About BMC 277: Media and Diversity

This course asks students to critically examine the role of the media in facilitating and challenging the social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in U.S. culture.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Women in Video Games: Half-Life 2 – A New Perspective

Josh Scott

In 1998 a popular game took store shelves in the form of “Half-Life”, a first-person viewpoint shooting game which changed the way that the games were viewed. Prior to the release, shooters of the first-person type were typically very violent games that were focused on the sole purpose of killing any creature that moved in the animated world in which the character moved. Half-Life changed this by introducing a complex storyline and puzzle-based play to the time tested and popular method of run-and-gun gameplay. Six years later the sequel to Half-Life (aptly named Half-Life 2) added a different spin to the genre, gender equality. Shooters, which are primarily a male dominated genre, typically over-sexualize women, depict them as weak, or do not include them at all in gameplay. The introduction of a certain character in Half-Life 2 has expanded the perception of women in the FPS genre and may be redefining women in video games in the more modern era.

The story of Half-Life 2 revolves around a character that the player takes the role of, Gordon Freeman. Gordon fought his way through an alien invasion, and through a military quarantine in his first encounter in the original Half-Life. This time, the aliens have taken over the earth and he must fight with a resistance of remaining independent humans to try to free themselves from control. In the beginning of the adventure Gordon is introduced to Alyx Vance, a young woman who is also a freedom fighter and it is her who is the focus of the very fair gender portrayal in the game. Alyx is a unique character because she is also ethnically mixed, half black and half white. But the most important part to her persona is that she is equally as adept to fighting as Gordon, and in many circumstances, better.

It is not uncommon to see a female character fighting along-side a male character in modern action games, however, where Half-Life differs is the production of the game itself. Created Valve Inc. Half-Life 2 was a incredibly difficult task to undertake and, according to their website, took a combined total of 5 years and $40 million to create. Such an epic undertaking in the gaming industry demanded some changes along with it. So with the characters that were included in the game, complex story driven voice-overs were used. This brought each character to life in a way that games, such as the earliest arcade games, failed to achieve. To the point when Half-Life 2 was released the gaming industry was brimming with new ideas and the Half-Life genre continued to expand out of the simple blood and gore of most common shooters and into the realm of intelligent design.

Alyx is not the first female character to star in games that was as inclined to fighting as men. Lara Croft, of the “Tomb Raider”, series of video games was a female character who played the controllable main character in the game. She was incredibly athletic, kin to shooting, and was also very fond of destroying many supernatural and human characters. The difference between Alyx and Lara is the area of over-sexualization. Lara displays in incredibly large bust size, a very small and uncomfortable outfit, and an unblemishing depiction throughout the game regardless of the environment she is fighting in. Alyx’s outfit is much less revealing and fitting, she wears a pair of jeans, and a jacket which is slightly unzipped which exposes a necklace but does not reveal any cleavage. Between the two of these characters it is easy to determine which one is made to look very sexy and which is meant to be viewed more as a believable character.

At several points in the game, Alyx displays the ability to overcome obstacles much easier than Gordon can. There are also several circumstances, such as a scene where Alyx becomes responsible for Gordon’s life when she is mans a sniper rifle as the player navigates an enemy infested landscape, where she can also outsmart him, and hold her own in combat at his side. The combat aspect of Half-Life 2 is not unlike many other shooters on the market, it is no less violent than others, but does not rely on blood and gore to make a statement. Alyx is a partner in the adventure, rather than an idol of sexualization, which is somewhat uncommon in video games, and surely in the first-person shooter genre.

Video games are an expanding genre which are not unlike many other forms of media, such as films and television. They reach a very large audience of people of all ages, and the stereotypes and discourse we see in other mediums are also held securely there. Over-sexualization of women can be seen in television, films, and music. The introduction of the character Alyx in the game Half-Life 2 is an example of how women can be viewed equally in media in the context of the game/film/music that is being perceived.

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