Video games may have started out as a niche hobby for gaming enthusiasts, but there is no denying that they have evolved to become an integral part of the entertainment industry.
Boasting improved graphics, richer storytelling, and increasingly innovative gameplay, video games have come a long way since the early days of Space Invaders and Pac-Man. Today, these pixels are in the form of rendered 3-D characters, with personalities and customisable appearances not unlike the realistic aspects of an actual person.
In the past, this has mostly applied to male characters than female ones.
Now, the tide has turned, and it seems female representation in video games is finally heading somewhere.
Why the Lack of Female Representation?
Two decades ago, positive female representation was not really much of a concern – understandably so, considering the male-dominated nature of the video games industry, from the players to in-game characters. In fact, it was not till an increase in the female gamer base that the call to include equal representation was made; despite so, progress has been painstakingly slow.
One such reason could be the long-held perception that games featuring female protagonists tend to not sell as those with male leads. In a 2012 survey by EEDAR, a video game sales-forecasting and research firm, it was revealed that male-only games do indeed sell better in general. However, the comparison was made on somewhat unfair grounds: games with a female-only protagonist receive only 40 percent of the marketing budget used for male-led games, which inevitably translates to fewer sales.
That is not all – the lack of female representation also arises from the game publishers’ refusal to push out titles which feature women as main characters. In the case of adventure game Remember Me, creative director Jean-Max Morris discussed about how the female-centric game went through several rounds of rejection because it was “not going to succeed”, and that it should have “a male character, simple as that”.
The studio would later proceed to create game phenomenon Life is Strange, which coincidentally stars a female lead as well. Having received generally favourable reviews, the game is an example of how female-led titles are slowly leaving their mark in the market.
Presence of Rigid Gendering
As aforementioned, video games are traditionally associated with males. Back then, players experience most, if not all, games by playing as the male protagonist – forming a skewed opinion that the male perspective is held in higher regard than the female one.
This has inevitably resulted in the reinforcement of rigid gendering, in which women are often portrayed to be weak and sexualised. According to the paper “Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years” (Journal of Communication, Volume 66), the trend was most prominent in the 1990s, when 3-D graphics had just become the norm.
While research has shown that the physiques of both male and female characters are overly-exaggerated, women tend to be more physically altered, especially in the chest area – more so for the female lead.
A famous example would be Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft, who was the then-poster-girl for female gaming, wearing a tight-fitting tank top and sporting an unrealistically huge bust. Amidst heavy criticism, Croft was subsequently depicted in hot pants and midriffs for the 2008 version, and eventually underwent a radical redesign in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
When they are not the main protagonist, female characters sometimes serve as a goal for their male counterparts to achieve, such as a damsel in distress, status of power, or sexual conquest. Having to save a helpless woman shapes the male lead’s personality to be “cool” and “suave”, and sets up a chance for romantic development to occur. Quite the classic troupe, isn’t it?
The latter two are best illustrated through the Grand Theft Auto series, where most female characters are said to be portrayed in a misogynic manner. For instance, Grand Theft Auto III allows players to pay for the services of prostitutes to restore their health, and kill them thereafter to gain back some of their money. In Grand Theft Auto V, the supporting women characters were noted to have been constructed on stereotypes: either they are there to be rescued, killed, and put up with, or are just presented as a pleasurable sex object to abuse.
A commonly-used defence argues that the depiction of women is done so to fit into the world of crime lords and gangsters – justifiable, but not necessarily acceptable. Fortunately, such negative representation proceeded to mellow out over the years, as the industry began to pay more attention to equal representation.
Road to Positivity
When the early 2000s set in, female representation started to take on a more positive development. While many women figures were still casted in secondary roles, their characters had the depth that was lacking in past portrayals, which gave them an added touch of personality.
Mia Fey from the Ace Attorney series is one such example. The mentor of male protagonist Phoenix Wright, she was his guiding source of strength, teaching him to trust in a client’s innocence and approach things with a different angle. Mia’s teachings follow Phoenix throughout the franchise (especially the trilogy) even after her untimely death, suggesting her strong leadership capabilities and powerful influence on him.
In Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth serves as a sidekick to main character Booker DeWitt, providing him with supplies and ammunition while in combat. Along the game’s many alternate timelines, the different facets of her personality start to surface – the cheerful, innocent Elizabeth in one universe can become a ruthless, fanatical woman in another. This duality of human nature helps to add complexity into her character.
More female characters have also been depicted to be strong and competent, thus breaking the role of gender stereotypes. Heroes from Overwatch are the best examples when it comes to this, especially since the game features a diverse cast of personalities.
For instance, Ana is the second-in-command and a markswomen to boot – both of which are roles usually reserved for male characters. Pharah and D.Va once served in the Egyptian and Korean Army respectively, while Zarya holds the title of being one of the world’s strongest women in the game.
Meanwhile, Evie Fyre from Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate has repeatedly made good use of her intelligent and strategic mind to get her twin brother, who is also the main lead, out of many sticky situations. This is a refreshing change from the usual scenario, where the male is the one doing the saving instead.
Lastly, the recent years have seen an increase in female game protagonists, suggesting an improvement in the representation of women characters. Out of the list, the more notable ones include Portal 2‘s Chell, Max Caulfield from Life is Strange, and Clementine from The Walking Dead: The Game series.
Female representation in video games may have started off on a poor note, but the situation has been gradually improving over the years. This is most evident in 2013, in which a lot of female-centric titles gained recognition and praise from the gaming community.
There is still a long way to go before women characters can reach the representation level of male protagonists, but slow progress is still better than no progress. How the situation will pan out in the future remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to be promising.
Here’s to more female representation in video games!