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The Argument for Female Video Game Protagonists


Female Protagonist Front

This is a bad time for women in video gaming. The roles of woman characters have been greatly relegated to stereotypes, damsels-in-distress, and eye candy. Chris Perna is the Art Director of Gears of War developer Epic Games, and when recently asked about the idea of a female protagonist in future installments of the popular shooter, stated “That’s certainly interesting but I don’t know. If you look at what sells, it’s tough to justify something like that.” I think it’s about time that kind of thinking should change.

Lead By Example

Samus Aran

Thank you to transfuse at Deviantart for making this

Honestly, it doesn’t make much sense. Looking back, there are a lot of female protagonists that starred in best-selling games. Samus Aran, the notorius Metroid bounty hunter was one of the first in 1987 (North American release), and her series has sold very well. The Tomb Raider series is one of the best selling video game series ever, and despite a history of oversized bazoombas, a new one is one the way this year with normal sized jumblies and a focus on her culturally significant character story. Perfect Dark sold remarkably well on the N64 and was a worthy successor to the classic Goldeneye, impressive considering it had nothing to do with Bond.

FemShep

FemShep, like the other Shepard, but with a better voice actor

Even games with CHOICE over the sex of your main character have done incredibly well. The best of these, Mass Effect, always left the choice to the player, and dare I say that the voice actress (Jennifer Hale) delivered lines more passionately, a female Shepard makes for a more powerful feeling Renegade, and the influence was obvious as the third game used much more promotional material featuring the female option. How much did that game make again?

Gender Considerations

Lightning

Lightning, the “better looking Cloud Strife”

Realistically, how much does the sex of main character really matter? You could play the entirety of the Halo series, and if the voice was changed to a woman’s, would it be any less fun? I chose the Siren class in Borderlands because I love lots of bullets and subtle powers. Think I cared about anything beyond stats? And what about the growing number of JRPGs with women in the starring roles? Final Fantasy XIII wasn’t particularly well received for its linearity, but Lightning, its protagonist, was anything but a stereotype (at least in America, not too well versed in Japanese culture).

Hartman

Remind you of any video game drill sergeants?

Let’s face it, the market is already oversaturated with the polar opposite of what I’m suggesting. I’m going to describe a video game character for you, and you tell me who it is: A physically strong male protagonist, the best at what he does, leads his squad through hell and high water against a powerful threat to the world as we know it. He cares about his group, cause or world, but doesn’t show it outwardly. He just does his job and does it well. Now, if that sounds like every video game male protagonist you’ve ever heard, it’s because it pretty much is. Hell, if you just changed the pronouns, you’d have a fresher game, even just novelly. And in this COD world, anything that stands out is considered original.

How about a real world example: you end up in a hospital because you’re sick, and your doctor is a woman. She gives you your diagnosis and tells you she thinks its *insert medical condition you don’t know because you didn’t go to medical school here*. She procedes to tell you what procedure she believes you need done. Do you think any less of her medical opinion solely because of her gender?

Grow Up or Go Home

Cortez

Pilot, fighter, great gay character

It’s time for male gamers to realize a growing trend: women are a growing demographic in video gaming. According to a 2012 study by the Entertainment Software Association, “47% of the game playing population is female, and women 18 or older now comprise 30% of all gamers.” Despite those numbers, my fellow men seem to think gaming is a man’s world. It’s time to wake up. This is especially true for video game developers and producers. To put it into money terms, making games that objectify or otherwise offend about half your potential market translates to sales that won’t reach their full potential. People care about the perceptions games present about them. LGBT characters in games were often used for comedy effect in games like FFVII (the entirety of Cloud’s crossdressing sequence), Flea from Chrono Trigger, Birdo from Super Mario Bros 2 and the notorious Alfred Ashford from Resident Evil: Code Veronica. But as U.S. societal attitudes about homosexuality began to change, we started to see stronger characters emerge, like Steve Cortez in Mass Effect 3, Veronica and Arcade in Fallout: New Vegas and the Silvari of Guild Wars 2. They were all presented as relatable and not stereotypes. Although some games still use the cliches, the attitudes of writers are starting to change.

Lollipop Chainsaw

No… Just, No.

Women deserve all that and more. Strides have been taken, but for every Jill Valentine or Zelda, there’s at least two Lollipop Chainsaws or Bloodraynes around the corner to destroy the progress. And I’m a guy. I like ta-tas as much as the next guy, but video games have grown up, and it’s time we grow up too. I want stronger female characters that draw me in because of their character, not their chest size. At the same time, I want the character to be decidedly female, with the world and that character’s personality affected by that difference.

