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Essay

What Women Want (In Female Video Game Protagonists)


The Escapist’s Shamus Young recently penned a thoughtful article about Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, and how he believes the lack of female protagonists in games is a more pressing concern than the portrayal of secondary characters. There are plenty of points there worthy of discussion, but what particularly caught my eye was a series of open questions posed to the “average power-fantasy-seeking female player”:

So what should a proper female lead look like? Where do you draw the line between “attractive” and “cheap pandering cheesecake”? Which female leads resonate with women? Which ones repel them? Is it better to have a variable gender protagonist like in Fable II where you can choose a gender that basically doesn’t matter, or is it better to have a protagonist with a specifically crafted character? What genres of action-type badassery are most attractive to females, and would make a good starting point for a developer looking to court a female audience?

I hardly speak for every woman gamer, but these are valid questions that don’t get addressed often enough. Very well then. Challenge accepted.

What should a proper female lead look like? Where do you draw the line between “attractive” and “cheap pandering cheesecake”?

I want a character who makes me feel emboldened on sight. If I’m a soldier, I want to look like the rest of my squad. If I’m escaping a zombie apocalypse, I want shoes I can run in and clothes that minimize the likelihood of getting bitten. If I’m a warrior of song and legend, I want a set of plate mail that will silence a room when I walk in. None of these things require a trade-off of my sexuality or femininity. I want my character to be beautiful, but I also want her to wear what I would want to wear in her circumstances. And if I’m given a pre-designed character, I’m fine with makeup or flowing hair or a lower-cut top, so long as it feels in character. It’s a costume, after all. Creative liberties are to be expected.

For me, the Cheesecake Line is where a character’s outfit no longer aligns with her role in the game. If I feel that what she’s wearing impedes her ability to do her job well — either due to physical risk or other people not taking her seriously — all credibility goes out the window. And if she’s in an outfit that says “sexy” while all her male counterparts are in outfits that say “powerful,” that’s a red flag — especially if she’s the only woman there. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with a female character who is defined by her sexuality, but it’s almost always the default. It’s not just demeaning, it’s boring. My sexuality is a part of who I am, but I don’t define myself by it, nor do I see it as my most noteworthy characteristic. I want the same to be true for female protagonists. Having that would create a more engaging experience for the women playing (and many men, too). You’d probably get more interesting stories to boot.

So, yes, you can make characters that are both physically attractive to straight men and conceptually appealing to women. Just be aware of the social climate you’re walking into when you go about creating them. The world of gaming is inundated with token female characters who exist purely as eye candy, and our patience on that front has long worn thin. You can write the best female character in the world, but if she appears in an outfit that screams “I have tits!”, or if the camera pans up over her curves as a means of introduction, you’ll have irked many women in your audience before that character even has the chance to speak, and you’ll have to work that much harder to win us back over. Some developers have the skills to find a happy medium. Many do not. If you’re not sure that you can make it work, it’s best to err on the side of full plate.

Just to make things one hundred percent clear — I’ve got nothing against sexy. To the men and women out there who enjoy dressing their characters in skimpy clothes, go forth and have fun. My issue is not with sexualized portrayals of women, but that said portrayals are the rule rather than the exception. So long as our playing field is level, there’s no reason to erase portions of it entirely.

Which female leads resonate with women? Which ones repel them?

If you want to start an argument that will last until the Sun burns out, walk into a room full of women gamers and say “Bayonetta.” One woman’s heroine is another’s Kryptonite. There are so many games and franchises with female characters that women disagree over. Starcraft. Resident Evil. Tomb Raider. There’s no master template for what we’re looking for, or for what we dislike. However, I do think there are a few basic things that work well. For that, I’m going to look at Chell from Portal.

Some argue, quite fairly, that Chell is a “non-character,” a vessel who could just as easily be a man, or a dog, or a loaf of bread. And in some sense, that’s true. Chell never speaks, or emotes, or does anything beyond fling herself through GLaDOS’s death traps. I don’t play Portal for Chell, I play because physics-based puzzles bliss me out. But still, I love her. Many women do. Even though Chell isn’t what makes Portal work, we balk at the idea of replacing her with someone else.

What is it about Chell? Well, for a start, courage. Resourcefulness. Perseverance. Intelligence. Even with no dialogue and no backstory, we know these things about her. On top of that, the camera doesn’t leer at her. No one gives her shit for being a woman (well, except for the Adventure Core). I think, generally speaking, these are many of the things we’re searching for. Look at how attached we are to Chell despite her lack of nuance. I see that not only as an indicator of all the things she gets right, but of how starved we are for fully developed female protagonists who are treated as well as she is.

The problem is that adding on those extra layers takes some skill, and it’s far easier to fall back on tired old tropes (I’m not saying male protagonists get it right, either — honestly, how many more gruff, emotionless dudes with dead wives/girlfriends do we need?). I can’t draw a diagram for what works and what doesn’t. But offhand, I can tell you a few commonalities that drive me right up the wall.

  • Women in combat roles who lament their loss of femininity or express a desire to be a “normal girl.”
  • Women who cannot act without a man to instruct and/or save them (cough, Metroid: Other M, cough).
  • The sense that the protagonist is the only woman in the game world who has ever become a hero.

That last point is perhaps the most important. If I’m playing a female protagonist, I’m keenly aware of how the other characters treat her and who the other female characters are. If my character is the only woman on the battlefield, or the only one deemed worthy of full armor, that’s a problem. The warm fuzzy feeling I get from playing a strong female protagonist dies quickly if the only other women I see are damsels or love interests (I say that as someone wholeheartedly in favor of getting laid in-game).

