We’ve come a long way since the release of Tomb Raider in 1996. The age of one-dimensional, oversexualised women in games has been and gone. However, have we reached full gender equality in the video gaming industry, or is there still more work to be done?
The 90’s brought us many video game triumphs, such as Zelda, Pokemon and Metal Gear Solid. All these games have one thing in common; a lack of female representation entirely, due to a reliance on male protagonists and the portrayal of female NPCs as damsels in distress. There were some games that represented female protagonists, such as Lara Croft from Tomb Raider; however the character design for Lara left little to the imagination, whereas their male counterparts were dressed in loose clothing. This combined with the fact that Samus was a female was the shock twist at the end of Metroid, but should we be shocked that a female protagonist possessed such strength? This is an important question which may shed some light on the attitude of such a male-oriented market, as developers tried to catch consumer’s attentions as games console sales skyrocketed in the late 90s.
Over the years, video games have relied less on the sexualisation and helplessness of female characters and more on gameplay, graphics and a strong character arc. There are so many examples of this sort of success. Most notably for me is the introduction of Ellie in The Last of Us, released back in 2013. Ellie represented something new in video game writing and characterisations; although the protagonist of The Last of Us is Joel, a male, Ellie still has a major impact on the game. She is a likeable character central to the coming-of-age storyline in a post apocalyptic world fighting for survival, showing the best of humanity even in the desolate times in which The Last of Us is set. There was no alternative to the use of a teenage girl in The Last of Us to give such vunerability and yet such strength, within a character which, more than 5 years on, is one of the reasons many players return to the game. Ellie gives a female character such prominence in a mainstream game, going against stereotypes and providing depth to the narrative.
However, it’s not always supporting characters which give games gender diversity. In recent years, as the number of female gamers has increased, so too have the number of games which give you the option of playing as a female protagonist. Pokemon employed this tactic in the early 2000s; however, it took a while for other developers to latch onto this simple change that makes a world of difference. Probably the best example of this is Commander Shepherd, the main chaaracter in the Mass Effect franchise. At the beginning of the game, you decide whether to play as a male or female avatar. The amazing part is, unlike most video games, which have subtle differences in the gameplay depending on the sex of the protagonist, the storylines and gameplay between male and female Shepherd are identical, which is perfect as the sex of the main character shouldn’t impact the gaming experience. Even the romance interactions with most NPCs was the same. Other games, such as Skyrim and Assassins Creed Odyssey have attempted this approach to gender neutrality. Although, there are romance interactions with NPCs which are reduced by choosing the female protagonist.
The issues regarding women in gaming isn’t just planted in the games themselves. There is such a remarkable lack of female representation within the gaming community itself. There are remarkable differences in the responses to male and female Twitch streamers by viewers. For those of you unaware of the video game streaming platform, viewers can make short comments while the gamer is streaming. According to a 2014 study by Indiana University, female gamers streaming on Twitch were most likely to receive sexual and toxic comments, compared to that of males who recieved comments based on their gameplay success. This shows that there are deeper-rooted problems in the gaming community towards female representation. Another shocking statistic is the proportion of professional eSports gamers that are women. The unexplainable toxicity towards female gamers severly impacts the number of female players that eventually take up professional eSports. In the whole of The Overwatch League, one of the big up & coming eSports platforms, there is only one individual female player across the 20 teams which compete in the league (that’s 99% of the players in the Overwatch League which are male). I’ve played online multiplayer platforms for years now, and some of these stats may seem shocking, however the toxicity and straight up misogyny towards casual female gamers is scary. So how can game developers overcome this? Stricter punishments and bans for offensive players. The gaming industry may have tackled the portrayal of female characters in video games, but the repercussions of years of a male-dominated market has made life even more difficult for female gamers, and brings with it new challenges for developers to face in the coming years.
Catch Ellie in the trailer for The Last Of Us Part II below: