The Roles of Women in Video Games

I was quite proud of writing this article, to be honest. It’s not that it particularly amazes, but it’s nice to be able to write about something of social significance. It was a feature on and drew some interesting and intelligent comments… alongside misogynistic idiocy. I’ve removed the pictures and silly captions, as it was really intended as a serious piece.

March 8 marks International Women’s Day, so what better time to discuss the role of females in video gaming? Unfortunately, females in video games are better known for their bodies than anything else and at times the version of ‘femininity’ games offer is borderline offensive. Female characters in gaming are mostly notable for one of two prominent roles – firstly, that of the damsel in distress and secondly, as sexual object. Often they are depicted as both. The stereotypical portrayal of females proliferates mainstream media, and gaming is probably the worst offender.

Rescuing the girl has been a video game staple for almost as long as games have existed. From Mario to Double Dragon to Legend of Zelda, a girl is in trouble somewhere. This is innocent enough on the surface, to be fair. Mario’s Princess has appeared in games of her own and was a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2. Nintendo have always been willing to innovate in this area, with Zelda becoming an ally, rather than a victim, as the series progressed. Other games were not so progressive. The side scrolling fighter was one of the worst offenders, with almost every game of that type based around men fighting through hordes of enemies to rescue a whimpering, scantily clad, usually blonde, female character.

In Final Fight CD the opening scene sees hero Haggar’s girlfriend kidnapped. The leader of the gang who abducted her calls Haggar and shows him a video of her – scantily clad and gently moaning. This is typical of a game which assumes its audience is entirely male, a clarion call to the primitive ‘protector’ mindset. In showing a scantily clad female, we assume the role of defender of beauty, rather than of the person in question. The lack of characterisation makes the female purely a sexual object and the focus of the plot then, is to be stronger physically than her tormentors, to prove one’s worth to a fantasy through victory in combat. This relegates women to the status of simple possessions, to be earned through displays of power, thus negating any intelligence or subtlety they may possess.

Of course, these are but early examples of simple games. There is certainly a case to be made that the above is far too serious a viewpoint. There are however, far more offensive portrayals of females in gaming. Duke Nukem Forever is to be released soon, a throwback to a game that goes out of its way to show us that women are objects of sexual desire. Duke, the lead character, spends some of his time ogling strippers and making lewd remarks. Again though, Duke Nukem is almost inoffensive due to its incredible silliness. Whether intentional or not, the game is completely ridiculous, and any complaints about the representation of females, while understandable, is ultimately pointless.

Far more dangerous was one Lara Croft. While some would say she was a role model, due to her independence and adventurousness, the promotion of Tomb Raider over the years suggests different. Many models have dressed up as Lara, and she has always been more known for her ample curves than her exploration of remote locations. She is designed, quite simply, as an ideal female form. She lacks any real personality, and it is more than obvious that Lara was a marketing tactic, a way to make advertising, box art and the like more appealing to male gamers. The very fact that her look has been ‘toned down’ to be more realistic is indication that she was never intended to appeal to women. Though her latest redesign is certainly a step in the right direction, calling Lara Croft a ‘role model’ is rather absurd.

At least Lara’s creators did enough that some can claim Lara might be a positive female role model, Team Ninja, creators of the Dead or Alive series, have no such pretensions. In Dead or Alive it is possible to adjust the size of ‘physically realistic’ (read: ridiculously jiggling) breasts. There are male characters, yes, but they don’t have unlockable schoolgirl costumes and bikinis. Fighting games in general follow this trend, though Dead or Alive is by far the worst. Team Ninja have even created a spin-off beach volleyball series, which is little more than a series of minigames involving bikini-clad girls on the beach. The fact that these games exist is a savage indictment of the state of the games industry, and while it is true that such exploitative entertainment exists elsewhere, it doesn’t seem to gain the recognition that the male-dominated gaming world offers. Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball gained a metacritic score of 72, the Dead or Alive movie, which at least had some semblance of plot, gained only 38.

God of War is even more chauvinistic than Dead or Alive, a startlingly vulgar game which is considered a classic. The gameplay is decent of course, but surely that alone isn’t enough to make a successful product. It probably helps God of War that it is pornographic in content sadly, both in its violence and its portrayal of sex. From the absurdly muscular and overly aggressive hero, Kratos, to the ridiculous and pathetic women he encounters, God of War is an ode to the male id, without a hint of irony. After dismembering most of his foes, Kratos is routinely begged for sex, resulting in a pointless minigame. God of War 3 had Aphrodite begging Kratos to sleep with her, asking ‘Do you know how long it’s been since a real man entered my chambers?’ Kratos is far from a real man, he’s an adolescent fantasy. The fact that a bare-chested Aphrodite pushes away two women who were fondling her to offer herself to Kratos is bizarre. To think that this seemed a reasonable representation of sexuality and gender relations to anyone, let alone to the well-educated group of adults who created it, is bemusing.

