Written By: Erika Haase
Personal aspiration: diversity should be a cultural norm, not a reason a video game wins accolades.
We spend a lot of time in today’s world trying to appeal to every demographic, but the truth is, sometimes we can’t include everyone. And that’s OK. It just means that when we do, we make it mean something, veer away from stereotypes and cultural assumptions, and make sure we’re writing interesting characters, not just bulletproof bad asses and inauthentic tokens.
Has gender equality in gaming improved? Absolutely. Mainly this is due to the increase in attention to narrative and the bar being raised in our expectations of gender representation in gaming. This article isn’t about passing blame, it’s about making sure we’re being critical of a character’s role (of any gender) and making sure a game’s writing is doing justice to its intended purpose.
The best judge of this is often the knee jerk reaction you get when presented with the material. Unlike real people, a video game character is only as deep as they’re written. Whereas a real person can change a first impression by revealing new layers, a badly crafted character perceived as a ditz, jock, thug, hard-ass, or nerd will probably only ever be exactly that.
We’re mostly sick of hearing about this topic. After a certain scandal that will go unnamed but shares initials with “Get Good,” it seemed like every other article written was investigating videogames on the behalf of women. Your game didn’t have any? You must be a misogynist. Your game had women but they looked too sexy? You must be a misogynist. Your game had women but you could choose to have sex with them as a male character? You must be a misogynist.
Someone, please make it stop.
Still, I felt compelled to share my personal experiences with this industry and its portrayal of female characters, many of whom I grew up with. The following article is only based on my personal opinion and experience, and I welcome civil debate. I’ve read everyone else’s two cents, so here’s my own.
I’m a female gamer. I’ve grown up with the best and worst examples of women in gaming. I’m still here and I’m not going anywhere. I’m enjoying watching the industry organically improve as development teams diversify and writing improves. When I see something that makes me uncomfortable, I call it out, but I don’t label everyone who plays it a misogynist. If you’re a man and play Dead Or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball I’m not going to sit here and judge you for it. That would be ignorant of the fact that there are also lesbian and bi gamers in the audience who are perhaps similarly appreciative of its…assets. Hell, one of my favorite guilty pleasure games in memorable history was Lollipop Chainsaw, a game featuring 18-year-old zombie killing cheerleader Juliet Starling who has an outfit unlock of a seashell bikini that you bet your ass I played the game about two and half times to get. Am I also a misogynist for doing so? If your answer is “no, because you’re a woman” than the basis for your argument is sexist. Nobody wins.
So how do we make women “better” in games?
First, we take games on a case by case basis just like novels or movies, and we stop making broad, sweeping statements that ultimately label sexuality as a negative thing. No one is asking Call Of Duty to have less guns, but they’re asking Tracer from Overwatch to not wear such tight pants and have a different victory pose. We’re mostly fine with Grand Theft Auto outside of the odd torture or rape scene, but a news anchor hears you can have sex with a consenting partner in Mass Effect and everyone loses their minds. If that partner is the same sex, we’re going to talk about it even more, apparently.
As someone who used to sell video games for more years than I care to count, I can tell you the number one thing that would keep an M rated (Mature 17+) game out of a child’s hand wasn’t violence or profanity. It was telling a parent there were sex scenes, nudity, or strippers. I vividly remember the mother who was completely fine with buying her 10-year-old son Kane And Lynch because, and I quote, “it’s not like there’s sex in it or anything. It’s just violence.” It’s just violence. More recently, parents are still generally fine with even coarser language and more realistic violence in the usual FPS shooters. My sales team had to, on several occasions, call parents from their cars and talk them out of buying their extremely under aged children Grand Theft Auto V, sometimes literally begging them to reconsider based on the content. What got them every time was mentioning the depictions of rape and sex.
So how does this relate back to gender equality in gaming?
We’re teaching our children that violence against other men is preferable to a female stripper asking if you want a lap dance or any depiction of sex, especially the healthy consensual kind. Honestly, I’d rather explain a lap dance than why I’m being told “No Russian” in an elevator right before shooting up an airport in Call Of Duty.
All that being said, who are some female characters who are doing more than serve as eye candy and a token set of boobs in gaming today? Despite what you might have heard from uninformed “gamer-lite” coverage on the topic, there are almost too many to count, and there have been since all the way back to when Final Fantasy was still a Nintendo platform exclusive. The industry simply wasn’t taken as seriously or put under as much scrutiny and they went unnoticed. Here are some more recent examples of successful female empowerment as well as some instances that missed the mark, and why.
