The Role of Women in Video Games

 

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.

At least she's not always in distress

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.

The N64 version added tassels. Very tasteful.

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.

Standard beach volleyball gear, of course

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.

This is the least offensive Rapelay screen I could find

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.

Nico is willing and able to go it alone

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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About the Author

James Keating

James began playing games at an early age with the Amstrad 464. He started writing soon after, and is yet to better the stories he wrote as a dinosaur-obsessed 8 year old. He still plays games, with varying degrees of success, on the PS3, PC, Wii and a plethora of retro consoles.


9 Comments


  1.  
    Fa

    So you completely ignore that God of War has strong females that are not sex objects like Athena and Gia. If fact both save Kratos at one time or another.




  2.  
    papapa

    Great article……although I don’t agree with some points.
    It’d be interesting to see what you think of Bayonetta.




  3.  

    Dude, the first part of this article…do you know how many women have been kidnapped in history to make the important person come out? All so their enemy can bust they head wide open.

    Politicians’ families kidnapped to sway interests. Why does the mere fact of saving a kidnapped woman have to determine the fact that I’m treating her as a sole object.

    The hero could’ve easily said, “F*** that b****! I’ll get another one!” if it was like that.

    If you remember in Double Dragon 2, Billy goes out to take revenge on the Shadow Master for killing Marian in the previous game. That’s right, she starts out DEAD. At the end when all hope is lost, she is somehow revived and Billy sheds a tear.

    She wasn’t objectified there. He didn’t have to fight no more, she was already dead.

    Men are always shown taking women out of harm’s way in these games. But, look at the reverse now. Whenever there are female protagonists they are usually shown in some form or fashion emasculating a man to an extreme.

    Why aren’t there any games of a woman fighting the world to save her boy friend? Well, there is one that isn’t obvious but think Sheva Alomar from RE5 is one those.

    She has Josh on her mind through most of the game. Acknowledges him as an important figure in her life at one point even.

    But my point is, I don’t go and save the princess because she’s going to be my trophy at the end, I don’t want the chick raped, beaten, or worse, killed. That is why we save the women right? That’s why men seek out other men weakness. If it’s a woman they about to see if you love her enough to come get her(or do anything for her).

    Now, of course you have games that only show women as sexual objects, but if you are a player of those games you don’t come in thinking anything more or less.

    You’ve already decided that this is what you intend to get out of females for the game. But you can’t lump saving a female in with a purely “carnal” game though man. That’s ridiculous.

    And about the clothing of the characters, do you know why girls wear those almost to the arse, then as paper, cloth shorts? They not only wear em around the house but at gym and track practice. They know dudes are looking at that. It aint just cause it’s comfortable.

    What about those Biking Shorts? Hell, most club wear? Cause they know people are looking. They acknowledge the fact that you’re gonna look at the arse when they come walking by.

    And the fact of the matter is most of the designers of these clothes are WOMEN. And do you know who makes the nastiest adult manga in japan? The FEMALE artists. Because they know what dudes like.

    This got a little long winded but I just had to put this down. It’s not about women being objectified without choice, or being so just because. It’s the intention of the matter.

    Hey, Princess Peach has never laid Mario. So why he keep saving her? For a kiss on the nose?




    •  

      Sheva though, is interesting precisely because she acknowledges Josh as important to her. In most games, the girl is just the prize after beating/killing every enemy. The fact that there is an emotional level to her relationship with him, they’re friends as far as I remember, makes her a relatable and likeable character. Men aren’t going to be put off playing as her because her goals are understandable, and we accept her reasons for fighting. The same could be said of Dom and Maria in GOW2, she was more than just a sexy prize, she seemed real, which made some events in the game far more affecting, and made Dom a character that anyone could understand.




  4.  
    Yourmom

    So dude, What the fuck you expect women to be? They’re obviously made to take it up the arse, and most people just consider em a sex object, in videogames a b0ner activator, So yeah, stop trolling and gtfo.




  5.  
    Le

    I liked this article and thought that it made for interesting reading. There are always going to be counter examples but some of the comments below seem to be nit picking and missing the overall point.




  6.  
    Threadnaught

    I liked the article, I think it’s a shame you didn’t mention Alyx in Half Life 2, but then again you gave enough good examples. Alyx is just another NPC at first, one who is realistic in terms of personality and looks, later on you have to take part in one of those god awful escort missions and then in Episode 1 you’re in a different kind of escort mission, Alyx is protecting you.

    Zoey in Left 4 Dead is another realistic woman in gaming, a student who spent her time before the infection watching zombie movies, her dialogue is focused mostly on what the infected should and shouldn’t be able to do. She’s part of the team in the same way the guys are, they protect her as long as she protects them.

    Bioware and Obsidian’s RPGs all have male and female characters a player’s male and female characters can have a relationship with, of course most of this is done by pushing the “I Want Sex” button, but the dialogue shows that both sides have their own feelings about eachother and most of the time they show respect toward eachother.
    There were five sex scenes in Mass Effect, male and female with the Asari Consort, you see her hand against the glass, female on Kaiden Alenko you see his bare chest and a bit of side boob, female on Liara you see more side boob, male on Ashley more side boob and last of all male on Liara even more side boob. This encourages the people who play the game to think of other people both male and female as PEOPLE, for the mainstream media to portray that as a bad thing is a horrible attack on gaming as a whole.

    I now have another reason not to play God of War. The whole reason Mass Effect was attacked in the media was because it’s portrayal of sex with the blue alien would “encourage kids to treat women as objects good for nothing but sex, turning innocent little boys into raping monsters” yet there’s this. With all the blood and gore, this guy who goes on an hours long murderous rampage and at the end the wives and daughters of his victims all throw themselves at his feet begging for sex. Though I get the feeling that women will always be nothing but objects and gaming a hobby for scum or a training ground for terrorists as far as the mainstream media is concerned.





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