Women’s rights is a strange beast in the world of video games. The portrayal of women is often a point of criticism of video games themselves – Ivy from Soul Caliber being a good example, as she’s effectively just an ass and a whip dancing about on-screen.
As a response to things like this, many games will go the route generic film has taken: literally spelling out to the player “This character is a strong independent woman,” and nothing more, leaving the character completely undeveloped, content to assume that this means they’ve more than done their part on this matter, and ironically objectify female characters as a simple symbol of fighting the tide of tits in games.
As you can see, Fallout New Vegas is, at times, not a good example of women being treated as wholesome individuals rather than objects. This instance isn’t the fault of the game being sexist: a hooker is a sex symbol to people whether you like it or not (and hey, there are male hookers too!). But it’s certainly not a saint on this specific front. However, to me, New Vegas an unsung hero for what it puts the player through. To explain this, I’ve got to give you a little bit of a backstory, so bear with me.
A friend of mine has been playing through this as a female character with the preset personality and whatnot, and he eventually came across the two main factions of the game. The first is, I think, a pretty succinct parody of the tenuous American relationship with taxation, the New California Republic. An organization styled after the present-day military, the NCR is occupying the land in an attempt to annex it an expand their territory. The people in the region’s main grudge with the NCR is that their taxes are unfairly spent, that they only spend the tax money they get on more military annexing. In essence, the money levied never actually helps the people within its own borders, it only ever expands them.
The second faction, more important to my present argument, was Caesar’s Legion, a bunch of batshit crazy ex-tribal slaves and slavers, all styling themselves after the Roman Empire. There isn’t much content for this faction, and it was apparent they just didn’t expect you to join up with them, given that there was so much more to do if you played NCR.
Of course, as you would expect from the sort of people who enslave others in the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout, the Legion is extremely misogynistic. All captured women are immediately made slaves and are unable to fight for on the front lines alongside male slaves. Of course, that would hardly be an improvement, but it’d be better than what the female slaves experienced by a long shot.
Now, they weren’t very noteworthy other than that and didn’t really have much more depth than this. You only encounter them at key points in the game, but you do get to have a look at their headquarters at one point. Within is an arena where the Legion holds rather brutal gladiator-style duels. That was a part of the game I really enjoyed – on my male character – and encouraged my friend to give a shot. To my dismay, we discovered that he wasn’t allowed to compete because his character was female. Thanks to the Legion’s strongly held sexist beliefs, all female characters were forbidden from even participating in the arena.
My initial reaction to this was one of utter disbelief. “All right, I know you’re trying to be consistent with narrative here, but you’re denying the player enjoyable content! This is ridiculous!”
However my friend was not so easily put off by this as I was, and began to remark on something that I hadn’t thought about, both in the context of the game and in the context of society: Not only was he treated poorly for being a female in the game, but he wasn’t even given a chance to prove their misogynistic values incorrect.
Isn’t this a problem in sexist societies and/or sexist areas of society that isn’t emphasized enough? It’s not just that women have these expectations, stigmas, and confined gender roles they’re forced into, it’s also that they are completely denied the opportunity to prove these prejudices wrong. Around the world, women are quite literally barred access from politics, from public speaking, from demonstration, from academic circles.
Now, I’m not saying that’s how it is in comfy little England or America, as women have had the opportunity to prove these values wrong and have done so successfully, especially in education and academia. In places like Saudi Arabia, though, women aren’t even allowed to drive. How the hell are women supposed to prove sexist attitudes wrong if they are legally, socially, and effectively physically prevented from any kind of liberty, expression or autonomy?
I’m shocked that I had never thought of this, especially given how significant this is to the entire struggle for women’s rights, and I’m glad that such an enjoyable game could actually give my friend even a tiny virtual taste of sexism, not just in discrimination but in how it feels to be denied the opportunity to prove your worth on merit. Instead of just reading about it, just hearing about it, he actually got to experience it – not in the same way, of course, not equally to those who genuinely suffer at its hands, but he at least experienced a simulation of it, and lost potential enjoyment because of it. That’s a pretty risky move for such a profit-based medium.
I have to say, bravo, New Vegas. For once, I get the feeling that this was deliberate, rather than something I’ve drawn my own meaning from, and it’s refreshing to see sexism tackled in a game in an atypical way. New Vegas goes beyond objectifying a female character as a strong, perfect, independent shell with no personality, and instead presents us with one of the actual problems women can face in the world.