The title of this article was inspired by a panel at PAX Australia by the same name, which I sadly missed. Regardless, the topic is an interesting one, and it got me thinking of an article I had read online recently regarding a study of female protagonists in video games and their relation to the games’ sales.
According to the study, people were 25% more likely to purchase a game with a male-only protagonist than a game that gave you an option to pick your gender. Additionally, people were 75% more likely to buy a game with a male-only protagonist than a game with a female-only protagonist. Yep, you read that right. *75%*. That’s freaking huge. I’ve been gaming all my life, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve always preferred playing video games where the main character (or one of them) shares my sex.
To this day, I would still prefer to play as Peach or Daisy rather than Mario or Luigi. I would always default to Mileena as my fighter of choice in Mortal Kombat. I played the original Fable to death on the Xbox and finding out that I could play a female hero in the sequel was literally one of the best moments ever. I proceeded to play that shit so religiously over the Christmas school holidays that my father grew concerned with my 6pm-6am sleeping patterns that he sent me to stay with my grandparents for a week. True story. I missed my 360 terribly.
On that topic – when I first discovered (and started getting into) RPGs, I thought I’d died and gone to gaming heaven. Video games where I can not only play as a female, but it’s acknowledged and incorporated into the narrative in a way that makes her different from her male counter part, so that I don’t feel like I’m playing the default dude hero with lipstick/a hair bow/boobs slapped on? Where she’s treated with the same level as respect by her peers and not belittled or ridiculed? Sign me up!
Granted, every now and then, some of the older games – and even newer ones, like Skyrim – other characters would slip up and refer to me as “he” or address me as “sir”. Or certain NPCs would make rude, derogatory comments towards my character in regards to the fact that she was female. Sometimes this suited that particular character, and sometimes it was a bit jarring and strange, thrown in for shock value. Overall, though, to me it felt like more of a rewarding experience to play through an epic story as a woman and have her end the day as a conquering hero, overcoming impossible odds and saving the world. She wasn’t just the main guy’s love interest, and/or a damsel in distress who needed saving.
Lara Croft, for example, is an icon for female gamers due to how badass and awesome she is in her own right. Sadly though, even Lara has had some pitfalls in her tomb raiding career – namely some of the outfits she’s been given over the years to enhance her position as a sex symbol, like a wet catsuit or “hot pants” with a midriff shirt, making it almost painfully obvious that she was dressed by a male developer. Lara herself represents an ongoing clash between empowerment and objectification. Writing for Gamasutra, Kaitlin Tremblay puts it another way, where even a strong female hero or villain can still be unnecessarily geared towards the male protagonist.
“In video games, the major stereotyped myths of women are typically the damsel in distress, hyper-sexualized villain (Sylvia Christel from No More Heroes) and the sexy/strong best friend (Tifa from Final Fantasy VII). […] In all of these instances, the female character is, more likely than not, in love with the male protagonist or trying desperately to bang him,” she said.
Contrastingly, since moving away from home and expanding my horizons socially, I’ve met guys who prefer playing as female characters to male in video games and MMOs. Reasons for this vary, from the juvenile (“If I’m going to stare at someone’s ass for 30 hours, I want it to be a female’s.”) to more mature (“I wanted to get a different perspective on a different playthrough to see what changes”) and even practical (“Women get given more free loot/gold from other players”). Interestingly as well, all of these men opted to make their female avatars “bombshell”-esque, with long flowing locks and sultry good looks, as opposed to picking a more unconventional aesthetic, such as shaved hair or facial scarring.
The bombshell look is also seen to bleed into the fictional context of various game worlds. Another study carried out by two psychologists, Karen Dill and Kathryn Thill, noted that 80% of video games they looked at in 2005 depicted one or more of three core stereotypes when it came to female characters. The female characters in these games were either scantily clad, over sexualised or “a vision of beauty”. More than a quarter depicted a woman as being all three at once. A reoccurring theme in fantasy video games and other media involves, err, “impractical” armour, referred to as being no better than (or an exact imitation of) a “chainmail bikini” – it’ll (barely) cover bits people want to see, while leaving vital organs largely exposed. So yeah, impractical is one word for it.
Be it nefarious purpose or curiosity, men *do* seem to enjoy playing as female characters, but only if it’s an “option”, and generally preferring them to be conventionally attractive; where chainmail bikinis are a welcome addition. Which, granted, is fair enough. Nobody wants to stare at “Ugly Shepard” levels of monstrosity for however many hours you and your toon are going to spend together. I’ve always found the “butt staring” reason to be a particularly odd one, though. Whatever floats your virtual boat, pal.
Despite this, I genuinely feel that gender representation in video games has come a long way in the past 20 years. Half of the gamers I meet these days are women. Almost all RPGs you can pick up give you the option to make a kickass female protagonist. Recently, the new instalments of Assassin’s Creed, FIFA and Call of Duty have given players gender options. The Resident Evil franchise, Mirror’s Edge, Life is Strange, Beyond: Two Souls, BloodRayne, Metroid, Silent Hill 3, Bayonetta, The Longest Journey, Alien Isolation, Beyond Good & Evil – all examples of great games I can think of off the top of my head, all with female protagonists. So, who cares about female protagonists? I do. And I’m not alone!
The choice to pick between genders for the main character of a video game may seem trivial to some – maybe it’s just an aesthetic choice in certain cases and nothing else. But I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say we’re glad to have it. People can severely underestimate the importance of representation in media.