The issue of stereotypes is one that admittedly, I usually try & avoid, as I find it can often be a sticky subject that someone almost always finds something to take offence with. But sometimes that not enough of a reason to stay away so here goes…
The idea of stereotypes is hardly a new one. People have always held opinions on what certain things should be, often without any real knowledge to back it up. One example from the past being the idea that women were (or should be) ditzy airheads with minimal IQs who were happy to spend the day cooking & cleaning for ‘their man’ & gossiping with the neighbours. Now, although there has been very little evidence against the latter part of that particular stereotype, we’ve long since learned that women are not stupid or happy to become housewives-by-default. Another example culturally within modern society is the perception of the French, often referred to by the English as ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ which is … well, maybe that’s not the best example of a false stereotype. Better move on…
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that stereotypes are present everywhere. Even in (if you didn’t see the topic heading this way, be ashamed) videogames. One of the biggest examples of this that comes to mind is the Legend of Zelda series. Generally viewed as a ‘hero-out-to-save-the-helpless-princess’ type of game, few people that don’t play the games themselves seem to notice that Zelda seems actually pretty good at taking care of herself in virtually all of them.
Generally stereotypes can be seen in most characters; main heroes are usually men who are either brimming with far too much testosterone, & heroines are usually either a walking pair of breasts and/or something you have to save so the game can reward you with a romance scene. Thankfully though, this seems to be happening less & less these days.
Many people who complain about these stereotypes also tend to use bad examples unfortunately. People often accuse Gears of War for being very stereotypical in its content; saying it’s all about a group of overly hormone jocks, grunting & shooting their way through monsters with lots of guns & explosions. However, these same people don’t pay attention to the fact that many of the main characters are a lot more complex & emotionally involved than people seem to realize, in a story that’s more about brotherhood & camaraderie than blood & gunfights. It should also be pointed out that perhaps the two most gung ho & aggressive characters in the Gears series are Bernie, who’s a 60 year old woman & a crack sniper, & Sam, who’s a woman who likes to kick the crap out of men just to prove she can. So not exactly princesses in need of rescuing.
Most issues regarding stereotypes, & particularly those that raise complaints, within games tend to be about women though. Admittedly it’s rare to find heroines & major other major female characters that aren’t beautiful & buxom, but in most of the cases out there now, most of those women can kick the crap out of the men, so I personally don’t see the fuss.
One big thing that gets to me & to virtually everyone I asked on the GameFAQs forums (at least those who weren’t being idiots when they answered my questions & took it seriously), is that without adhering to at least some of these stereotypes, these games would have none of the success they enjoy. People want to play heroic men & beautiful women, because the games are not reality. That’s generally the point! People don’t want dull or unappealing characters in the games they play, & the games that do have such characters; well you usually find they’re the character that always gets left out of the party.
The issue I personally think needs to be addressed overall is not whether stereotypes exist, because they obviously do; & it’s not whether they’re a problem, because usually (although admittedly not always) they aren’t. The issue should be how they are used. In the right circumstance stereotypes are fantastic guidelines onto what people want. People who play Zelda want to be play the hero; people who play Dead or Alive want to play as the kickass-hot-chick (On that point actually, I don’t get the issue people have with that either. Sure the women in DoA are all gorgeous, but they also tend to kick the crap out of all the guys too, so why do people complain about it being sexist?); & people who play Knights of the Old Republic want to be able to have a Lightsaber.
At the end of the day, stereotypes are not the things of evil many people ascribe them to be. Some are; but only a few. Many are in fact guidelines to what customers want in their entertainment; & it is that which many designers use in order to create their games. Stereotypes help designers plan their games to a degree that by the time they start doing market research, they already know what direction they’re aiming in.
All in all I think stereotypes are important things, especially to those of us that want to design games, & we should give them the respect & attention they deserve; provided we’re smart enough to use our judgement on which ones to follow or not.