Male Protagonist Bingo: A study in cliches [MANY IMAGES]

Over in the comments on my post about Joel from The Last of Us, I had occasion to write the following:

Secondly, I’m not saying that TLoU was badly written, or that Joel is a bad character. Far from it. But you know what? I’m so, so, so endlessly tired of the “gritty” white male action (anti)hero. With his angst! And his violence! And his moral ambiguity! And his managing-to-be-sympathetic-while-doing-terrible-things-because-he’s-doing-them-for-LOVE.


and this:

I want to see stories with characters WHO LOOK LIKE ME. I’m tired of stories, even good ones, about white men being the only options I get. And sure, I can enjoy them in the moment. But ME. ME PERSONALLY. I am TIRED of not being represented. I’m not being “superficial”. I’m being FUCKING TIRED of not seeing myself in the games I play EVER EVER EVER.

and this:

We live in a patriarchal society where the dominant narrative is that men are protagonists and women are scenery. When an entire society has been constructed to tell your story, it’s easy to say “oh well I don’t mind other stories so why are you so hung up on gender/sexuality/race/whatever” – because you have the luxury of knowing that the overwhelming majority of stories that you want to consume will still be about you.

As a woman, I don’t have that luxury. Despite that I have been playing video games for well over 2 decades, there are exactly 4 female characters in games that I have played that I would say are universally awesome and positive protagonists whom I don’t feel critical of on some level. FOUR. (Yuna, Lightning, FemShep, and Ellie, if you’re counting.) And Jesus, I’m white, cis, and straight – so I’m sure there’s shit I’m missing.

So you know what? Fuck realism. I don’t care if a female character “feels” “truthful”. If we can believe in worlds with dragons and zombies and magic and future tech, WHAT IS SO HARD about believing in a world where women can be protagonists?

This is something that has been on my mind a lot lately. Just last night I was bitching to my husband about how unbelievably DONE I am with stories about MANLY MEN PUNCHING THINGS AND BEING MANLY BECAUSE THEY’RE MEN.[1] So I decided to write a post about how unbelievably unoriginal most games protagonists are, but I didn’t know the best way to do it. I hacked away at it for a while and wound up with an outline that would have been 3000 words.

No one wants to read 3000 words. Hell, I don’t want to WRITE 3000 words.

And then I thought – bingo card! Let’s make an amusing feminist meme work for me! A picture is worth a thousand words and all that. …well, okay. Ten pictures is worth 3000 words. It’s the exchange rate.

So here is the bingo card itself. Please feel free to use it how you see fit – just please don’t crop out the credits. (Wheaton’s Law, guys. Removing attribution is a dick move.)


Then I ran ten male protagonists from major video game series against the bingo card, because why not? Including Joel, since I’d spent so much time arguing about him recently.











Yup. NO UNORIGINALITY HERE. Nope. No siree! Because this is proof that game devs are SO, SO ORIGINAL.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be crying over here in this corner.

[1] And he was like “Yup. Yup. Yes. I agree. Uh-huh.” Not to be patronizing, just because he’s heard the same rant approximately five million times. I guess I repeat myself when I get mad.

27 thoughts on “Male Protagonist Bingo: A study in cliches [MANY IMAGES]

  1. Riddick’s actually multiracial, so clear that spot. That said, he is familiar with alien killing sprees, dark humor in the face of death, and cold aloofness. And he has super furyan rage powers and is an orphan whose family was killed by Necromongers. Totally whiffed a double bingo there.

    And Altair’s not a loner. He spends his entire life as part of a religious sect and rises to the top of its ranks.

    • Thanks for the clarifications. I’ll be honest, I’ve only played two of these games, precisely because MANLY STORIES ABOUT MANLY MEN BEING MANLY are just not appealing to me. (Which is too bad because I honestly think I’d enjoy Gears’ gameplay.) I put these together by reading summaries of the games online, which isn’t the best.

