Growing up a gamer in West Virginia, I never gave much thought to the lack of representation of women in the medium. It was simple as was my life at the time. I gamed with my family—conversations about what we were playing were rare. We played to enjoy: smiling while catching fruit in Bubble Bobble, laughing at Roger Wilco in the Space Quest series and teasing each other during rounds of Killer Instinct. There were female characters that stood out to me but I didn’t give them much thought. I cried when Aerith died and I remember thinking Chun-Li was “cool,” and that Princess Peach always looked beautiful in her pink dress as Mario rescued her level after level.
During the snowy winter of Christmas 1996, I was thirteen-years-old and received a copy of Tomb Raider I. I played it for hours, guiding a low-poly Lara Croft through 3-D tombs filled with wolves, using her signature dual pistols to defend myself. The unlimited bullets were a God-send for my younger self who was only familiar with RPGs and platformers. That winter, as the snow covered the mountains and roads outside, I played it over and over, ecstatic to break into the thin plastic of each sequel for years after.Each time I picked up that controller and helped Lara climb mountains, protect her home, and stand up to anyone that stood in her way, I realized that this was the kind of woman I wanted to be.
Each summer, I played the series in its entirety. And as the months and years of playing the fearless adventurer Lara Croft passed, I began to change. I developed a hunger to explore the world around me. I was fascinated with places far outside my rural West Virginian upbringing: villages in Africa, frozen tundras of Antarctica, the canals of Europe. As time shot forward, and as more Tomb Raider games were released, I continued playing and continued transforming. I started exercising and my love for history grew as did my confidence. In junior and senior high, when other girls were gushing about future weddings or boyfriends, I was happy with my freedom and fought for it. I wanted to be like Lara. Naturally, I was shy, a late bloomer and a homebody. But taking on the role of a woman who could take care of herself and explore the world awakened within me a desire for the same. A desire for freedom and adventure and independence.
Since the reboot, I’ve had a lot of conversations with gamers about Lara Croft. “She was over-sexualized.” “She was created to fit the male fantasy.” “She had no personality in the original games and barely has one in the reboots.”
In the original series, Lara was raised with two loving parents who died when she was very young, leaving her with money and the Croft Manor. She took these, and her grief, and developed a steel will to right the wrongs that had been done to her family. What I interpret from this “cold” character is a woman striving to find herself amidst that rubble. She owes no one optimistic smiles or a forced happy demeanor. Nor should the worth of the character be determined by her wardrobe. Female video game characters are often created to fit male fantasies, giving us either women with bathing suits for armor, enlarged physical attributes or “storylines” that emotionally torture them to cater to our culture’s white-knight-complex. Not at all far reaching from the pressures real women face, should the strengths of these female characters be demeaned because they’re at the mercy of a male dominated gaming industry?
Lara Croft gives us a character that, though sometimes fool-hardy and overly violent, displays confidence and independence that I find lacking in many other digital characters. In a culture of media that teaches women that fulfillment can’t be attained without man’s presence, the Tomb Raider franchise shows us that you don’t need testosterone to be a complete person. As a shy, nerdy girl in a rural middle school who spent her evenings gaming with her family, this was incredibly empowering. Each time I picked up that controller and helped Lara climb mountains, protect her home, and stand up to anyone that stood in her way, I realized that this was the kind of woman I wanted to be. Even in the reboot series, we are given a Lara who forges her own path, dealing with the subtle layers of doubt forged by her actions.
My hope for the series is that we’ll continue to see a more humanized version of Lara. Someone with just as many strengths, but with a view into the brokenness that exists within all of us. Tomb Raider (the 2013 reboot) gave us small glimpses of this, portraying a more human version of the butt-kicking powerhouse. But there’s always more to explore with Lara and more adventures to go on with her.
With the release of Shadow of the Tomb Raider this week, let’s hope we get to see the Lara Croft that inspired a fourteen-year-old many years ago. It’s strange to tell people that a gun-toting, British aristocrat changed your life, but for this rural West Virginian girl, I have no other way to describe what happened to me as I played Tomb Raider II for the third time one summer. Playing the fearless, independent Lara Croft transformed my perception of myself and the world around me. It revealed a world of adventure beyond the tree-lined, West Virginian road where I was raised. An adventure that has led me to where I am now: an independent, brave and grateful thirty-four-year-old woman with an iron will and a lifetime of treasure-hunting ahead.