Women in Combat Roles: Who Knew Video Games Were So Progressive?

When the Pentagon announced this week that the U.S. military will allow women to fight on the front lines within a few years, I was taken aback – but not because I have any problem with the policy change.

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

When the Pentagon announced this week that the U.S. military will allow women to fight on the front lines within a few years, I was taken aback – but not because I have any problem with the policy change. To be honest, I just didn’t realize the military had a rule against women in combat roles to begin with.

It’s probably because I spend too much time soaking up technology news, and not enough time reading about everything else. But maybe some of my dumbfoundedness comes from the fact that I play video games. In the virtual warzones of my favorite hobby, it’s totally normal for men and women to fight alongside one another.

One of my favorite games of 2012 was XCom: Enemy Unknown, in which you command a small squad of super soldiers in a fight against alien invaders. The rank and file of your paramilitary group hail from both sexes, and on the battlefield, there’s no tactical difference between them. A female soldier can aim a sniper rifle or launch a rocket just as capably as any male squaddie. She’s entitled to the same promotions as well, and can rise through the ranks just as quickly.

XCom is somewhat of an ideal example, but it’s not the only one. In the Mass Effect series, your protagonist can be male or female, and so can the characters who head into battle with you. In Halo 4, your Spartan soldier can be either gender with exactly the same abilities. Gears of War 3 added female squad members to the mix, where previous games had relegated them to support roles away from the action.

The funny thing is that video games aren’t known for treating women fairly. A lot of times, women serve primarily as eye candy, or damsels in distress, or just glorified secretaries for men doing the real work. That’s assuming there are any women in the game at all. (And of course, not all war games include women. The Call of Duty series, for instance, is almost entirely bereft of them.)

When games actually do put women on the battlefield, all those cheap stereotypes fade away. That’s largely because of mechanics. Players, given the choice between a man or woman, don’t want to be penalized for choosing one or the other. Besides, creating separate sets of rules for each gender makes for a messier game.

But I like to think there’s a message implicit in the mechanics: The women in these games have proven themselves to be just as capable as their male counterparts. They don’t need special treatment, and no one second-guesses their right to be on the front lines. When the squad is in danger, all that really matters are the skills and abilities of the soldier. I think that’s a pretty good way to view things.

It’s no surprise that people who support women in combat are making the exact same argument out in the real world.

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