  2. Just for the fun of it, I ran my favourite video game protagonist (Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII) through the bingo card. And got a bingo – second line down horizontally. Squall Leonhart (Final Fantasy VIII) misses out because he isn’t a hardened veteran (or at least, he isn’t at the start of the game – he certainly is by the end). Then, for the fun of it, I ran through Lightning Farron (Final Fantasy XIII) – a female character who is essentially a mixed expy of the previous two (she has Cloud’s face – acknowledged canon from Squeenix, who basically coded her up using their “Cloud Strife” model from Advent Children – and Leon’s personality and weapon). And behold, she wound up with a bingo on the second line down as well.

    So even some of the women wind up being manly men in disguise.

  3. “Have you ever noticed that, with a few notable exceptions, basically all male characters in video games fall into a small handful of clichés and stereotypes?”
    -Anita Sarkeesian*

    *Well, no, not really. It’s the exact quote from the pitch video of her Kickstarter, except I dropped TWO letters and BOOM, now it has become an exact thesis for this article. BRILLIANT!

    Yet for some bizarre reason, male gamers are willing to overlook all these overused tropes and buy these games in numbers that could best be described as profitable. Perhaps they tend to look past the characters and instead focus on the GAMEPLAY; because it’s not a character or a story they’re buying… it’s a game…

    • I’m sorry. Your comment is meandering and poorly written, so I’m having trouble parsing exactly how I’m being trolled here.

      I THINK you’re saying that I’m ripping ideas off of Anita Sarkeesian? Because, you know, feminists are incapable of independent original thought. IT’S TRUE! And we never have independant life experiences that cause us to reach the same conclusions. NEVER. NEVER EVER. If two feminists say the same thing, it MUST BE because one of them is STEALING IDEAS from the other. Because we’re EVIL and DUMB. CATFIGHT!!!!

      You know what I find humorous? That you’d come here, parrot just about every troll I’ve ever had (“Anita Sarkeesian crazypants blah blah profits blah blah gameplay blah blah just a game blah blah blah”), and then accuse *me* of unoriginality. LOL. Thanks for playing.

      • I’m at a bit of a loss here. I’m reading your reply, re-reading my comment, and I honestly cannot figure out why you would interpret this as trolling, or any of the other stuff you accuse me of. At no point do I say you’re ripping of Anita (but I can accuse Anita of ripping off other people).

        What I’m saying is that the article points out a bunch of commonly used stereotypes for male characters in video games, which is a fair point, and one I completely agree with. I thought this was funny, because the spirit of it matched the opening line from Anita’s pitch video, but only if you replace female with male.

        But while female stereotypes are cause enough to start a video campaign, male gamers can look at male stereotypes and simply go ‘meh’. They just do not care. If the main protagonist is a violent loner who regularly goes on killing sprees, it’s because physical combat has a rule-set that’s incredibly easy to translate into an entertaining computer simulation. That sort of character fits into that role quite easily. Characters and stories serve gameplay.

        • That’s what I get for not reading charitably. I apologize. It’s so easy to misinterpret things when all you have is words on a screen. I had a pretty cripplingly disappointing thing happen in my meatspace life and was reading from a pretty toxic place. So yeah, sorry.

  4. ,,No one wants to read 3000 words. Hell, I don’t want to WRITE 3000 words.”

    I read every Pact chapter as it comes out. So that is somewhere between 5-10 000 words each chapter 2-3 times a week. So yes wundergeek I would like to read a post written by you that goes over 3000 words. If you ever decide that there is a topic you would like to cover with that many words I will happily read your post on it.

    That said I honestly don’t care how many words a post of yours will have, all I care is that the post itself is interesting to me. And if it happens to be a post that does not interest me I will just skip reading that one and wait for the next one whenever it comes out.

  5. My favorite video game character gets almost no hits on the board.

    Lee from The Walking Dead.

    Psychological problems
    Scowls a lot. <- kinda a stretch.

    Good game!

    Didn't know about lightning being a mashup girl wow.

  6. Batman is not an anti-hero. The Punisher is an Anti-Hero… “The antihero or antiheroine is a leading character in a film, book or play who lacks the traditional heroic qualities such as idealism (batman’s no killing clause, the hope of cleaning up gotham), courage (fights insurmountable odds on a regular basis) ,nobility(again, no-killing clause), fortitude (he’s batman), moral goodness (no killing), and altruism (protects people and never asks for anything from them).”

