M: Playing to Lose — The Fall of the Video-Game Hero

Young men used to while away the hours in a virtual fantasyland where they had all the power. Now they have entered a murkier cultural space.

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Special Issue
Menswear issue M Spring 2014

In the opening scenes of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, an adult man named Joel, who is controlled by the player, leads his daughter through the burning streets of a zombie apocalypse, only to find himself unable to save her from being gunned down by a soldier. The rest of the game follows the haunted hero as he tries to protect another young girl, Ellie, from the same fate as they tramp across a ruined America. Think Children of Men meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in video-game form. Protecting Ellie becomes Joel’s obsession. Not for her sake, and not because she might be humanity’s savior, but for purely selfish and redemptive reasons: to prove he can protect her; to prove he is still a good father; to prove he is still a good man.

Despite being played by men and women in equal measure, video games have long been construed as a masculinist enterprise. Most are designed by men, with a male audience in mind, and nearly every blockbuster features a male protagonist. The few games with leading women, such as Dontnod’s Remember Me or Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider, present them more as sex objects than active subjects, there for the (assumed) male audience to gawk at while pressing buttons. Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto V, a game with three protagonists, has not a single leading woman.

“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story” is the line Rockstar cofounder Dan Houser
gave The Guardian.

It’s a poor excuse, one trotted out all too often by the male-dominated industry in
response to any question concerning the dearth of significant women in games. But given the boys’-club atmosphere, video games are a fascinating place to see dominant ideals of masculinity played out.

Up until the past few years, the representations of masculinity we have seen in games were traditional: manly men protecting their women, children, and homelands with muscles and firearms. Video-game story lines, moreover, have largely taken place within the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, action, and Western, all of which offer their brawny heroes ample opportunities to make conspicuous displays of old-school manliness: In Super Mario Bros., Mario saves the princess; in Halo, Master Chief saves the Earth; in Time Crisis 2, a cop team blasts through terrorists to save both the world and the girl.

The preponderance of macho saviors in video games reflects their overrepresentation in other media. There’s no shortage of films, novels, comics, and songs that give men the role of protector and possessor.

But in video games, retrograde masculinity has found an almost natural home. Video games, after all, are about doing something—pressing buttons to create effects in virtual worlds. Few actions are as simple to design as those that are physical: pulling a trigger, throwing a punch, making a giant leap. It’s easy for video-game makers to represent normative ideas of what it means to be a man.

Despite all that, something new has been afoot in recent years. We’re not seeing a broader representation of masculinity: The vast majority of games (the Modern Warfare trilogy, for just one example) still feature muscular fellows who triumph in the end. But a few recent games are critiquing the dominant view of masculinity in subtle ways, presenting players with heroes who find that their guns and biceps prove insufficient for the challenges thrown their way, who try to protect what they hold dear, only to see it slip from their control.

The posture of this new hero slumps a little; his winking confidence is starting to droop; his facial hair is less a beard and more of an instantiation of apathy.

As suggested by the experiences of Joel in The Last of Us, who spends an entire game mourning the daughter he failed to save, the old masculine ideal is becoming less of a crown and more of a burden.
Sorry, bro.

The trope of a male protagonist who, like Joel in The Last of Us, undertakes a quest for revenge (or justice) after suffering the horrendous death of someone close to him is certainly nothing new. In story after story, a terrible event sends the hero on a journey that gives him a chance to find himself and prove his strength. Think of Mad Max or Dirty Harry, in the movies. In comics, similarly, the Green Lantern springs into action after finding his girlfriend’s corpse shoved into a fridge by his nemesis, a story element that has given rise to the shorthand phrase “Women in Refrigerators,” a term meant to signal this all-too-common story device. But in recent games, the tone of this narrative is different, darker. Protagonists like Joel still seek revenge and redemption—but now they don’t always find what they are looking for.

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