If my character is the only female character period, that’s a problem, too. Overcoming societal obstacles and breaking gender barriers is not a power fantasy for me. In fact, a lot of the time, it’s part and parcel of my day-to-day reality. My power fantasy takes place in a world where those issues are gone, where I can be a champion without any red tape. The minute a game reminds me that my ass-kicking heroine is viewed as lesser — even if it’s done in a way that coaxes me to prove all the haters wrong — it feels like a slap in the face. It’s not fun. It’s frustrating.

Give me a smart, brave woman who already has the respect of the world she’s trying to save, and I will throw my wallet at you.

Is it better to have a variable gender protagonist like in Fable II where you can choose a gender that basically doesn’t matter, or is it better to have a protagonist with a specifically crafted character?

We need both. In many ways, this is a question of genre rather than gender. Both Fable II and Fable III offer free roaming worlds in which the relationships the player has with NPCs do little to drive the plot. Variable gender protagonists make sense in that context. Something like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, on the other hand, allows the player many choices, but the game still belongs to Adam Jensen, a specifically crafted character whose story is driven by the scripted relationships he has with other characters. In the end, this question depends on what sort of story you want to tell. However, in terms of gender portrayal, each style offers unique benefits.

A variable gender protagonist is often a beautiful thing. Since the character is built upon a gender neutral framework, the game, by design, has to respect either choice. There may be a few differences in how the story plays out — which love interests are available, for example, or moments when NPCs call you out on your gender — but for the most part, the protagonist is given equal treatment. Note that this does not mean that the protagonist is treated like a man. It just means that she’s not sexualized and that she gets the same opportunities to prove herself.

Variable gender protagonists also avoid many of the traps that specifically crafted female characters can fall into. There are lots of examples, but camera angles are perhaps the easiest to illustrate. In the Mass Effect series, if you’re playing Commander Shepard as a woman, the camera never focuses on her breasts, her hips, or her backside (or if so, only incidentally). The reason for this is a technical one: only one set of animated sequences was created. FemShep and BroShep have to fit into all of them equally well. As a result, she walks into rooms, she runs into combat, she jumps away from explosions, and all we see is a woman being an incredible badass. Compare this with how those same games treat, say, Miranda.

Yeah.

But just because specifically crafted female characters often have to deal with such lingering issues, that doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t be focusing their efforts on making female protagonists. Quite the opposite. We like being told stories about predetermined heroines. Though we have less of a say in who those women are, they give us someone to admire, someone to inspire us. The first female protagonist I ever played was Lara Croft. A problematic character, to be sure, but as a young girl, I didn’t see any of that. I was just overjoyed to finally see someone like me in the starring role of an adventure. Without the developers making a call on her gender, I never would’ve have had that experience. Given that Lara hit the scene sixteen years ago and developers are still fighting with the idea that female protagonists don’t sell, I think it’s vital that we continue to add more heroines to the mix. That thinking won’t change otherwise.

To put it simply: Variable gender protagonists send the message that anyone can be a hero. Specifically crafted female protagonists send the message that women can be heroes. Both experiences are powerful and affirming, and neither is worth more than the other.

What genres of action-type badassery are most attractive to females, and would make a good starting point for a developer looking to court a female audience?

If I think only of the women gamers in my circle of friends, here are the games I know for a fact they played within the past two weeks: Borderlands 2, World of Warcraft, FTL, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Torchlight II, ARMA 2 (DayZ mod), Mass Effect 3 (multiplayer), LEGO Batman, Team Fortress 2, Diablo III, Costume Quest, and League of Legends.

Whatever genre developers have in mind, we’re already playing it.

To developers wanting to reach out to women (specifically male developers, one would think), here’s my two cents: At the end of the day, the top things that women gamers want are exactly what every gamer wants: solid mechanics, awesome loot, and an immersive world to play in. We play as tanks, healers, ranged casters, melee brawlers, explorers, bombers, builders — anything you can imagine. Make a good game and we’ll be there. But if you want to make the women in your audience feel more included (hugs and huzzahs to you if you do), or if you want to bring new women gamers into the fold, I’d suggest that you ask yourselves a few questions of your own.

  • How many female characters are there in your game? Is there a 1:1 ratio between genders? Does this ratio hold true for playable characters? If not, why not?
  • Who are your female NPCs? What role do they have in the story? Do they have motivations beyond needing saving, being martyrs, or wanting to have sex with the player character? Do we ever see two female NPCs speaking to one another?
  • If your game offers the player a choice of love interest, do you have options for folks of all preferences?
  • How do your male NPCs treat female characters? If you have a female protagonist, do the male NPCs treat her gender as an oddity or a handicap? Do they begin interacting with her by flirting or making catcalls? If so, why was this choice made? What does it add to the story?
  • How do the characters in your game change if you swap their gender? Is there a reason some of your male characters can’t be women (or vice versa)?
  • Who’s displayed in your box art and marketing materials? Is a female character included? If so, is she in the background? What’s she wearing? What does the way that she’s posing say about her? Are the male characters making eye contact with the viewer while she stares off in another direction?
  • Imagine that you have a daughter of the same age as your target audience. Would you want her to play this game? What would this game be telling her about women?

An incomplete list, I’m sure, and my answers preceding it are undoubtedly colored my own preferences. Your mileage may vary. But this is a discussion that’s only as good as the number of people taking part in it. As someone captivated by this medium’s ongoing evolution, I hope this is a conversation that gamers of all stripes — and developers, too — will keep having.

