripped of every emotion save the need for revenge. He’s hard-faced, cares very little about others and it’s baffling how people get to trust him with the way he behaves, a mix of arrogance and complete detachment. How about the games I reviewed recently, Super Daryl Deluxe and Azure Saga: Pathfinder, where characters are actually toxic?
But as I mentioned before, it’s changing, with more and more male protagonists allowed the opportunity to grow and show that being emotional, that being in touch with their feelings and moving past these age-old notions of masculinity is not only normal but also don’t in any way mean weakness and in turn there have been many female protagonists displaying tremendous strength without losing their ability to feel.
The latest God of War is the best example, which takes Kratos, one of the most direct examples of toxic masculinity out there, and lets him grow, show remorse for his behaviour but shining a light on how underdeveloped he is as a person, with a visible inability to show affection to his son for most of the game, not even capable of holding him during important moments, his hand only inches away from the child’s shoulder, but removing it. The entire game is an emotional growth journey for the man they called the Ghost of Sparta and it’s brilliant, taking all those male ideals and standards and chucking them out the window.
Uncharted 4 took the facetious Nathan Drake and put him in a position where his usual flippant attitude and his “ask for forgiveness, not permission” attitude nearly costs him everything he’d worked so hard to obtain, the very happiness he pursued and nearly lost many times over. He’s forced to let go of the façade he hid behind, deflecting with humour and accept his wrongdoing to save his marriage. It’s pure emotional growth.
On the female side you have characters like Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn, a badass in every form of the word but also a very human. Then there’s Senua, from Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a character whose strength is astonishing. And if we mention Uncharted, The Lost Legacy has two female protagonists and they’re absolutely amazing, independent and despite a rough exterior there’s emotional depth to their characterisation.
That’s the reason I grow so frustrated with the new Lara Croft, her writers seemingly wanting to make her “one of the boys,” make her strong and hard without leaving her freedom to have emotions, humour or a personality. Being “one of the boys” means perpetuating toxic standards and if there’s one character that must never be allowed to do so, it’s Lara Croft. To do so would mean looking back instead of pushing forwards.
I cannot tell for certain how much of an effect video games and other media have on people’s behaviour (though I can say for certain that writing and fiction have had their effect on me, teaching me and expanding my horizons), how much they can influence them in terms of subverting or reinforcing the values drilled into them by their parents, family and environment, but if that’s the case, don’t video game writers have a responsibility in making sure they don’t perpetuate tired and antiquated values and help move their audiences towards better views and choices?
We’re still ways away when it comes to destroying the negative perception of emotions or even psychological conditions such as depression, as for every game like Hellblade, which takes a serious look at mental health, we have titles like Final Fantasy XV, where one character is berated and bullied for grieving, even called a coward for it and told to just get over it, as if loss (or worse still, depression) were an easy thing to overcome.
And we’re even further away from having true inclusion in games, as we’re still in the stage where LGBT characters appear in games in that shallow way, almost having arrows pointing to them saying “look, he’s gay!!” And it’s still far too normal for their inclusion to spark some form of controversy, some negative backlash from both the chest-pounding macho idiots and the very people the writers clumsily attempt to include.
We’re not there yet and I know that just because a few games show that emotions aren’t a weakness and challenge the perceived standards and ideals, it doesn’t mean that suddenly the hostile attitudes that seem to surround the gaming industry and internet as a whole will disappear, but it’s a process, isn’t it? It’s a continuous thing to eradicate the notions that drive toxicity. Even if those are the values imparted at home, if media stops supporting it, wouldn’t that have an impact on those holding said values?
To close this of if you’ll allow me to get personal, I will say that I’ve never understood the attitude nor the chest-pounding male tropes because I’ve never been afraid of showing my emotions and have never seen that as a weakness. I cry, I laugh, I weep and I mourn openly, and have never seen the need for the stoic hard-boiled silence, despite the fact that my father was the kinds to bottle up his feelings, often dealing with things in secret, even the cancer that ultimately took his life. Though in my father’s case it wasn’t so much out of a misguided sense of machismo, but more on the fact that from the moment he married my mother and my sister and I were born, he took it upon himself to bear every burden and protect us as much as possible from them. He kept us from knowing just how bad he felt,only breaking down in private with my mother when she coaxed it out of him. But you know what? He never even attempted to make me feel as if my way of expressing my emotions was bad or considered me weak. He chose not to perpetuate those standards.