The Boss

She could kick your ass and do calculus as she does it

The best example is The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3. She was one of the most badass soldiers in the world: she founded the Cobra Unit, helped develop CQC, mentored the man who became Big Boss, and set up her own death to prevent global nuclear war. These things could be accomplished by anyone of any gender. What makes her interesting is her feminine traits: she was described as motherly in her treatment of and by troops under her command, her love for The Sorrow was a deep and emotional character point, and she was a mother who birthed the dastardly and brilliant character Revolver Ocelot on a battlefield. These three points are uniquely female, and they make this character stand out in a very positive and attractive way.

Back to the Beginning

Anya Stroud Samantha Byrne

Yes, you can, Epic Games…

All this brings us back to Chris Perna of Epic Games and his statement. Above are the ways a female protagonist can be profitable, progressive and effective in storytelling. We have a growing number of female gamers looking for more convincing and interesting women as protagonists. Even Gears of War featured Anya Stroud and Samantha Byrne, and although they had relationship aspects, Anya gave the commands in the first two games and the two of them kicked as much ass as the men they fought alongside in 3. You can obviously make great, interesting female characters without resorting to oversexualizing them. I guarantee you if you made a game with that much character quality, I’d buy it, and so would others. Something to think about.

Source: Female Gears of War protagonist ‘hard to justify’ says Epic; Gamespot.com.

This has been a male-perspective article. For a female perspective, we suggest this wonderful article by Becky Chambers.

Anyone have an opinion on this article? Drop a comment below to sound off like you’ve got a pair (or like you don’t)!

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About RedGuinness

Andrew Shortall (RedGuinness) is the Writer, Editor, Administrator and founder of Stay-At-Home Gaming. He also suffers from sleepless nights, summer new release withdrawals and trying to behave himself in front of his new nephew.

21 comments on “The Argument for Female Video Game Protagonists

  1. Dom DeStefano
    February 19, 2013

    I have a complicated opinion of this subject, but to simplify it: there are some games that are geared toward a male audience, and that’s fine, it’s a product being sold to a demographic. Smart businesses should make more games, products, that are geared toward a female demographic. This includes games that have strong female protagonists. Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of our favorite female protagonists changed from strong roles to much weaker roles – Samus Aran and Lara Croft come to mind. This isn’t just insulting to women, it’s an inconsistent product and bad for business.

    • RedGuinness
      February 19, 2013

      Completely agreed.

    • RedGuinness
      February 19, 2013

      Shame what they did in Other M. Almost destroyed the character for me. The new Tomb Raider is looking to be more in line with the articles views, hopefully it won’t go for the cheap sell.

  2. Holly A. Wolfe
    February 19, 2013

    I agree wholeheartedly, and advertising for video games needs to change in that regard as well. One ad that immediately comes to mind is an American commercial for Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask. The moment a woman in business dress walked onscreen with a 3DS in hand, my interest was piqued considerably. However, the first line to come out of her mouth infuriated me to no end.
    That line, word for word, was, “I’m not a gamer.”
    Why was this sort of disclaimer necessary? It’s not a sin for a grown woman to love video games. Heck, it’s not a sin for anyone to love video games. What was worse, the line was stated so smugly, the subtext being, “Oh, I’m not a gamer. No self-respecting businesswoman like myself should ever be lumped in with that lot!” She states it like being a gamer is such a filthy thing, as if girls should know better. This could have been a positive advertising campaign that encouraged girls to branch out into new video game genres, but that first line killed it.

    • RedGuinness
      February 19, 2013

      Never played the Professor Layton series myself, but that comes as shocking to me. People gotta start realizing video games appeal to both sexes and find a way to interest both of them. My opinion, anyway.

      • Holly A. Wolfe
        February 19, 2013

        Upon reflection, I feel I should add a little context to my statement. The woman in the commercial stated that she wasn’t a gamer and enjoyed Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask. I understand that the commercial was attempting to appeal to people who don’t play video games on a regular basis, but the way the commercial started appeared to shun the idea of being a serious gamer. Also, the fact that spokesperson was actually a woman for a change did nothing to challenge the concept that women can’t take video games seriously.

      • RedGuinness
        February 19, 2013

        Now I remember those commercials! Yeah, it was targeting non-gamers, but it really was a wasted opportunity to change perceptions. Maybe someone will enlist an MLG clan or gamer celebrity like Michelle Rodriguez to make a more positive shift?