Top image credit: Hark, A Vagrant

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles and can always be found on Twitter.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501983222 Matt Graham

    Fantastic and useful read for my artistic purposes. Working with comics or RP, I usually bounce my heroine personalities and designs off of my wife or friends, who are all too eager to approve or correct. My favorite part of this article was the “repel or resonate” section, as I’ve seen my friends tear into the more…conservative mindsets at conventions or comic shops.

    The best example I can think of is at NYCC last year when DC premiered it’s Catwoman animated short – which involves sex trafficking and Selina Kyle breaking many faces over it. My friends thought it was cool and an awesome and empowering story, and within an hour of leaving that panel, we ran into someone who was wandering artist alley and coming up to people, reading aloud from a blog (she hadn’t actually seen the screening) and publicly condemning DC based on what someone must have live-blogged about the story. My wife could not contain herself and they began a systematic dismantling of the protestor…but as you said, one woman’s heroine is another’s Kryptonite.

  • Anonymous

    I’m very conflicted about the Mass Effect series. On one hand, it’s my favorite game of all time, FemShep is a badass, and I like the complexity they gave to every female characters, even Miranda.
    On the other hand, even though Miranda was supposed to be sexualized because that was part of her character, it’s hard not to see her as part of the general direction the series took after the first game. In the first game, I didn’t realized Ashley was a woman before she started talking. She had the armor of soldier and was wearing a full helmet everytime she was outside. In Mass Effect 2, gone were the armors, all replaced by tight by bodysuit and a little mask when a breather was needed. The new look of Ashley in Mass Effect 3 is another example of that.
    I don’t think Miranda deserves to be the poster girl for sexist characters (like I said, the character is good and there are plenty of worst characters, especially in Japanese games) but she does represent one of the few bad decisions BioWare made with the franchise.

  • http://twitter.com/cameragrrl Wendy Whipple

    Rock on!

  • http://twitter.com/aspeckcolo Anne Speck

    I’ve been thinking about these questions playing through the Uncharted series. In Campaign mode you have to play Drake since it’s autobiographical. But the world does have interesting and capable women in it. I always appreciate the platforming sequences with the women because there’s no suggestion they can’t jump as far as Drake or do as many full body lifts or they don’t have the grip strength to ride a zip line with a pistol as a handle. It’s an aspirational view of what women can do and I appreciate that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1478881517 Matthew Peters

    This was a great read. I’d given up on the site for a little while because of a similar article that was posted, and came off as kind of an attack. This was smart without being derogatory of either men or women. Thanks!

  • http://www.wulfmojo.com Wulfy

    Excellent post, very articulate and intelligently laid out. I especially agree with the importance of realistic clothing (long rant here: http://bit.ly/PXC8qD) and the need for the heroines to be normalised rather than a noted exception. A world where there are many average heroines is far better than one where there is one super-amazing heroine.

    I wonder about the best way to create a female gaming protagonist. The femShep phenomenon happened because the character was made gender-neutral/gender-chooseable, and this makes sense to me, it’s the familiar idea that to write a good female character, you write a good character and then assign their gender at the end. And yet, I would also like to see a solid gaming protagonist deliberately written as female. Imagine someone like Alyx from Half-Life or Zoey from Left4Dead, but they were the star of the game. If done right I think it could be awesome.

  • http://twitter.com/sarasakana Sara Sakana

    “Whatever genre developers have in mind, we’re already playing it.”

    Can we buy some billboards and paste this on it? Maybe hire a plane to skywrite it?

    I’m also not going to speak for all women, but personally I’m getting really, really tired of developers thinking all they have to do to attract women is dumb the mechanics and controls down to “pants-on-head-stupid-easy,” make everything pink, cute, and/or sparkly, make cooking, fashion, or babies a major part of the game, and include some manner of dressup doll avatar. You don’t need to make a whole new genre of ~*lady games*~, FFS. Just make the ones we already have be not offensive to the women playing them. Is that so much to ask?

  • Terence Ng

    Great article, Becky!

  • http://www.kelley-york.com Kelley York

    I always felt Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield (Resident Evil) are great female characters. In fact, I generally like most of the female characters in that series. The only female characters that come to mind in RE that are over sexualized and seem to be “eye candy” are Ada (who is this way for a reason; and she’s a very complex character aside from being attractive) and, I guess to an extent, Sheva from 5.

  • http://twitter.com/BusterBeam aaa

    I was initially introduced to this site through another article that I didn’t like, but… this one is pretty good. I particularly like the paragraph about sexualization and appealing to
    the player sexually because this is, I think, what people screw up the
    most when they talk about this stuff. The only part I don’t really like much is the one about practicality in outfits, because if a game is thought-out as something cartoonish and silly and has fitting aesthetics, I don’t really think having ‘job-appropriate’ attire is important. In wacky unrealistic anime games, a design is meant to be a part of the visual characterization, not necessarily something appropriate for what they’re doing within a realistic setting.

    As a “mostly-straight-but-not-always” guy I personally enjoy the rare instance of male ‘fanservice’ in games though of couse it would be bad if all males were designed like that. I think people make a mistake when they point at busty characters in skimpy outfits and say ‘this is what needs to go’ because really, to me the problem is the lack of variety. I don’t think characters like the girl from Mirror’s Edge or Alyx Vance are ‘progressive’. Alyx for instance is still clearly designed to be a pretty possible love interest for the player, just more realistically so. And I think the Borderlands 2 staff’s “look at how feminist we are!” boasting over designing a fat female character (likely as a half-hearted apology for the ‘girlfriend mode’ thing) is silly; we’ve had side characters like that for ages. And the people behind Monkey Island never pointed at the Voodoo Lady and said “look, she’s black AND fat, diversity combo!” – it was just… there as something natural and that made it way better by default.

