One of the key plot points in Jurassic Park revolves around the concept of parthenogenesis: the curious biological miracle in which certain animals can functionally change their gender to compensate for an environment dominated by one gender. “Life”, as rock and roll maths whizz Ian Malcolm informs us, “finds a way”. Something very similar happened this week over at Marvel Comics, as it was revealed that The Mighty Thor, that most masculine of superheroes, is to become female.
Having dropped that bombshell, the company followed up with the news that Sam Wilson, aka African American superhero The Falcon, is to take over the mantle of Captain America. Earlier this year, a less well known character, Captain Marvel, was reinvented as a teenaged Muslim girl. In a comic book landscape still dominated by white male characters, these were all much needed adjustments.
It’s relevant here because while most people, for some reason, instinctively compare games to movies, their true cultural parallel is more likely comic books. Both began as children’s entertainment, and both were accused of corrupting young minds when they began to break out of that infantilised ghetto. Both, of course, have also struggled with the question of diversity, and both have been spotlighted in recent months for their shortfall in this regard. Thanks to Marvel, comics have just taken a small but notable step forwards. Games, it seems, are still fumbling around looking for excuses not to deviate from the status quo.
That’s pretty strange when you consider that games are by far the more malleable and flexible medium when it comes to character. For one thing, stories in games are generally – though not always – things that happen around the characters, rather than being driven by them. Was Resident Evil’s story fundamentally altered when you played as Jill rather than Chris? Nope, as the fact you could also play the game as a giant lump of tofu rather handily proves. So there’s no real reason why pretty much any game character couldn’t swap gender, or race, without impacting whatever passes for a story. Just look at games like Saints Row, where the identity of the lead character is purposefully left wide open, or Mass Effect, where the game accommodates both male and female versions of Shepard quite easily.
Games are also a much younger medium, and still open to new creations. It’s interesting to note that Marvel is adamant that the new Thor is not Lady Thor, or She Thor, or Thor Girl. It’s Thor, the company insists. That’s clearly a semantic fudge. The male version of the character will still exist, he’s just lost his right to wield Mjolnir, the enchanted hammer that grants its powers only to those deemed worthy. Sooner or later, he’ll earn it back and the true identity of this mysterious new Thor will be revealed. After all, in his long and weird history, Thor was once turned into a frog, and Mjolnir has been wielded by a skull-faced space-horse called Bill. Having a woman swing the hammer is notable mostly for how simple and obvious it is.
The same is true of Sam Wilson’s promotion to Captain America. That’s a costume that has been worn by others. Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier, took on the role when Steve Rogers was presumed dead. Nationalist asshole US Agent has also picked up the shield, and in the Ultimates line even Frank “The Punisher” Castle took on a Cap-inspired identity. All of which is to say that superhero mantles are often swapped around, because that’s an easier sell than creating a new superhero. Indeed, there hasn’t been a new superhero character of note from Marvel or DC in decades. New creations die on the vine.
Games, at least at the blockbuster level, are becoming increasingly reliant on a handful of big brands but gamer’s devotion is more often dedicated to gameplay styles rather than specific characters. Uncharted fans transferred their affection for Naughty Dog’s cinematic action to The Last of Us without complaint. Watch Dogs may owe pretty much all of its gameplay mechanisms to Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto, nobody was buying it because they were fascinated by the character of Aiden Pearce.
And this is why it’s odd that games haven’t made this move before comics. It’s not just about taking a male character and making them female. Turning Master Chief into Mistress Chief would be a good way of attracting attention but unlike comics, with their fossilised rosters that have endured for over 60 years, such tokenism isn’t something games need to do.
To return to the Watch Dogs example, you just need a different lead character, not an existing character with a gender or race swap. Instead of defaulting to scowling, growling Aiden, you just make his sister, Nicole, the lead character. She’s the one who lost a daughter, she’s the one who has been wronged, so make her the hacker. Make it a story about a bereaved mother taking down a violent gang using her smarts, while struggling to raise one child and mourning another, rather than yet another brooding male loner wreaking violent revenge with a grenade launcher. If you think about it from a narrative point of view, Nicole’s is the real story of Watch Dogs.
The old excuse that not enough people would buy a game about a woman who doesn’t spend 90 per cent of her time shooting things is hard to support, because it’s barely been tested. For all its flaws, Beyond: Two Souls deserves enormous kudos for simply making a young woman the centre of its story, using her gender to inform that story, but never letting her be defined by it. It’s just those stories too often go untold, because it’s assumed they don’t fit into the accepted cycle of video game storylines.
Break out of that cycle and yes, you get to kick a few more bricks out of the psychological wall that keeps diversity at bay. That’s ultimately just a very beneficial side effect though. The real gain is a gain for everyone because it means we get new perspectives and new stories. It means we get genuinely new games. That’s the real prize. Wider representation is just the step we have to take to get there. No sex change required.