    • It depends on which version of Batman you’re talking about. The more recent “darker” Batmans I would argue are totally anti-heroes. They’re angry and grimdark! And they go around BEATING THE SHIT OUT OF criminals. So not killing people still doesn’t give grimdark-Batman the moral high ground. However, I will acknowledge that Batman does have certain heroic qualities as well. Ultimately, this was an opinion on my part.

      • No. Being a dark hero is not being an antihero. Batman is not an antihero. Not even Dark Knight version. Just because he beat up a handful of criminals to stop whatever crime they are commiting, doesn’t mean anything. That’s like say the police are antiheroes for ever having to stun or incapacitate anyone ever. Catwoman, maybe, because she isn’t doing good deeds for any reason other than she likes Batman and that’s what he would want her to do. Like Cerebo points out, Punisher would be an antihero because he kills purely out of rage and vengeance, regardless of the mess it causes. He doesn’t have courage, he’s not overly worried about dying. He is apathetic to nearly everything around him, he’s unlikable. That is an antihero.

        • Look, I’m not going to get bogged down in arguing about ONE square for ONE character, because that would be entirely missing the point.

          I’m perfectly happy to concede that Batman’s anti-hero status depends on which version of Batman you’re looking at, as well as your viewpoint. However, there’s a lot of good reasons why I am correct that a good number of Batmans would count as an anti-hero. Just Google “Batman is an antihero” for some good pieces taking a look at just that.

  7. I don’t know when/where/why – but I am using that card at some point this week. Holy shit it’s fantastic. If I can’t think of anything else to do, I’m at least printing it out and putting it on my wall as a “what not to do” inspiration poster.

    I think it would be interesting to run some female characters through this as well – specifically female characters that have been modeled after male characters. For instance, the heroine of Heavenly Sword is basically a Kratos knock-off, and the original Lara Croft would be an interesting character to run through as well.

    I’m also interested in what male characters don’t fit this model. I chonestly can’t come up with any off the top of my head, and that’s plain sad.

    • Thanks! I love bingo cards – they’re fantastic rhetorical tools. I’m glad you liked the one I put together. 🙂

      And yeah, it’s sad that most male characters tend to get so pidgeon-holed. It gets pretty boring after a while.

  8. Let me ask you this question: What is a perfect male protagonist for you? Who would you consider a figure that doesn’t follow the cliché character values?

    • Completely off the cuff? Uhhh. Okay. Some things that would be really exciting for me would be: A male character who…

      …isn’t white, or who doesn’t pass for white at first glance.
      …freely expresses emotions other than anger
      …cries, and isn’t ashamed of crying, and no one rags on him for it
      …is short, fat, or disabled (maybe all three!)
      …isn’t traditionally masculine, or is gender-nonconforming, or is gender-fluid, or non-binary
      …isn’t heterosexual
      …isn’t motivated by the death of a female human
      …doesn’t have a romance with anyone
      …has a non-heterosexual romance where everything is fine and the game ends with them together, happy, and alive
      …doesn’t solve problems with violence

      I know some of those are mutually exclusive. I’m just spit-balling things I can’t remember seeing and/or would like to see more of. (In fairness, Tidus cries, like, A LOT.)

      • Blood hell, I can finally take the time to comment on this. Go on then:

        Right, I understand your stance, and I must admit, it would be nice to see these character traits in future games but there are some protagonists and examples that do have these features.

        …isn’t white, or who doesn’t pass for white at first glance.

        The GTA series, for example are not always exclusive to white protagonists. CJ and Franklin are Afro Americans, Huang Lee is Asian and Luis is Dominican-American. There are also many other games that have non-white characters (Prototype 2, Crackdown, Just Cause).
        Hell, I can even go further and say that Skyrim or all the games of The Elder Scroll series have one of the most diverse characters in the gaming universe.

        …freely expresses emotions other than anger

        Technically not a main protagonist but Sazh from Final Fantasy XIII does follows this example. Unfortunately, I don’t know any other games at the moment, or that I can recall of, that has an emotional protagonist but I’m sure there are a few.