    What would be truly progressive would be a female equivalent of Team Fortress 2. A genuinely varied female cast that all have unique bodies and visual characterization. Even if TF2′s characters are pretty stereotypical they have female fans because they have lots of charisma. You’d be hard-pressed to find an organized female fanbase for the Gears of War dudes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rachel.strieter Rachel Strieter

    The only female character that I’ve ever really liked is Alice Liddell from the American McGee’s ALiCE games. She’s strong, self-reliant, and feminine. But other than that, most female characters in games never really appeal to me, which is sad.
    I guess I like Juliet Starling from Lollipop Chainsaw, but she’s still displayed as a sexual object and what not. I kinda like Catwoman in Arkham City, but…again….
    It’s like every single lady character has “sexy” as their main trait, making female characters not-so-memorable. :/
    It’s a shame. A damn shame, and I LIKE video games too. They’re fun. There’s some artistic thought put into some of them. It’s just a shame that gender politics have to get in the way. :(

  • http://twitter.com/othertomperson tom

    It’s not really fair to mention the camera angles with Miranda because she is the *only* female character they did that to, and they did it to her because of her genetically engineered backstory.

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I remember the heartbreak that was Final Fantasy X-2. The first ever sequel to FF, and it featured most almost all the female PCs from X! I was so there. But then it started off with a pop concert, the first antagonist was 2d femme fatale, down to bozo henchmen. The ability to change your class mid combat was revolutionary, but did it have to be attached to outfits?!?!?! Then there was the corny, make the female antagonist orgasm “mission”, and the “we’ll put on a concert for world peace” mission, and ugh……

  • http://twitter.com/runininternet Dal.

    Great article, I really enjoyed it.
    About Miranda I know, her outfits.. ugh. I mean, why wearing something like that to fight… In fact I used on Miranda the armor outfit [http://img23.imageshack.us/img23/8816/me2tssnapshot0233201102.jpg], the best I think.
    It’s sad because I really like Miranda, she’s not just a sexy character.. her story, her quests… I mean, I love the character.
    Miranda isn’t her aspect, not only. [sorry for my bad english, durp]

  • http://www.facebook.com/habbibte Melanie Sinclair

    Great points and very succinct, thanks!

  • Anonymous

    I agree wholeheartedly up to this point:

    “Give me a smart, brave woman who already has the respect of the world she’s trying to save, and I will throw my wallet at you.”
    I think there are some situations where doing that is actually a bit insulting: an otherwise period-accurate game set in a pre-industrial time period that suddenly has universal freedom for females would be whitewashing history. Likewise, a game that purports to be realistic will take gender issues into account *if necessary for the context of the game* (i.e. women soldiers in WW2 were most certainly not the norm).

    That said, I might be reading too much into it: this sort of thing shouldn’t be an issue for games set in fantasy or science-fiction universes, and certainly not games that are primarily escapist rather than realistic. There’s no reason to have any of that stuff in the games you mentioned, anyway, and those games shouldn’t be in the minority.

  • Anonymous

    Chell is an example of what an “average power-fantasy-seeking female player” wants? Basically a normal person? When I read “power-fantasy” I think of an exaggeration of desire and total escapism. Like with guys wanting to be the biggest, toughest, manliest dude in the room that all the ladies want. What is the equivalent to that for a female player?

  • Blue

    Being treated as an equal.
    Because it’s honestly still a fantasy.

  • http://geekinthebreeze.wordpress.com mythbri

    Seeing as women in video games are hardly ever treated as normal people, instead of being defined by their gender or their sexuality, yes. That’s a fantasy I could get behind.

  • http://geekinthebreeze.wordpress.com mythbri

    The “accuracy” and “realism” arguments – are they really applicable when it comes to a medium that is supposed to provide a measure of escapism? As Becky said, gender power struggles is pretty much daily routine for lots of women. Why would they all want more of it in their fantasy?

  • http://www.facebook.com/laura.truxillo Laura Truxillo

    I always thought part of what made Chell so exceptional was that she COULD have been anything. That character could have easily been a guy. But…she wasn’t. It’s nice to see a character that’s a woman (or not white/straight/etc) not because the story calls for This Minority Here, but because…well, why not?

    Great article!

  • http://www.facebook.com/englerp Engler Pascal

    You could still have female resistance fighters or spies in a WW2-scenario.

  • Anonymous

    Ha. I thought I was the only one who was bothered by having conversations with Miranda’s bum in Mass Effect. See screenshot I posted here: http://twitpic.com/apotbt

    Generally, I want game protagonists whose sex doesn’t matter – which is why enjoyed playing female characters in, for example, Mass Effect 3 or Skyrim, because it didn’t really make a difference to the story whether they were male or female (in Mass Effect 3, my FemShep had to fight off all of the female and male crew’s advances! And I liked how some brotherhood in Skyrim always addressed me as “sister” :D) And I absolutely agree with the “suitable outfit” – high heels in combat and tiny bikinis as “armour” is just stupid.

  • Anonymous

    Ha. I thought I was the only one who was bothered by having conversations with Miranda’s bum in Mass Effect. See screenshot I posted here: http://twitpic.com/apotbt

    Generally, I want game protagonists whose sex doesn’t matter – which is why enjoyed playing female characters in, for example, Mass Effect 3 or Skyrim, because it didn’t really make a difference to the story whether they were male or female (in Mass Effect 3, my FemShep had to fight off all of the female and male crew’s advances! And I liked how some brotherhood in Skyrim always addressed me as “sister” :D) And I absolutely agree with the “suitable outfit” – high heels in combat and tiny bikinis as “armour” is just stupid.

