The Evolution of Women in Video Games – Think Piece

Have you ever seen the game Custer’s Revenge? It’s older than me and the entire experience is you’re a cowboy running through arrows to legitimately hump a woman, erection showing along the way. It’s a terrible game and would be burnt alive if released today for…wow, so many reasons. The reason that’s coming to mind now is how it shows the primordial, lowest vision of women in video games imaginable.

The woman at the end of the level was objectified, sexualixed, and racistly-depicted to boot. She was an adult-rated damsel in distress in a time where every game was marketed towards children, somehow making this scenario seem worse. Rock bottom hits when you take a look through history. After searching and scavenging, I’m confident in saying that this hyper-terrible representation is one of the first representation of a human female in a video game. Before Pauline, before Samus, this.

Women in video games have been portrayed with like-minded, though arguably not quite as blind, deaf, and dumb, representations throughout the modern gaming age. There are amazingly-good, terrific strides that have happened that we’ll come to later, but I just have to get this upfront and highlighted: women haven’t had a smooth road to fair digital recreation.

So, from my very deep recliner-quarterbacking position, how does the landscape look for women in video games?

Looking towards the worst pile again, egregious examples strikingly close to Custer’s Revenge can be seen as recent as 2013. Ride to Hell: Retribution was a critically-panned crescendo of inexperience and tone-deafness that spewed sexism like a geyser. Were you to even get a few hours in, you’d be met with scumbags attempting to kill a woman, you shoot them, and they “sleep” with you. The experience doesn’t even approach erotic, and skips right over the line of progressive female representation to burn down the closest shed.

women in video games
Yep, accurate, sure.

While this is laughable from afar as clearly a gameplay element to cross-off the list, it’s an acorn fallen from a tree of a wider mindset. Series like Leisure Suit Larry are pointed to as larger branches, teeming with the same women-be-sexy ideals that pulse through the rest of this mighty oak. And it is, unfortunately, mighty.

Let’s break down that tree into its sections, shall we? The branches are all games or series that have attached a singular, pithy stereotype to women, not just the objectification angle. Duke Nukem is a series that sexualizes, sure, but it also makes women seem helpless or worse. Yet because of a lot of early critical acclaim, the formula stuck and the branch grew.

The roots of this tree are the same set that most mediums share, and that’s the zeitgeist of the times. Political correctness has a malleable definition, after all. Popular slang words in one era can set off massive sh*t storms in another, which leads into a wider topic for another day. The roots are watered and cultivated by the players and even casual observers. All attention, in the strict realm of zeitgeist, is good attention as it keeps the roots trimmed and prepared for the next wave.

The trunk is tradition; that is, what is processed through marketing divisions as tradition and fed back to the masses. For a pretty clear example, let’s take the microscope to Breath of the Wild for a moment. Series producer Eiji Aonuma, on the run-up to the eventual release, had to deflect some early confusion that lead many to wonder if Link, who’s always had elven features, was to be a female in the new game. Aonuma denied the gender change very politely and offered contrition for the confusion. This lead to a natural follow-up question, which was basically “Well, why not?” Here’s the answer he gave (via Kotaku):

“You know there’s the idea of the Triforce in the Zelda games we make,” he told Kotaku. “The Triforce is made up of Princess Zelda, Ganon and Link. Princess Zelda is obviously female. If we made Link a female we thought that would mess with the balance of the Triforce. That’s why we decided not to do it.”

Self-made tradition was used to tie their own hands, which seems particularly insane given how much Breath of the Wild changed from tradition Zelda formulas. It’s a tradition set by the company or creator, completely and solely within their power to amend. Aonuma is far from the only example, and his response was just as far from the boot-stamping of others (hello Ubisoft). That doesn’t change the fact that these gods of their realities are denying their own power, seemingly for no other reason but convenience.

women in video games
Ubisoft achieved the impossible: a female main character!

The leafs of the tree are where the result of women in video games can be seen in full. These are the creative directions of characters – their visual style, voices, etc. – that are, for the most part, sadly set in the same old traditions. There are too many examples to process on this topic, but they all mostly boil down to a morose group of stereotypes. Scantily clad, throaty voice, completely helpless (or hapless), boob physics, misused or straight-up abused, talked down to, waiting for a man for lust or marriage, or some uninspired combination.

And look, men are depicted in very stereotypical ways too. The male version of this same oak tree is just as big, just as stereotypical, and just as inconceivably narrow-minded, even today.

The difference is that, in that traditional trunk both trees sport, men are the heroes. Women are waiting, watching, swooning, or supporting. That’s the water to the roots to the trunk to the branches to the leafs: an entire cycle of traditional gender lines beaten into brains and creative processes for centuries.

But those leafs, standing at the end of the cycle as proudly proclaimed works, are where women in video games began to break molds. It’s not that successful, strong, smart, and independent women accidentally found their way into video games as main characters. They just had to be fostered with a little more care.