      • Holly A. Wolfe
        February 20, 2013

        That would be nice. Heck, just getting a commercial actress to star in a positive video game ad campaign would be a huge improvement.

        By the way, thanks for following my blog! It is immensely appreciated!

      • RedGuinness
        February 20, 2013

        I follow what I like! Looking forward to more. Loved the Valentine’s Day article!

  3. Stephen Wolling
    February 19, 2013

    I’ve always been drawn more to using FemShep. Bastila from KOTOR is an incredible female character that granted you did not play as, but you interacted with. Female characters to me are quite interesting and add a sense of mystery. Partially because as a male I can guess 95% of the time what a male character is thinking or understand what is going on in his head. As a female character, it makes it tougher and draws me into the game more; simply due to the fact I have a difficult time understanding the female mind and the way things are done and justified to a woman.

    • RedGuinness
      February 19, 2013

      It’s a shame when a relationship is that motivation for women in so many games. I think Mass Effect addressed that problem a bit. Sure, Ashley was a love interest for a male character, but for either sex her dedication to Earth and her badass demeanor were never compromised. More games should follow the example.

  4. Kimberly Scott
    February 21, 2013

    What a great post. It is really great to see this from a mans mouth too. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I recently heard that women make up as much as 40 percent of the gaming market, but for some reason, are yet to be viewed as a major demographic. And anyone who thinks that guys, wouldn’t play a female avatar is crazy. World of Warcraft, is a great example of how this just isn’t true.

    Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t being loud enough. Usually I am the first to say that I am a gamer in mixed company. Sometimes this elicits other women around me to ‘admit’ to playing games. So something I can say, is that there is still rampant self consciousness in the female community about gaming. From my personal experience, way more girl gamers in the closet than guys. It’s part of why I started a blog. I want the industry to know, hey, we exist. And I want other women to know, hey, it’s okay, it’s more than okay, it’s awesome.

    Recently I’ve been playing, and blogging, through the first installment of Mass Effect, and I can’t emphasis enough how much it’s been a complete joy being able to have a female character. A custom, female character, who kicks ass non stop and has an amazing voice actor. It’s a dream come true, and I’m hoping with how insanely successful the ME trilogy has been, it’s a sign of things to come.

    Thanks again for speaking to this, and rock on.

    • RedGuinness
      February 21, 2013

      It was a pleasure. I have met a LOT of women who love video games but feel that ridiculous social stigma that gaming is guys only, or that girls only play games like Barbie Horse Adventure and are ten years old. Ridiculous. I know girls who could (and have) beaten my ass in CoD and Halo. I’m not impressed that a girl beat me, I’m impressed I got beaten. Anyone who can challenge/beat me without resorting to glitches has my respect. Gender doesn’t play into it for me, and hopefully in a few years women will be accepted as worthy opponents and not as “Your boyfriend has the controller.”

      You’re gonna love the Mass Effect Trilogy. Just make sure you have tissues for the end of three. The ending theme is incredibly moving. Actually bought the soundtrack and popped it on my phone, pretty much for the one song.

      • Kimberly Scott
        February 21, 2013

        Nice! Again, right on.
        Also, there might just be the theme song from ME1 on my iPod right now….

  5. man walking
    August 16, 2013

    Didn’t realize this was an older article till.i got to the comments. Anyway, I totally agree. I like boobs but I like story more. The new tomb raider has been out for awhile now. Having played it I can say that while Lara is still quite attractive (more so then the original in my opinion) it isn’t over the top and the story is really good if a little typical. In fact I originally bought the game after seeing the hilarious review on Conan’s Clueless gamer.

  6. MissRhiosace
    August 16, 2013

    I love being able to play as a female, obviously my favourite games are the Mass Effect series, but when I look at my game choices, in single player, most of them have strong female protagonists. Maya in Borderlands, FemShep, I can even change my Minecraft skin to be a girl, then I run out basically. I didn’t really like Tomb Raider, the first few I thought she was weird, it was a female protagonist with a male brain (She’s similar to that dude from uncharted) and chest decoration. I didn’t gel with being her at all, and struggled to identify with her even though I myself am what people call a tomboy, I like “boy” things. Space, physics, maths (Although giving them a sex is another issue altogether, and something I have struggled with explaining to my little ones teachers, “My little one, (a girl) made this space project that she wants to share with the class”, the teacher, “I guess she could show it to boys, space is for boys”. )

    Multiplayer, I don’t care so much. I’d rather buy Battlefield 4 which hasn’t announced girl characters, than CoD ghosts, which has confirmed that you can play as a female. When I used to play CoD I wouldn’t identify self as a girl, my GT doesn’t make it obvious that I’m a female, I wanted to play the game without attention for being a girl. CoD lobbies are terrible when a xxxMissGamerTagxxx enters a lobby, didn’t like it. I don’t play games to get attention for the fact I’m a girl, I play games, because I like games.

