In the video game industry there is a slowly prevailing trend of activism seeping its way into opinion pieces and reviews. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. The industry has a clearly documented imbalance, one of several glaring chinks in its flashy exterior. Women and other minorities are underrepresented or poorly represented in many areas, especially the big budget titles that tend to define the medium. As this trend to better the treatment of others grows in strength, games inevitably run up against that progress. Some are fairly criticized, others swept up by an over-enthusiastic desire to force a change. Comment sections and internet forums explode around these pieces, and the result is often a stalemate of mostly unpleasant sentiments. Setting sights on the biggest targets might not produce the results that many critics hope, though.
The James Bond series has never been one that is particularly welcoming to women. By its very nature the series will never feature a female lead. At best its female characters lend Bond occasional aid or play the passive aggressive and conniving enemy in disguise. Bond has a history of casual misogyny, notoriously bedding a new “Bond Girl” in almost every movie, and general objectification of even his strongest female companions. Dissent regarding the series is quiet though. So quiet that you might mistake it for being nonexistent. Few if any critics touch on it in reviews and it’s rarely brought up in conversation because, for the most part, no one cares. The series is massive, and has been for as long as many people can remember.
People don’t care because that trait has become an integral part of an increasingly flawed character. Bond is no longer a one dimensional, debonair symbol of masculinity. He is troubled, he gets his ass kicked, and he’s just not a great person. He gets things done in style, and with absurd levels of bravado, but he’s a fairly terrible example of a human being. Heck, the animated show Archer exists almost solely by satirizing Bond’s unsavory elements. He works as a character though, because there are people like that and its confined to his character. It’s okay for Bond to be a bad person, because it’s accepted that not all movies are going to tell a story about someone you like. So those that don’t like it shrug and walk away. The game industry is missing something that plays a key role in people not dragging Bond through the mud.
Movies have diversity. There are a hundred counters to Bond, strong female characters and equally strong female celebrities. Even if the film industry is imbalanced in favor of men, it is still decidedly less so than the video game industry. There is no solid video game counter to Grand Theft Auto V’s male protagonists or the horde of shooters slathered in machismo. Lara Croft has been so plagued by identity crisis that she hardly holds a flame to Nathan Drake’s swagger filled adventures. Zelda still hasn’t starred in an official entry of the series that bears her name. Those games that achieve greatness with female protagonists, like Saints Row and Mass Effect, do so by way of a gender neutral approach. That gender neutral approach is a wonderful addition to the industry, but it lacks the personal depth of a carefully penned character.
The solution isn’t simply having everyone’s favorite developers introduce more female characters though. It’s hard to imagine Rockstar’s brand of pop culture lampooning and disturbingly serious criminal undertones working with a female character. The corners of society it so loves to mock are all but inseparable from their discriminatory elements. It’s okay to want to see something comparable that takes a more open approach, but asking developers who have shown no interest in creating that experience to do so is misguided. A Grand Theft Auto V with the passionless inclusion of a female character would probably be worse than not having one at all. Games are already replete with that nonsense, elements shoehorned in out of pressure rather than any real desire.
Talking about change and expressing a desire to see that change is wonderful. It probably won’t be found in any meaningful quantity among the old guard though. What the industry needs is more people, new people, with a real desire to see that inclusion happen and a new banner to do so under. They will get things right. They will make something special. Something worth caring about and not buried under the play-it-safe approach that big business demands when spending tens of millions. James Bond has changed a lot, but there is no desire to make him into something significantly different and so he never truly will be. The video game industry is full of Bonds, and no matter how jaded, beat up, or flawed they get, they’ll never stop being what they are. The best option, maybe the only option, is for someone else to take the reigns.
Taking that step forward will allow everyone to get back to enjoying games. To leave behind a world in which The Last of Us’ extremely strong narrative is unable to be appreciated by some because the game is not progressive enough. There’s room for shooters to be male power fantasies, with every bit of crude humor, brainless action, and absurd chest thumping. There may even be room for Grand Theft Auto to straddle the line between satire and misogyny. Developers are free to make what they want, there is no rule that says good writing has to be about a topic everyone is comfortable with. It’s hard to justify touching on an issue like misogyny in an industry so lacking in quality depictions of women though. Video games have an ocean to cross to reach that point, and they’ve only just begun to swim.