American women are now allowed in combat the real world. When will games catch up?

It’s breaking news today – Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has announced an end to the policy that officially bans women from combat, on the heels of a lawsuit brought by the ACLU. It’s a pretty major victory for gender equality in America – especially considering the reality that women are actively serving in combat already (and fighting, dying, and even earning combat-specific honors like the purple heart), without getting official recognition for their service.

So, now that women in the real-life military can officially serve in combat – and be allowed into positions that were previously only open to men – will the videogame world finally catch up?

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Sure, there are female soldiers in Halo (Reach’s Kat, and the ability to play Noble 6 as a woman) and Gears of War (GOW 3’s Byrne, Valera and Bernie), and that’s fantastic, but those games are all set in space-futures where real-world politics are conveniently located centuries away. There is an occasional female pilot or support officer in several modern military shooters, but for the overwhelming majority, those games are infamous sausage-fests. That goes doubly so for the characters who are actually doing the shooting and killing.

It’s a wider cultural problem, for sure – most military films, for example, are almost entirely devoid of female soldiers engaging in real combat. And recruiting materials for real-life service branches typically don’t feature women with massive guns running around. The image of a woman in a military uniform isn’t striking anymore, in fact, it’s almost commonplace, but she’s almost never actually holding a gun. Women can be seen as capable equals in the technical or support fields, but on the battlefield – no way.

Women can be seen as capable equals in the technical or support fields, but on the battlefield – no way.

Thankfully, some of the cultural queasiness surrounding the issue is beginning to come loose – after all, the ban wouldn’t have been lifted otherwise. She isn’t a soldier like the protagonist of The Hurt Locker, but Jessica Chastain’s intense badass running the operation at the end of Zero Dark Thirty goes a long way towards dispelling the idea that a small, slight woman can hold her own in a brutal military situation.

This all comes at an interesting point, as we examine the place of violence in games, particularly violence portrayed against women. So perhaps it’s time to even the playing field.

It’s time, I think, for a female hero on par with Master Chief or Marcus Fenix. For a woman to be the star of the show in what has always been a badass, traditionally masculine role. If there’s anything I’ve learned during the course of this lawsuit, it’s that there are real, actual women out there filling these roles – shooting the bad guys, rescuing the good guys, and making it look easy. So where are their games?

Quick disclosure – I’m a staff member at the ACLU.