The gaming industry is made up of almost exclusively male developers and it shows. The fact that ‘Rapelay’ – a game with the basic premise of raping women – exists, is somewhat disturbing, but in some ways, it sheds some light on the effect of an industry of males making products for males. There has been a small, but vocal outcry about Rapelay (from those who even know it exists) from a group of people who are willing to defend their right to play games in which they beat people to death with a baseball bat. There is a certain irony at play here. It seems we’re perfectly happy to murder and maim, but if a female is in peril its all hands on deck to rescue her. Of course, Rapelay is deeply disturbing, but the difference in reaction to it compared to other violent games from gamers only serves to highlight the fact that games which portray females in such a simplistic manner, lead to a simplistic view of females.

I’ll be the first to defend the creators of the above games were anyone to suggest censorship (except in the case of rapelay) particularly since games are seen as this generations ‘video nasties’ by many observers. If sex in games was to be censored it would cease to be something the medium could explore intelligently. This doesn’t mean that I like being subjected to such stupidity. Games, as David Cage suggested at GDC, should be more mature and this includes their portrayal of females. The industry also questions why there are so much less female gamers than male. Well why would there be more females playing games? Why would I, as a man, want to play a game in which I’m a woman who buys shoes in order to save a shirtless doctor? These are the kind of ill-informed and offensive stereotypes faced by women who pick up a videogame, a muscle-bound idiot beating or shooting his way to the rescue of a brain-dead, buxom female.

There are some shining examples of female characters in games who are intelligent, independent and strong, rather than a 14-year-olds daydream. Charles Cecil started well with Beneath a Steel Sky, in which an early encounter sees an erudite female NPC dismiss her supervisor’s sexism. Broken Sword saw him create Nico Collard, a sarcastic, intelligent and appealing counterpart to main character George Stobbart. She doesn’t need to be rescued, she’s not a sex object, she’s an ally. More than that, she’s an important part of the story, without whom George would never solve the mystery he investigates. The game even turns convention on its head, when she rescues George in the final moments of the game.

Adventure games have a habit of portraying women in a positive manner. The Longest Journey featured a female in the lead role. April Ryan is a university student who deals with the kind of problems a woman of her age does in reality, as well as becoming a hero in a fantasy world. She is the kind of character that should be the norm in gaming, thoroughly relatable to both male and female players, her personality rooted in reality, and her reactions to the fantastic events which surround her thoroughly believable. She’s a young person with a job she hates, dreaming of a better world and better life. What mature gamer would fail to relate to that? Mirror’s Edge also showcases strong female characters. Faith, the main character is strong and fit, but not overtly sexual. She is fiercely independent and intelligent, and as in Broken Sword, conventions are challenged by a female rescuing a female. Faith’s sister is framed for murder, and the game reveals enough details of the relationship between the two, including a surprisingly touching moment in which they hug, that their story is compelling to a male, as well as female audience.

Similarly, Samus Aran is a female character that many didn’t realise were female at first. The Metroid series made the character of Samus somewhat gender neutral, and certainly playing as a strong female character hasn’t appeared to put men off the game. It’s a pity then,  that the series was handed to Team Ninja, the creators of Dead or Alive, and Samus became a pitiful shell of a woman, failing utterly in attempts to do anything herself and eventually needing a man. A lot like Sex and the City’s characters, then. Jade from beyond good and Evil again, is a character who achieves her goals and becomes the hero through her intelligence and will. This is the kind of character who is relatable, not some fantasy, whether man or woman. Kratos is as insulting to men as Lara Croft is to women.

The problem with most female characters is that they are defined not by their actions, but by their gender. Females can’t be the hero, they are there to be rescued, to titillate, or both. This simplistic view is not only old-fashioned, it’s thoroughly immature. Adults play games, women play games, and yet it’s rare that games offer characters who are anything but a teenage boy’s wet dream. It’s not so bad for males, as there are a decent number of characters who don’t follow this simplistic formula, but women have very few characters to look up to or feel they can relate to and this is truly a shame. One wonders if many more women would be gamers, had their gender not been represented so poorly in the medium.

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