Why Asking for Female Protagonists in Games Isn’t Censorship

A week ago I wrote about a comment posted by Markus “Notch” Persson on Reddit, which pertained to video games and the common request from gamers and press alike that they want to see more female protagonists introduced into the medium.

Notch’s comments were posted in response to a Redditor asking for the Minecraft developer’s thoughts on “journalists and gamers who criticize gaming companies for not including playable female characters such as GTA V, Link, and Assassin’s Creed,” adding: “Do you feel like it would be a cool artistic direction, or do you feel like it’s a non issue?” Notch replied: “It’s an obvious non-issue, and people who claim this trend isn’t censorship are two faced liars,” but continued: “There are things I agree with, however. Say you’re writing the rules for a game and you don’t know the gender of the player. Don’t assume male, that’s just weird. Some use he/she, but I personally am a huge fan of “they”.”

A few days later Notch called me out for the piece on Twitter, saying that I had misrepresented his views. Initially believing that I had pieced together quotes from his Twitter to infer that he was sexist, I responded to this criticism by pointing out that I hadn’t made such a claim, but had instead offered my own opinion that I fundamentally disagreed with his thoughts on what does/does not constitute censorship in video games. He said that I had “cherry picked quotes from Twitter,” when in actuality I had posted his comments from Reddit verbatim, including my own opinion at the bottom of the article that – again – did not in any way state he was sexist, but rather that I disagreed with his opinion that requesting the introduction of female protagonists into established video game series is censorship.

As you can imagine would be the case after being called out by a high-profile industry figure with 3.79 million Twitter followers, I was promptly inundated with hundreds of tweets opposing my views or, in many cases, opposing what these individuals thought were my views despite clearly not having read my article. Though this series of events was distinctly not fun, it was well within Notch’s rights to criticize my article on a public forum, regardless of the size of his following compared to mine, even if I would have preferred it had he not just “skimmed” the piece before implying that I was “fucking scum.” He may still believe that I’m fucking scum after reading it, though, so I guess all’s fair in love and war (coincidentally, early last year I wrote a piece on Notch calling out an indie developer who had criticized him, expressing how just because the guy has a large online following that shouldn’t therefore mean he isn’t allowed to publicly defend himself or express his opinion.)

The main point that was raised by both Notch and his followers was that he didn’t believe that there should be no female protagonists in video games, which I am well aware of and I outlined in my previous article. He/they said that he instead believes that gamers and press criticizing developers for not including female characters is akin to censorship, as it forces developers to make decisions against their own will for fear of facing a backlash or more criticism. Again, I am aware of this, and this is the exact opinion that I opposed in my article, but given the immense backlash that I and it have now received, I feel it’s worth expressing the reasoning behind my disapproval in more detail.

 

The “Cry Baby” Conundrum

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If developers feel strong-armed into making decisions that would not benefit their games in favor of appeasing critics, then I’d suggest that the onus of blame is upon them for not feeling confident enough in their game to allow it to face criticism. It was very ironic that so many tweeting at me suggested that developers shouldn’t introduce female characters to appease “cry babies” whose “feelings had been hurt,” while simultaneously suggesting that the press/consumers shouldn’t criticize developers in case we hurt their feelings too much.

The prevailing opinion in the tweets I received was that criticizing a developer’s choice to not include a female playable character was basically the same as calling them a misogynist, which is also firmly NOT the case. If a developer opts to place a male protagonist in their game, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be acceptable for press and consumers alike to ask them why they made that decision, and how it contributes to their story in a manner which a female protagonist wouldn’t have. We’ve seen this happen with the likes of the Grand Theft Auto V and Final Fantasy XV, with both Rockstar and Square Enix responding to queries regarding their firmly male cast by stating that doing so was essential to the story they were trying to tell. This is how developers should respond to this debate, if they are confident enough in their own creative choices. 

