Two weeks ago I did the first part of this topic on my opinion on the state of female characters in the gaming world. To recap, while there have been some awesomely designed female characters, developers often slip up in the portrayal aspect, cheapening their creations by essentially marketing them as nothing more than eye candy. Today, I wanted to finish the topic by focusing on solutions. Because I’m not the sort of person who likes pointing out problems without also thinking of solutions, I want to write about some of the ways I think developers can further improve their portrayal of women in games.
The first solution should be fairly obvious: have more variety. Seriously, why aren’t there more different types of female characters, at least as far as design is concerned? Male characters have far more freedom in the way they’re designed. Let’s compare some of the more successful or well-known characters:
So for the guys we’ve got an overweight, probably middle-aged plumber; a skinny geek; an uber-Space Marine who could probably crush your head like a walnut; a thief with one eye; a grizzled spy; & a ruthless vampire lord. But what about the women? True, all of the examples I listed are good characters, with their own unique positions in their games. But think about their designs. They’re all younger, & conventionally attractive. This is what I mean by lack of variety. There’s nothing wrong with making attractive characters, but when that seems to be the only choice it feels a bit… insincere? It’s like a woman can’t be kick-ass & kinda plain to look at. Male characters aren’t constrained by this. Ponder this: how old is Max Payne in Max Payne 3 & would you ever see a female character deliberately created is a similar manner? Why is it that Lara & Samus never seem to get older in their games?
You may argue that it’s because most game designers are male, but that’s only part of the reason. I think it’s mostly to do with the aim of the character. All videogames exist to fulfill some sort of fantasy, whether it’s to be a treasure hunter, a restaurant manager or even God. Therefore, all videogame characters exist to fulfill some fantasy. And since most games are designed by men for men, it stands to reason that it would be male fantasies that are getting fulfilled. In one of her videos, Lindsay Ellis (AKA the Nostalgia Chick) talks about how in cartoons & movies, when media is intended to appeal to girls it will have female main characters while when it’s intended for boys or to appeal to both genders the main characters are male, with the occasional female side character. I’m sure you can think of several current & older cartoons that follow this principle. With games, I think the same way of thinking follows, with one exception. A female character can appeal to guys as well as girls if she’s hot.
Of course there are some female characters that don’t fit this mold. Both The Boss from Metal Gear Sold 3: Snake Eater & Tess from The Last of Us come to mind, both of which are prominent female characters who aren’t in their 20’s. But I’d like to see developers explore more female types. I’d like to see games that acknowledge the fact that their leads are women in more than just a physical sense. A lot of people will tell you that with the really good characters gender doesn’t matter. And it’s true, a lot of the attributes you’d want in a character aren’t based on gender (bravery, independence, honor, etc.). But why not use some aspect of femininity in the game. And I don’t mean you’re stereotypical Damsel in Distress nonsense, either. I’m talking about having a game like The Last of Us but with a female lead. Why not a zombie apocalypse game where a woman has to protect her children? Plenty of games have us protecting people, especially children, but it’s always a guy. The Walking Dead, I Am Alive… The only one I can think of that has a female lead is Amy, & from what I’ve heard that wasn’t very good. Sure, guys might not be able to completely relate to being a mother, but the desire to protect a child is an understandable motivation.
I’m glad recent games have let players customize their characters, & I hope we see more of this trend. That’s why I tend to play RPGs more than any other genre. Of course, I realize this isn’t doable for most games, especially if they have a very specific story they want to tell. But even in these customizable games, you’ll notice that the male is always the default. And I don’t just mean in the character creation menu. They try to be androgynous, but still end up making the character act like a guy. The only real difference is the voice. I know these games give you the freedom to respond & shape your character as you see fit, but there are still some inconsistencies. I’ve complained about my female gangster in Saints Row ogling female strippers, but there have also been issues is Mass Effect. If you play as Femshep in Mass Effect 2 & have Kasumi’s DLC, you can unlock a formal dress for Shepard to wear around the ship. But… uh… let’s just say BioWare’s QA should’ve noticed the problem in using the same animations for both genders.
Another step is to understand the difference between “sexy” & “sexualization.” This is another fine line area. Sexy is to make something appealing or exciting. What’s sexy varies from person to person, & can include more than just physical aspects. People can find traits or attributes sexy, like power or brooding. It doesn’t even really have to be designed as such. Although I can say with 100% confidence that Marcus Fenix wasn’t designed to be sexy, some people probably find him as such. Sexy’s fine. I mean, I don’t want all of my character to be sexy, but there’s nothing wrong with it.
Sexualization, on the other hand, is when you single out a person as being nothing more the sexual. They cease being a person & become a thing. A commodity. Something to be used. Sexualization is when you design an advert showing your character half nude when it has nothing to do with the game they’re in. It’s when you focus on their breasts, or butt or any other single body part. This is the problem in gaming. It’s not about making characters sexy, it’s about reducing them to the level of a digital blow-up doll. And it happens all the time, even to female characters that aren’t meant to be sexy. Let’s compare box art:
If box art tells you about the game, what are these telling us? Booker is a man of action. He likes to shoot things & set things on fire. He doesn’t care about authority. Nilin… has a nice butt.
Stop doing this. I don’t care what your focus group marketing testing says. It could only be more degrading if the boxart was a selfie taken in a bathroom with a duckface.
Just… give some actual thought to your designs in general & ask if they make sense. You can make a sexy character if your design makes sense. If your character is a woman who’s a spy & uses her… assets to her advantage, then a sexy dress makes sense. I could even understand it if they got in a fire fight in said dress because, ya’ know, stuff happens. But if you’re making a soldier who carries around a chaingun, then the dress probably won’t work. The best line I ever heard summing this concept up was from a podcast where a female game designer said, “When you can’t wear f-ing sensible shoes in a warzone!”
As a final suggestion geared more towards the developers themselves, I want to say this: Stop talking. You’re just making it sound worse. If you’re going to make an unreasonably sexy character, just admit you just liked the design. Sure, some people will be mad, but at least I can respect you for being honest & not treating me like an idiot. If you need some examples of things not to say, check out these articles:
In closing, I want to point to some female characters that I think are well designed or portrayed that don’t usually come up in discussions. Not everyone may agree with me, & they’re not without faults, but I still like them anyway.
- Hilde from Soul Calibur. Gaming needs more redheads, & I love the way that her (full) armor set is designed. I recall reading that they deliberately designed Hilde to be a sexy woman in full armor, which is pretty cool.
- Bayonetta from Bayonetta. Yeah, the game has too many T&A shots & really plays up the whole dominatrix angle, but I really liked Bayonetta’s personality. She’s fun & flirty, but over the course of the game shows she’s more than just a pretty face.
- Mileena from Mortal Kombat. Sure, she fights in a string bikini, but I love when she rips her mask off to show her ravenous fangs. I imagine she’s what most men think of women: we lure them in with sweet promises & then tear them to pieces.