        …is short, fat, or disabled (maybe all three!)

        I’d take Leisure Suit Larry for this one. Sure, he’s sexist, a wannabe womanizer and a loser but I can say he is short and at some point fat. He doesn’t fit the archetype of a hero and that’s what I like about him. Hell, even Mario is short and fat and one the most beloved video game characters ever. As with someone being disabled, that’s someone difficult. You not only have to make him have to overcome his issues but also not ridicule him so that he come across as a real protagonist. And trying to bring this into modern games is a bit tricky.

        …isn’t heterosexual

        Ha! Good luck on that one, and I’ll explain that to you in your last statement.

        …isn’t motivated by the death of a female human

        It does seem like a cliche that the majority of these heroes are motivated by revenge. Kratos and Max Payne do set some examples. I would however like to take Alex Mercer from Prototype because he is more likely interested in his own vendetta. Also, let’s say if a male protagonist did lose his loved one, what should he do? Sit down at home, drink a cup of tea and forget about it. That would be interesting …

        …has a non-heterosexual romance where everything is fine and the game ends with them together, happy, and alive

        Yeah, because like I mentioned earlier, that’s unlikely to happen in AAA games or mainstream games due to the fact that this topic is still a taboo in society, especially in America and countries that see homosexuality as an abomination (don’t you just love the bible). Sure, not all people are narrow minded and frankly, I’d be interested in a homosexual protagonist who saves the world and meets his true love. But the truth is, the majority of gamers still live in the world of straight romance and aren’t comfortable with the idea that their hero who just saved the world from an alien invasion is interested in cocks. I’m not sure but I think you can follow a same gender relationship in Mass Effect, although I must admit, I went with the classical romance.

        …doesn’t solve problems with violence

        That’s a problem. The majority of video game heroes always resort to violence either in a way of defending themselves.
        But I can name you one game where you actually don’t have to commit violence or any other task which requires to shed blood: Dishonored.
        In fact, it’s the only game I know where if you want a really good ending, you must not kill or harm any one at all. You can expose your main targets by talking with them and making them vanish in a non lethal way. That’s of the few games that makes you act in a good way. However, it has one of the most blandest protagonists I’ve ever come across, so that’s a minus.

        You have to excuse me if I didn’t answer to all your points (not that I had to) but I would like to see a character that’s not pumped with muscles and adrenaline and is emotional. It does get boring over time.

  9. It looks to me like you’ve specifically chosen characters that get a high score on your bingo sheet.
    A lot of the most popular male video game protagonists of all time get very low scores by your rubric:

    Mario (score: 2)
    – White
    – Killing spree (non-human)

    Link (score: 2)
    – Criminal (sometimes, to the extent that Robin Hood is a criminal)
    – Killing spree (non-human)

    Ryu (Street Fighter series; score: 4)
    – Biceps as big as your thighs
    – Anti-hero
    – Makes a living being violent
    – Brooding

    TMNT (score: 1)
    – Bald

    Megaman (score: 2)
    – Killing spree (if destroying robots can be considered “killing”)
    – White (not human, but has white skin)

    Donkey Kong (score: 1)
    – Biceps as big as your thighs

    Kirby (score: 3)
    – Bald
    – Killing spree (non-human)
    – Supernatural powers

    Sonic (score: 2)
    – Supernatural powers
    – Killing spree (robots)

    • But the thing is, you’re comparing apples and sledgehammers here. The whole point of making this bingo card is that the stories that are told about male characters are incredibly constricted – so that the only stories about men we see are a very narrowly defined sort of man.

      With the exception of the more recent titles in the Zelda series, all of these characters are from old-school-platformers and there is no real story involved other than get the MacGuffin(s) and kill the villain. (I’m not counting the weird-ass Mario RPG for the GBA, here.)

      • You didn’t really qualify in your article which type of characters were eligible for consideration here, so you’ll have to excuse my confusion.

        I still have to disagree to some degree. Link has had considerable character development ever since Ocarina of Time (>15 years ago). And while it doesn’t come out all that much in the games, Ryu and the TMNT characters have considerable backstories as well. As for Megaman, the ending to his second installment can tell you everything you need to know about him.

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