Female Commander Shepard “FemShep” – Mass Effect Trilogy
Mass Effect is a sci-fi trilogy, with a new game coming this year Mass Effect: Andromeda, that allows you to pick either male or female main characters, as well as first name, race, and facial features. In game, you’re referred to as Commander Shepard regardless of gender, and the female option has gained the shorthand name “FemShep” and a bigger fan base than her male counterpart due, in part, to the stellar voice acting of Jennifer Hale. The Mass Effect universe doesn’t have time to care about your gender or sexual orientation. You’re saving the universe no matter how you identify or who you choose to sleep with – and yes, you can pursue a sexual relationship with your shipmates. Or don’t, it’s up to you. The fact you can have sex with a treasured friend who you build a meaningful relationship with over the course of decisions, conversations, and time is not out of line. This is an M rated game made for, and featuring, adults who make adult decisions. The sex scenes aren’t any more gratuitous than an R-rated movie, and in some cases, far less so. Having sex in a game does not make a woman a sex object. It makes her a human who wants to have sex.
YOU CAN DO BETTER:
Trip – Enslaved: Odyssey To The West
Here’s a game with a male lead that could have so easily been one that switched roles back and forth. Instead, Enslaved took its sole female character and gave her the cheap way of being “in charge.” When the game begins, Trip does as the title says and “enslaves” main character Monkey with a shock collar headband. Since they’re both escapees from a slave ship, you might presume she’s doing this to protect herself, but the balance of power never really becomes equal between them as the game goes on, even when she offers to take the collar off. She’s spent a majority of the game forcing Monkey to be her bodyguard while she searches for her family. In a far too obvious turn of events, Monkey and Trip develop unspoken feelings for each other. On top of this, Trip is ogled by the cliché “fat nerdy slob inventor” called Pigsy who repeatedly makes references to wanting to marry her. All the fighting in this game is done by Monkey, with very limited support abilities being possible from the weak and otherwise defenseless Trip as she forces him to take her across a robot infested wasteland. As much as I enjoyed the game for its innovative retelling of an ancient Chinese myth, the depth of plot could have been so much greater, and everyone would have benefited from it.
Elena Fischer, Chloe Frazer, and Nadine Ross – Uncharted Series
The women in this series are some of the most well-realized characters I’ve had the pleasure of playing alongside. There are so many places where developer Naughty Dog could have gone wrong with a narrative dynamic of male lead, two women who he’s been romantically involved with, and a female villain. Instead, they wrote with integrity and a dedication to quality storytelling, and it shines through.
Elena Fischer is a globe-trotting journalist who will go to almost any lengths for a story. That never changes. Despite her feelings for Drake that evolve over the course of two games, she never loses her professional ambition, ability to be self-sufficient, or the wits to help Drake out of sticky situations.
Chloe Frazer is Nathan’s current friend with benefits at the start of Uncharted 2. She’s just as much of a thief and treasure hunter as Drake is, and they’re clearly just involved for the carnal convenience. When Chloe and Elena meet each other and figure out the tension, there’s no catfighting. A comment gets thrown around here and there to keep them human, but in the end, Chloe goes to Nate directly and tells him to figure out what he wants because, in short, she doesn’t have time for drama.
Nadine Ross is the leader of a mercenary group in Uncharted 4. Aside from getting herself and her men paid, she doesn’t hold allegiances to anyone. Stuck in a bad deal with her employer she knows when it’s time to get the F out of Dodge, money be damned. There’s a scene involving Nadine that speaks to what we’re used to as a society.
During an argument, a man slaps her across the face and, at the time gets away with it. This might, on the surface, be viewed as propagating abusive behavior, but remember this woman is equally responsible for killing numerous men throughout the game as well.
Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross have been revealed to get their own dedicated side adventures by Naughty Dog in the upcoming Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. No one is putting these ladies in the corner, and all without any of the cliché “girl power” lines.
WHY IS THIS EVEN A THING:
All of the women – Senran Kagura Franchise
This title could have been substituted with almost any “high school T&A” game that comes out of Japan. I understand that from a cultural standpoint, the age of consent is lower in their country than it is here giving a lot of legal excuse leeway for the highly suggestive imagery that comes from girls ranging in ages from 15-17. In many cases, the ages are changed when they come West to fit within our age requirements. It doesn’t make it any less creepy.
Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus is a beat-em-up/hack and slash in which clothes can be ripped off during fights. If you’re rendered either unconscious or entirely naked, you lose the fight. The fights are almost always between women from competing ninja high schools. In one of the opening sequence of Senran Kagura: Shinovi Versus, a feud between the two rival schools begins when an old grandfather dojo master grabs the breasts of one of the girls from the competing school, makes a joke about it, and then leaves. Let me repeat this, a feud is started between two groups of women because of sexual assault from a man old enough to be their grandfather. I have absolutely no qualms about T&A for the sake of T&A – Dead Or Alive and Onechambara are a perfect examples of “I just want games about hot women who fight in bikinis.” However, I draw the line at sexual assault and games with trophies that include one in Senran Kagura:Shinovi Versus called “Enemy Of Women” which involves using the touch screen to flip up a school uniform skirt and otherwise molest any female character in the “viewing” mode into a state of total embarrassment. The sad part is, there are dozens of games I could be talking about that involve groping, non-consensual S&M, and assault, as things to simply brush off and move along with. Just stop. Do it better. If you want to make porn, then make porn. But for the love of god, please make your game feature adult women, and stop fetishizing sexual assault against high school students.
Elizabeth – Bioshock Infinite
Here’s an example that throws another concept of female inequality on its head. Elizabeth is quite literally a damsel in distress, locked in a tower. Until she’s not. While you play as a male character, the real star of the show is Elizabeth. She’s the motivating factor for everything you do. Without her, you’re nothing. There’s a moment in the game that I won’t spoil, but you’re separated and the feeling that pulsed through me was pure rage. Does Elizabeth need to be protected? Yes. Does this make her weak? Don’t make me laugh. Needing protection is not the earmark of being female – or at least it shouldn’t be treated this way. In many books, there are times where one character needs protection from something. In the case of Bioshock Infinite, this dynamic between a male and female character is a necessity for plot points I can’t reveal without ruining the magic that are the ending reveals. Elizabeth remains one of the best examples of a partner character written as female who isn’t infantilized or sexualized at any point.
WALKS THE LINE:
Juliet Starling – Lollipop Chainsaw
Can you slut shame a video game character? You bet you can! It happens all the time. Putting aside the fact that Lollipop Chainsaw is about an 18-year-old high school cheerleader who is trying to rid her school of zombies with a chainsaw, this is actually a game with an empowered female lead and her equally empowered sisters. This game takes the idea of cheesecake and turns it in on itself. Do we still have sexy babes? Yes! Those sexy babes just happen to have chainsaws and sniper rifles, and are trying to reunite the decapitated head of a boyfriend with his body. Everything about Lollipop Chainsaw is a joke on itself. From the pervy Japanese karate instructor who plays on every trope mentioned in my criticism of Senran Kagura above, to Juliet blatantly informing the game player in the very first cut scene that she “just turned 18” to make sure the audience knows she’s not underage. It calls out it’s fetish triggers before you can feel like you’re getting away with something. The only person ever in distress in this game is Juliet’s boyfriend Nick, who she is keeping alive until she can save him through magic and the power of love. In the meantime, she wears his head as a keychain on her belt and you get to watch their relationship unfold as he both supports her bravery and begs for death. Everything from the 50s styling of the zombies, to the punk rock music partially written by MSI, is a crazy mash up of bad assery and sex appeal. As far as I’m concerned, the sex appeal is about the only difference between this game’s insanity, and the ridiculousness of Dead Rising. Yes, there are obvious gameplay differences, but putting that aside, is one really that much more outlandish than the other?
The reason I label this game as “walking the line” is the highly questionable outfit unlocks that turn Juliet into a pinup girl, barely wearing anything. This definitely fits the cheesecake theme, and it’s pretty obvious that Juliet is confident in her femininity and sexuality, but it’s a bit much and stops being “a gimmick” and turns her into pure eye candy. I don’t care how confident in your sexuality you are, you’re not going to run around in a bikini and bare feet wielding a chainsaw. Even in the world of video game logic that seems a tad unsafe.
