Women in Video Games: Doing Better, Still A Long Way To Go
As is becoming a more and more recognised talking-point in gaming circles, women are into games. Really into them. Women over 18 make up the largest proportion of gamers, according to a survey which took into account a wide diversity of gaming formats. So why is it that when I play almost any video game I feel as though the game wants me to play as a man? I like to play Role-Playing Games, and they usually offer the greatest character customisation. Playing as a woman is nearly always an option for me, and the game will play out in almost exactly the same way as if I played as a male. I might have slightly different romance options in games featuring that kind of mechanic, but on the whole I will have the same experience regardless of my character’s ever-clothed genitals.
And yet for some reason I hardly ever play as a woman.
I like to think that I’m an open-minded cis guy, aware of the advantages that he has in life due to his gender. I completely support the feminist movement and am surrounded by examples of strong and confident women who could easily kick my arse any day of the week. So why is that when it comes to killing dragons, duelling Sith Lords or fighting off the Reapers I feel almost compelled to do so as a man? My Revan is male. My Shepard is male. My Hawke is male. My Dragonborn is male. And all this makes me question whether I really am as open-minded as first I thought.
And then I looked at the marketing for these games. I looked at the front covers of my copies of Mass Effect and Dragon Age 2. I re-watched the trailer for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and I looked into the Star Wars expanded universe (no longer canon thanks to Disney but that’s a whole other rant for a whole other day). And I saw that, overwhelmingly, these characters were portrayed by their creators as being male. The default setting in Mass Effect is to play as John Shepard, with his female counterpart only available if the player decides not to go with the ruggedly handsome space soldier that they are first presented with. When you get off that wagon at the start of Skyrim and enter the character creator, the first option is to play as a male Nord. It was confirmed in the Star Wars expanded universe through several comics and novels that Revan is male.
All of these characters have the option of being female, but it should tell you something about the mentality of gamers and game developers that seemingly no one thinks that there’s anything wrong with men being the default for a hero. Splash Damage’s Brink is an even worse culprit: more than 2 million possible combinations for your character’s appearance and equipment and it is impossible to play as a woman. And why was it that it was some big deal that in Call of Duty: Ghosts players could finally have a female avatar in multiplayer? Shouldn’t it have been a bigger deal that it took the CoD series a full decade to lift the ban on women?
Now, of course, there are games where the protagonist is female. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II’s protagonist was subsequently confirmed to be canonically female, and the Tomb Raider games feature arguably the most well-known female protagonist of all time, Lara Croft. Although, that said, the fact that Croft’s breasts were accidentally set to 150% of their intended size and were simply left that way because reasons is surely testament to the sexism surrounding the character. It isn’t enough to make a female protagonist badass. If she has big boobs just to enhance her sex appeal then that strikes me as objectification.
There are some games, even RPGs, where I don’t expect full customisation of my character or even to be able to play as a woman, just as I wouldn’t expect every film I watch to have two protagonists, one male and one female. If I watched a Bourne film, for instance, I wouldn’t expect Matt Damon to become a woman halfway through (although that might actually make quite a good film. The Bourne Gender Identity anyone?) The Witcher games immediately leap to mind as examples of RPGs where choice of sexual organs is unnecessary. They are based on a series of novels and short stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, and in the games the player takes control of the protagonist from the books, Geralt of Rivia. Geralt being male, I wouldn’t expect to be able to play a female version of him in the games. But whenever I play any Witcher games I feel as though the developers decided to compensate for their lack of a female protagonist and fill the game with compelling, well-written, fully realised female characters who were easily the equals of the men around them. This, I feel, is a good compromise.
In general, then, it seems that we have a long way to go when it comes to the portrayal of women in video games. Some games have got further to go than others, but there is work to be done across the board. But I genuinely believe that the industry as a whole is heading in the right direction, and that as years and games pass we will see a far more equal depiction of the sexes in video games of all genres. And who knows, maybe then we can start addressing the woeful under-representation of transgender people?