The first widely-known female protagonist famously came from Metroid with Samus Aran. You never knew that just playing, mind you, because her power armor obfuscated any real detail. It was a secret ending that revealed the character’s gender, literally shocking a generation of gamers with the reality that women could do this sort of thing as well. That a woman could save the planet and beat-up the evil alien just as well as a man could remains on several “Most shocking moments in video games” lists to this day. Despite how sad that seems as a reality, this is an idea that came in the middle of the process at a time where instant social response wasn’t a viable backboard. The team at Nintendo made the call in a near vacuum, breaking from the tradition that was taking off behind fellow Nintendo stars Link, Donkey Kong, and Jump Man (pre-Mario Mario).

women in video games
Don’t worry, she was still sexualized despite basically being a Magic Eye.

Years later, Lara Croft took on the third-dimension with one foot still planted firmly in two-dimensional results. She was an extremely sexualized figure that became a female Indiana Jones – two tropes seemingly at odds despite her starring role. While it’d be tough to argue that this duality didn’t lend well to her iconic status, more recent depictions have trended to show a more balanced, grounded example of women in video games. This has led her to having two runs in Hollywood as well – a first for any video game character.

And that’s how the story went for a long time. Women in video games were outnumbered and cornered more often than not, forced to marionette by their creators as one of a handful of tropes. Then, a woman who was actually a character would come out as proof-of-concept, laying groundwork that would rile some players and be applauded by others. That area of applause, though, began to swell and grow with the audience until the early 2010s came around.

In my realm and circles, it was Mass Effect 3’s inclusion of “Fem Shep” that seemed like a huge moment for women in video games. A female version of Commander Shepard (voiced by the awesome Jennifer Hale) came packed-in with the previous Mass Effects as well, and the dialogue held few differences between genders. The difference that seemed to send the most ripples is that Bioware shipped the game with a reversible cover that could, for the first time in a longtime, showcase a strong, determined woman in the same space as the male Shepard.

From those that I spoke to at the time, this was another Samus Aran reveal moment. Commander Shepard was still Commander Shepard no matter the gender, both of their looks, gear, and determined stares the same on either cover. There was the female embodiment of badass (or evil depending upon your morality) that spoke beyond just women. Men respected the hell out of the cover and the option to choose, actively exploring that gender in their main character as a result. Bioware advertised a main feature – inclusiveness – perfectly.

Even from a sales perspective, it worked. Mass Effect 3 is the top seller of the entire franchise. That’s the rub to keep in mind in all of this; even from a cold, business-y perspective, games will always have a wider audience when they appeal to everyone.

women in video games

Women in video games had a sort of coming out party in 2013 that even Ride to Hell couldn’t stop. The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, Beyond: Two Souls, Season 2 of The Walking Dead, Remember Me, and the Tomb Raider reboot lent to a blockbuster lineup starring women. Infinite’s Elizabeth even turned to the damsel trope for inspiration as she evolves out of that Disney princess outline into a terrifying wielder of time and space. These are award winning games that sold well and received an overwhelming amount of Game of the Year votes combined. Tradition would never be the same as lines blurred and the data that many companies hide behind was forever skewed away from the traditional vision of “male gamer”.

Bioshock is the most telling game on this list for me because of the sales and what transpired before the game released in regards to women in video games. Infinite had been in the slow cooker for some time which allowed plenty of insight into how the game was coming along with characters, environments, etc. When the first cover for the game released, no one was having what it represented of a series as traditionally deep as Bioshock had been. Worse still, there had been so much talk about Elizabeth and how vital she was to the experience, and yet, the front was just “dude with a gun”.

Ken Levine himself came to defend the act as intentional and to give casual gamers something more eye-catching.:

“We had to make that tradeoff in terms of where we were spending our marketing dollars. By the time you get to the store, or see an ad, the BioShock fan knows about the game. The money we’re spending on PR, the conversations with games journalists – that’s for the fans. For the people who aren’t informed, that’s who the box art is for.”

The summary of his message came down to “men with guns on covers sell games”. Unfortunately for the company, they’d miscalculated both the backlash to the cover art and what the redesign represented to the uninformed consumer. They fell into the herd with the latter and became indistinguishable, limiting their reach to a dwindled base that just wasn’t having this sort of homogenization anymore – both for gender-specific reasons and for the series in general. Irrational Games dissolved down to a handful of people and Infinite failed to surpass the first game in sales.

The female characters of 2013 starred in benchmark games, their characterizations strictly in the “I’m just a character” realm as opposed to the “I’m a woman who happens to have a characteristic” trope that had so often flowed freely. As a perfect example of that difference, I bring to you one of the best characters of all time, The Boss. The main antagonist in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is portrayed as a legend you’re too afraid to approach, her hands too fast to counter and her mind too seasoned to unfocus. She is the epitome of the battlefield that demands respect from organizations and personnel on high.

women in video games

And yet, even as strong as her character and portrayal as a woman is, you could’ve substituted her body out for a man or trans model and not lost any of her effect. There are a couple of lines at the end that you’d have to reword, but otherwise, she could be a “he” or any other identifier. That’s because she is just a character who happens to be a woman, not someone defined nor anchored to the traditional characteristics of her gender.

