My goodness is that headline uncomfortable to write. Let’s be straightforward. I’m a man. Ethnically speaking, I identify as white because, while my bloodline isn’t completely true to that (hispanics are the fastest growing demographic if you haven’t heard), culturally, that’s what I am. I’m a millennial male devoid of any sort of significant ethnic heritage and fully assimilated to the American way of life. In other words, I am square in the middle of what’s considered to be the gaming industry’s key demographic.
So with that in mind, I have to be mindful of what I say regarding this topic. I don’t want to be misunderstood or have anyone put words in my mouth. On that note, at this very moment, there are people having heated discussions over sexism in the gaming industry in this country. I guarantee it.
There are a lot of ways to tackle this issue – a lot of instances and examples that can be covered. I’m focusing on one event (E3) and two games: Battlefield 1 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
EA’s Battlefield 1 launches this fall as that series once again looks to dethrone Call of Duty as the most popular first-person shooter franchise. The game’s peculiar title stems from it being set during World War I – the first game of its stature to have the distinction of retelling one of the great wars in quite some time. Because of its historical reference point, EA let it be known that players would not be able to play as female characters in online co-op, as women largely (understatement) did not see combat during WWI. However, the game’s campaign mode, which is said to jump across multiple perspectives, will feature a woman’s perspective in some way.
Due to how relevant a topic sexism is in gaming today, EA quickly drew detractors. People were quick to point out women did serve in WWI.
During WWI, about 12,000 women enlisted in the United States Navy and Marine Corps. About 400 of those women died, though not necessarily due to combat. Keep in mind that the U.S. suffered over 116,000 military deaths during the war (over a third of which were directly in combat). So while it is true that there were women in the war, at least on the yankee side, it would be more correct to say that there were virtually no women.
Was EA’s choice to not have women in Battlefield 1’s co-op sexist? In my opinion, no it was not. Granted, co-op, in terms of storytelling, is a bit ephemeral. Are we to believe that each round of the countless co-op games that will be played in Battlefield 1’s history is an accurate representation of any given battle during the war? I suppose so, as ridiculous as that sounds. I’m not here to argue whether that’s feasible or whether the co-op should or shouldn’t be part of the ‘realism’ of Battlefield 1’s WWI inspiration. I merely think that is what EA would like you to believe and there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that.
That brings us to Zelda. Nintendo’s famed franchise saw its first extended gameplay demonstration and title reveal this week. Many questions were answered about the long awaited game’s identity. One of those questions was whether or not this would be the first main Zelda game to give players the option to play as a female incarnation of the series’ iconic hero, Link. The answer was no.
Admittedly, this caught me by surprise. Nintendo has been a fairly progressive company when it comes to equality in the gaming industry and there had been a noticeable push from their public to include a female Link. That push was fueled in no small part by the fact that a female Link, known as Linkle, debuted in Hyrule Warriors Legends for Nintendo 3DS earlier this year.
And yet come time for the main game, Linkle is nowhere to be found. Naturally, people had questions. Zelda director Eiji Aonuma had this to say:
“So yes, there were rumors [about a female Link], and we did discuss as a staff as to what would be possible if we took that route… We thought about it and decided that if we’re going to have a female protagonist it’s simpler to have Princess Zelda as the main character… If we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do? Taking into account that, and also the idea of the balance of the Triforce, we thought it best to come back to this [original] makeup.”
If I’m understanding him correctly, and to be fair, I and the rest of the English speaking world may not be because these words were through an interpreter, he and his staff are of the opinion that the only proper way to have a female lead in a Zelda game would be for Zelda herself to be the player’s character. However, doing so would apparently emasculate Link and leave him without a purpose. I guess that means in their eyes, you couldn’t have a game where the roles are reversed: where Zelda goes on a quest to save or aid Link. That may be what he was referring to when he noted the balance of the Triforce; where Link has always represented the Triforce of courage and thus, to stay true to the universe and Zelda timeline, you could not have a passive character holding the Triforce of courage. When thought of that way, I can see what he means.
However, this still does not answer the real question, which is why Link, the character that holds the Triforce of courage, cannot be female. There remains no good answer as to why the player cannot simply choose to have their Link be male or female other than Aonuma and his staff just not wanting that to be a reality. At this point, you can only ponder why that is and I struggle to find a logical reason.
It’s ironic to me. Here I am, examining two major games showcased at E3. One, Battlefield, is in my mind, very much at the center of uber-masculine, violent gaming culture just as its rival Call of Duty is. Zelda on the other hand, is a classic Nintendo title predicated on artful design and storytelling alongside inspired, cutting edge design philosophies. Yet somehow, Battlefield is the game I’m defending and Zelda is the one that is coming off as sexist. No offense to EA and Battlefield players, but that’s really disappointing to me because I expect a lot more out of Nintendo and the Zelda franchise.
It is shameful. This issue and Aonuma’s comments, are a blemish on what was otherwise a perfect coming out party for Breath of the Wild. It’s not too late. The game isn’t releasing until March at the earliest to coincide with the launch of the NX platform. How difficult would it be to make this change? Perhaps too difficult, but I can wish. Regardless, I hope Nintendo feels blowback from this decision and Aonuma’s comments. This decision and what was said, are both incorrect from an ethical standpoint and a public relations standpoint.
Does keeping it the way it’s always been mean Zelda has always been sexist? I don’t believe so. But acknowledging that you were well aware of the public’s growing desire to see a female Link in the game but choosing not to make that available based on illogical, gender-biased reasoning is definition sexism. That is disappointing to even write. I am in no way a white knight for gender equality in gaming. But as I’ve made clear countless times through social media, I hold Nintendo and Zelda in particular to a higher standard in gaming. Zelda has once again let me down – only this time, it isn’t because they’re trying to make another Ocarina of Time clone.