I love playing video games. I have ever since I was a kid. A prominent memory I have is of my sister and I peering around my Dad who is triumphantly pulling out our very first Playstation. Who would’ve thought that this curious grey device would still have me hooked after all these years. While the games have gotten better since I was 11, a lot of the major themes haven’t really changed. Yes, I’m going to take it there – I’m talking about female protagonists (or lack thereof).
As a girl, I would love to play most games as a female character and I would prefer if that character wasn’t some half-naked, helpless chick. For all the guys reading this, here’s what it’s like in a nutshell: imagine all your male characters were rip-offs of Fabio, Justin Bieber, or Edward Cullen. If all male characters were like them, you’d spend a lot of your gaming time rolling your eyes and sighing: can’t I play as a badass once in a while? What, ANOTHER spineless boy-toy? Come on! Why do all the characters exist for women?
I want a character who makes me feel emboldened on sight. If I’m a soldier, I want to look like the rest of my squad. If I’m escaping a zombie apocalypse, I want shoes I can run in and clothes that minimize the likelihood of getting bitten. None of these things require a trade-off of my sexuality or femininity. I want my character to be beautiful, but I also want her to wear what I would want to wear in her circumstances. And if I’m given a pre-designed character, I’m fine with makeup or flowing hair or a lower-cut top, so long as it feels in character. It’s a costume, after all. Creative liberties are to be expected.
But the gaming experience is ruined for me when a character’s outfit no longer aligns with her role in the game. If I feel that what she’s wearing impedes her ability to do her job well then all credibility goes out the window. If she’s in an outfit that says “sexy” while all her male counterparts are in outfits that say “powerful,” that’s a red flag — especially if she’s the only woman there (I’m looking at you Heavenly Sword). On paper, there’s nothing wrong with a female character who is defined by her sexuality, but it’s almost always the default – and THAT is the problem. It’s not just demeaning, it’s boring.
Mass Effect did a great job on being inclusive but then they incorporated a lot of sneaky camera angles/lingering on ass/boobs shots, like this:
The first female protagonist I ever played was Lara Croft. A problematic character, and even as a 12 year old, I noticed how often the camera painfully lingered on all her bits. That never hindered me though because I was just overjoyed to finally see someone like me in the starring role of an adventure. Without the developers making a call on her gender, I never would’ve have had that experience. Given that Lara hit the scene sixteen years ago and developers are still fighting with the idea that female protagonists don’t sell, I think it’s vital that we continue to add more heroines to the mix. That thinking won’t change otherwise.
Your typical AAA action game is a power fantasy designed to allow the typical male gamer to feel strong, smart, clever, or noble. They can save the girl, get revenge, help the people, enforce justice, or blow things up. Whatever. It’s usually aimed at guys and you’re usually doing stuff that guys fantasize about doing. And that’s perfectly fine. I love those games as much as any guy. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with the fantasy itself, or that games should stop trying to please the male audience. I’m just saying there are a lot of women who also enjoy a good power fantasy, and they want to play too. There’s room for everyone in this hobby, and we can do better than we’re doing now.