Recently I have been playing a lot of Mount and Blade: Warband. The game takes places in a medieval setting on a continent called Calradia. At the beginning of the game, the player creates a character, determining the sex, age, physical appearance, childhood background, and starting RPG statistics. In staying true to the historical context of a medieval setting, Mount and Blade makes some interesting decisions regarding how those early player-choices affect gameplay.
The one I wish to discuss is the difference between choosing to play as a male or a female. As the game is focused around rising to power in this medieval world, nearly everything about the experience is altered by this choice. From how NPC’s address you to how high your “Renown” level needs to be to be granted a fief. The game is considered to be considerably more difficult to be successful at while playing as a female – in fact the developers give a short warning before you create your character that such is true.
The developer’s justify their decision by stating that they are accurately representing traditional medieval society. From my experience, it is rare for a developer to put in place such drastic game play differences based on sex – for instance most MMOs that allow for such customizations have those customizations simply there for cosmetic purposes. Despite this being a unique case and experience for me, I do believe that it relates to the wider portrayal of the female sex in video game worlds and raises important questions. Are these games simply portraying the reality of their setting or participating in sexist or even misogynistic practices? Is the portrayal of reality worth the possible harm caused to female gamers by this negative portrayal? What benefits regarding awareness, accuracy, and acknowledgement does the portrayal of reality, past or present, offer?
I want to quickly look a little more at Mount and Blade: Warband’s portrayal of females. If you do choose to play as a male, the females you come across will almost always be relegated to role of taking care of their husband’s household or acting as a bargaining chip for marriage. They have little to no political influence and do not make major decisions. They are almost never found in leadership positions. I can imagine female gamers getting discouraged when wanting to play this game and the game becoming more difficult if they want to play as a character physically representative of themselves. And if they choose not to, to see all characters physically representative of themselves in positions of weakness.
Despite the negative aspects that can be conveyed by such a portrayal of females, I am not necessarily against when the attempt to accurately represent part of the world. As opposed to, say, over sexualizing a body to a point that would never exist.
What about when the world is one made up by the creative team? Like Hyrule or Tamriel or Azeroth. Is it “okay” for developers to create a world in which females are treated as secondary to men? I do believe there is a difference from accurately portraying reality, be it past or present, and creating fantasy worlds in which discrimination exists. However, one could easily argue that these fantasy worlds are metaphors, analogies, or applicable instances relative to reality. But does this justify any and all negative treatment of the female body as long as at some point in history such treatment existed?
It is a weird thing for me to consider. I don’t think we should lose sight of history because it is uncomfortable to see. But at what point does bringing up the past over and over again do more harm than good? I also don’t think we should stifle developers who want to create a fantasy world of magic and dragons but incorporate elements of 1200 A.D. European society because he/she finds it interesting and applicable to his/her creative vision simply because we no longer find the moral standards of that era acceptable. To end, I just wanted to raise some questions and discuss the idea of historical representations as justification for negative treatment of females or any other group for that matter.