  • Anonymous

    I think it depends on your aims for the game. I wouldn’t be bothered if a very realistic WWII game didn’t have female combatants in unrealistic situations – but I would be annoyed if the female spy was a purring sexpot.

  • Anonymous

    Think about this; do you have the stamina to run around for hours at a time, jumping through death traps run by an A.I that has anger issues? Christ, I’d say that’s already pretty exceptional. I train in martial arts; twenty straight minutes of practice sparing is TOUGH. Granted, I’m a tiny person and that’s the only time I work out. But still! Hard work.

  • Bob

    “women soldiers in WW2 were most certainly not the norm” So were respawns.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Holland-Dougherty/100001887054498 Holland Dougherty

    Russia had plenty of female soldiers – there were some women-only sniper squads that had pretty high success rates. No reason those couldn’t be included. Or female codebreakers (on all sides of the war).

  • http://twitter.com/DENuntld DEN

    great points. Perhaps the upcoming generation will do something amazing!

  • http://twitter.com/SoupyTwist SoupyTwist

    I take a bit of exception to the notion that as long as we avoid blatant cheesecake it’s fine to expect that all female characters will be pretty. I read a very good article on Jezebel a couple weeks ago (that I can’t find a link to right now, damnation) that pointed out how hard it is for women to not be assessed based on their attractiveness. The idea that a man can be say, a Nobel prize winner or an Olympic athlete and it doesn’t matter at all if he has a fetching profile or perfect skin. Whereas a female contender in the same situation will generate endless comments about her personal appearance.

    People said and say horrible things about Sonia Sotomayor’s physical appearance as if that’s at all relevant to her position on the Supreme Court. Nobody complains about Scalia’s figure.

    So I think in games, especially ones that are all about the power fantasy, it would be tremendously empowering to see strong, competent, kick ass women who don’t have flawless skin and flowing hair. Let’s have some women with scars and broken noses and covered in grunge because that’s what happens when you’re fighting off the Nazi Zombie Apocalypse.

  • Jen Roberts

    Well, keep in mind, Becky said she wasn’t speaking for EVERY female gamer. She’s talking about her own personal preferences.
    What you say is true, of course: it’s terrible what women who don’t quite live up to their society’s standard of beauty have to go through. The furor over that one female Olympian’s hair, for example, was ludicrous.
    Personally, I’m all for more customization in games myself, whenever we can get away with it :3 That way your character can match your OWN idea for what they should look like, and not be forced into one of four-or-five molds that are all “stereotypically societally-approved pretty”.

  • Anonymous

    What I mean is that treating women the same as men, or having the player’s character be gender neutral isn’t really directly trying to appeal to woman, its trying to appeal to everyone. Basically the developers are trying to not push anyone away by insulting them. That’s kind of letting the writers off the hook to just bring everything up to par in a sense. So its not about what appeals to everyone.

    Like, how should they properly target women? I’m not talking about Bioware and their ilk. They’re really good at what they do and are really rare. Got to dribble down pass the upper crust. So how about what the majority of them should do? Most games are crap and often pandering to some audience. Could they just gender swap Kratos? What would God of War be like geared to woman? Solid game play and fun and all, but was a total power-fantasy and squarely aimed at guys, no matter who else picked it up. What new cliches, stereotypes and tropes should they use? It seems one they have picked up is letting the female character show up some sexist dude. Is that a good one? Because really, that’s what most games are going to be made using, the same worn over crap. Its about laying a brand new layer that smells better to a certain audience.

  • http://www.facebook.com/englerp Engler Pascal

    Ah yes, mea culpa, i forgot about them. Russia also had some all-female pilot squads.

  • jenna mcna

    I agree. We do this with race some times, and it’s a good thing. In a film where a message about the persecution that LGTBI, women or POC experienced in the past, then the depiction of those attitudes is important to the story. But if it’s a game where you shoot nazi zombies and alien monsters, I say go nuts with retrospective equality-escapism

  • jenna mcna

    I love you a little for this comment. I legit rolled my eyes at the question about where the line is between attractive, and what is cheesecake, because unattractive/average wasn’t even an option like it is for male characters.

  • http://geekinthebreeze.wordpress.com mythbri

    And I’m telling you that as a woman, being treated as a normal person appeals to me very much. There are lots of ways that companies are told are the “right way” to appeal to women, but women are not a monolith. We don’t all like the same things or think the same way. There’s no “magic bullet” that will automatically make every single woman ever want to play any given game.

  • Guest

    That’s what I meant. My wording was off. Women, or any group, aren’t all the same, a monolith, but the marketing departments and executives think so. I thought the original article by Shamus Young was more about selling to an audience and selling usually means pandering to them. I thought there may be more to it than doing the bare minimum and treating every character equally. Just doesn’t seem like proper pandering, which is what I associate with power-fantasies.

  • Anonymous

    Speaking of scars, I was really happy to see scars as an option for women in Skyrim. My ex-boyfriend gave his Imperial lady a big scar because “she’s supposed to be a brawler, it makes sense she’d have a scar”. Oh no, scars on ladies will all turn off the dudes though amirite?