Lara Croft – Tomb Raider (The entire franchise)
Lara Croft is the perfect example of a female character who can never please everyone. It’s a good thing she’s not an actual human being, because her identity complexes would have paid for several therapist’s mansions at this point. When Lara was first introduced, she was portrayed as a no nonsense treasure hunter being commissioned to retrieve an artifact for another powerful female, Jacqueline Natla, CEO of Natla Industries. What could possibly be wrong with this situation? Powerful women as far as the eye can see! But wait – Lara Croft had impossible proportions. She was the Pamela Anderson of video game bodies and just like Pamela Anderson, her body was used to sell product in several sexy advertisements with scantily clad and suggestive poses for both the game and totally unrelated products looking to capitalize off her infamy.
While the series tossed and turned in terms of commercial success, the character of Lara Croft never wavered. She is still a self-sufficient, take no BS, adventurer. In the face of hardship, she digs deeper for inner strength. Lara Croft is a hero no matter what her cup size is. As graphics were fine-tuned and the industry matured, Lara’s dimensions became more realistic. Her current iteration looks like any fit woman at the gym, and while she is on par with Nathan Drake for impossible feats of strength for any human, her strength as a character has never wavered. When I saw the reboot from Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix, I thought it would be a sure-fire success among the “girl power” crowd. Instead, people sadly obsessed over a scene in which Lara is threatened by a male aggressor and many claimed he was about to rape her – something that Nathan Drake has never had to face. I found it upsetting that the first reaction viewers had upon seeing this scene was the assumption of a sexual crime. It’s a great example of filling in blanks that don’t exist.
Lara Croft is faced with a man about to kill her. She has to make the decision to shoot first and deal with her first fatal act of self-defense in the story line. If you fail to act in time for the button prompts, you don’t get raped. You get killed. There’s no grey area to analyze because it’s all on screen. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it were about a young Nathan Drake, because similar scenes happened in Uncharted and we just reloaded and tried to make it through alive the next time around without comment.
Then there were the articles about how “roughed up” Lara gets in the rebooted Tomb Raider. It’s true. She gets the absolute living hell beaten out of her time and time again. Just like every action hero ever. This is what equality looks like, in all its bloody and bruised glory. Women aren’t above getting punched in the face by the bad guys. They shouldn’t be, because if they are, then you’re selling female characters short. I think what was forgotten in the attempts to make sure women could hold their own was the part where we have to show them getting knocked down as much as their male counterparts. The important part is to also show them getting back up and keep fighting on their own. A bruised female soldier’s face shouldn’t be more shocking than a man’s. A beaten-up woman is not automatically a victim. Like the saying goes, “you should see the other guy.”
The future is bright for women in gaming. Blindingly bright. Upcoming blockbuster titles like Horizon: Zero Dawn and indie titles like Little Nightmares both feature female leads with mighty Aloy and tiny Six. The Tomb Raider franchise is hotter than ever thanks to the successful reboots. Assassin’s Creed finally had its first main entry female Assassin, the well-received Evie Frye, in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. There are female soldiers joining the ranks of more and more military games, including a female Navy SEAL operative in Rainbow Six: Siege, and female commanding operatives and robotic pilots in Titanfall 2. They’re not the “lame” characters. Mega-success multiplayer centric Overwatch has a massive number of playable female characters with equally large fan bases who use them as mains. Dishonored 2 has won multiple Game of The Year nods and had an incredibly strong playable female character in Empress Emily Kaldwin. Upcoming game PREY (which I recently did a body art cosplay for), allows you to pick either a male or female version of the main character at the start.
The gaming industry has gotten the memo. Let’s not continue to beat them over the head with it. Final Fantasy XV having an all-male cast wasn’t a misstep, it was a conscious decision to have a story about male friendship and bonding, a topic often avoided in fear of being “too homosexual.” We don’t need to shove a token female character into every mix to make a demographic checklist happy. Conversely, when cheesecake games continue to bounce up on the shelves like a perky set of implants, let’s not be so quick to judge them as “objectifying.” The female body isn’t something to be ashamed of, and unless you plan on patently slut shaming every real-life woman who has made a living by modelling, acting, stripping, or otherwise using her naked body as a way of supporting herself, then continuing to condemn tight pants and “boob armor” isn’t helping further your cause of equality.
We can do better, but we’ve already accomplished so much and let’s take a breath to acknowledge it. The eye candy will fall where it wants. Help the truly meaningful pieces of writing and solid game play rise to the top. Products are ultimately made for the audiences that are guaranteed to buy them. It’s all of our jobs, gender inconsequential, to decide how many seats we fill in which places.