The Representation of Female Characters in Video Games

FINDING SOL. PAPER (Link to Word Doc)

Representation of Female Video Game Characters: A Finding Solutions Analysis

            PART 1: In today’s modern age society, video games serve as a key source of entertainment, providing players with an array of colorful stories and characters. That said, there is a distinct issue of representation in how female characters are portrayed and utilized in video games. Female characters are often portrayed as sexual objects or used in a manner that creates even less of an impact in the overall story than their male counterparts. In many cases, the portrayal of female game characters shows how the gaming industry neglects its female customers, representing their gender as mere eye-candy for the player and not giving female characters enough leeway to transform into their own strong, capable individuals.

According to Beasley and Standley in their academic essay on the clothing and sexualization of women in video games, “The majority of female characters are dressed in such a way as to bring attention to their bodies, particularly their breasts” (Beasley & Standley, Pg. 289). Many modern female video game characters are assigned sexualized clothing that emphasizes their bodies in an erotic manner, aiming to titillate the assumed male player over actually developing these women into strong characters that possess a personality outside of their gender. Furthermore, Tracy L. Dietz states that “while there are instances in which female characters are portrayed as positive role models, in general most of the games minimize the roles of females” (Dietz, Pg. 436). This is true in that many modern video games feature storylines in which the female character is an object to be rescued or desired, such as the Mario series for instance. And additionally, when female characters do get some level of focus, they become, as Anita Sarkeesian puts it, ‘Ms. Male Characters’. This basically makes them merely objects used to cash in on the popularity and prominence of their male counterpart without adding that much importance to their overall presence, as seen in examples like Mrs. Pacman. Under the shadow of the ‘Ms. Male Character’ principle, female video game characters “are defined primarily by their relationship to their male counterpart” (Sarkeesian). They are not given enough development or respect into becoming their own unique entity. Clearly, female characters in video games are not getting the proper level of development and representation that their male counterparts are receiving and thus, something must be done in order to change it all for the better.

With this said, my intended goal is to alert the media by way of creating an opinion piece for the New York Times that expresses my sentiment that women need to attain a stronger level of representation in video games, calling on my readers to stand up and take more notice in this prominent issue in order for female characters to one day receive the same scale of proper development and respect that male characters do. I feel that The New York Times would be a great place to publish such a piece as it is a highly respected and read magazine, gaining worldwide recognition for its culturally-relevant writing pieces. I hope to primarily reach an audience of those who are passionate about both gender and activism, influencing them through my writing to feel more invested on the issue and begin to think on what might be the best way in fixing the problem. The most optimistic outcome of my solution would be that of getting the gaming industry to see the error of its ways and then go on to forge a stronger representation of female characters in the gaming world. My more realistic outcome, however, would probably be that of simply causing a slower, but gradual shift in attention on the issue like Anita Sarkeesian did with more and more people beginning to recognize the importance on why this issue must be changed for the better. I wish to write something that has enough of an impact to cause a kind of Blackfish Effect—that is to say, something so emotionally appealing that people begin to take more notice on the issue and start campaigning for change. While I know that such a huge change in the gaming industry might not take place overnight, I feel that we, as a society, have the potential to make a huge change in how we go about this issue. With greater attention focused on the problem and how to get more people involved and aware of it, I feel that there will soon come a day in which we can completely change how women are portrayed in video games.

PART 2: New York Times Piece

Take a moment, if you will, to try to think about great female characters in movies. There are certainly plenty out there—Ellen Ripley from the Aliens franchise, Sarah Connor from Terminator, and even Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. All of these women are strong individuals who make huge impacts in their stories, relying on their courage and wits in order to survive their situations. But while film is certainly a medium that celebrates the inner attributes and strengths of the female character, the world of video games is, sadly, a much less inclusive place for female characters to find their footing. Video games are great fun; they’re engaging, creative, and they often provide the player with lots of interesting and complex stories to enjoy. But with all that said, female characters in video games often seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to representation and depiction, especially when it comes to their physical appearances and overall roles in the story. All too often, female characters are shown first and foremost in an erotic or passive light, taking the backseat to their male counterparts and very often not getting much to do in the main narrative other than look pretty or occasionally offer words of encouragement. Ask yourself, when’s the last time you saw Princess Peach actually dishing out the punches and rescuing herself? When’s the last time you saw her actually have to rescue Mario? Those instances, if there are any at all, are certainly not the first things you associate with the character. To the average player, she is a treasure to be won, a reward for a long and grueling quest in which the titular Mario must put his life at stake to rescue his distressing damsel princess.