Which brings us neatly to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The mounting requests for Nintendo to include a female version of Link in the upcoming Wii U/NX game were eventually confronted by Nintendo, with the game’s producer Eiji Aonuma telling Kotaku: “You know there’s the idea of the Triforce in the Zelda games we make. The Triforce is made up of Princess Zelda, Ganon and Link. Princess Zelda is obviously female. If we made Link a female we thought that would mess with the balance of the Triforce. That’s why we decided not to do it.”

This explanation was met with criticism, largely because it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. As pointed out by our sister site GameRevolution, it’s a lot like Ubisoft saying that they opted for 30 frames per second in their games because it is a “more cinematic” frame rate than 60 frames per second; this was an incredibly questionable suggestion, and we all called promptly called them out for it.

In my mind, there is no difference between the reaction to Ubisoft’s claim that employing a lesser frame rate made their games more “cinematic,” and Nintendo’s claim that retaining a male Link was to keep the “Triforce balanced” (even though a Triforce has, as its name suggests, three sides, so therefore no matter how many male and female characters it is made up of, by it’s very nature it will always be unbalanced). The only difference is that people are much more likely to become irate when criticisms of a game are rooted in social politics because, as we’ve all learned in recent years, many continue to believe that games should exist in a vacuum and remain the only entertainment industry that refuses to acknowledge the world around it. 

 

“Girls Don’t Sell Games”

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Notch later told me that he believes that “switching the roles of Link and Zelda would be a breath of fresh air in the series,” but that “just making Link female to placate crybabies does nothing to a game that doesn’t explore gender roles.” I can partially agree with this viewpoint, in that I’d rather see a game that places Zelda as the protagonist rather than play as a gender-swapped Link, largely because Link is a uniformly dull character that has always been a blank canvas of personality aside from his iconic green tunic. What I do disagree with, however, is the assumption that those strongly advocating for established video game series to introduce female protagonists are wrong for doing so, and that those requesting such changes are guilty of attempting to censor creators.

The video game industry has openly admitted that it has issues with introducing female protagonists into games. Back in 2013, Dontnod Entertainment revealed how they had came up against multiple stumbling blocks when trying to seek funding for their game Remember Me. Creative director Jean Max-Morris admitted that this funding was a result of the game’s protagonist, saying: “We had some [publishers] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.'”

This myopic view has been prevalent in video games for as long as the industry has existed, with it being a long-held belief that female protagonists don’t sell games, despite these publishers simultaneously refusing to funnel funding into marketing them. Female-led games such as Beyond Good & Evil, which is now hailed as one of the entire industry’s most under-appreciated games ever, was released with a minuscule marketing budget into one of the most jam-packed years for games in the past two decades, with its lack of financial success being held up by many as an example of why publishers are correct in thinking that, if they wish to make money, they should stick to the male heroes.

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Only recently has it started to become apparent that this is not the case, with publishers now taking a “risk” on introducing more female lead characters into their games and then heavily promoting said games, with the likes of the upcoming Horizon: Zero Dawn and Mass Effect: Andromeda being two of the most anticipated new games of the near future, and with both of them featuring female protagonists. But this change hasn’t been coincidental; publishers would not be willing to make the decision to introduce these female characters if it were not for both press and consumers asking for them.

If there continued to be silence when Space Marine Man #492 was pitched as the hero of the next big game, then rest assured that publishers would still continue to not represent a large portion of their audience, and that female protagonists would continue to be overlooked. The continued rise in a more diverse range of protagonists in gaming is a direct result of people questioning the status quo, and so this suggestion that anything other than complete, undivided acceptance of publishers and developers routinely deciding against female characters is therefore censorship is thoroughly misguided.

On a personal note, I want more female video game protagonists to exist, because I think greater representation of a more diverse range of people makes for more interesting games. I therefore recognize that the only way both publishers and developers alike will be willing to take the plunge in this regard is if we ask for them, because if we don’t, then as evidenced by decades of male protagonists being the default option in the industry, they won’t bother. If a developer feels threatened by opting for a male character to be placed at the forefront of their game, then they should consider why they feel threatened. If they conclude that it is because there is no discernible reason for them having made such a decision, then they should be willing to accept the criticisms of their choice.