We’ve idolized heroes and warriors for centuries—people love imagining themselves in the role of protector. In books, plays, and movies—and yes, in video games—we stretch social mores to allow for the protection of innocents. Many of us only become true protectors when we become parents, though.
The Role of Protectors in Video Games
In video games, the role of protector is a little more complicated than in other media. That’s because some games put you right into the protagonist’s place, while others make you want to protect the protagonist. Adrian Chmielarz calls this distinction “role-playing” vs. “caretaking.” Most FPS games use the role-playing mode—the avatar is not often complex, and in fact is often completely silent. Some games even let players name their characters. The caretaking mode is exemplified by Tearaway, in which the player is an active participant in the game, with a goal of helping the protagonist, Iota/Atoi, get through puzzles. Tomb Raider is an example of a game that purposefully and thematically switches modes halfway through. In fact, many gamers switch modes within games, but differences in gameplay, writing, and perspective subtly direct us in the direction the creators desire.
But often it’s not even that simple—there’s also “roleplaying as protector,” wherein you do take the place of the protagonist, but you do so in order to protect other characters. Some recent fantastic examples of this dynamic are fan favorites The Last of Us, The Walking Dead, and Bioshock Infinite, all of which feature a father figure protecting a young woman or girl. An older, pivotal example is Silent Hill. Although each story has its individual complexities, and the young women are all capable in their own right, the focus of these games is the protagonist’s struggle to get his ward to safety.
The Role of Parent
Parenthood is an interesting wrench to throw into the works, because games—although they don’t have to be—are often violent. We don’t like to associate parenting with violence, even though the role of protector in general is often a violent one. Superheroes beat up the bad guys, and soldiers repel invading armies. Parents are in some ways the ultimate protectors, and yet, at least in modern society, they are rarely forced to take up arms. This is in part because putting a child in a situation where violence might occur is already a mark of bad parenting. This is where games come in: throw adults into survival situations with a child, and they must fight. These situations give violence a place and make it meaningful.
Involving kids (even older teens) in stories also inevitably adds intensity to the games (and to the protagonists). In The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, and Bioshock Infinite, the three male protagonists are redemption-seekers. The act of guiding their “daughters” gives them purpose and lets us empathize with people who would otherwise be hard to relate to. Kids, after all, are the vessels for our greatest hopes, and thus our greatest fears.
The Role of Mother vs. Father
One thing you might’ve picked up on thus far is that all of these protectors-protagonists are men. I could think of only one example of a mother figure as protagonist, and that is Shelter, an Indie game about a badger mom protecting her babies. Although it’s a beautiful game, Shelter is fairly one-dimensional in terms of characterization. At least one player did mention experiencing feelings that many parents exhibit:
“I became angry at the larger cubs for muscling in and stealing food meant for their siblings, yet disappointed that the runts couldn’t fend for themselves properly. Sometimes I just wanted to leave them and strike out on my own, but always rushed back to protect and guide them any time I thought they might be in danger.”
(We could also mention Sophitia from Soul Calibur, but her children never show up, and since Soul Calibur is a fairly straightforward fighting game, there isn’t much story.) In fact, every other mother who comes to mind actually takes the role of the protected character (e.g., Dragon Age 2, Assassin’s Creed 2).
There are also some female characters who take on the role of protector without donning the role of mother. Lara Croft in the revamped Tomb Raider is a good example, since her motivation—beyond straightforward survival—is rescuing her friend. Faith from Mirror’s Edge is another; in this case, it is Faith’s younger sister who requires saving. It is worthwhile to mention, however, that even these examples are controversial; Ron Rosenberg, executive producer of the Tomb Raider reboot, said in an interview with Kotaku:
“When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” Rosenberg told me at E3 last week when I asked if it was difficult to develop for a female protagonist.
“They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'”
Players of Tomb Raider later questioned this assertion, as they did in fact project themselves into Lara. Her femininity was not an obstacle, it turned out—particularly for female gamers, whom Rosenberg seems to have overlooked entirely.
This uneven balance of mothers and fathers is probably largely due to the overall imbalance in game protagonists—female characters are few and far between. There is, however, also an element of controversy over what we, as a society, expect to see in a mother figure. Becky Chambers and Susana Polo from The Mary Sue discussed the “Dad and Daughter” dynamic that is appearing in video games recently, and pointed out that if the writers had switched the characters—a mother protecting a son, or even a mother protecting a daughter—the games would have felt very different. Chambers points out that we wouldn’t feel comfortable with a woman in this type of role, if only because some of the rough emotional spots the current father figures encounter wouldn’t be acceptable for a mother figure. Women are supposed to take up the mantle of motherhood automatically—we balk at the idea that they might question this role.
As an example, let’s take The Last of Us. We see Joel slowly coming to terms with his relationship to the young teenage girl Ellie, and the journey is fraught with hardships (both zombie-related and emotional). He isn’t exactly fatherly to her, and in fact yells exactly that—“You’re not my daughter, and I am sure as h*ll not your father!” (Warning: the link contains a lot of heavy language.) Joel—at least in the beginning—is cold, hard, and distant, a combination of characteristics we don’t like seeing in a mother.
If Joel had been a woman, my guess is that scene would’ve made a lot of people really uncomfortable.
The Role of Parent as Gamer
Has becoming a parent changed the way you approach gaming? There are some obvious differences—if you have young kids, it’s important to have a locking door on any room you’re playing Saints Row in, for instance—but what about the more subtle aspects of being a gamer and a parent at the same time? Has your role as protector changed? Has the way you think about the characters you’re looking after changed? And, finally, would you like to see more moms in games? I know I would.