A recent controversy has arisen around the marketing campaign for the hit video game series Mass Effect. At issue: how should a woman who is also a soldier — a “female Shepard,” in this case, referring to the protagonist of the series — be portrayed in the campaign? According to PC Gamer columnist Kim Richards, BioWare’s not doing it right.
Richards is referring to BioWare’s Facebook-hosted poll to determine what “face” the Female Shepard should have in the new marketing campaign. The results of this poll show “FemShep 5″ — referring to a blonde incarnation of the character posted above — to be the clear winner. Her post argues the following:
This is the first time that female Shepard will be shown to the world. The real world. It’ll be the first time she’s used for marketing campaigns, advertisements and, in my wildest dreams, adorning the box itself. Think about it – this will be the first in a long time that such a well-written, kick-ass female hero will be brought into the spotlight – merited not for the size of her dirty pillows and the tightness of her tramp-stamp jeans, but for her ability to dominate the battlefield, unite humanity, and stand up in the face of intergalactic adversity.
She concludes: “it breaks my heart that the mass public have gone for such the wishy washy, Barbie faced personality vacuum that is Shep 5.”
Video games are no stranger to controversy when representing women on screen. For decades, the industry has justly been criticized for any number of offenses, from showing them to occupy inescapably subordinate positions of power, or depicting women as nothing but platforms from which to display balloons.
Women represent about 40% of gamers, and that number will soon hit 50%. (It may even surpass 50%, with the explosion in casual, mobile and social media gaming.) So they should have a stronger voice in determining how women are portrayed in the world’s fastest-growing medium of entertainment.
All that said, I wonder to what degree Richards is simply arguing over minutiae. Tycho over at Penny Arcade has penned a response:
The idea that this tousled, interstellar bad-ass with a sidearm, an assault rifle, and some kind of hard-light holoblade represents some kind of wilting star princess is beyond comprehension. This is the same Shepherd, Commander Shepard, whose exploits have cut this way and that across an entire galaxy; the one who parleyed with Reavers, and released the Rachni. The one who died and was reborn, the one who laid low a writhing and larval world-eater.
She is that Shepard, even though she may not be your Shepard, just like she isn’t mine; I have every intention of Reconstructing the Profile.
Here, Tycho refers to the ability given to the player to construct your “personal” Shepard: you can, as with many games of this generation, determine the “look” and personal life choices of your character. You can choose their gender, and even their sexual preferences. This of course led to some controversy all of its own (either that homosexuality went too far or not far enough), but in the end, was received positively — even to the point where it would break the taboo against male homosexual choices in the third installment of the game. BioWare Senior Writer David Gaider posted the following message on the company’s forums, in response to criticism of the decision to allow these kinds of relationships:
So long as romances of any kind are optional and need to be actively pursued by the player in order to be experienced, they simply don’t have a leg to stand on. Advocating that nobody should be able to have content you don’t intend to personally use is largely pointless—outside of a vague notion that such efforts should go towards other things, instead. Personally, it’s not a lot of effort to include them. The resources we can devote to a minority of players isn’t great, but I imagine to those players it’s quite worth it… and I would hope that some folks could be sensitive enough to be happy for those players, at the very least out of the selfish notion that they may one day end up in the minority of some content issue and receive the same consideration if nothing else.
I think this attitude is commendable, in terms of media representation, including the marketing and publicity of a product.
So where, then, does this leave us with Richards’ lament? Her favorite of the offered Shepards was this one:
What does blonde hair really mean? We’re all familiar with the power of blonde hair in popular media, and all the myths that accompany that. But would Blonde Shepard “have more fun” than “Ginger Shepard”?
More to the point, and looking back at Gaider’s post: who is in the “minority” here? Remember, this marketing campaign does not reflect the ability for that minority to make its own choices, choices which will allow them to represent themselves as they see fit (and within certain constraints) on screen. So is Richards contesting the “look” of women who play video games, or rather the type of woman who might find herself in the situations that Commander Shepard so often does?
Part of me is happy that we’ve come this far: we’re now debating the role of hair colour, instead of allowing women to have any role at all in plot or story. This, indeed, is progress. But while there will be some backlash against Richards — there is a fundamentally silly component to her lament — I think it’s important to keep her basic objection in mind: while male soldiers and protagonists are often portrayed as exclusively “functional” (if often buff and ridiculously over-muscled), women still must carry the burden of ornamentalism. In essence, female protagonists in video games are still burdened by “femininity.”
What do you think about this tempest in a teapot? From a marketing standpoint, do you think this is a smart move? From a gamer standpoint, will this influence your decision to play the game?