LOS ANGELES — Lara Croft. Samus Aran. Jill Valentine. Chell.
In the realm of video games, it's not difficult to identify tough-as-nails women who uncover ancient treasures, blast away aliens, battle zombies and outwit malicious robots. However, when it comes to finding fictional females who take down terrorists, call in airstrikes, frag combatants and capture enemy outposts, you'd probably be more likely to walk in on a woman in the men's room.
While video games aren't totally devoid of strong female protagonists, the interactive medium has typically only cast ladies in support roles when it comes to such popular military shoot-'em-up franchises as “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield.” Yet could the recent announcement that the Pentagon is ending its long-standing ban on women serving in combat roles in real-world battlegrounds extend to virtual ones, too?
“I wouldn't be surprised if the developers working on these shooters incorporated it as a story point in their games,” said game designer and “Sex in Video Games” author Brenda Romero. “It could make for an amazing narrative: ‘It's her first role in combat and she's determined to make a difference!’ Who wouldn't want to pursue something like that and have a bad-(expletive) female soldier in a game?”
Romero's husband, John Romero, who worked on such landmark first-person shooters as “Doom” and “Quake,” agrees with his wife. As games have evolved beyond rescuing princesses from gorillas, players have come to expect deeper levels of personalization, evidenced by the popularity of such be-whatever-the-heck-you-wanna-be role-playing games as “Skyrim,” ‘'Mass Effect” and “World of Warcraft.”
“I can't see anything negative about having more choices in a game,” said Romero. “Everyone likes having more choices. There's never been a backlash when ‘World of Warcraft' added a new race, so I can't imagine there would be one if a shooter added a new gender. Franchises that come out with a new version every year like ‘Call of Duty’ strive to be topical, so I imagine they would address it.”
Obviously, until now, game makers could always rely on the fact that women weren't allowed on the front lines in real life, either.
In recent years, though, long-running shooter institutions like “Halo” and “Gears of War” have introduced female characters in both their single-player campaigns and multiplayer modes, but those are futuristic sci-fi shooters set worlds away from military games that strive for either historic or contemporary authenticity, such as the “Call of Duty,” ‘'Battlefield,” ‘'Medal of Honor” and “SOCOM” franchises.
With just a few international exceptions (like French resistance fighter Manon Batiste in 2000's “Medal of Honor: Underground,” Russian soldier Tanya Pavelovna in 2004's “Call of Duty: Finest Hour” and South Korean operative Park “Forty-Five” Yoon-Hee in 2011's “SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs") playable female characters are usually absent from military shooters, even with more female gamers playing them.
“Our games strive to reflect real world events and military conditions,” said Lincoln Hershberger, marketing vice president at “Medal of Honor” and “Battlefield” publisher Electronic Arts Inc. “Women in our military games have appeared in a variety of combat and support roles. In 2011, ‘Battlefield 3’ included a female fighter pilot, and we expect to see more women appearing in combat roles in the future.”
The previous installment in the successful “Call of Duty” franchise, “Black Ops II,” featured a female president, fighter pilot and a playable character named Chloe “Karma” Lynch, who served a brief but pivotal role in the single-player campaign. It's unclear if Activision will take a cue from the Pentagon for the next “Call of Duty.” (Activision-Blizzard Inc. declined to comment for this story.)
Sande Chen, a game writer and author of “Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform,” said that implementing female characters in military shooters, especially in their intricate online multiplayer modes, could be a complex and expensive proposition for developers. Another gender requires new art assets, animations and sound effects, essentially doubling the work required of game makers.
Adding the fairer sex could also make a game, well, not fair.
“It makes a game more complicated because there are differences between men and women in battlefield situations,” noted Chen. “Women walk differently and their frames are usually smaller and more difficult to hit. Usually, game developers don't want to give too much advantage to one character choice over another character choice. It would be interesting, but it might need to be more cosmetic in a shooter.”
Could such a change also affect the audience playing these games? If developers deploy female characters to digital front lines, would even more women be inspired to play male-dominated military shooters? Not necessarily. Timothy J. Welsh, a media professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, doesn't believe simply drafting new female characters into realistic shooters will inspire more women to enlist in these games.
“People who like to play games are going to play games, and people who don't, won't,” said Welsh, who contributed to the book “Guns, Grenades, and Grunts: First-Person Shooter Games.” ‘'Right now, more than twice the number of women over 18 play games than boys under 17. Obviously, having to play as Nathan Drake in every game hasn't deterred the women who make up 47 percent of the gaming population.”
Brenda Romero, who recently worked on the Facebook strategy game “Ghost Recon Commander” — based on the Ubisoft Entertainment tactical shooter franchise “Ghost Recon,” which has featured women characters — is hopeful that if military shooter developers do include a female combat soldier in future editions, the squad mate with double X chromosomes doesn't amount to just another video game vixen.
“The only way I could see this becoming controversial is if the character is over sexualized,” said Romero. “I would hope that she's treated realistically, especially in how she's visualized. I think a female character in a combat role should have the physique of an Olympian — not a Playboy centerfold — and for the love of God, she better not be wearing a camouflage thong on the battlefield.”