If someone in a gaming community says, “Hey, let’s have a conversation about the portrayal of women in games,” the response is never, ever apathetic. There is rage. There is eye-rolling. There are myriad “Get over it, ladies” and accusations of misogyny.
These varied, often colorful responses indicate that the issue of women in games is as hot as it was back in 1985, when female Nintendo enthusiasts wondered aloud why Mario had to save the Princess, or why Link had to save Zelda. Couldn’t things be the other way around?
Flash forward to whichever year it is now, and we can see that female characters do indeed maintain a presence in video games. Problem is, it’s rarely flattering–or even remotely realistic.
The debate became especially volatile at the end of August, when Metroid: Other M hit the Wii and, fans accuse, turned the rock-steady Samus Aran into a wibbling pile of female-scented goo who must grovel to her male superior, Adam Malkovitch, before she can use her missiles, don her Varia suit, or have a pee. Given that female gamers have few totems to admire, the domestication of Samus delivered a pretty big hurt.
More girls than ever play games. So why are female characters rarely portrayed an an admirable, favorable manner?
First, we have to look at what girls would like from a female heroine. Herein lies a problem, because no two girls will ever agree on what counts as an admirable characteristic. For instance, I’ve long loved Celes from Final Fantasy VI. She’s a General in the corrupt Imperial Army, but she sees the light and turns traitor–and sticks to her guns after enduring torture. She’s a little distant, but she’s warm towards her friends. She can wield the heaviest armor and weapons available in the game, thus snuffing out the “frail female mage” stereotype that still dominates both Western- and- Japanese-made games.
But she also falls in love–very subtly–with Locke, one of Final Fantasy VI‘s main male leads. And according to one fan I discussed the game with, that level of affection instantly turns Celes into another weak-willed female game character who pines for the day when her Prince will come.
I disagreed, but I understood my friend’s point of view. Why do in-game chicks have to shack up with whatever guy’s in charge? Why can’t the heroine just opt to put dating on the backburner, at least until she’s done something to quash the reign of Vaarg the Baby Devourer? For that matter, why can’t game characters–male or female–just be asexual once in a while?
The first half of the answer is cliche. You’ve heard it a million times before, so pardon me while I cough it up one more time: Sex sells.
Some developers meet us halfway. For instance, Mia Fey of the Phoenix Wright series is a razor-sharp lawyer who never backs down. She also has dirty pillows that are the size of thunderheads. Are the giant breasts really necessary? She’d still be a good-looking woman if Capcom performed a reduction.
And there’s no sin in game characters who look good. I just ask for a little realism. If you pardon my presumptuousness, I think that’s at least one characteristic all female gamers would like to see in heroines. Fighting in high-heeled boots? It’s not going to happen.
No, don’t argue.
Something else that’s sexy are female game characters who simply remain true to themselves. Chun-Li from the Street Fighter series, for instance, bucked Chinese tradition to remain a single career girl. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with choosing to raise a family. She just knew what she wanted, and she went for it.
Granted, I just said that sex sells. It does. But developers who reference actual female creatures for their own games don’t exactly crash and burn because they denied their male audience “moar t*ts.” Alyx Vance from the Half-Life games looks like an actual human being and not a blow-up doll (at least as far as your graphics card can carry her from a mere jumble of polygons), and she has a fan base with both sexes.
So now we have the second half of the answer as to why the sexes are far from equal in video games: Writing, developing, and modeling a female character who can be admired for her personality and realistic proportions takes a lot of effort. Much more effort than just sliding the “bounce” bar to maximum and calling it a day.
As for developers who meet girl gamers halfway, like with the aforementioned Mia Fey…well, maybe they can’t help it. I remember a”Peanuts” cartoon wherein Linus was drawing a picture of his sister, Lucy. She was looking over Linus’s shoulder while he drew, and he got so nervous that he drew the portrait with a gigantic, gaping mouth. Of course, Linus got slugged.
So maybe some developers try to draw realistic breasts on their characters, but shaking hands and possessed pens create otherwise.
Just kidding. It’s not that hard to talk to us and learn about what we want to see in a game heroine, developers. You can do it. We believe in you.