Female Protagonists in Video Games

Jason Thibeault (host), Ashley F. Miller, Avicenna Last, Lynnea Glasser, Rebecca Watson, Tauriq Moosa

JT: Female protagonists don’t tend to get center stage. I can think off the top of my head and they get less marketing. So we have a self-perpetuating cycle of not getting press and therefore not selling well and therefore not existing.


JT: Significant skew against female protagonists. We’re primarily talking about the main character being a woman, but also games where you can choose your main character. Mass Effect has Commander Shepard. I love Jennifer Hale as a voice actor and can’t see Cdr. Shepard as anyone but her. A lot of people call her Femme Shepard. Character was created without regard to gender, and lines are voiced identically, but Hale is special because written as being a woman rather than as a man.

Samus from Metroid series, entire character enviscerated.

Pick a character and talk about the good and bad in representation.

RW: Just started playing the new Tomb Raider. I’m a cheapskate gamer, so I wait for Steam sales.

Tomb Raider was a big deal because Lara Croft is probably the most famous female protagonists in video games. Also famous for ridiculous proportions. Most recent known for supposedly more realistic Lara Croft. Her look is more normal, but she still looks like an almost impossible ideal of womanhood and it really makes me laugh to look at this and think we’re all really excited that this is how women are represented in video games now. And that’s kind of sad. She’s still stacked, this little woman doing all these feats. Yet this is an improvement.

JT: We’re still in this “everyone has to be petite and societally approved attractive.”

RW: In Saints’ Row, you can create any main character you want. Very open creative process to make a character. You can play as an obese Asian woman if you want. Usually games with character creation have the largest size of the woman being just slightly beefier than the ideal.

LG: Lara Croft not being what we want still but still being the protagonist. Should we settle for what’s there because she is a female protagonist. The answer is no. Gamers are never happy with mediocre. We should still push back. Even though Lara Croft is a hero, she’s a terrible hero. We should demand more.

RW: I am really enjoying Tomb Raider. When it first came out, there was this whole “Don’t worry, guys, you can play as a woman and it will feel okay because you’ll feel like you’re protecting her.” There’s a kind of rapey scene that is triggering. There are problems but it’s a good game, and I’m fine with accepting it as a decent female protagonist.

TM: There’s a difference between accepting and settling. We don’t really have to settle for Lara Croft. We can accept that this is a good step, but we shouldn’t have to settle.

RW: That’s a good point. And if she’s the only one we have to look to, that’s problematic. Once we have more female protagonists to look at, she’ll be fine as is, just one of a variety.

AM: I think if you’re a consumer of any mass media culture, you are dealing with problematic representations of women constantly. If you are a female gamer, if you want to actually play games, you have to accept that you are dealing with problematic properties.

TM: To women on the panel, when you get the commenters’ response that the guys are all beefy and unrealistic, so why complaining.

RW: I point to the ways in which these characters fit certain stereotypes. The men do tend to be muscular, although not fetishized to the point LC’s boobs have been in the past, or Chung Lee’s legs and butt. But yeah, they do tend to be slim, muscular. Their bodies are built for power and for doing things, whereas women (in games, TV, comics, movies, etc.) are represented as stick-thin things with giant boobs, and they’re made to be submissive, sexual, to have things done to them, not to do things.

TM: Body armor for men are big beefy protective pieces but women’s body armor is not really protecting anything so much as highlighting.

JT: Huge different between men idealized vs. women objectified. Men are idealized as power fantasies, what men might want to project themselves into.

AM: If you look at how Chell is portrayed in Portal, her body and dress, and you look at Lara Croft, you’re looking at two different ways of portraying a woman who is powerful and strong, and one is sexualized and one is not. It’s not just body image. It’s camera angles, dress, a lot of things. Even if both in skintight costumes, their poses are not the same.

AL: Being in a paradise, LC’s outfit was less of an issue to me was like how people dress here all the time because it’s hot.

RW: Except she was shivering most of the time, and walking past dead bodies with big coats on.

LG: I urge you to look up the male version of LC’s sexy outfit and ask if you would wear that.

People don’t consider that video games are there to make you feel awesome, the person who’s the center of attention. When playing as a female, you can only be awesome if you’re sexy, if you do these things, it stops being fun. You’re reminded constantly of how everyone is always judging you based on how you look.

Idealized men vs. idealized women is not the same.

