What Happens to Female Playable Characters When Gender isn’t an Issue?

Game developers recognize that consumers want female playable characters.  Just last year, it was announced that in Call of Duty  you could play the game from a female perspective.  There are lots of games that let you play as women, but what’s worrisome is that playable female characters surprise us.  What should surprise us is a game that lacks playable female characters, and more so, characters whose identity is subscribed only to their gender.

Tough, Resourceful, Humble, Funny

This idea first presented itself to me in Michelle Nijhuis’ 2013 blog post “One Weird Old Trick to Undermine the Patriarchy.”  In order to placate her daughter’s insistence that Bilbo Baggins was a girl, Nijhuis changed Bilbo’s pronoun from “he” to “she” and discovered that all the hobbit’s characteristics, “tough, resourceful, humble, funny,” weren’t dependent on Bilbo being male at all.  These descriptors could, in fact, be adjectives of a female hobbit as well.

For decades, the general consensus has been that women are underrepresented in video games. The consensus is also that when there are female characters, they are (by and large) reflective of gender stereotypes including sexual objectification and the damsel that needs saving.  This isn’t to say that male characters do not suffer from the same problems.  As Celia pointed out, not all men relate to male characters who are preternaturally muscular with Fabio hair.  

There have been games that combat the idea that female playable characters have to subscribe only to traditional feminine qualities.  In Metroid, players were shocked when it was revealed at end game that Samus Aran revealed herself to be a woman.  Players admired this tough as nails galactic bounty hunter.  Because Aran had a full-coverage helmet on, who was to say she couldn’t have been a woman?  Unfortunately, in Metroid’s next installment, Nintendo took Samus Aran back to good ol’  eye candy with her skin-tight zero suit.

female playable characters

Characters like Princess Peach, who is forever stuck waiting for Mario to save her, and the  hypersexualized women in Tera, Soul Caliber, Blade & Soul (whose boobs defy the laws of gravity), are playable female characters who lack any characteristics other than being women and eye candy.

A Question of Personality

Often, dynamic female playable characters are in RPGs, like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Last of Us, instead of MMOs.  For example, Last of Us allows players to play as the adolescent Ellie, whose spunk and tenacity (and let’s face it, her sailor’s mouth) wins players over.  In Mass Effect and Dragon Age, players can choose between playing a male or female.  The dialogue carries over from gender to gender, thereby making the qualities of Commander Shepard and the Inquisitor independent of their biological sex.  We are left with characters who we remember for their determination, strength, wisdom, leadership prowess.  It may be harder for MMOs to have playable characters who are as distinguished in personality as those in RPGs, because in MMOs, the personality of your character is partly established through your imagination, and partly through your questing experience and the overarching story of the game.

female playable characters

There are female playable characters outside of Bioware RPGs and traditional MMOs whose skill precedes her gender.  Many characters in Overwatch, like Pharah, have abilities and dialogue that exist completely outside of their gender and sexuality.  Michonne in The Walking Dead Telltale Game, the robotics engineer in ReCore, and the 10-year-old blind child in Beyond Eyes are all other games whose playable characters happen to be female and who are all badass in their own right.

As it stands, playable male characters are the norm for games.  More often than not, if a game has a playable protagonist, the developers choose a male.  According to research conducted by Professor Jeffrey E. Brand of Bond University, “I studied over 200 popular game titles at the time, and of those in which a character existed, that character was more than 70 percent likely to be male, 20 percent likely to be unidentified with respect to gender, and then 10 percent likely to be female.”

Dynamic Women

So why aren’t there more female playable characters who are as multifaceted as women in the real world?  There are two easily identifiable answers:

  •   The idea that heroes are always men.  We’ve been primed from a young age to believe that heroic deeds are done almost exclusively by men.  Fireman, policeman, president.  Hercules, Aladdin, even Wesley. (Who, let’s face it, defeated all the ROUS’ and Buttercup grabbed a stick and whacked one before crying out for help.  Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies, and I love you, Buttercup, but come on.)  For many of us, it’s not until we are in our teens or adulthood that we learn more about the badass females throughout history whose names are often neglected.
  • Marketing men is the norm.  Look at box art cover of any video game.  Chances are, if there’s a character, it’s a muscular dude.  A quick google search reveals that according to ShortList’s 50 Greatest Video Game Covers, only 5 had women who were alive (there was a 6th woman, presumably dead, draped in a man’s arms).  The potential risks of a female protagonist is explored in this article, which expresses the idea that female leads while “provocative, would be commercially limiting.”

