Looking back on it, 2013 was a good year for female characters in games.

We had some great female protagonists of a reasonably proportioned nature, such as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, or (to some degree) Lightning in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, though I’ll get onto that later. The thing is, no-one ever says “That was a good year for men in gaming.” And while progress is being made, we’re still very far away from equality. Indeed, for every Elizabeth we have Bayonetta. For every Ellie we have Miss Fortune. There’s no sign in the near future of us getting female protagonists to the same status as male. And while this isn’t the only characterisation issue in gaming, it’s certainly the biggest. Why are we all forced to have female models that will have major back problems by the time they’re 35?

The reason we’re in such a state traces its ancestry back to marketing. In the good ol’ days of gaming, games weren’t directly marketed to either gender. How do you make Pacman appeal stronger to one sex? But the more graphically advanced games got, and the more money found in them, the stronger the magnetic pull of advertising became. Once you began to have recognisable characters in games, you could start to market them more specifically. Games became more and more for one gender than the other. Something that you’re marketing to one demographic is most likely going to sell more the greater you focus marketing on the “whale” of choice. And so it began. While targeted marketing is no great sin, its repercussions can be. But, are us men so easily lured in that games appeal to us more due to the size of one character’s appendages than the really important things, like story or gameplay? Apparently so.

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Sex seemingly sells, and fan service even more so. But it isn’t just a woman’s wireframe that is the issue here. It’s their portrayal. Female characters tend to fall back down in the same personality holes. Nearly always in love with a male, and happy to robotically traipse around after aforementioned lead. Women in games do have a tendency to be sideline characters. Even though we’ve had exceptions, like Faith in Mirror’s Edge, the fact remains that even though some female characters can be well proportioned and well-developed characters, rich in personality and life, they are frequently confined to escort missions. This, on the other hand is more defensible.

Story-wise, there are narrative reasons for genders. Could you truly say that games like Bioshock Infinite would have been the same if Elizabeth had been male? The honest answer is no. Consciously or not, society has conditioned us to perceive male and female characters – and the roles of those genders – differently. Elizabeth works as a character because of her seeming vulnerability and innocence, which would likely not have been true if she were he. Furthermore, the father-daughter relationship that we feel in people like The Last of Us‘ Ellie would not have functioned had it been a father-son bond. Sure, a story has to have been written to portray characters as such, and it could be written differently. But there are some things that just work better with one gender. Would Duke Nukem be the same if we played as Duchess Nukem? Narratively, sometimes a being needs to be a she or a he. And that’s alright.

Within that however, is another problem. Apparel. Lightning of Final Fantasy fame is a good female character. She’s a strong hero who does a good job on her own. She fights monsters, villains, and anyone else who’s on the wrong side of the moral highway. So surely she’ll be a well-armed and well-armoured character to face such mighty foes? Not so:

Why must such a mighty warrior have a literal breastplate? How many sword blows can you block with skirts that stop at the thigh? What stops you from being eviscerated by claws when your only line of defense completely ignores your belly? Female characters are infamous for having minimal protection in fights. However, this (doesn’t) cover-up an even worse problem. Armour that mysteriously switches depending on gender. Using an example from World of Warcraft:

Armour Comparison Redux

Bear in mind that this is the same armour set, on the same race. Only difference is gender. And several pounds of plate. This is inexcusable. Why is one character a noble warrior and the other half-harlot? Gender dependent armour is a common sight in gaming, and a saddening one. There’s no need for it. Indeed, the infatuation with tight-fitting and “well-sculpted” apparel in gaming is not just unnecessary, but derogatory. Just stop.

In this day and age, why are women in video games so different from men? Is this honestly a culture we can be proud to be part of? Why do we even have to discuss things like this?

It’s not right.

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6 Comments

  1. Completely agree with you, Matthew. Even in Tomb Raider, despite being more “normally proportioned,” Lara’s figure still didn’t fit any kind of truly ordinary looking girl, she was still made to look very attractive, and many gameplay elements clearly were taking advantage of that, imo. For example, when sliding through a small space in a cave sideways? Who said it was necessary for the camera to zoom in up close, and not even on her face, but literally focused on the area of her body from about her mouth down to her hips?
    I would be lying, as a guy, if I said it isn’t nice to look at an attractive figure in a video game like Tomb Raider. But it just really nagged me that that was a game where the creators specifically said they were trying to remove Lara’s character from that stereotypical sexualization from earlier games. Sigh.