JT: If you have played Remember Me, the main character apparently the studio had to fight to get the main character to be a woman, and had to cut out a romance or people would feel gay if playing as a woman and she was kissing a guy.

TM: Same month The Last of Us being promoted. Famous poster of two main characters, big dude and the girl that accompanies him. Her in the front with him looking over her shoulder. In magazine (Game Informer?), she was removed entirely from picture.

AL: Weird because we had Bioshock and entire point of existence was a woman.

JT: You’re still playing as Booker, though. Not the girl.

RW: The Tomb Raider company was trying to make men feel better by telling guys you’re really protecting her. Same with Bioshock. Don’t worry, you’re just protecting her. Shortsells men. Women have been roleplaying as men for years. It can be a lot of fun to roleplay as a woman.

AL: A lot of men like Femme Shepard better. Why aren’t men happy to play other women?

AM: Many men play women in online role-playing games. It’s clear that it’s not mean objecting to playing as women. I’m not sure why this hurdle exists.

TM: One of the problems that comes up is the caricature of the audience, that no guy is interested, contrary to large percentage of women gamers, of men playing as women.

JT: Question from chat room: How could women be written as protagonists without cliched tropes?

TM: How can you write anything without cliched tropes? That’s the constant problem.

LG: One of the biggest misconceptions about creating a strong female character is you make the character physically strong or sassy, and you don’t have to do that. Medic from Team Fortress 2 doesn’t have much dialogue or story, but there’s amazing characterization. All you do is make that a female person.

JT: There’s pretty only one troubled back story with women, that they were raped and abused. Why not female built out of same tropes as men.

AM: Male tropes not much better. Lots of Damsel in Distress backgrounds. Applying male tropes not necessarily answer. Types of narratives you can have in video games, more complicated than revenge fantasies. God of War could be female. Prince of Persia could be Princess of Persia. You don’t have to have the revenge narrative. You don’t have to hurt a woman, either protagonist or motivation for male protagonist.

TM: “Booker, are you afraid of a god? No, I’m afraid of you.” The woman is actually protecting you. She’s almost invincible. Turns it on its head.

RW: You can have a character, male or female–tons of games do it. Any game where you can customize your character. But you can have fully fleshed-out female characters who react to the world differently than a male would. Hard to find because game writing so two-dimensional. Game of Thrones females are great because they react differently being in a misogynistic world.

LG: I use games to escape, so I wouldn’t want to play a game set in a misogynistic world.

RW: It wouldn’t be my go-to game to relax. But as video games grow and evolve . . . a lot of people see video games as art, and they can be art. In the indie space, there are a lot of beautiful games. As games evolve, they can start commenting on social issues in interesting ways. This doesn’t mean every game has to be that way, but why couldn’t there be a game addressing misogyny in fun and interesting way.

TM: I like to be challenged and forced to be uncomfortable. Video games can make me feel uncomfortable. I would like to know what it’s like to experience misogyny. Games could be an interesting way to explore that.

JT: Would gender tropes improve if there were less power dominance fantasies overall?

AL: You aren’t going to see less power dominance in games. It won’t be fun if all games are the weakest person. In Hack and Slash, you are the weakest person.

JT: I tend to play male brute force characters. The stealth games, except Metal Gear Solid games, weren’t that great.

AL: Thief was really good. Deus X you could play stealth game but you were also brutally strong.

RW: I love stealth games. My favorite thing is to sneak up behind people and slit their throats. Stealth games very easy to flip character and have them be female. A lot of people claim it doesn’t make sense to have brutish character as woman (although of course it could be). But stealth would be easy to have a female protagonist.

LG: We’re focusing too much on fighting games. Adventure games and indie games have a lot of great female options, protagonists, writers. Older game, Phantasmagoria has a great female. Longest Journey. Siberia had a very fleshed-out female character. Another game I can’t remember the name of where you die and end up on island with people from different countries and eras, dealing with fact of being dead.

RW: Lost, the video game?

LG: Older than that. A lot of Choose Your Own Adventure games are fantastic. Wealth of different kinds of games not necessarily treated as a real game, because you kill people in real games.

AM: Also, women play those games, so they are automatically devalued because women play them. Like Guitar Hero, rhythm games, are real games. You can play as whoever you want to. More of a fame, talent fantasy the game is drawing on. The big change isn’t going to happen until more women are in the industry rather than just playing.

