Imagine you are about to fight a large, armor clad orc wielding a 6-foot-long sword to the death—a stretch, I know, but stay with me here. Now, as you dressed for such an event, would you reach for your 5″ stiletto-boots and a bikini? Well if you happen to be a typical female video game character, then that’s exactly what you’d do. Not a single vital organ would be protected. It’s just not a good idea.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite games was Soul Caliber, an arcade-style game where two players choose a character and then rapidly mash at buttons until one or both of them fell dramatically to their death. For the many fighters wearing thongs and thigh-boots, it would seem that one stab to the stomach would be the end of them, right? One would think. But, placing them cleavage first on the cover of the game has been the gaming industry’s go-to sales technique for quite some time now. Sex sells. That being said, as more and more female gamers are accepted into the gaming community and declaring oneself a “girl gamer” has become more socially acceptable, the negative and sexualized portrayal of women in video games has become one of the hottest debates in gaming, and a decades-old tradition of seven-foot-tall women wearing nothing but nipple armor and gazing seductively from the games shelf is finally being questioned.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely been known to doodle a busty gunslinger or two myself, and I’m never one to scoff at the occasional soft spoken elf in a belly shirt, but image isn’t the only problem plaguing women in games. It’s how they act, stand, move and talk.
Take the “damsel in distress” situation so many games revolve around. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pushed my way through a horde of the drooling undead only to turn around and see that the president’s daughter has tripped over a flower and is now being dragged by her schoolgirl skirt back into the last level, like in Resident Evil. You really think I would have let her hold a gun or something. But no, she just follows around the grisly, unshaven protagonist, whimpering and adjusting her ponytail.
On the subject of male/female duos in video games, the recent release “Bioshock Infinite” revolves around the story of Booker DeWitt, a typical grumbling ex-soldier protagonist who has to go save a woman in a tower named Elizabeth. No surprises there, so I prepared myself to drag Elizabeth around and shield her from sprays of bullets by throwing myself in front of her when danger approached, etc. etc. (Typical Wednesday evening.) You can imagine my surprise when a window popped up reading “No need to bother protecting Elizabeth, she can take care of herself!” And she did. In fact, for most of the game, Elizabeth is knocking you out with bottles and bouncing off onto the next levels without you, inciting revolutions and making arms deals while you’re left twitching on the floor. Though she’s clearly an attractive young lady, it doesn’t hurt to mention that she’s pretty well-dressed as well.
So yes, though they are few and far apart there are some strong female protagonists in video games. Samus Aran, Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and Lilith from Borderlands are good examples. On the bright side, for a while now most fantasy games like Skyrim or World of Warcraft (yes I played it, don’t judge me, every gamer has a dark past), allow you to play as a female character of any human or nonhuman race and dress them as you please. However, their advertizing is still quite guilty of exploiting an elf or two to make a buck.
I truly believe that more girls would play video games if they weren’t so uncomfortable to pick up off the shelf.
By ignoring a huge possible demographic and showing little interest in changing (just check out the girls on the cover of the GTA games), the gaming industry is missing out on a huge market. The next generation of women will have been raised on iPad games and handheld devices from a young age and will likely grow up to be the most tech-savvy of any generation before them. According to the ESA, 45% of gamers are female! In a recent article on the phenomenon of female gamers, The Washington Times reports that teenage boys under the age of 17 now only compose a mere 19% of gamers and that the average gamer is around 30 years old -and there’s a pretty good chance that they’re female. So why are companies still making games that attract 14-year-old boys when the definition of a “gamer” has so clearly moved on? That’s nearly half. The male-driven gaming industry dooms themselves to be left in the dust by a society that’s rapidly becoming more gender aware, unless they stay abreast of the times and start treating women like people.