female playable characters

Taking Action

These are two big areas that have to be addressed in the coming years.  As stated, there are developers who work towards making both male and female playable characters the norm, and whose females are multifaceted.  Several new and upcoming video games, like ReCore and Beyond Eyes mentioned above, feature female protagonists.  Are they taking a risk?  Maybe.  But I’d wager that this is a change audiences are prepared and eager to see.  

How can we help?  Though marketing playable female protagonists isn’t necessarily at the behest of developers, we can rally beside the talented women in the video game industry.  We can let them know that we support them and their endeavors.  That their opinions matter.  When discussing history and folklore, we can bring up heroic women.  We can show the next generation of gamers that females aren’t limited to their traditional roles – that women, like Commander Shepard, can do great things.

Feature image credit: SlendersKid

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Deva is a fiction writer and actor who loves complex characters and dynamic storytelling. When she isn’t writing or acting, Deva can be found gaming, reading, or playing with her cats.


23 responses to “What Happens to Female Playable Characters When Gender isn’t an Issue?”

  1. It’s strange to think that for as old as Metroid is some people still have an issue with female playable characters.

    1. J.j. Barrington Avatar
      J.j. Barrington

      Who are these people? Why do I never run into them? Why is their “issue” worth more time and consideration than not?

    2. And don’t forget, the original Phantasy Star came out around the same time as Metroid (well, end of ’87) and had a totally not ambiguous female lead character in Alis Landale. Female leads have been around for a long time, folks just have to look.

    3. J.j. Barrington Avatar
      J.j. Barrington

      Would you mind addressing questions, rather than deleting comments? It’s bad enough that you don’t even bring up the possibility that these games are catering to target markets, but you’ll delete questions you don’t want to answer, as well?

      I hope you don’t wonder why “things aren’t changing” when that’s the prevailing attitude of your “side” in all this.

    4. I’m pretty sure that very few people actually do. It’s mostly just sites like this one that suggest otherwise, while mostly-male, mostly-white western developers make mostly-male, mostly-white characters for reasons that are not even remotely racist or sexist, and mostly-male, mostly-Japanese Asian developers make mostly-male, mostly-racially ambiguous characters for reasons that are not even remotely racist or sexist.

      You might as well ask why some people still have an issue with female protagonists in film.

  2. I think it’s a real shame that a lot of developers don’t consider tough, brave, etc. as features that could totally be held by female characters

    though, given how overwhelmingly male the industry is, it’s not surprising. like you said, support can go a long way, so let’s just hope they listen

    1. I don’t know if developers all necessarily don’t consider them as female characteristics, just that their first reaction is that they’re male characteristics, thereby leaving the ladies out of the equation.

      1. I don’t agree. I’m sure it’s because the gaming world started out as a way of entertainment mostly bought and used by men, because women thought it was a waste of time, and silly gimmicks. Back then they started making games for men, because those were the only people that bought it. So they starred men, because men can relate. The gaming industry is just still adjusting to the fact that now women have realized gaming is a lot of fun. We’re building on a foundation that was ridiculed by women and loved by men, and now we have to incorporate women into the equation. But some developers already figured that women want the tough, brave etc. characteristics as badly as men do. They don’t consider those characteristics as “male”, but we’re just not done phasing in the female character yet. It’ll come and tough and brave will be the same options for every gender and character.

  3. Ellie is my number one. Naughty Dog did a phenomenal job portraying her character, both her insecurities and her courage, loyalty, and toughness. Ellie is the best character of any game I’ve played in ages, and by quite a margin.

    1. Of all the games I’m ashamed of having not played, The Last of Us is at the top of the list.

      1. Rectify that. ASAP.

    2. Principal Logic Avatar
      Principal Logic

      You are full of crap, she is the worse female character ever. Of all the female characters, you choose a foul mouth 14 year old.

