Protect all the things!
A lot has already been said about Crystal Dynamic’s treatment of the titular heroine of the upcoming Lara Croft origin story-game-semireboot. It seems the Internet is ablaze with discussion on how horribly women are treated in the gaming scene, how misogynistic all gamers are, and so forth. A lot of good – and utterly bad – points have been made far more eloquently than I would be able to, so instead let’s skip that discussion and focus on a niggling little side factor that’s related to the whole thing, but in a different direction.
Namely, Crystal Dynamic developers have said that “gamers will want to protect Lara”. … Uh-huh. Right. Because gamers are known to be very cherishing, nurturing souls, yes? Because most popular games are not about blowing enemy brains out and bathing in human/alien/robot viscera & entrails, yes? Because games certainly are not competitive, adrenaline-fuelled action-packed boombastic-fantastic romps of self-indulgence? … See what I’m getting at?
When we’re considering modern “AAA” gaming – something that is 3dimensional and reasonably realistic – what is the most common image that comes to mind? Either a shooter of some kind, a racing game of some kind, or an annual sports game of some kind. Those are the three staple videogame types that seem to earn the most money at the moment, the ones that allow developers/publishers to invest upwards of 10 million dollars and still see some steady profit. And none of those games appeal to this supposed ‘protectiveness’ of gamers.
Shooters are the most obvious examples of un-protective behaviour. There’s plenty of gore and violence, players get awards for things like headshots, multikills, killing streaks, most number of enemies annihilated, and so forth. The entire concept of these games is an all-out aggressionfest. Even cooperative cover-based slow-paced shooters (such as the multiplayer game part of Mass Effect 3) are still mainly geared towards the killing aspect of it all. Most of the rewards are tied to enemy destruction. There is a mechanic that determines how much you as a player have helped your teammates in killing a certain enemy – so-called “assists”. There is no mechanic for determining situations where you, for example, draw enemy fire to yourself to save a teammate from being killed. No mechanic to account for diversions. No mechanic to account for teamwork, for tactical assistance, or voice-communication usage. At the end of each match, “points” are mostly awarded based on how much damage each player inflicted on the enemy. Yes, you do get some minor bonuses for doing objectives and reviving, but the vast majority is all about killing dudes. The scoreboard reflects exactly that – the person with the most aggressive playing style is rewarded the most. Play a pure support character, and you’ll be dead last. How does that encourage protectiveness?
Let’s take the numerous annual sporting event simulators.
Run-after-inflated-pig-bladder-in-shortshorts football games, wrestling-on-ice hockey games, the deathly lethal bloodsport of wacking a ball into a hole pro golfer wish fulfillment simulations, erotic ballet wrestling-fighting games.. all of those represent real-world sports, with much the same ruleset and concepts. And, above all else, what are those sports? Competition events, that’s what. The higher you or your team scores, the better. The more you beat your opponents, the better. The faster you do it, the better. Again – protectiveness much? Actually, no, not at all. This whole game subset again favours personal initiative, aggression, action and self-reliance. You might make the argument that manager-style games where player is mostly tasked with assembling a team are, in some ways, protective. But no, they are not, because in such games, the player does not really have any ability to actively ‘protect’ any of his team – the intent is to cherry-pick and train the best virtual athletes so they cold win more and more. That’s not protectiveness – not on an emotional level – that’s cold-hearted strategy and planning.
What else.. Oh yes, racing games. From arcade fun romps like the Burnout series to hyper-realistic TruCar ™ simulations and everything inbetween – the player is always placed as a driver in some sort of a race. Elimination race, chase events, lap time contests, takedown derbies – as long as it requires initiative and is visually spectacular, it’s good. How many racing games exist where the player has to take the co-driver’s seat, and warn the driver about the road and route conditions? How many racing games require the player to serve as a pit-stop mechanic? Almost none (none that I’m aware of, at least), and ofc for a good reason, as the gameplay of such off-beat concepts would quite likely be super-boring. But it does serve well to outline our good old point – these games do not encourage protectiveness, and they do not count on players wanting to be protective fluffy cuddlebears.
For a more neutral, un-enforced example, how about taking a glance at free-roaming open-world games.. Well, yeah, Grand Theft Auto 4. It offers the mechanics for just driving a car. You could spend 9/10ths of the game just driving with your character’s friends to bars, bowling alleys, theatres and variety shows. You could drive your car ‘by the rules’, or even just plain walk everywhere, and ignore the destructive aspect of the game. Heck, you could choose an npc at random and just follow him/her around, keeping watch for something bad happening and calling the ambulance, fire-fighters and police if something bad does break out. The game really does allow, mechanically, for such protective gameplay. … So how many of you have played it like that? How many people that you know would play like that? Because that would be protective playstyle. I’ll assume that you’d agree about the vast majority of gamers not adhering to that kind of thing.
So what is going on with the Lara Croft game? Why are its developers trying to make gamers feel protective towards the character they are supposed to be playing as, when market figures seem to indicate that protectiveness is hardly a common gaming and gamer trait? In fact, it’s not just this one game that’s based around trying to evoke this emotion in gamers. Consider the upcoming Bioshock Infinite game. The primary female companion is so obviously aimed towards being the ‘damsel in distress that needs protection from big bad monsters‘, it’s almost ridiculous. Or, the recently announced The Last Of Us game – again, you as the player will be invited to protect your companion – a 13-year-old girl, in a post-apocalyptic environment filled with (as far as we’ve seen, all being rough brute males, by the way) armed enemy gangs. How obvious is that? But, fair enough, the whole Lara Croft thing is pushed further by distancing the player from the character, by trying to establish the player as a controlling entity that can have emotions towards, not as, the main character. The other games at least have the courtesy of asking the player to play as a protective character.. And yet the main idea remains – the appeal to some protective nature that gamers are supposed to have. Why? Why this emotion, when there’s so little indication of it’s presence in contemporary gaming scene? Why appeal to the softer side of players, when gaming convention trailers are so obviously brutality-focused, visceral gore-celebrations; when the audiences almost never go “awww” when Lara is tossed around like a ragdoll, but unequivocally shout “YEEEAH” when seeing an enemy’s face being shot off – literally SHOT OFF – with a shotgun? Where’s the logic in that?
~X2-Eliah does not consider ‘protectiveness’ to make any sense anywhere within two minutes of fire-soaked arrow explosion barrage.