On women’s representation in gaming

Before you read this post, please read that one first. Please. I’ll repeat the main point here in case you don’t: this article isn’t about ethics in video game journalism, and it isn’t about Gamergate. Gamergaters I’ve come across have consistently told me the movement was *not* about women. Well friends, I’m taking you at your word: this doesn’t interest you. I have other articles on those topics that do.

It’s really quite simple, and fairly easy to understand: games have been targeted at an exceedingly young white male audience, and the representation of women in them has been lacking at best, and insulting at worst. Some might disagree with the “at worst” part, but I don’t think many will disagree with the “at best” one. The only disagreement there would be about the reasons, explanations and justifications for that “lacking” representation. For most people though, it is likely linked to the fact that games are created almost exclusively by men. That much is difficult to dispute.

For my part, I tend to think of the result as insulting and embarrassing. Not as a feminist, but as a human being, who also happens to consider women to be human beings. I don’t agree with everything Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu and others are saying, but only because I don’t think anyone ever agrees 100% with anyone else when discussing a complex topic. You can only fully agree with someone if they’ve simplified the discussion to the point that it looses its meaning. So I don’t agree with everything. But I agree with most things.

I can summarize it this way: in 20 or 30 years, when we look back at the games we were creating and playing, we’ll be embarrassed for how they “treat” women. The same way that we are embarrassed today when we look at how films or TV presented people of color only a few decades ago. Those seemed “reasonable” at the time, too.

That’s my view on it. I want to be unequivocal so I’ll repeat it: I think there is a problem with women’s representation in games.

I also want to say this: it is an important issue, and at the very least one worth discussing. Not shouting over, but talking about. We can argue about it, we can disagree about it, but the discussion should happen. And if you want to look at an excellent example of how this important topic is being addressed in a calm and analytically “it’s good to have a discussion about this” way, go no further than the famed “tropes vs women in video games” series. We can disagree with the almost academical material that is presented, but in my humble opinion, it certainly does not feel like it is or requires anything violent. If we can’t even have discussions like those, then we have a problem.

All right; now that I’ve set the stage…

Talking about this in reasonable discussion, I usually see three main issues and misconception that I want to address:

1) But the kidnapped princess makes sense, cause that’s the story! But the beat up hooker makes sense in that world!

A lot of people look at a game, and conclude that the female characters make sense in the context of that story/world/time period/culture. And they’re right: sexy/plot device female character are fine.

The problem isn’t that there are sexy women in games; the problem is that this is basically all we have.

Some people say that male characters are also overly sexualized in games. First of all, not in the same way. Second of all, so much less. And third of all, they still occupy most of the space, and are usually the heroes or prominent characters.

And how could it be different, when most of the video game developer industry is male, and crushingly so? If anything, I think we can agree that the video game industry makeup is heavily slanted towards male employees. Isn’t it only natural that it has consequences and brings some form of bias?

2) But we love our games the way they are!

Our games, the way they are, aren’t going away. Well, maybe they’ll have to change a bit, but only in the way that we stopped portraying black people in films by using white actors with black paint on their faces and red paint on their lips at some point.

Bro games aren’t going away just because games with other narratives and characters should be added to the mix. Video games are our newest art form, and they are expanding, becoming ubiquitous. In the same way that traditional fantasy or sci-fi didn’t go away when bit lit and teen heroin young adult novels started invading book stores. Young white males as a target audience for games isn’t going anywhere, and they will always be taken into account by developers. Maybe we’ll have more bro games with female leads. Maybe we’ll have more different kinds of games too. But the games that we have today will still be here tomorrow too.

This isn’t a zero sum game. Not only can everyone enjoy an awesome game with a female lead, but also not every game has to suddenly become that. Nobody has ever argued for that, and if you think they have, you are ill informed. Super-bro-clearly-heterosexual-army-dude FPS explosionfest will still be around. We’ll just have other things as well.

3) Hey, video games are supposed to be escapism in a box! I don’t want them to be realistic!

This issue isn’t about realism. It never was. You don’t have to be realistic to be inclusive.

In conclusion, I want to say, again, that there is really nothing inflammatory or outrageous in the initial discussion. As an industry, we’re realizing we’ve veered to something of an extreme over the course of our (young) media’s life. We’re recognizing it, and we’re hopefully taking steps to fix it. How? Probably by making an effort to have more women in dev teams, and making sure we pay attention to the females in our games. Doesn’t sound super outrageous to me. And the industry will be better for it. But forget about that: the games will be better for it. It is, as I said in the beginning, quite simple.

So if there is only one thing to remember from all of this, I would like you to ask yourself this question:

Is it really an issue if the bad ass princess rescues the plumber every once in a while? As long as we have kick-as gameplay and cool game mechanics? Of course it isn’t. An awesome game is an awesome game, and if me playing the princess more often than I do now makes half the world feel more included, then I’m not only happy to do so, I call for it and welcome it with all my heart.