  2. Who cut the image of the example from WoW? You may need to talk to these editors, Matt :P

    An interesting article that brings up some very good points, though I think that it really would have benefited from a further fleshing out of your arguments. The answers you provide are too short to really be convincing. What you’ve written is decent, and I can’t disagree with what you’ve said, but it feels like a missed opportunity to say a hell of a lot more.

    1. Eh, I did. It wasn’t a high quality image haha.

  3. *SPOILERS AHEAD FOR MULTIPLE GAMES*

    We had some great female protagonists of a reasonably proportioned nature, such as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, or (to some degree) Lightning in Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, though I’ll get onto that later. The thing is, no-one ever says “That was a good year for men in gaming.” And while progress is being made, we’re still very far away from equality. Indeed, for every Elizabeth we have Bayonetta. For every Ellie we have Miss Fortune. There’s no sign in the near future of us getting female protagonists to the same status as male. And while this isn’t the only characterisation issue in gaming, it’s certainly the biggest. Why are we all forced to have female models that will have major back problems by the time they’re 35?

    Lara Croft’s “chest size” shrunk down over time, so, sure. Lightning? It got bigger. I’m not sure why you would even think of calling her reasonably proportioned, and consider her personality to be great (when in practice, she is an emotionless husk from start to finish, minus the shitty ending).

    The reason we’re in such a state traces its ancestry back to marketing. In the good ol’ days of gaming, games weren’t directly marketed to either gender. How do you make Pacman appeal stronger to one sex? But the more graphically advanced games got, and the more money found in them, the stronger the magnetic pull of advertising became. Once you began to have recognisable characters in games, you could start to market them more specifically. Games became more and more for one gender than the other. Something that you’re marketing to one demographic is most likely going to sell more the greater you focus marketing on the “whale” of choice. And so it began. While targeted marketing is no great sin, its repercussions can be. But, are us men so easily lured in that games appeal to us more due to the size of one character’s appendages than the really important things, like story or gameplay? Apparently so.

    You constantly reference the rise of RPGs, MMORPGs, and other genres which have increasingly potent stories, yet you make no reference to their actual names. Am I to trust someone that can not even tell the difference from an Arcade game with an excuse plot to a RPG with a full backstory, immersive world, and vibrant characters? How about the excuse plot of League of Legends compared to the hidden backstory of One Way Heroics? Do you even know what those games are?

    You also make little reference to anything but the same 5 games over and over again throughout the entire article. How about One Way Heroics? Prophesy of Pendor? Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, Final Fantasy XV? Mass Effect 3? Dungeons of Dredmore? You can’t take a complex matter and think one year’s worth of games will give you a definite answer. Look at a broader spectrum, or don’t post at all. In addition, make sure you actually devote some time in playing these games before you say something like this from another article.

    https://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/games/why-men-choose-female-world-of-warcraft-avatars-20140517-zrfw9.html

    Although the gender-switching men could partially talk the talk, they completely failed to walk the walk. The researchers found that all the men in their study moved around in a very different way than the women. The men moved backward more often, stayed further away from groups, and jumped about twice as much as the women did. When it came to moving around, the men behaved similarly whether they gender-switched or not. So if you’re trying to figure out if that female Night Elf is really a man, focus on how they move around. As study author Mia Consalvo, a professor at Concordia University, says, “movement is less conscious than chat, so it can be an easier ‘tell’ for offline gender.”

    Anyone who has played World of Warcraft and hopped into at least Looking for Raid can tell you that they need to mention what roles are being played. Moving backwards is a basic things tanks should know. Staying away from groups? Also necessary for when you need to spread. Jumping around? It makes moving around feel more fluid and faster.

    Sex seemingly sells, and fan service even more so. But it isn’t just a woman’s wireframe that is the issue here. It’s their portrayal. Female characters tend to fall back down in the same personality holes. Nearly always in love with a male, and happy to robotically traipse around after aforementioned lead. Women in games do have a tendency to be sideline characters. Even though we’ve had exceptions, like Faith in Mirror’s Edge, the fact remains that even though some female characters can be well proportioned and well-developed characters, rich in personality and life, they are frequently confined to escort missions. This, on the other hand is more defensible.

    For the 5 games you keep on repeating, they lean more towards that. Let’s just completely ignore the fact that every single one of them (excluding Bioshock) is poorly made with Final Fantasy Lightning Returns being the worst offender.

    For the games I just mentioned, you aren’t forced as the player to see your female character fall in those pits. In the case of Prophesy of Pendor, you aren’t even able to do so. Then again, you need to be a cultured badass to know about Prophesy of Pendor. Are you one?