      1. She’s better than you.

  4. I can’t wait until we’re all genderless square blocks of flesh, then maybe we’ll all be content with our lives. Until then, there will always be something for someone to disagree with or complain about. Not saying this isn’t a just cause, but I don’t see society changing any time soon. Get all fashion magazines and hollywood to change and maybe video games will follow suit. Won’t happen, but it’s good to dream.

    1. I guess “A Boy and His Blob” was ahead of its time!

  5. ismailmarsh Avatar

    Politically correct filthy minded people.

  6. frank pik Avatar
    frank pik

    well, the faux-feminists had a good couple years before they got placed lower on the totem to oil the tracks for the recycled communist-era propaganda. The fake level of equality the think-tanks marketed you to demand are nearing being drained up for what they were worth so get ready to be thrown under the bus like men were in these last couple years to pave the pay for them to placate the next “special class”, although you won’t have to deal with bullshit like “patriarchy” micro-aggressions – just the typical shame tactics will work because of all the pre-conditioning

  7. it makes me so mad .. SO SO MAD that nobody is paying any attention to Aya Brea and give other overrated characters the spotlight all the time
    How could anyone forget this women who save the world TWICE !?


  8. J.j. Barrington Avatar
    J.j. Barrington

    I don’t think you’re being genuine.

  9. “ShortList’s 50 Greatest Video Game Covers, only 5 had women who were alive” Seems like a great argument, aside from the fact that there are just 14 boxes with actual characters on the cover and most of them are from back in the day when “gaming” seemed stupid and immature to women. of course marketing was directed at men back then, because 99% of the consumers “dumb enough to pay for that kind of entertainment” were men. (quote by mothers all around the world)

    1. You’re right. Above, I added “Chances are, if there’s a character, it’s a muscular dude.” The ShortList article was the first that popped up in Google, though I continued browsing several more. It’s really sad to think of the whole “dumb enough to pay for that kind of entertainment,” because if you think about it, a chunk of video games are just as much thinkers as board games.

      1. I agree, it’s sad to think that, but that was the first impression back in the day. Luckily, most people see gaming now for what it truly is. That’s the main reason why now everyone wants to feel included in and targeted by gaming storylines. Back then there was one type of person who played it, so they made games for that one type. Now everybody plays games, and everyone needs to be considered.

  10. Kurt Ambrose Avatar
    Kurt Ambrose

    I’ve been as impressed, and as disappointed, by games with female protagonists as games with male protagonists. I don’t have a problem playing games with female leads. Tomb Raider is one of my all time favorites. The Last of Us I put down because of issues I had with the game mechanics, not the characters. Quite frankly, few things are sexier than a badass woman. But I think that a certain level of realism must be accepted as required. What I mean is simply that, given the fact that almost all videogames involve some level of physical activity the character is required to perform, whether this be combat, or parkour, or tomb raiding, or some combination thereof, a level of fitness is required of the individuals involved. Female or male, a character can’t be fat and succeed as the MC of the game. Exceptions are few and far between. In addition, the reality is you’re going to have a difficult time marketing overweight and unattractive characters. It’s not what people want to see in a videogame, regardless of how accurately it may reflect the real world. This is also why many games have a seeming dearth of characters who are not just average looking, but supermodel beautiful. It sells. And if you’re going to spend hundreds of manhours modeling a face in 3D, why not make it a good one? Until very recently, the claim that making a female option would be too much work wasn’t an exaggeration. It’s only in the last maybe 5 years that games have had the ability to model male and female characters in equal measure, without costing way more money, way more disk space, and way more time. By and large, the videogame industry is shifting away from the large scale oversexualization of women, but that doesn’t make every attractive woman in a game a slight upon every female ever to live. A lot of women do actually walk with a slight sway in their hips, and make feminine movements. One thing that many games are showing is that a woman can be BOTH feminine AND a badass. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Games like Soul Caliber, they have very specific tools they use to cater to a very specific market. They can’t be set alongside mainstream games with actual characters, because they’re not. They’re arcade games with supercharged graphics. Games with real characters and stories, yeah, there is still a lot of sexualization going on. But it’s getting better. The female gamer market only opened up really in the last 5-10 years. It takes time, and it’ll take extremist views on both sides to find a comfortable middle ground where everyone can play contentedly.

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