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.
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:
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.