Friday, June 10, 2011

Platonic Forms of the Marginalized

E3 was held this week in Los Angeles.  Among the myriad games shown at the convention was a "reboot" of the Tomb Raider franchise.  In both the CG trailer and gameplay demonstration, the series' central protagonist, Lara Croft, is presented in a fashion that is distinctly different from earlier titles in the series.  Her new appearance is more realistic, her physical and emotional reactions to injury and danger are more fragile, and in general she comes across as more human, less superhuman.

Whether this is a good or bad shift for the franchise, I have seen a sizable amount of gamer (and developer) scrutiny directed at the changes.  The attention goes beyond what is typical for changes to the main character of a franchise (cf. reactions to Dante's redesign in Ninja Theory's DmC) because Lara Croft is a rare thing in video games: a high profile female protagonist.  Because most console gamers are male, most game developers are male, and most game protagonists are male, successful female protagonists draw an inordinate amount of attention.

A good portion of the discussions I've seen have focused on Lara as a representation of women and on how female gamers will react to Lara's new design: her reduced physical strength, her physical brawls with intimidating men groping at her, and virtually everything that could relate to her attractiveness.  Though women make up pretty darn close to half of our world's population, they are still largely under-represented in games and in the online gamer community.  This marginalization, whether actively caused or passively continued, means that many people will hold individuals of the marginalized group up as representatives of that group.  Not many people debate Marcus Fenix's value as a representative of Caucasian male protagonists in video games because he's one of hundreds that cover a range including Guybrush Threepwood, Mario, Alan Wake, and Cloud Strife.  Whatever type of Caucasian male you like (assuming you like playing as a Caucasian male) is there for you somewhere.  Go hog wild.

Individuals often express this process of comparison and criticism in relation to an individual's expectations of normativity and how a character should relate to the individual's normative standards.  The individual does not judge the validity of the character primarily on its representation as a human being (i.e. simply as a realized, believable character), but on its representation of the marginalized classes people associate with it.  Of course, this is an impossible standard for any character to meet: despite normativity being established through social interaction, the standards are still understood and judged by individuals.

Though this process happens with minority groups in real-life professions constantly (e.g. female firefighters, Muslim American politicians), audiences often don't see their expectations of characters meeting normative standards as critically flawed because characters are fictitious, the products of one or more writers and the actors who portray them.  Audiences believe that it is not only possible, but an admirable goal for writers to meet their particular normative standards.

This brings me to my own experience with normative audience expectations of a character in a marginalized group: Arcade Gannon.  Arcade is a companion I wrote for Fallout: New Vegas.  In addition to being a Caucasian male, a doctor, and a swell guy, Arcade is also gay.  Though Arcade has no more than five lines out of several hundred that relate to his sexuality (and even those are, at most, strong implications), players have given more attention to his sexuality than any other aspect of his character.  Perhaps the most heated discussions were generated by an article Jim Sterling wrote titled Homosexuality and Fallout: New Vegas: A gay marriage made in gay Heaven.  At the heart of the debate was Jim's assertion that Arcade was a great gay character because his sexuality is so downplayed, so "unremarkable".  Internet posters far and wide both supported and contested this view, often explicitly stating their preferences for how gay characters should be portrayed.  Like Lara Croft's sex, Arcade Gannon's sexuality dominated the definition and discussion of his character.

The obvious problem is that no character can meet every individual's expectations of how a group should be represented.  Despite this, as long as a group is significantly marginalized among characters in media, whether due to simple omission or active exclusion, audiences will continue to turn rare specimens into exemplars.  So, what should we do?  I think that writers (game or otherwise) are already on the right track, but should continue to do the following:

* Represent marginalized groups when sensible.  Diversity helps broaden the appeal of our media, can add interesting dimensions to thematic exploration, and in some cases may even generate themes that would otherwise go unexplored.
* Consider your audience, but remember that they don't have one voice and they aren't all loud.  We write, broadly, to entertain.  Under that expansive canopy, we direct our efforts toward specific groups.  It's a little dehumanizing to reduce them to demographics, but still, we aren't writing for everyone.  It's our job to be the arbiter of propriety among them.
* Write good characters.  It's important for all characters, but it's especially important for a character drawing inordinate audience attention because she's an Asian lesbian Muslim.  Audiences perceive a character as having depth if the various competing aspects of its personality resonate believably with each other, with the story, and with the themes you're trying to explore.  This also applies in comedy, where a writer's temptation to use minority association as a punchline is often high.
* Understand and accept that we cannot write the Perfect X to meet all fan expectations of X.  The best we can do is continue to broaden the margins of the marginalized, provide enough nuanced X characters that there's no need for any individual to stand in for the whole group.

Though it may be a long time before we see as many female protagonists as male protagonists -- and we may never see a high percentage of gay, black, or transgendered characters -- we can hopefully reach the point where audiences discuss these various descriptors and associations within the context of the story and its themes.  When we get to that point,  audiences will see them as more than just Platonic forms struggling to escape from yesterday's margins.

4 comments:

DEN Trainee said...

I enjoyed the article. While the video game industry will always have their Duke Nukem's, it's exciting to see hints of maturity. Video games continue to reach wider demographics and I am excited to see how this affects story telling and character development. Thanks for doing your part to help people realize that the world is larger and more varied than they have ever imagined!

Anonymous said...

Well said, Mr. Sawyer. For me, the way a character fits into the world and reacts to the player will determine how successful that character is - regardless of any marginalized group the character may belong to. I tend to agree with Jim Sterling's view on Arcade. He functions as a believable character because he doesn't make a big deal out of his sexuality, in contrast to the ever present characters in all forms of media who scream "token." Arcade's Enclave history and aloofness define the character, and he ends up seeming like any other denizen of the Mojave.

Anonymous said...

An interesting read. I have a friend who is transgendered. What I always found interesting about her transition was how much she didn't change. Sure she went from a he to she phsyically, and god forbid you use a personal pronoun around her that may be construed as masculine, but all in all she remained the same person. That taught me a lot about how to deal with character.

Anonymous said...

My big issue with this is that, well, Arcade ISN'T a normal (IE Straight) guy that happens to like men. He's got the deflective-quippiness that characterizes a lot of gay writers. He talks about how his sexual relationships are shallow compared to his friendship with a woman. He's erudite and obviously uses hair product and he likes Gladiator Movies.

He's not a screaming Paul Lynde style queer but there are a lot of traits in his personality that match a certain sort of gay character. That's fine. Pretending that all gays are totally straight-acting is really, really obnoxious. But I really don't like how 90% of the stuff written about the character is all "Well he doesn't seem gay to meeeeeeee therefore he's awesome!"

He seems gay. He's still an awesome, interesting character with a very interesting and complicated dilemma that the player can get involved in.