I think a good benchmark as to how enlightened the video gaming industry is would be to take a sample of the line-up of new titles and apply Rule 63 to them. Rule 63, for those not enlightened to internet parlance, is:
For every given male character, there is a female version of that character. For every given female character, there is a male version of that character.
It is part of a meme called the Rules of the Internet, and means that, for any given work, somewhere, somebody has made fan fiction of that work where they have gender-swapped all the characters. It’s an interesting thought experiment, especially if you change nothing else besides the genders.
For instance, in the 1981 classic game Donkey Kong, Mario saves the Princess. Applying Rule 63 would mean the Princess saves Mario. In fact, it’s one of the first games in which this has actually been applied, where a programmer named Mike Mika hacked the game so that his three year old daughter could play as a female protagonist.
I have at times been concerned as to the tropes and biases in the games industry when it comes to gender roles, and there has for a long while now been something of a furor over how women, for instance, are depicted in video games and what is or is not palatable to the general gaming public. People like John Walker and Anita Sarkeesian have made the topic their causa belli and have caught flak for it from various sides, as have companies like Bioware, known for depicting strong women or canonically homosexual characters.
The dominant market demographic has a dark side when it comes to issues such as this. Bioware senior writer Jennifer Hepler quit her job because of the threats and hostility directed towards her and her family in part because of her sympathetic portrayal of homosexual characters in Dragon Age: Origins and her role as a woman in the industry. Gamers also targeted journalist Carolyn Petit because she dared call a game she liked – in this case, GTA V – misogynist. It regularly bubbles up to the fore like in a Capcom reality show in 2012 where male gamers openly defended sexual harassment by saying it’s “part of their culture;” that it really is their club, or a Blizzard convention in 2011 where performers felt no qualms in spewing homophobic epithets to a cheering crowd.
So, I say! Like the Bechdel test, let’s say we haven’t solved this problem until you could change the genders of the characters in a potentially controversial game and have everything be just as palatable as before. I’ll call it, unimaginatively, the Rule 63 test.
For this thought experiment, I’ll start with, well, Donkey Kong. Having Princess Pauline, as Mike Mika named her, save Mario is well enough, but we can go further. Mario is a pot-bellied, mustachio’d plumber canonically from Brooklyn, and Princess Peach is, well, a Princess. So I propose we have Maria: A rotund, middle-aged woman plumber with wispy facial hair and a Brooklyn accent. Basically, if you cast Roseanne Barr for the live action TV show:
She would save the dashing Prince Pear. In Super Mario Bros, she’d be joined by her sister Louise (played by Geraldine Barr), a gangly, awkward woman to serve as foil.
You can already see that some people would have problems with this. Some boys would have a hard time identifying with the protagonist, and would be positively repulsed by her assumed courtship with the prince upon saving him. What is kosher in the original becomes farce. Men can be any shape and size, but women must be attractive! A woman will fall for the protagonist regardless of her own feelings but men have standards! Or so we thought.
Let’s do another!
This year has seen the reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, with one of the few famed female protagonists in video gaming: Lara Croft. This new Tomb Raider was a coming-of-age plot that tried to explain her motivations for all the other games, largely by torturing her. A lot.
Now she’s a he. He’s Larry Croft, teenage amateur spelunker who gets into very uncomfortable, tense moments with more than a little sexual implication under Russian mercenaries. He’s basically halfway between Tintin and John McClane, except he cries a lot and spends much of the ten hours of the game whimpering to himself. He has three mother figures, all of whom try to save him from his own incompetence and instead end up dying to protect him. By the end of the game, he’s a shell-shocked, traumatized wreck, which is exactly the sort of bold characterization that sells games to our dominant market nowadays.
It’ll be a hit.
Okay, one more!
I’m gonna pick on Bioware for this one, because they set up some of the more interesting storylines. If you play Dragon Age: Origins as a city elf, you meet up with violence, racism and classist oppression in the first twenty minutes of the game, along with some good ole’ rape thrown in to really motivate the player.
Well, supposing you start as a female city elf. If you’re a male city elf, it’s your bride-to-be who’s sexually harassed by the lord’s son and kidnapped to be raped, and it’s your job to save her and exact righteous vengeance. If you’re a female city elf, it’s you who are sexually harassed and kidnapped to be raped, and you have to defend yourself.
So, let’s just reverse the gender: The lord’s son now fancies you, a young male city elf on his marriage day, for a bit of rough and tumble, leading first with a good ten minutes of harassment, groping and unfavorable power dynamics. How long do you suppose the average dudebro would last before shutting the game down and firing off angry emails to the publisher, assuming he didn’t just send his fist through the computer monitor?
Oh man, I should go into games design. I’d make a killing.