Gaming has some problems. We know this, and it’s been well documented. However, we can look even further into some of them. I’ve read theories and information painting the Metroid series as about motherhood in some capacity. While I have never played the games, this concept seems interesting to me. Motherhood is an experience that I’ll never be able to have, and experiencing new things is the reason many of us play games. I couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to be a mother, but having an experience at least analogous to that can help me be more empathetic to those who have. This got me to thinking: I play many games starring men, as this industry has a gender disparity, but I can’t recall seeing too many gaming experiences about being a man.
Or at least compared to the number of games starring men. The litmus-test question goes, is there a reason why your character is straight, white, or male? If there isn’t a story-specific reason, why not cast a queer character, character of color, female character, or a character who’s all of the above? For example, why did Dr. Light send Rock (Mega Man) instead of Roll in the Megaman series? Functionally, they were both servant robots with no combat abilities. In that series, some combat-ready robots were stolen, and someone needed to be sent to stop their destruction. The best solution was to refit a robot into combat shape, and the first available ones were Rock and Roll. (The series is full of music puns.) Ability-wise, there isn’t much difference between the two. But Dr. Light chose to send Rock, probably because Rock was a guy robot. (Or to fit the -Man suffix most of the robots use.) A quick, and dismissive, answer to “why is it always a man” is that it “really doesn’t matter”, which is circular logic at best. Overall, these questions merely highlight that there is a representation issue, something that many of us already know. I’m personally more interested in what can we do with a character of any given demographic. Instead of asking if there is a reason to have a character of a certain demographic, I want to know what that reason is.
Simple platforming games may have themes and motifs—Megaman is about gaining power to overcome overwhelming odds, Sonic is about protecting friends and the environment from industrialism, Mario is about saving a loved one and restoring political order—but none of these are male-specific experiences, even stereotypically. Swapping out the male characters for female ones wouldn’t change much in these games, unless the developers decided to change the abilities around.
It’s not even so much that there are so many characters that are men, which is very often the case, but more that these games don’t do much to discuss the character’s masculinity. Like the motherhood devices in Metroid, we don’t see many stories like that through a male lens. Much of my ire comes from the fact that so many games retread the same tired narrative of “man has conflict, uses strength and violence to defeat what stands in his way”. First of all, this has gotten stale and boring. Second, there are far more ways for people to navigate hardships: violence can solve problems in many of these stories, but there are often other possibilities if we’re to be creative. For example, a game could involve using cunning or understanding to get around one’s own shortcomings. Realizing and utilizing shortcomings could even be in the game thematically. There is such a large array of personality types and interpretations of what masculinity is, but there is a limited expression of them.
This all reinforces my point these games, at best, simply feature men, rather than being about men. At their worst, they perpetuate a harmful limiting idea of what masculinity is about. The Mario example is the best: to restore peace to the land, you have to kill many creatures in the land, defeat King Bowser, and you get the girl. In this scenario, it’s enforced that a real man wins with violence and is motivated by his love of women. But there are many other ways to express masculinity than those.
So, what are some possible ways to express masculinity in a less toxic way? It’s very possible to start with what we have: weakness, as this is a struggle in many male cultures. However, it can be approached in a much different way. Typically, games always have the character simply grow stronger than the opposition, rather than coming to terms with one’s own skill set, which may differ from physical prowess. To branch further from direct battle themes, there are also themes of fatherhood at play. We currently do see father motifs in games (The Last of Us) but these experiences tend to be about protecting the child rather than connecting with them. Raising a son or daughter comes with different challenges, and dads may feel varying degrees of understanding how to come to terms with these struggles. This could be explored in a multitude of ways. A final idea I have is confronting masculinity head-on. Simply not understanding how to find an identity in such a mess can prove to be a helpful and enlightening experience.
Even if the plot doesn’t explicitly incorporate gender, it can still be incorporated into the game in other ways. One interesting contrast is between the male Dante from the Devil May Cry series and the female Bayonetta from the Bayonetta series. These games are often compared as they are highly stylized, difficult, reflex-intense action games. Both of these characters ooze confidence and personality, and are decidedly rather sexual beings. Tonally, however, they are very different people. Functionally, they are interchangeable: they have jumps, dodges, and attacks, but the way they move couldn’t be more different. In this way, their stories might not be explicitly male or female, but their navigation through their respective worlds is. As is the intended feel of the game. The game is more expressive and better this way.
Of course not all games are going to have complex plots or necessarily delve into gender politics. But as time goes on, we’re seeing more and more stories based on reality. In our reality, gender does affect many interactions, for better or for worse, and including this in fleshing characters out can only create richer experiences. I’d love to see more women, trans, and nonbinary characters in our games, especially ones that are well-written. However, I’d like to see our men be less harmful stereotypes as well. The quantity is there, but quality is always the most important.