    What I love about Bioware, is, actually the amount of people who play as FemShep is remarkably low, but they still make a FemShep just for the fact that the people who play as FemShep, LOVE playing as FemShep. That’s what developers need to do.

    I think it’s difficult to be a girl gamer nowadays, if you type girl gamer commentaries on YouTube, the most popular ones are the ones that shove their “assets” in your face to get views, and have titles of videos like, “How to pick up a girl on Xbox live”, and they can’t even play the damn game properly. Then there’s people like me, who just love gaming and want to play as a female, because we are one.
    🙂

    • RedGuinness
      August 17, 2013

      Space is totally not just for boys. Mara Jade, Dr. Crusher, Aeryn Sun, Susan Ivanova, Zoe Washburn…could name more!

      Lara Croft is interesting. Not so much in the past (pretty much just sex appeal) but at least the new one tried to make it more. Maybe the next one will succeed more on that front.

      Bioware really is an industry leader. I played as FemShep mainly because Jennifer Hale is an incredible voice talent, but even when I played MaleShep I felt it wasn’t as gripping an experience. The Father/Daughter relationship with Anderson may have been what did it.

      I wish it wasn’t so hard to be a female gamer. I understand the male sex drive but the real problem is one of maturity. I have so many friends in my personal life and who I’ve made through this blog (yourself included, Rhio) who are female gamers in love with the medium. Calling out pretenders is fine. Calling my friends liars because they have different reproductive organs never will be.

      • MissRhiosace
        August 17, 2013

        I think that’s it, the maturity level, when I play BF3 I can call myself whatever I want, no one cares and I like that, when I play CoD well, I guess it’s the age of players, in my experience they are generally boys approaching puberty and being a girl in a lobby full of those is difficult, and some girls make a YouTube channel off of that.
        Although with CoD, I can’t choose my servers, and it might just be the area that my server is in, but I’m not the only one who has had a lot of trouble from boys.

        I have met some awesome girls that are just like me, this blog has been brilliant for that, but what I meant with the YouTube girl gamers is that, it causes a generalisation and all girl gamers are classed as the same as the most popular ones. Stereotyping.
        The girl gamers I like the most, have very few subs on YouTube. I wish the popular ones well, it’s probably good business to use the fanboy sub base to earn YT money, but it does cause this expectation of what girl gamers are like, when most of us just want to play the game because we like the games.

      • RedGuinness
        August 17, 2013

        I wish I was on your server. Whether BF3, CoD or any other multiplayer game, if I’m not on a party chat, I mute the chat. Doesn’t matter who you are, you’re either “noob,” “gay” or “hacker” depending on your skill level. I love my mute button. Which YouTube channels would you recommend?

      • MissRhiosace
        August 18, 2013

        I play on the oldgamerz battlefield server, it’s a gaming community for 30 years + gamers. Well, they let me in because I’m 29 lol. No requirements, no K/D requirements, the rule of the community is that you have fun gaming and are mature about it. They are really good at maintaining their servers, they have 4 battlefield ones, anyone can join it. Their website is at oldgamerz.co.uk
        I watch a tonne of YouTube channels, actually, that would be a really good post.. “Rhio’s favourite YT channels”. Yes, I’ll do that 🙂 I watch more YouTube than actual TV.
        You know what, I think the wordpress gaming community has to be one of the best.

        Being on the same server as me would be fun, until I’m allowed to drive something, I’m the worst driver ever. I don’t mind that stereotype because it’s true. I did a barrel roll with a transport chopper once, before I crashed the thing into a tower and killed my whole squad. Hahaha.

      • RedGuinness
        August 18, 2013

        Shame my PC is five years old. Would have loved a friendly face online. WordPress has introduced me to some awesome people and I wish I had more time to interact with them in games…stupid jobs and necessity to eat…

        As for choppers, fortunately I had a great pilot and my buddy and I found out Engineers could repair while onboard…cheap I know, and we stopped soon after, but it’s incredible how they would always use rockets and not just take us out!

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