  • http://beautypersoni.livejournal.com Christopher-J Carlson

    Man or woman, scars add character, IMO. :^) I gave my female character (I’m a guy) those little nose scars. I just wish you could update your character’s scars as the game went on, as they’re bound to pick up at least a few more. “ARRGH! Cave bear! Run fer yer livs!” That said, I’m really enjoying this thread. Lots of intelligent, civilized conversation! :^) Anyhoo…

  • http://www.facebook.com/Travis.K.Fischer Travis Kyle Fischer

    So is anybody going to actually attempt to answer his question, or are they just going to continue to deflect?

  • http://www.facebook.com/kristina.hurt Kristina Hurt

    This is a really good article. I agree the female should play the part, and be dressed appropriately for the part. But I do want an attractive female with a great body as my main character, as for support characters, I may be the only female that enjoyed and found humor in Miranda’s ass. Point is, the ability to create your own characters appearance is important, that way everyone gets what they want.

    What repels me is to not have a female character option at all. I
    picked up Gears of War, Bioshock, COD and the main thing I disliked was
    that I was playing as a male character and I couldn’t connect with the
    game as much. But like the author mentioned, some games are meant to be male or female role like Metal Gear Solid,
    where I actually connected with Snake although he wasn’t a female, as I connect with Link. So, it depends on the game.

    Fable II was great, but as the story went on she took on more and more
    male traits (she was like 6’5″ 280lb weight lifter). Call me crazy but I
    don’t want her looking like an Olympic weight lifter. I do want her to
    carry sex appeal as a female. It felt like they just through in a female voice and face and the rest was the same.

    Attention to detail is VITAL when making a female character. Slip’s like
    saying “sir” or secondary male characters treating you male or a female
    flirting are just a downright turnoff. Unless you are playing to have a
    female/female love interest, I don’t want women throwing themselves at
    me in the game. If you are going to do a female character, do it right.

    I know we are a small percentage of gamers, but we are out there and we
    play a lot. I probably pay $200-$500 a year on games, and if there is a
    new system or xbox live renewal, or accessories it goes up from there.
    Women gamers are not all IOS gamers, who play Farmville and Sally’s Spa
    (ok I lied, I like Sally’s Spa).

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eric-Bazilio/100000132443742 Eric Bazilio

    I find disturbing cognitive dissonance in the superposition of an ass with someone worrying about the well-being of his sister’s entire family.

  • http://twitter.com/NorthrnBeholder Northern Beholder

    The points about over-sexualized female characters losing all credibility (taking my suspension of disbelief with it) and simply being boring ring so true. I roll my eyes and sigh whenever a game trots out a valkyrie wearing nothing but a metal bikini and tries to sell her as a powerful warrior. It’s why I love the Elder Scrolls games: they rarely (if ever) try to make gender a character’s central issue and the armour, with few exceptions, appears just as protective and badass on females as it does the males.

  • Jayn

    “Note that this does not mean that the protagonist is treated like a man.”

    Though it certainly can, if done badly. Saints Row 2 and 3 bug me for this reason. While you can play as either gender and it makes no functional difference, there’s a few places in both that make it clear the games were designed with a straight male in mind. (Try the ho-ing diversion in SR2 to see a pretty blatant example of female characters being an afterthought)

  • http://twitter.com/Attercap Erich Arendall

    Technically, SR2 was a direct continuation of the first Saints Row (rather than simply a numeric sequel), in which the player character could only be a straight male. So, between that and the obvious medical advances as presented by the plastic surgeons in the later games, your character really was a straight male–no matter what the body!

    …Not that I actually disagree with you. When I’m allowed to craft a character, I also expect to be able to play my character in character.

  • http://twitter.com/KimikoMuffin Kimiko Muffin

    The comment about “she’s in an outfit that says ‘sexy’ while all the men say ‘powerful’” made me want to see a squadron of soldiers which is almost all male, with one or two women, and *all* of them are wearing “sexy” camo sports bras and short-shorts. I suppose this wouldn’t actually be an improvement per se, but …

  • Raydiann

    I really appreciate the treatment of women in the recent installments of the Fallout series. The world is based on an apocalyptic wasteland that, prior to the end of the world, was pretty much 1950′s. You’d think that would make a highly-sexist game environment, and it’s anything but.

    While some NPC’s adhere to those old-fashioned notions, gender culture has evolved for everyone else. There are women in all roles, from strong, respected leaders to perfect housewives. There are hookers, there are slaves, there are soldiers and there are heroes. There are female town guards, several organizations where women are the most senior or highest-ranking members, and of the human enemies you might encounter, many factions are split 50/50.

    It’s one of the few game worlds where I feel like I can play a woman character and the reactions of other characters meshes with the treatment of NPC women.

  • http://twitter.com/imjanus Joe G

    The protagonist of the second Medal of Honor game (Underground on the PSOne) was a French woman. The game took some inspiration from the non-fiction book “Sisterhood of Spies”, about actual women OSS/SOE agents in World War II.

    Also, the 1967 WWII film “Where Eagles Dare” starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton (and the book it was based on) featured two badass lady spies. It’s certainly not a new idea in World War II fiction.

  • http://twitter.com/imjanus Joe G

    For me it depends on the overall design aesthetic the game or story is going for. If a sword & sorcery setting has a lot of Frazetta-esque strongmen with Arnold physiques in fur loincloths, I’m not going to balk at Vallejo-esque amazons in fur bikinis (Vallejo’s warrior-women are also muscled and athletic and project power and strength; they’re not Victoria’s Secret models wielding two-handed swords). Tyris-Flare’s bikini from Golden Axe is fine, because Ax-Battler is wearing a loincloth. Likewise, the female enemies in that game have as much armour coverage as the male ones. But if the setting regularly shows male warriors in full plate armour and clads female warriors in metal bikinis, that is a textbook example of the “men are powerful; women are sexy” dichotomy that Becky described.

