Monday, June 23, 2014

You can thank the media for the whole sexism in Zelda debate

One of the biggest hot-button issues in modern games journalism - and, if you choose to believe it, the modern gaming scene - is the issue of gender diversity in games.

This issue simmers in the back of a great many minds, but manifests chiefly as a criticism against the lack of female playable characters in Triple A games.

For many in the press, the lack of a female playable character is akin to sexism - and they have no trouble calling attention to the problem, particularly with headline-grabbing franchises like The Legend of Zelda.

But the problem with this approach is that it seems very few people outside of the gaming press actually *care* if you can play as a female character or not - and these types of articles are, for the most part, unabashed clickbaiting.

Kotaku is by far one of the chief offenders in this department - and this past E3, they asked Legend of Zelda game designer Eiji Aonuma repeatedly (to whit, twice in the same interview) why the series hasn't had a female playable main hero in its 25-year history.  Aonuma's shut-down of the reporter is pretty awesome, but there's a deeper issue at play here.

It turns out not every girl wants to play as a fem-Link.

Shocking, I know

I came across many of these female gamers during my time at E3, and one - at Nintendo's official booth - had the most compelling argument against the knee-jerk "make Link a girl!" speculation that followed the teaser for the Wii U open world Zelda.

The girl in question - I'll call her Kate -  was in charge of demos for Hyrule Warriors at the Wii U I was lined up on, and it was plain from hearing her talk to the press that this girl knew the ins and outs of the Zelda universe like the back of her hand (which, incidentally, had a pretty sweet tri-force tattoo on it).

When I got up to Kate, I complimented her on her Zelda tattoo - showed her my own - and she happily showed off another of hers - this time, the Hylian Crest on her shoulder blades.  This girl wasn't just a Zelda demonstrator hired by Nintendo, she was a life-long Zelda fanatic.

I knew a bit about Hyrule Warriors from the press coverage before the event, and so my enthusiasm to play the game made me ignore the first part of her pitch.  Without thinking, I selected Princess Zelda as my character.

"Wait, you don't want to play as Link?" Kate asked.

"Nah - I've played as Link before," I began.

"I've never played as Zelda before and I like that this game lets me play as a girl."  Not that I expect Kate reads Kawaiian Punch, but this is in-line with my odd preference for gender escapism in games.

A brief, awkward silence followed as I began to plow through fields of moblins with Zelda's graceful rapier work, so I turned the conversation back around.

"Who would you want to play as?"

"Oh, that's easy." Kate began.  "Link. No question.  It's not a Zelda game without Link as the hero."

At this point, I opened my mouth to ask about her opinion on the Wii U speculation - but couldn't even draw a breath before she continued on.

"And did you hear that people think that Link in the trailer for the new game might actually be a girl?  That would be so lame!"

Intrigued, I looked away from the screen in front of me to see if she was kidding.

"You wouldn't want to play as a female lead in a Zelda game?"

"Absolutely not," Kate replied.

"It wouldn't be a Zelda game if I couldn't play as Link rescuing Princess Zelda."

I nodded at her opinion and went back to button-mashing my way through the beautiful world of Hyrule Warriors.  Kate had given me a lot to think about.

Walking around the rest of E3, and chatting with peers at events after-hours, it became abundantly clear that not many people outside of the gaming press were pulling for a new Zelda game that starred Zelda over Link.

This isn't to say that such opinions don't exist - some people have gone above and beyond to make Zelda games more appealing to female players - but the vehemence mustered by western gaming press (of which I was formerly a member) seems very much out of step with the fan perception of the games.

Admittedly, my retelling of my conversation with Kate (and others at the conference) is a bit of compelling anecdotal evidence - and the plural of anecdote is not, and will never be, data... but this criticism cuts against the gaming press as well.

A handful of articles taking non-western developers to task for not casting strong, empowered female leads in their games does not mean the entirety of the game-playing public wants the same thing.

Sometimes, it's best to not fix what isn't broken - chances are good that fans of both genders enjoy the games for what they are.