JT: Jump back to stealth games, a really good example, Beyond Good and Evil, you play as Jade. She’s a combatant, but vehicle driving, stealth components, puzzles, etc. Photography is her main thing. People have been clamoring for a sequel since, what, 1999. They keep talking about it, but it never happens. First one just had cult following.

AL: They accidentally created an amazing character and they just don’t know how to redo it. Like Metroid, difficult to rewrite without following down the same whole.

The Nintendo Wii outsold the other two consoles because so many gender neutral games, games that kids could play. You’re never going to play Grand Theft Auto with your grandmother, but you’ll bowl on Wii. Lot of women got into gaming through that. Made gaming more acceptable. Anyone could pick up and play. If you can produce games like that, you will make money. Why on earth rule out half your market.

JT: A lot of hard-core gamers claim that percentage of women gamers, 45%, are women playing only the casual games, which is not the case.

AL: Even if that is the case, why not encourage them to play other games.

RW: Casual games are defined as what women like. Things like Angry Birds are games. They are dismissed to make Call of Duty men feel better about themselves.

TM: I don’t understand distinction between casual and hard core. That’s bullshit. They’re all games.

RW: I play Tetris hard core, mofo.

AM: Maybe if you have statistics. You’ve played Tetris for 4 hours.

RW: I don’t want to know how long I’ve played Bejeweled.

Lynnea, I know you can’t speak specifically about EA games, but could you talk generally about what the culture is like, being a woman in the industry.

LG: Ups and downs. A lot of movement toward improving things, but a little bit of dragging by people who don’t understand or are a little hostile . . . Mostly it’s an education thing. Here are the things when you are making a map. Here are the things you consider when making a female character. There’s not a lot of thinking about how to make the games awesome for all genders or for trans characters.

JT: Question from chat: Any comments on multiple genders, trans genders, . . .

RW: Game came out last year with storyline where you could play as a gay character. What was that game?

JT: Dragon H, which is EA. We can talk about it, but Lynnea can’t.

AL: Mass Effect also had that.

JT: Cmdr. Shepard getting involved with the Asari, who was gender neutral. Later games, you could choose to be gay by accepting advances from the same sex.

TM: Also in Mass Effect 3, the first time, because in first 2, allowed lesbian relationships but homosexual, but in third one, only an option if gay male.

RW: Do you guys agree that homosexual characters are either not represented at all or the representation is actually pretty good. I can’t think of terrible representations, but maybe I’m just having a brain fart.

JT: In Japanese games there’s a lot of caricature of gay men.

AL: Japanese culture has a different kind of bigotry. Gay men are buff and manly.

JT: But they still shoot lasers from their crotch.

RW: I can’t think of any blockbuster games where you have to play as a gay character. I can’t think of any where the character is static and gay.

JT: Any genderqueer characters?

LG: Birdo (sp?)

LG: Technically Crowmeat (sp?) from WoW.

AM: Ms. PacMan I’ve always wondered about.

TM: Not Ms. PacMan but PacMan with different [inaudible].

AM: With lipstick

RW: And a bow.

TM: PacMan on the weekend.

AM: I would prefer Ms. PacMan being PacMan in drag.

RW: Let’s not judge PacMan for his or her choices.

JT: Who’s to say PacMan isn’t Ms. PacMan in reverse drag.

TM: When it comes to trans issues, I can’t think of a single trans protagonist in a game but can think of tons of time when I’ve cringed at transphobia in games. The industry in general fails pretty hard on transphobic issues.

JT: About 4 characters anywhere approaching trans, and there’s always something problematic about the way that they’re presented.

RW: Can you name them?

JT: Two I can’t remember, RPG games. One I can think of is Poison, from Street Fighter, Final Fight. A lot of controversy when brought to America. Poison was actually a man in drag because less objectionable that people were hitting him. In original game, she was written as New Half, a transitioned transsexual woman. In Japan, she is transitioned but in North America, she is not transitioned yet. Character is effectively identical at both.

LG: I was writing a gay adventure game where you play male or female, and one character was transgender, but started as temp at EA, so couldn’t do extracurricular projects. All about finding stuff in your apartment to genderqueer your outfit so you could compete in a cross-dressing competition at your university.

A lot of trans people will say, I wish I was born as gender X. When you play video games, you get to choose, and that’s empowering. It’s so important to have that choice.

