Thursday, June 29, 2006
In the video game Tomb Raider, Lara Croft is a blend of Indiana Jones and Victoria’s Secret. As she runs through the catacombs, her spectacular chest heaves and her behind wiggles. In quiet moments between action sequences, she stretches and arches her back, to get the kinks out. Ahem.
She’s a piece of cheesecake, all right. And this is the prevailing wisdom about why young men so loved Tomb Raider when it debuted in 1996. Teenage boys like to ogle hot women; Tomb Raider allowed them to drool over Croft for hours on end. This also explains the subsequent explosion of games with hot-chick characters, from Bloodrayne to the Dead or Alive vixens. Once again, the basest urges of young men had coarsened society—right?
I beg to differ. I think young boy gamers loved Lara for reasons that were considerably stranger. They weren’t just ogling her: They were identifying with her. Playing the role of a hot, sexy woman in peril was, unexpectedly, a totally electric experience for young guys.
I’m basing this argument on a famous piece of film theory: the “Final Girl” concept of slasher movies. The Final Girl theory emerged in 1985, when Carol Clover—a medievalist and feminist film critic—was dared by a friend to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Back then, most feminist theorists loathed slasher films, and regarded them as classic examples of male misogyny. It wasn’t hard to figure out why: Thousands of young men were trooping into theaters to cheer wildly as masked psychos hacked apart screaming young women.
But as Clover sat in the theaters, she noticed something curious. Sure, the young men would laugh and cheer as the villain hunted down his female prey. But eventually the movie would whittle down the victims to one last terrified woman—the Final Girl, as Clover called her. Suddenly, the young men in the audience would switch their allegiance—and begin cheering for the Final Girl.
This, Clover argued, was not garden-variety sexism. On the contrary, it was a generation of young guys who apparently identified strongly with the situation of a woman who faced agonizing peril yet came out victorious. They weren’t just ogling the sexual violence. They were submitting to it.
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Clover’s idea maps perfectly onto the success of Tomb Raider. As with the slasher flicks, there’s a Final Girl dynamic: a constantly threatened woman, fighting for her very survival, attacking goons on every side. Playing as Croft was an emotionally catalytic experience. Young guys had played tons of male characters before. But being Lara was different.
“I feel like I’m sort of in charge of protecting her—which is to say, protecting me,” as one gamer told me back then. “It’s really unusual.” Of course, in today’s gaming world, the idea that young men secretly crave to be hot, imperiled virtual women doesn’t seem as unusual as it might have in 1998. After all, half the women in online worlds are played by young guys who’ve actively chosen their virtual gender.
I’m not suggesting a good part of Croft’s allure is not, in fact, straightforward titillation. And it’s also true that being Lara—or any other curvy avatar—is undoubtedly a whole different experience for women gamers.
But the next time you see prepubescent boys playing Legend on the demo machines at Wal-Mart, take a closer look at their glazed expressions of concentration. There’s more going on there than meets the eye.
CLIVE THOMPSON is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. In 2002, he was a Knight Science-Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.