Standing surrounded by other hairy and soicaly inept men all waiting impatiently for Max Payne's latest bullet dodging extravaganza one may be forgiven for thinking computer games are a boys toy. Certainly, even today, most of the big blockbuster titles seem to be aimed firmly at men. The line shuffles on, boredom prompts a Max Payne-style narrative in my head:
"The cashier was standing at the counter, but we we're all here for the man" when suddenly I thought where are the ladies? A reoccurring theme in my existence. In all this sweaty beardy man-mass of gents waiting to dive around as Payne (in a way their guts wouldn't allow in real life) I saw not one lady.
Now, it's well known women play games and also typically play different types to men, but I'm not here to cross examine ladies (no matter how much I try to make that happen). My point of interest is far more pixel focused: Who are the first ladies of computer games?
It's odd that few female leads prevail when a fine pedigree exists extending all the way back to the halcyon days of Ms. Pac-Man. A game created as an unauthorised sequel to PacMan which proved such a success it was officially adopted by Namco. Now some may claim Ms. Pac-Man doesn't count due to her gender ambiguity (Ms. Pac-Man), or more importantly because of the fact she's a yellow circle.
Now if we look back at the early era of gaming you could say it was all a bit sexist with the overweight plumber saving a pink princess from a giant turtle. When in reality women are equally capable of escaping turtles as men, and would probably only need a plumber if said turtle was stuck in the toilet. Still, It's a bit harsh to call Nintendo sexist for adhering to a classic story of plumber meets girl, girls abducted by turtle, plumber repeatedly storms castles to find increasing number of mushroom-men. Turtles however weren't the only bane of woman's lives with Donkey Kong's great ape also requiring a plumbers attention.
One game however championed the female with a bit more class then a gender ambiguous yellow circle, and more sophistication then Mario and that was Nintendo's 1986 release Meteroid. Although, it must be noted, the lead character Samus's gender was only revealed later in the game. Probably to avoid confusion about how she could survive without a plumber.
It was in the same year (1986) that Nintendo slipped back into their old ways with The Legend of Zelda in which a young warrior Link had to save the princess Zelda from the formidable Ganondorf. Nintendo had made big steps forward for women here though upgrading the games villain from an animal to a wizard. As most men could be abducted by a wizard it was agreed this all seemed less sexist. Some resentment for this new politically correct approach may have lingered in the Nintendo camp however as suggested by Ganondorf's back story which states:
"He is the leader of a race of desert brigands called the Gerudo who consist of mainly females apart from one man born every 100 years". Now despite the obvious question of how such a community could survive without one seriously knackered man and some rather embarrassing questions about who's whose cousin, one has to ask why wasn't Ganondorf female? Surely the ladies could have cracked on with Abducting Zelda without a man about. I mean he's not even a plumber. Alternatively you can take the view Ganondorf is the only natural outcome from a society of women.
Nintendo, I am available for PR work.
Lets move on. So where next for the female pixel heroine? Well you could play as a girl in the excellent Zombies Ate My Neighbours, and thanks to the Alien movies blast space bugs as feminist icon Ripley.
Then it's probably most interesting to fast forward to 1996 and one of the first computer game sex symbols: Lara Croft. Coincidently it is claimed by the Tomb Raider development team that Lara's large breasts were initially a mistake caused when the lead graphic artist Toby Gard accidentally increased her chest size by 150%.
Despite issues with her chest zeppelins, Lara was one of the first sexualised, bad-ass female characters in gaming. It is also interesting to note that the unlikely contender Saint Rows 3 was the game to restore the balance in the bodies sexualisation by allowing players to decide the size of female and male packages. Allowing you to play as a lady with huge knockers, and a guy with a crotch like a nuclear silo, or most interesting the gent with the tiny package... Out with something to prove... Max?
Amongst the recent events of E3 we've seen a reboot of Tomb Raider featuring a more sophisticated Lara Croft. Gone are the Eurotrash style chesticals to be replaced with a more athletic realistic Lara. Hopefully she knows a plumber.
It seems that slowly women are being represented more maturely, and less objectively by computer games. Of course there is still the Street Fighter characters who parade around showing their knickers, but contextualised in a game crammed with rippling male torsos this is less unusual.
It is not so much the existence of sexualised female characters that seems a fault of gaming, but rather the mediums lack of a variety in it's representation of women. Street Fighter's Thong clad Cammy may seem a little bit trashy, but she was voted the favourite character of the series. A fact which stands as testament to Kylie Minogue's potent portrayal in the 1994 movie Street Fighter.
More recently we have other big titles lead by females: Silent Hill, Bayonetta, and even testosterone zone Gears of War adding a new female solider.
Maybe, hopefully, this is the start of the new dawn of equality in gaming. Allowing us all to benefit from more interesting female characters, and maybe a lady to shy away from in the Max Payne cue.
Jay Cowle is previewing his new stand-up comedy show We The Chemicals on:
Thursday June 28th, The Painted Grin at Benny's Bar, 119a Bethnal Green Rd, E2 7DG, with Nick Sun. 'If you don't enjoy Nick Sun, it's because you suck as an audience.' - Doug Stanhope.
Monday June 18th, Hackney Picturehouse Comedy along with Nish Kumar 'one of "the most exciting comedians around'- Josie Long, Stephanie Laing, and Martin Croser.
We The Chemicals is about Freewill, beer, and cats.