Dreams of Being/Killing Lara Croft: Exploring Agency and Gender in Tomb Raider

Curator's Note

While designing the character of Lara Croft, Toby Gard envisions her as a ‘very strong’ protagonist modelled on ‘Clint Eastwood-style heroes’. In spite of these masculine traits however, Gard assumes that her female body evokes a sense of protection. On the other hand, a sense of control characterises the experiences of others, providing players with the desire to kill her (the ‘god complex’). Is it correct to assume that male players cannot identify with a female avatar and thus are forced to assume agency over her by either protecting or killing her?

The game is constructed to facilitate both these urges, as gameplay is built upon a series threatening obstacles, several with their own unique animations, fetishising her death. Considering that protecting her life or causing her harm are the only available options, the question then becomes one of character and player agency. The fragility of Lara -regardless of her gender- still recognises a degree of agency on her part, as an emotional reaction in the player can only occur in response to her danger. By actively seeking her death however, players assume full control.

Our own experiences playing Tomb Raider differ from Gard’s assumptions:

Playing as a young girl, not identifying with the character made Lara’s death a form of entertainment, with the environment serving as a morbid playground. Returning to the game in adulthood, this sense of fun is replaced by a fear for her/my life. As a 7-year-old boy, Lara’s uncompromising character within a female body, evoked a strong urge to embody her both physically and mentally. This caused great distress upon the realisation that our bodies’ discrepancies prevented me from becoming her. Playing today, the urge to protect Lara, or other - gendered or ungendered - characters, has replaced the urge to become the figure.

To what extent then are Gard’s assumptions valid concerning gender and its importance in colouring gamers’ perceptions of the avatar?

 

Comments

Linzi Juliano's picture

Violence and Protection

Hi Agnes and Alex,

Thanks for this insightful post! I think you’ve highlighted some important points regarding gender, affect, and control. I agree it’s clear that this game has really expanded upon Lara’s gory death sequences; it almost begs gamers to “explore” the various ways they can deliver her to her demise. It becomes a very gendered (and sexualized) form of necropolitics and performance.

My tentative response to your first question would have to be “maybe, but not necessarily.” I think that the game presents a kill/protect dichotomy, while gamers participate within those boundaries.

Part of my fascination with the Tomb Raider franchise remains that Lara was promoted to draw in the “girl gamer” demographic. But how does this reiterative avatar torture reflect female gamers, or males who can empathize with females? I’m thinking that it doesn’t, at least not in this regard; the change lends more perspective on design structures than on gamers (a varied demographic, as demonstrated here, that stretches well beyond unsympathetic males).

Side-stepping: I think you raise a really fascinating point about the possible transition from “becoming” to “protecting.” That is something I’m going to have to mull over!

Greetings, many thanks, and I’m looking forward to this week!

Mia Consalvo's picture

Protecting Avatars

Hi there,

I think the question about protecting avatars is an interesting one and also one that is fraught with gender assumptions right off the bat. I was immediately associating the idea that Lara needs to be ‘protected’ with a discourse that places the player in a parental or almost maternal (or maybe paternal) role and the avatar in a weak or passive role. Yet does Nathan Drake in Uncharted need to be protected? We need to keep him alive, certainly, and so protected to some degree. We just don’t often conceptualize it like that with male avatars.

Likewise, in work I’ve done on games with virtual pets as avatars, the rhetoric of protecting them seems more fitting. Pets accept protection less problematically.

I think this points to a more challenging question- there are many more things going on in gameplay than simply ‘identifying’ with one’s avatar; and we need more theorization in this area. Thanks for the interesting prompt!

Matthew Thomas Payne's picture

Protecting vs. Projecting

Greetings All:

Thanks for the initial thought-provoking post and for the subsequent comments; this promises to be an exciting IMR series.

This discussion about protecting Lara reminds me of the indie game darling LIMBO where one plays as a little boy who must traverse treacherous stages to locate his missing sister. Perhaps my memory is failing me, but I don’t recall the discourse around LIMBO invoking the same kind of protectionism despite the avatar’s young age and his numerous grisly ends (for a death montage, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7z60YyuJsk) . Surely part of this difference is owed to the game’s monochromatic presentation and abstracted landscape. LIMBO’s expressionistic art design calls into question the boy’s material existence in a way that TOMB RAIDER’s photorealism does not. Yet, as others are suggesting, we also don’t protect that nameless boy, or Nathan Drake, or Mario, or Sonic, etc. Why then does Lara need protecting? Is the thought of a female action hero so hard to stomach that we have to find ways of disemboweling her? Is that why her agency needs to be punished so graphically? Following up on Mia’s point, might “protecting” one’s avatar foreclose identifying as that character? Or, phrased differently, does protecting Lara get in the way of projecting one’s self as Lara?

The issue of gender and violence — and, indeed, gendered violence — is a topic that I’m sure we’ll return to throughout the week.

Robin Haislett's picture

Continued Protection

Hello everyone,

Within this reboot, what I find most interesting is that the writers consistently put out calls to the player within the dialog of the game to keep this idea of protection alive. As I am nearing completion of the game’s story mode, there have been multiple instances where Lara will say something akin to “What am I doing?” and the constant reiterations of how scared she is, coupled with the gasps of terror, does little to empower her character.

When I watched some of the videos for the PR promotion of the game (the one running on Xbox Live Homescreen the month before launch), it featured an interview with Camilla Luddington with motion capture scenes of the attempted rape. Luddington says she was surprised at the character she was performing and that “When I got this role, at first, I did not know that I would be crying so much; I thought I would be kicking butt. That was the Lara I thought I had gotten myself into” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=lXD6VRSrUxQ#! - around 5:03).

What is odd while playing, at least from my perspective, is this constant vacillation between my feeling confident in my abilities through Lara to complete the goals given, and the uncertainty of if she is even a capable vehicle to perform these actions. I may be playing her as the unrelenting Lara of the past, but having her cry over radios and beg to be rescued before taking matters into her own capable but uncertain hands definitely makes me see her as someone who has all the ability but needs the player’s confidence in manipulating those abilities.

I will say that it has been refreshing to see a character react in a more grounded manner to the kinds of trauma she faces, but I still wonder what would happen to the dialog if Lara traded her character’s appearance for Nathan Drake’s?

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