Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Feminism and the representation of women in video games

by Ben Winterton

There is a general problem with pretty much every field of human achievement, in that women, despite being just as capable as men and normally achieving just as much, are overlooked due a latent gender bias that exists globally. One medium in which this particularly prevalent is the field of video games, which not only has a male-orientated focus in production terms, but also in the narratives and  stylistic decisions that feature in the games themselves.

In case you hadn't guessed, I consider myself a feminist, and I would be more than happy to write a book on the relationship between gender and video games. In fact, if any publishers are reading this, you’re right, that first paragraph would look great as the opening to a textbook, or even as a “to camera” piece for a 15 part documentary series written and hosted by me. Why, thank you, I am rather handsome. Yes, you can come back to mine and show me your screw attack.

Ben: "I could always present 'Coast' if needs be, check me out!"
I don’t think any gamer would deny the absence of a female presence in the world of video games. In fact, Jak and myself struggled to think of more than a few prominent female protagonists. Off the top of our heads, we managed Lara Croft, Bayonetta, Samus Aran, Jill Valentine, Lightning from Final Fantasy XIII, Chell from Portal and various characters from fighting games. This is, in itself, a pretty poor showing. Subtract all the characters from the above list who are marketed largely on their sex appeal and the problem becomes even more apparent. At least Valve aren’t hideous misogynists.

Now, games being sold on sex appeal is not intrinsically wrong. Just because something is marketed on that basis does not stop it being good (although I am not defending either Dead or Alive or any pre-2013 Tomb Raider games). Bayonetta is a prime example; a near-perfect action game that happens to be ludicrously sexualised. A slightly bizarre (and, perhaps, distinctly Japanese decision), but one that does not reduce the quality of the game. However, as Jak pointed out in his article on sex appeal, this does not carry over to male characters; whilst rugged, the male characters that star in Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto can hardly be said to have sex appeal.

Don't get body image worries looking at these sketches... they're physically impossible wet dreams.

Yes, I know that there are female characters in ensemble games, such as RPGs and fighters, but it is rare that the central character is a woman. At least developers are now allowing players to create a female character, such as in the “Fable” and “Mass Effect” games. However, for every gender-balancing “Dragon Age” there is a lads-only “Brink”.

I have two problems with this. Firstly, the assumption that, because there is a tendency for hardcore gamers to be male, that only male characters would appeal. This presumably means that I cannot enjoy “Pride and Prejudice” because, as a man, the life and thoughts of a woman would be so alien to me I would simply walk away in disgust. Moreover, this isn’t even mathematically true; apparently around 50% of female avatars in World of Warcraft are played by male users. Seriously, visit this study page when you have the time:

Another issue here is that this promotes the idea that men are just the standard. Like a lot of people, I played through Dead Rising 2 in 2010. Can anyone give me a single decent reason why Chuck, the game's protagonist, needs to be male? It is an anarchic zombie-killing sandbox, with very little in the way of narrative. Why couldn’t the central character be female? The answer, of course, is sadly absent.

It is easy to make broad comments about both gender and gamers, but if you can find me a single gamer who likes Metroid Prime for the inclusion of boobs rather than it being an exceptionally well-crafted exploration game then I will eat my hat.


  1. This is something that I have wondered about in the past; though rather than looking at the expected audience, I always imagined that a lot of it came down to the developers themselves. Of course there will always be exceptions to the rule, but taking a look at any of the Easter-egg photos of the development team, usually you'll find a group of mostly men.

    To me I always imagined myself in the position of having to work on a character and finally, after setting up backstory and general involvement in plot asking myself the question "Ok then, are they a boy or a girl?" only to realise that in such a situation, I probably wouldn't want to risk (guarantee) somehow doing something wrong or offensive and just stick to what I know.

    Or if I did take the risk, somehow I know no matter how hard I'd try, then the character would somehow end up in some way rather sexual.

    On a brighter note, I support the idea of RPing as a girl in various character-choice games; if just for having more in-depth interactions / relations with the supporting male characters who, in producing a blank-page lead for the player, has taken on the full support of the development team's effort over the supporting females (Here's looking at your Alistair)

  2. And let's not forget to mention the notion of sexuality of characters in games. I acknowledge that some games have made the effort to stray from the 'default' hetero path but I haven't seen the ideas expressed in videogame narratives, especially not in protagonists.

  3. The above comment (23rd November 2011) implicitly states that feminists/women are moaning about gender for no real reason...despite the evidence to the contrary. If the gameplay is already enjoyable it's unnecessary to fetishise the female form because it only perpetuates misogyny & objectification.

    Also, the lack of female protagonists perpetuates the idea that women are not important, hence the mention of feminism. This is not critical of men, moreover the treatment of women in videogames and the target audience (assumed to be male, assumed that men can't see beyond a misogynistic ideal).

    "Factually, 50% of female avatars in WoW are played my male users" so it shouldn't be promoted (through the old 'sex/particularly-the-objectification-of-women...sells' route) that the user (again presumed to be male) can only relate to a female character if she is sexualised.

    It appears as though the word 'feminism' caused a negative reaction from reading the title and instead of evaluating the points raised, your own judgement on the concept of 'the struggle to gain equal rights&respect for all genders' [AKA feminism] was put forward quickly, before being brushed aside as 'a matter of offence'. The article raises good points that would probably be empathised with more if it weren't for the sympathy towards women that is so clearly conveyed. It's not 'us & them'; it's true that inequality exists everywhere - including the gaming world, and that it's illogical, harmful and stupid.

  4. In a minority of cases, a male hetero protagonist exists (as opposed to alternatives) mainly so that they can advertise this player character role in lads mags (in the games sections) and just hope that everyone else will just end up playing what has been touted as a popular game that all lads like. In those cases that's legitimate business practice, as abhorrent as I may find it. They use the same tired schtick to sell Lynx and razor blades.

    The rest of the time, unless there is some very strong narrative reason for the player character to be male (such as making an tie-in game, where you need to look at the treatment of women in that medium) there is often no reason for the player character to be of either gender. Regardless, these blank slate characters are by and large male, which does contribute unnecessarily to the idea that women are sideline characters in the world.

    Further still, great female heroes and villains exist in gaming if you look hard enough so it must be entirely possible to keep creating them. So we should.


Enjoy the post? Got opinions? You mad? Let's hear from you!