  • Rocko

    I came here from Shamus Young’s blog, and I want to chime in and say that this article is brilliant. This is a glass-clear, insightful, and frank examination of a startling breadth of a very large, nebulous issue. I’m also overjoyed that it is entirely clear of snark or condescension, a rare and welcome commodity anywhere, but especially in discussion of gender issues that continue to be so bafflingly inflammatory.

    You are doing an excellent job here, please keep this up for everyone!

  • Andrew

    This issue is far from confined to computer games, and it isn’t even particularly strongly (though I admit it is somewhat) associated only with women. Media in general is terrible at portraying averagely attractive or ugly characters of either sex. Male characters are far less sexualised, but they still tend to be overwhelming attractive.

  • http://twitter.com/seriouslyyouguy you guys

    In games with detailed character options creation like Skyrim, Fallout 3/New Vegas, Mass Effect and Dragon Age it is extremely easy to make an unattractive or even grotesquely hideous protaganist. And the game’s NPCs will still treat you as though you are one fiiiiiiine piece of something. Some people make the ugliest possible character just to make fun of this fact.

  • http://twitter.com/seriouslyyouguy you guys

    There should actually be a 1:1.01 ratio in sexes, as women slightly outnumber men in reality (49% male, 51% female.) STATS!

  • http://beautypersoni.livejournal.com Christopher-J Carlson

    I imagine a lot of NPCs as being just as desperate as a lot of people in the real world. *teardrop* I also like to think that quite a few people are willing to take a chance on someone due to the concept of “inner beauty”. After all, there seems to be quite a number of “beautiful people” who are real bastiches! (As a female Nord in Skyrim, I’ve had my eye on one particular Orc for some time. Not sure if it’ll work out, but I’m willing to give it a fling. LOL!)

  • http://www.spaceunicorn.net Jayme

    Actually, keep God of War exactly the same, genderswap all the characters and yeah, I’d play that.
    Seems to me many women bristle at being “catered to”. We just wanted to be included. Just because “BroDude” likes something doesn’t mean that there isn’t a woman out there who likes the same thing.
    And there’s nothing wrong with every developer striving to be a bit more like BioWare as far as storytelling goes. Why are people so okay with mediocrity these days?

  • http://www.spaceunicorn.net Jayme

    My female Commander Shepard is my power-fantasy.

    I know lots of dudes whose power-fantasy is not the toughest, manliest dude in the room. There are problems with that generalization as well. Sure, my husband wishes he were more buff, but he’s never had a problem getting the ladies, either.
    I’d say we all want to be badasses, regardless of physical appearance. I’m as engaged in a power-fantasy playing a tiny, acrobatic, sneak-thief as I would be playing a warrior-type who happens to look like a female bodybuilder.

  • http://www.spaceunicorn.net Jayme

    Miranda’s ass and Miranda’s ass jokes never get old. I also loved that we got a ridiculous Kaidan’s ass shot in ME3. But to me it always seemed that the Miranda scenes were meant to be over the top. Even now there are some players that cannot see past her exterior, whereas I happen to think that she had a very interesting personality, once Shepard told her to pull her head out of her ass. Ha ha.

  • http://twitter.com/heavenscalyx heavenscalyx

    Not only would I love more female leads, but I’d love to see more variability in the women being portrayed as beautiful. Not all straight men are into the skinny boobtastic stereotypical white girl — why not pander to the numerous fat admirers out there by having a vamp character be a hot and sexy fat chick? Not all men want submissive T&A — why not pander to the guys who want muscular dominant women?

    In my dream game, the lead character would be a scarred middle-aged butch woman, because the portrayal of butches in videogames seems to be limited to, um, Payne of FFX, and even SHE was stupidly feminized with high heels.

    Also, my dream game would be as completely non-heteronormative as possible. Why NOT have a science fiction universe where EVERYONE is more or less bisexual? This was a happy meme in many1970s and 1980s SF books (which, I know, were BOOKS [gasp, horror] that came out before many of the people in the current videogame industry were born, but still). WHY limit the available partners by their gender at all?

    Could we also have more androgynous and genderqueer characters? You cannot tell me that Naoto of Persona 4 somehow made that game sell less well. (Also, I hate the fact that your main character could somehow “persuade” Naoto out of zir “phase” and convince zir that zie “wanted” to be properly feminine. ARGH.)

    I’m not so much with the nonscripted characters — I adored FF7 and FF9 and all the Suikodens and Personas for their intense and baroque storylines, and I want MORE of that… but with MANY MANY MORE female characters and DEFINITELY female leads.

  • http://twitter.com/nicolevonvon Nicole von St Ange

    Heh I absolutely loved playing a women demon hunter in D3, I thought she was badass and awesome… except for everytime she ran around the desert in high heels I would be annoyed with her… Would it have been so hard to give her some badass boots?

  • http://twitter.com/seriouslyyouguy you guys

    You know codebreakers sat in offices crunching numbers and solving puzzles, right? They didn’t go busting doors down and parachuting into Nazi-occupied France. A game revolving around the women of Bletchly Park (who were many in number,) would be a puzzle game, not an action FPS.

  • geminithief

    I thought Jack from Mass Effect 2 was really fucking hot. Even hotter in ME3 now that she actually has hair.

    and I’m a lesbian. I prefer my women in games to look ‘agressive’, seriously. Don’t give me ‘sexy’ women. Give me women with scars, badass hairstyles and personalities to match!!

