Gears of War - Getting It Right

In my last post, I mentioned that I really love Gears of War. This is an aberration in the minds of many marketers, I would think - I am neither under the age of 25, nor am I in possession of a penis (except by proxy, and that doesn't count). Gears of War is a game aimed squarely at the male demographic who like solving problems with a liberal application of bullets by way of a beefed up space marine's gun. It should not appeal to me, a thirty-something business woman, when I have delightful casual games such as Bejeweled to keep my attention.

Allow me to lay off the sarcasm for a second, because anyone who knows me is well aware that I'm indifferent at best to casual games - why would Gears of War appeal to a female audience at all? It seems counter-intuitive, at least if we pay attention to the kinds of games that are marketed towards a female audience. According to the statistics, female gamers are big into social, casual, online games and largely avoid the consoles in comparison to men.

Well, that's not really all that surprising. Playing against anonymous nobodies over XBox Live is a good way to get harassed repeatedly - see the Fat, Ugly or Slutty blog, for example, which details all the random sexist slurs that female gamers have thrown at them on a semi-regular basis. Who would want to face that every day? Anyway, I digress - back to Gears, and the attraction thereof.

One thing I've noticed is that female gamers tend to like the same kinds of games that male gamers do; meaning that if a woman thinks a game sucks, and they don't have bad taste in games overall, it's likely that a man will also think the game sucks and probably for the same reasons, again assuming that they also don't have bad taste. There isn't that much of a divide, is what I'm saying here, and Gears can easily stand up as a great game without having any extra elements specifically targeted at women. There's the cool storyline, the setting, the good gameplay, the frankly knock-your-socks-off awesome multiplayer, the interesting characters - there are plenty of women that like all of the above, so it's pretty much a given that they'll want to check it out. Chainsawing aliens isn't everyone's cup of tea, of course, and there are plenty of men for whom the gritty sci-fi genre holds no appeal at all.

Gears does get it right above and beyond this, though, due to the fact that they've never sexualised their female characters.

First up is the Berserker. She's the female version of the aliens you spend most of the games gunning down. She's also about eight feet tall and a nigh-unstoppable killing machine. You encounter a few of them over the course of Gears 1 and 2, and they are scary as hell.

Then there’s Queen Myrrah. She's the villain of the whole series - the leader of the alien horde that's trying to wipe out humanity for good. (They've got an insect-queen bee thing going on, as far as we can tell.) All that stuff all over her? That's attached to her in some way that isn't just armor. What exactly she is is still up for debate, but her voice talking over the big battle scenes pretty much defines the plot of Gears of War. If I ever had to choose my ten favorite evil female badasses, she'd be high up the list.

Then there’s Anya Stroud, the control operator that guides the Gears around the battlefield. She's mostly a voice, and when you see her, she's dressed like that - like a military officer with a job to do, of course. Her and Marcus (the main Gear) have something of a history, but there's very little made of it because they're professionals in the middle of a war.

These characters are not playable, unfortunately, but they're inclusive by dint of them being either real and well-defined or, in the case of the Berserker, just plain batshit terrifying. The Berserker is a pretty interesting case, actually - the very first time you encounter one, Marcus whispers that "she can hear us, she can smell us" by way of introduction to the fact that it's a female creature. (Berserkers are mostly blind and attracted by noise.) There's no comment from the others about it other than to point out that they were now in serious trouble. That's important, because the gender is not a big deal at all to them, and therefore isn't a big deal to the player either. Epic, the studio that makes Gears of War, made a conscious decision to define the Berserkers as female and then didn't play up the fact. It just is, the same way that Marcus wears a bandanna or Cole is black. It's a subtle statement that it's normal for a giant, crazed, heavily muscled alien to be female. I can't help liking that.

Gears of War 3 will be out soon, and it's looking to be as good if not better than the first two games. And, in a stunning display of awesome, Epic have decided to go where no space marine bloodfest has gone before, and they're doing it for all the right reasons:

When you go to a poster signing and you go to like, a comic-con or something where you get a chance to meet fans face-to-face, you’re surprised at how many female gamers actually play Gears of War. It’s got a reputation of being this thick-necked testosterone, male-oriented game and so to find all these female players was kind of surprising. Part of the decision of having female characters is to allow for female gamers to actually have that reflection of themselves in the game.

Oh yeah. Playable female characters.

We’ve got Sam Byrne, who is quite fond of her shotgun. Bit of a hothead, apparently. Next, Bernie Mataki, a 60 year old war veteran. Then Anya again, who's apparently decided to get out of the command center and take up arms in the final fight. And finally Queen Myrrah in all her battle-clad glory. All of these characters wear full body armor similar to what the males wear. They have the same weapons. They kill and die in exactly the same way.

You have to admit, finding this kind of equality in something that the developers themselves call a "thick-necked testosterone, male-oriented game" is kinda awesome.