The same can be said of Naked Snake from the same game or Nathan Drake from Uncharted, as we’ve seen in The Lost Legacy. All genders of characters that we create seem to be their best when we are lost in their mission, purpose, or world. The Boss doesn’t “act like a woman” any more than Naked Snake treats her like one. She is a loved one that he feels betrayed by, and because of how well their characters are written, you could change those pronouns at will and lose nothing.

The women in video games that have, usually, a single attached characteristic spring from the same branches that were beleaguered above. Again, the depth of potential examples seems like a Lovecraftian portal, but to pull out one that’s survived for decades, let’s take Morrigan from Darkstalkers. She is a succubus with a backstory, technically, but this is the type of development she’s given more times than not. Simple and effective? Absolutely. That doesn’t make it seem any less humiliating at this point in the evolution of the medium. For those wondering, she’s portrayed as such a one-note character in even the latest entry – amazingly also released in 2013.

And to reiterate, it’s not that women shouldn’t be shown as sexy or nerdy or any single character trope. There are still going to be throw-away characters of any gender on top of those that just don’t have the writing chops to shape a full personality. The lowest-denominator will always be handed something to gnaw through. At the core of character design though, women in video games, like men, don’t need to be anything. That’s how The Boss and others work so well.

While that’s not quite where women in video games are at present, there has been an interesting shift overcoming the industry. American society, thanks to social platforms offering fewer buffers than ever, allow for all sides to sound off. As it pertains to women almost exclusively, the #MeToo movement has, literally, shaken politics itself, let alone various entertainment industries. Every corner of processed “tradition” is undergoing a change as fewer and fewer people are willing to sit back and take perceived abuse.

On the product side of the industry, video games have taken a unique, semi-frontrunner approach to making female characters feel more equal to male counterparts. It seems juvenile, perhaps even too close to a sleazy play at marketing, but regardless, the newest approach basically boils down to “Our female characters can be sexy AND have characters”. Maybe not the best of both worlds but the fact that they’re moving in that direction can be seen as promising.

The highest profile example of this newly highlighted duality for women in video games in 2015 was the Metal Gear Solid V character Quiet. Former series-keeper Hideo Kojima famously spouted several defenses for her scantily-clad body, forewarning any naysayers that shame would come their way like a Game of Thrones street walk. Her design, which was clearly meant to be sexual despite his claims, hid a deep character that became one of the highlights of The Phantom Pain for me. This appeared to have been the halfway point between the visually-pleasing and the depth of character that this series – of all series – is known to deliver.

women in video games

Meanwhile, in the more mid-tier and indie space, you have an overwhelming amount of women just as characters. 2016’s Life is Strange, Her Story, Undertale, Tales From the Borderlands, Shovel Knight, and more feature completely clad women characters with development and full substance. Equality is taking form at the roots thanks to titles like these, the smaller branches overwhelming the vain idea that everybody can be happy with a video game all the time.

So, where does that leave the evolution of women in video games? Well, what’s been a wash with intermittent highlights for years seems to finally be bearing full, real fruit. That certainly doesn’t mean that every game will have a well-written, female protagonist anymore than there will be always be a male. Again, this is a variable, artistic industry that doesn’t like stapling down a single way to operate. The difference is that now women characters have the opportunity to spit, shoot, curse, blast through barriers, sh*t-talk a boss, and quip just like the male characters have for years.

Plus, you know, tell a compelling story. From time to time.

That absolutely does not mean to proclaim that everything is square even today between genders. Video game characters are still predominantly white males, without question. Any numbers in the world will tell you that, and the reception to lead women can be seen still cause firey arrows to rain down far more often than is necessary. That contingent’s numbers seem great because their social volume is turned up the loudest on every morsel to be found on the subject. In reality, the market and mindsets of the world are leaving that shrinking corner of the industry behind.

All it means for women in video games now is that there’s opportunity. Pure, open opportunity to move forward and show the world what many people already have ample evidence to support: women and men can both make for terrific avatars in incredible gaming experiences. Voices of the public and creative teams have to ask themselves “Well, why not have a woman in this role?” At the end of the day, the only way to break traditional ways of thinking in corporations, teams, and eventually people is to show them that there is another way that works just as well and pigeonholes far fewer people in the process. That’s the basis of the creative process in general.

Maybe it is a little sad to use an equal gender representation inside of a purely-creative medium as a chance to “be creative”, but if that’s what it takes, so be it.

3 thoughts on “The Evolution of Women in Video Games – Think Piece

  1. This is a fantastic read and deserves more likes. You are very sensitive to the nuances of feminist social issues in the video game industry and I agree with almost all of your points. I don’t often find others bloggers who do such deep dives into this subject. Well done!

  2. This article was so well-written! I thoroughly enjoyed the quantity of examples used and how they were able to showcase each point accurately. I think the strides the gaming industry is taking towards inclusion is so exciting and I can’t wait to see many more dynamic, interesting characters in the future.

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