PS: And by the way, in my book, being a gamer means loving video games, and also feeling an immediate kinship with others who love video games. We have enough rejection levied against us in he past; we should do all we can to make our gamer brothers and sisters feel more at home in our warm and welcoming family. Playing a chick is fine with me.

October 30th, 2014
  • dr_bombay

    well said. /signed.

  • Guest

    I luv First person shooters like COD (and the clan camaraderie) , My son luvs all the new first person shooter games and my sister luvs Zynga games like farmville, etc. (She doesn’t like shooting or violent games). There probably is a predisposition to game types.

  • Ranakel

    First, sorry guest, but I find predisposition to game types to be er… A bit reductive at -best-. It’s almost like saying that “according to statistics, most violent crimes in this area are perpetrated by people of that ethnicity, meaning they’re more predisposed to violence. It’s shortcuts that forget a lot of parameters. Like how beyond genres, the game’s contents and context can be tailored. Would the zynga game be so popular with your sister if it involved building a military camp? Would the shooter like COD be so popular with your son if it was pink and covered in ribbons?

    But of course, that would then lead to a legitimate, but complex discussion about gendered marketing that I’m not comfortable enough to dive in. Especially on a comment section.

    So, to get back on the female representation, as I believe Totalbiscuit said, one of the most fundamental problem, aside from the gender of the video games creator, is the quality of games writing. The inability some have to make compelling characters, both males and females. But even moreso females, because of the fact a lot of incompetent people also aren’t females, leaving their topic a more distant one. I’m paraphraing of course.

    Now, honestly I feel in the post there’s a bit of a caricature going on with the “don’t worry, your bro games won’t go away”. Again, I feel it’s a matter of writing and context. And I feel I have a good comparison.

    Assassin’s creed unity, on one hand. There’s a four assassins band going on. They don’t seem to have much of an individual value or personality. They’re here to provide a multiplayer support and not much more. So, making them all virtually indistinguishible characters is a terrible idea, compounded by horrible PR on the matter. A disaster, basically.
    Final Fantasy XV on the other hand. Very different characters. All male, but going on a very road trip kind of feel. The brotherly camaraderie already feels like a theme, as something that exists without actively crushing female representation in its wake.

    But of course that part only really influences female characters -being here-. Then they also have to be written in one manner rather than another. And of course, there are differences in perception regarding what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Some will believe that Bayonetta is sexist, and others that it’s empowering. Some will believe Sylvanas is a strong leader, and others an overly sexy undead hysterical maniac. And some people may be enticed by Garrosh’s muscular torso and leather pants.

    So, let’s make characters intersting. Male ones, and especially female ones, as indeed, the path to get there, is longer, and includes dealing with the idea that one is the default, and the other a bold risk.

  • Ol Grumpy

    Well said, and agreed.
    I am a white male gamer, who grew up in an age of stories of chivalry and heroism and therefore likes many of the games that people have called out as sexist.
    This said, I appreciate, play and enjoy games with a strong female role as much as those with a strong male role. Some games can have both.
    However the gaming industry has become (or has always been) a business where publishers and designers are always looking for the most revenue from the largest audience. My concern is that could have captivating plot and characters will suffer at the cost of ensuring every title appeals to the broadest audience.
    I would rather see a game that I don’t like prosper as others love to play it. I will find games that I love.

  • It’s interesting to read this again now, less than a year later…
    Final Fantasy XV’s only female character so far has been revealed in the demo, and she’s basically a mechanic in a bikini, which is not super awesome gender wise, I think most people will agree (I’m curious if you do as well, but I would guess you do). It’s so sad too because it would have been such a great opportunity to create a great first female Cid, the only recurring character in the series.
    Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has shows great care in featuring an important badass female character. I don’t think the game seems to be suffering or to be diminished by this at all. Again, maybe some people think so, but it doesn’t look that way.
    Blizzard seems to be paying more attention to gender issues as well. New female heroes in Hearthstone portraits are fully clothed (at least Alleria is), and they have apparently taken great care in making Overwatch almost “gender equal”. There are tons and tons of female characters, basically half the game, and again, I don’t think the game is lesser for it, or that anyone thinks it’s not as great as it could have been.
    Horizon Zero Dawn features a female character as a hero, and, again again, I think everyone I’ve spoken to is very excited about the potential for that game. The female protagonist has never been brought up as a reason why the game would not appeal to anyone.
    Halo 5, on the other hand, still feels very Halo-ish, and Gears 4 is still very much a bro game. Same thing for the new COD. They’re not going away, and they don’t seem like they’re going away. It’s just that we’re apparently moving towards more of a balance, with more people being served, represented, and satisfied.

    Only a year later, it’s looking like the entire outrage was, as suspected, a big hot balloon of frustration, usually unjustified (in the sense that the “worst nightmare” scenario seems to be coming true, and no one is actually running for the hills). I guess we’ll see where we stand a year or two from now… 🙂