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What Women Want (In Female Video Game Protagonists)

Essay

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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