  • geminithief

    Thank you thank you THANK YOU for mentioning Underground! I’ve been hoping that someone would bring up that game! That game was proof that women can be playable characters in FPS games and not fail at it.

  • http://twitter.com/Ironicstar Shaylynn H.

    Dragon Age even though it’s also by BioWare (Mass Effect creators) it does this beautifully. I was so happy to finally get a GOOD console game that let me be a woman.

  • Nikolaus Valentine

    Here is something you possibly havent considered. maybe the developers dont give a crap about appealing to the female audience beyond boosting their sales. not saying that all developers think this way but maybe the social climate of the world just isnt ready to bend to the extent you want. i do think women deserve equality as long as they earn it (same goes for men) but you cant expect changes overnight. also certian games are tailored to appeal to the different genders. some games are designed to appeal to the straight male while others are slanted towards appealing to females. television, advertisement, movies, products ect have often targeted specific genders so why cant games once in a while aswell? ive played both female and male characters when the option of gender is available (some examples are Runescape, skyrim, fallout 2, and many others) and ive found that there is ample decent games that dont rely on gender. i am a male gamer by the way but also gay so i do not notice as much sexualization and degradation of women in video games but i do see it. my personal opinion a member of a stereotyped and very narrowly veiwed group (there are many offensive references to homosexuality spread out in the games. though recently ive seen improvement) you need to be a bit more patient with society. though advocate your your opinions to your content understand change takes time.

  • http://levelthirteen.org/ Kahlan MacKenna

    Equality, almost by its very definition isn’t earned. It’s given because ALL people deserve it at birth regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality etc;. We cannot control how we come into this world. Black. White. Male. Female. But we can control how we treat other people while we’re in it.

  • http://twitter.com/DoctorDeadpool Christopher Shafer

    Here’s a interesting thought: Does a game designed to appeal to women necessarily require a female protagonist?

  • Anonymous

    Haha, you’re sort of implying that female gamers have chronic amnesia in terms of which characters we are attracted to! It’s funny!

    But here: http://www.themarysue.com/shortpacked-false-equivalence/

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think anyone is deflecting on purpose, I think the question just doesn’t have an easy answer.

    If you really want a whole bunch of different people to brainstorm what kind of power fantasy would pander to them personally so you guys can sort through it for commonalities, maybe I can try to help. But I’m already ten months late, so I don’t expect you’ll get the flood of contrasting voices you need to make any meaningful deductions from the data.

    Here, let me think aloud about how to appeal to ME with anything-goes wish fulfillment:
    Protagonist: She’s a sweet little blonde with D-cups because it’s easiest to identify with characters who look just like me. But she dresses in an elegant and situation-appropriate manner, and no character or camera behavior calls unnecessary attention to her personal appearance. (Appropriate attention might be if she is about to infiltrate a royal ball in disguise or something.) Her curves are not disproportionately shiny, detailed, or bouncy for the art style. She is or becomes the best in-universe practitioner of kung-fu/parkour/gunplay/hacking/crafting/lateral-problem-solving/whatever-fits-the-theme/all-of-the-above-and-more. Her ethical and tactical decisions are what drive the storyline. She is thoughtful and reserved unless the situation demands otherwise, but no one treats it as a weakness. Her gender isn’t explicitly remarked upon, it just is.
    NPCs: Maybe a team of supporting characters who, while skilled at their jobs, recognize that they can’t save the world without the heroine’s talents. If it’s a writing-heavy game, they interact with the player regularly so as to allow both camaraderie and strategic decision-making. There is an even mix of genders, but most of them are generically pretty like Final Fantasy characters. Again, no unnecessary attention is called to it. Rivals exist only on the enemy side, as the heroine’s own teammates respect her too much to think they can upstage her in her areas of expertise. Even enemies may come around to that viewpoint after becoming familiar with her abilities. Sometimes allies need to be bailed out of trouble and other times they are precious assets, because they are each believable mortals and not because they fall into any specific demographic patterns. If the heroine herself ever gets rescued by other characters, it’s because of both the technical mistakes the player made during gameplay and their prior decisions to put the right allies in the right positions to be helpful.
    Romance: Totally optional and not needed to make a good fantasy, but also the one place where it might be appropriate to bring up the heroine’s gender. How it would play out is some of the characters with compatible orientations would start taking notice of the heroine’s competence and moral fiber in a more personal way, and subsequently responding by opening up in more personal ways, such as going outside formal protocol to lend their skills to her missions, or in the case of an enemy, compromising their cause for her sake. The heroine would have a full range of options concerning reciprocation. How close it gets to being a formal relationship with dates and makeout sessions depends on the type of story.
    Errata: Maybe she should be able to fly, teleport, and summon aetheric kittens to fight for her. Because. ;) And if this can be any kind of fantasy, not just the raw power side of it…I have a huge soft spot for vibrant landscapes, especially if I can interact with them to solve puzzles in multiple ways and feel like Chief Warlord Parson Gotti. That might require a different genre, though.

    So, that’s me. How you would pander to my sister who shares my DNA, age group, and upbringing…I do not know. I can’t begin to guess how you would pander to a whole bunch of gaming lasses at once; good luck getting more data!

  • Megistus

    What is the “Female Power Fantasy”,seriously Ladies I’d like very much to know.

    At it’s heart the often maligned “Male Power Fantasy” is about triumphing over adversity and conflict, then being reward for having done so; gaining a mate/mates,influence,wealth are all part of that reward.