    In One Way Heroics, its protagonist, which can be either male or female, can run at least 4000 km in about 10 days while staving off dragons, undead, zombies, the Demon Lord, and other monsters if she’s careful and skilled enough, and you mean to tell me that she should be restricted to…escort missions? You’re telling me that the strongest protagonist ever created should be weakened, because you think it’ll be “realistic”? As if a woman can’t overcome impossible odds and save the world as well or even better than a man can?

    Just say the protagonists in those games can’t solve problems for shit, and move on. There’s no need to draw an unnecessary conclusion from that, and lower the quality of other, better defined characters.

    Story-wise, there are narrative reasons for genders. Could you truly say that games like Bioshock Infinite would have been the same if Elizabeth had been male? The honest answer is no. Consciously or not, society has conditioned us to perceive male and female characters – and the roles of those genders – differently. Elizabeth works as a character because of her seeming vulnerability and innocence, which would likely not have been true if she were he. Furthermore, the father-daughter relationship that we feel in people like The Last of Us‘ Ellie would not have functioned had it been a father-son bond. Sure, a story has to have been written to portray characters as such, and it could be written differently. But there are some things that just work better with one gender. Would Duke Nukem be the same if we played as Duchess Nukem? Narratively, sometimes a being needs to be a she or a he. And that’s alright.

    It wouldn’t have been the same, but not because a boy can not be as innocent and vulnerably as a girl, but because of the lore behind Bioshock. She used to be one of those sisters you see in the game. You want to try explaining how the new character would be able to have the same powers as those sisters, and you know, not be female himself? You want to rewrite all those pieces of lore previously established, present it to the makers and the community, and expect them to accept all of those retcons?

    First of all, the father-daughter relationship wasn’t really buying it for me, but let’s assume that it did. What’s wrong with a mother-daughter relationship? Father-son? Mother-son? Brother-brother? Brother-sister? They’re going to share heavy feelings, because they have to rely on each other for protection. So, no, there would be no difference. Not that The Last of Us was really that great of a game. Smart AI? Please, Prophesy of Pendor has better AI. It was made at a different era, as well, and we’re supposed to have advanced from that.

    Within that however, is another problem. Apparel. Lightning of Final Fantasy fame is a good female character. She’s a strong hero who does a good job on her own. She fights monsters, villains, and anyone else who’s on the wrong side of the moral highway. So surely she’ll be a well-armed and well-armoured character to face such mighty foes? Not so:

    This is actually a major problem specific to the two Final Fantasy games, X-2 and LR. They were made by a man, who I shall not name, who prides on giving his games terrible plots and lots of fanservice. The entire Final Fantasy franchise should not be taken responsible, merely the man himself.

    If you don’t believe me, replay X-2 again. Or…just google the dressphere changes. Disgusting.

    Why must such a mighty warrior have a literal breastplate? How many sword blows can you block with skirts that stop at the thigh? What stops you from being eviscerated by claws when your only line of defense completely ignores your belly? Female characters are infamous for having minimal protection in fights. However, this (doesn’t) cover-up an even worse problem. Armour that mysteriously switches depending on gender. Using an example from World of Warcraft:

    What about the other armor sets? World of Warcraft is praised constantly for having realistic armor. If you REALLY want a MMO example of slutty armor, first of all, don’t post examples from World of Warcraft. Anyone who actually plays the game would laugh at you. Second of all,

    https://www.google.com/search?q=tera+online&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=pgl5U5-WI4ihqAacpYHICQ&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAQ&biw=1366&bih=667#q=tera+online+female+armor&tbm=isch

    This is what you should be complaining about, and even then males also get slutty armor. Leave World of Warcraft alone. Don’t even say that you’re hiding behind the “oh, but we had to reference a popular game”. Then reference League of Legends and their character designs.

    In this day and age, why are women in video games so different from men? Is this honestly a culture we can be proud to be part of? Why do we even have to discuss things like this?

    It’s not right.

    I agree. Women being sexualized isn’t right. Overexaggerating the problem / not even complaining about the right sources IS wrong. Not even considering the other side’s arguments and providing counterarguments / counterexamples? Also a sign of unreliable journalism.

    And no, we don’t have to discuss about this, because it’s plain obvious that your evidence is too narrow and too flawed. Maybe if you come back later, then we have to discuss this.

    1. I applaud you. This is an excellent post that addresses the issues that I had with the article, and goes into considerable depth with your rebuttal. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    2. I’d also like to thank you for the comment. This is the second editorial I’ve written, so any and all constructive criticism is greatly appreciated.

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