Fighting Women Enter the Arena, No Holds Barred
By MICHEL MARRIOTT
LOS ANGELES -- IN a futuristic penthouse with floor-to-ceiling windows and holographic artworks, two fierce combatants stare each other down. Muscles ripple and hands clench with menace before the first blow - whack! - is thrown.
A heavily tattooed brute named Exile whose neck is thicker than his clean-shaven head vaults his 6-foot 8-inch, 300-pound frame into the air, sailing boot-first into the jaw of his opponent, who is slammed into a window that shatters on impact.
It doesn't matter that Exile's opponent is 16 years his junior, less than half his weight and more than a foot shorter - and a woman.
While popular tastes and tradition have so far mostly kept the sexes apart in the wrestling and boxing arenas, the same can hardly be said for the video game world that Exile inhabits. As vastly improved technologies enable electronic game characters to look, sound and move in a more lifelike way than their forebears, action- adventure and fighting games are taking on new sexual dynamics, mesmerizing some people and disturbing others.
The new female characters may be clever, karate-kicking protagonists controlled by players of either sex. They can also, depending on the player's ability and the game's design, be victims of breathtakingly violent assaults by men with fists, feet, knives or bullets.
The fighting women are emerging as game developers look for profitable new directions in the highly competitive $10 billion video game industry. Such characters are prominent in Microsoft's Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus, a recent release featuring the hulking Exile, and in several games being unveiled from May 14 to 16 at the Electronic Entertainment Exposition in Los Angeles, an annual multimedia showcase.
Even Lara Croft, the heroine who made the leap from video console to Hollywood film as a sort of female Indiana Jones, is getting a makeover in a new game emphasizing her martial-arts prowess.
For the feminist author Jennifer Baumgardner, watching women do combat in video games is empowering. "I love having images in popular culture and these games that include women as fighters," she said.
She suggests that that casting women as gladiators challenges images of women as passive targets of violence.
"I do not think playing these games encourages women to be victims," said Ms. Baumgardner, 32, co-author of "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux , 2000), whose central theme is a celebration of "girl culture.''
Ed Fries, Microsoft's vice president for game publishing, said that most of the female characters joining the cast of regulars in video games this year were strong, the sort of characters that players can "respect.''
"If you are sitting down to spend 40 hours with a game," he said, "you do have to like the character."
Behind the changes, though, some see a menacing element.
"Games don't exist in a vacuum," said Elizabeth Staudt, a senior at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who is a spokeswoman for the Campus Women's Center there. "To the extent that these games portray violence against women, it is hard to make a case that those images really may be empowering."
"For us this doesn't feel like the gender equity we're after," she said.
The Women's Center recently took part in a petition drive by the National Institute on Media and the Family to denounce video games that the groups say trivializes violence against women. Chief among the offenders, said the institute's president and founder, David Walsh, is Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which with worldwide sales of more than 8.5 million is one of the most successful video games ever.
In the game, made by Rockstar Games for Sony's Playstation 2 and just re-released in a PC version, players are rewarded for beating and killing women - who exist mostly at the edges of the game - with their fists, feet and in one instance, a golf club.
Yet in the emerging class of games that prominently feature women characters, victimhood is not necessarily programmed into the action, game designers say.
For instance, the half-dozen women in Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus, created for Microsoft's Xbox console, can put up a respectable fight against Exile or other male or female characters - or be reduced to bloody, bruised wrecks. Similarly, in games like Cy Girls, Brute Force, WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos, and Enter the Matrix, female characters have just as much chance of winning as the males do.
Many video game makers say their new offerings reflect the growing visibility of strong women on movie and television screens and in career domains ranging from corporations to the military.
"You have these figures that are larger than life," said Alan B. Lewis, the spokesman for Acclaim Entertainment, a major game developer based on Long Island.
In movies like "X2: X-Men United," and new or coming films like "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," female characters do not shy away from physical confrontation with their foes.
Mr. Lewis said that Acclaim was developing a video game based on Sydney Bristow, the kung-fu-chopping spy on the television series "Alias." Paul Baldwin, vice president for marketing at Eidos, the video game publisher with the biggest franchise starring a female character, Tomb Raider's Lara Croft, said that the company had received appreciative feedback from female players.
"You should see the letters we've got from mothers and daughters and sisters thanking us for Lara, the first real action figure they identified with," he said of the cyberheroine, introduced in 1996.
To be sure, Lara Croft and many of the new female game characters constitute video pinups for the young men and boys who form the overwhelming majority of game players. Mr. Baldwin said they still expected their digital divas to be voluptuous.
Liz Buckley, product manager for Majesco, a game design house in Edison, N.J., said that her designers had learned in focus groups that boys and young men not only like games with female characters but also pay far more attention to those characters than they do to their digital male counterparts.
Ms. Buckley cited Majesco's recent release of BloodRayne, which centers on a vicious yet seductive woman who is half vampire.
Most action-adventure games engage the player through a character viewed only from the rear as he or she confronts foes and challenges.
"After several rounds of focus testing, we learned that everyone wanted to see her face more," Ms. Buckley recalled of BloodRayne.
The solution was to reverse the vantage point whenever the character was at rest. "Players could see her face and watch her adjusting her leather pants, her belt," she said.
Ms. Buckley said that injecting sensuality into the game, which cost $2 million to develop, enhanced its market prospects. She describes its mix of plunging necklines, blood-red hair and pointy teeth as "lethal erotica."
"The lead character is inherently sexy," she said. "I don't have a problem of using that to get her out there."
While sensual female characters are proliferating in the gaming universe, Lara Croft, whose fame ultimately transcended the game genre, is moving in new directions game-wise.
When a new Tomb Raider game subtitled The Angel of Darkness is released for Playstation 2 and the PC, expect a refashioned Lara Croft who engages in hand-to-hand combat with evildoers. (In previous games she either ran or shot them with her handguns.) Her infamous bust line, which prompted some women to complain that the character was gratuitously sexualized, will be reduced to more lifelike proportions.
A different twist on sex roles in the game world is anticipated in Deux Ex 2: Invisible War, a sequel to a successful first-person-shooter game by Eidos for the Xbox and PC. It will allow players to enter the game as Alex D., the name used by two clones of Agent J. C. Denton, the male main character in the original game.
The twist is that one of the clones is male and the other female, Mr. Baldwin explained. He said that players will be able to customize the characters in significant ways that make either as powerful, stealthy and cunning as the other, regardless of sex.
Yet critics like Bell Hooks, a feminist theorist, challenge the notion that the emergence of a warrior class of video game vixens is something worth celebrating. By projecting hyper-sexualized women as heartless killers in popular entertainment, real people are being sold a mixed message, she said.
"Now women can be killing machines, but adolescent about everything else," Ms. Hooks said.
"That is what one sees in 'Charlie's Angels,' " she continued. "The women kill as ruthlessly and as brutally as any men, but when it comes to sex that drops out and they are little girls. It is a tremendous burden."
Most disturbing, she said, the female protagonists who engage in physical combat in popular movies, television programs and video games encourage women "not to challenge patriarchy."
The effect is especially potent in video games, she said, because the games' fantasies are so immersive.
Ultimately, Ms. Hooks said, "They take people's minds away from really how much power females are losing in real life."