RW: I’ve heard from a few trans people who’ve said they’ve started playing multiplayer games as gender they preferred before they could come out in the “real” world.

JT: If we’re better able to approximate what we want our lives to be like, it’s valuable.

RW: I’d like to see playing a transgender individual and that’s part of your quest in the game, could give people a look at what that life is like.

AM: Games aimed at helping people with disabilities or identify their own psychology or empathize with that of other people. More academic now, but why couldn’t these be mainstream games.

JT: Closest thing I’ve seen is short indie game where you play tiny mini games, each giving you a chance to see what it’s like to be trans. Jarring how much emotion you get out of really crappy pixel art.

AL: People play games to escape, but not all games. We had Spec Ops Online (?) last year that was not fun but was incredibly harrowing. People will play games that have a message.

JT: I enjoyed Poppo and Yo, which dealt with alcoholism. I would put down real money for games that explain what it’s like to be a woman in a misogynistic world.

LG: I would like to recommend Loved, about what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship. It actually starts off (SPOILER) asking what you’re gender is, and if you say you’re a man, it says, No, you’re a woman. If you say you’re a woman, it says, No, You’re a girl.

TM: Like TV, we watch for different reasons, play games for different reasons. A lot of times when we have to do what we don’t like. The idea of being a person in a horrific oppressive society, as a woman or different race, for example, is worth exploring.

RW: About the triggering aspect of Tomb Raider, I read an article by a woman who did find it triggering. It’s one of those things where you have to hit a bunch of buttons fast while being choked. And if you don’t get it the first time, which you probably won’t, Lara dies a horrific death. And this woman was crying while doing it because it did recall a very specific memory of abuse at the hands of a man, but getting through it, she found incredibly empowering.

So yeah, most women probably don’t want to play a game that triggers memories of rape and abuse, but for some women, it can be positive. If story written correctly, done right.

JT: Chat Q: What might be a good idealization of a female character? Mine is Samus pre Other M ?.

LG: Not from a video game, but the lady cop from Fargo is my favorite female character, amazing and feminine.

TM: Jade from Beyond Good and Evil.

RW: My Skyrim character, which I know doesn’t count because I made her female. But having a lesbian orc who goes around smashing things, she’s great. She’s in no way diminished. Has no rape back story. She just gets things done.

JT: Skyrim and the like, they make it so you can drop in a character regardless of gender and there’s little change in character.

RW: Racism comes out more than sexism in Skyrim and the Elder Scrolls games. Certain quests in [missed], if you’re a woman meeting a guy, he would treat you like a sex toy. But I found it well done. It was like, this is just how this character reacts.

AL: Dragon H does the racism thing as well. If you’re the elf, you can’t be the queen. People yell abuse at you on the street as you walk past.

I was born in Kuwait, so I grew up being racially insulted by Kuwaitis, so then I grew up and 9/11 happened, and people didn’t trust Kuwait.

I suffer from PTSD due to combat, refugee during first Gulf War. Hair loss from getting burned. Really horrific was playing Spec Ops Online because you set people on fire with the same kind of thing that caused my burns. I stopped playing for two weeks, then came back to it. It’s incredibly empowering to get through it.

I quit gaming for a while. Said I grew out of it. But then I picked it up again dealing with my PTSD. When feeling this way, indulge the violence that caused it, so I started playing shoot-em ups as a way of unwinding. It was incredibly helpful. If it’s helpful, go for it. It’s not for everyone.

TM: This way to solve poor representation of women in games, including more women directly involved in industry, but I get commenters that women just need to buy more games and there will magically be more games for them. But women can’t buy things that don’t exist. This cycle is created because the same people make the games who buy them.

AM: Same as in Hollywood films, the people in charge of the industry think they know what sells. Hard to convince backers. Good stuff has come from indie films, lower budgets, but hard to change the system that way. Same in games. We need more women participating in the industry to create these games. If you don’t hear women’s perspective, you don’t know that you aren’t doing something for them. A lot of it is unintentional.

Wrap up. Final words?

RW: No.

AL: Be polite online.

AM: Stop harassing female gamers?

JT: Oh no, you just said, Guys, don’t do that.

AM: Guys, don’t do that.

JT: Oh no, now Ashley will get all the Rebecca mojo.

RW: No, idon’t worry. Because I was here, I’ll get blamed for that.

AM: Rebecca actually made me say that.

RW: I did.

More banter I didn’t catch and thanks and goodbye!