It isn’t to say that these kinds of games are bad of course. It simply shows that the portrayal of female characters in video games is quite a troubling issue. Furthermore, there exists the issue of prominent sexualization from female characters. From Bayonetta to Lara Croft, female video game characters are more than often shown in a titillating and physically desirable manner, trying to show off a pair of breasts or butt over that of actually taking the time to focus on other attributes. And yes, while many of these sexualized female characters do actually get to fight and duke it out every now and then, it still doesn’t help that they have to look so erotically appealing at the same time. There are many strong and capable male characters in video games that aren’t sexualized. So why just the women then? It’s as if the gaming industry wishes to suggest that women are only appealing to the player if they are sexualized, that normal-looking women or women that value brains over physical appearance are less important in the grand scheme of things.

There’s no law on the planet that demands that women be portrayed in a lesser way than men. Not only are there women out there that are quite capable of relying on their own strengths and merits, but there are many female video game players out there that would want to see their gender shown in a much stronger way. But alas, dear reader, it seems as if the video game industry has neglected its female community. And though these games might be fine games on their own, they still nonetheless articulate the notion that female characters do not hold the same level of depth or importance than male characters, used as either eye-candy or objects to be rescued. Folks, we got to turn this thing around. Women characters can be just as important or as strong as male characters and there’s no reason to keep assuming otherwise. As a community of gamers, it is our job to see to it that women have the same opportunities to make impacts in the gaming world, both as characters and in their representation.

The good news is, of course, the fact that more and more people are starting to try to develop stronger female characters in video games. In the critically acclaimed game, The Last of Us, the character of Ellie is both a fierce and determined survivor, actually getting the chance to rescue her male caretaker, Joel, at some point later in the game. And in The Walking Dead game franchise, the character of Clementine is shown to be an actual character before she is a female; continuously proving herself to not only be incredibly emotionally endearing for the player, but also very useful and capable of taking matters into her own hands. The Portal series, likewise, is also breaking new ground in how females are portrayed in video games as it features not only a female protagonist, but a female antagonist as well. In the game Portal 2, interestingly, it is actually a male villain that both protagonist and former antagonist must work together to defeat in order to assert their own needs and goals. So there’s hope yet for the portrayal of women in video games.

Of course, I don’t expect to just snap my fingers and have the whole problem fixed instantly. Life simply doesn’t work that way. This sort of issue is something that must happen gradually, must spread like wildfire until it reaches the core of the gaming industry. Video games are universal; both men and women can enjoy them. But there needs to be a change in how we portray our female video games characters. There’s a whole realm of unexplored, complex female characters out there just waiting to be discovered. And the sooner we get on to actually go out looking for them, the sooner we can all make a huge change for the better in the gaming world. Complex, well-written characters are not solely male. It’s time to give women the chance to prove themselves beyond that of skimpy clothing and big boobs. There is a heart to every character that someone takes the time to pour their souls into. If we all do a little bit of digging, perhaps we’ll get to find it.

Work Cited

Beasley, B., & Standley, T. (2002). Shirts vs. Skins: Clothing as an Indicator of Gender Role Stereotyping in Video Games. Mass Communication & Society, 5(3), 279-293.

Dickerman, C., Christensen, J., & Kerl-McClain, S. (2008). Big Breasts and Bad Guys: Depictions of Gender and Race in Video Games. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 3(1), 20-29.

Dietz, T. (1998). An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior. Sex Roles, 38, 425-442.

Sarkeesian, A. (2013, November 18). “Ms. Male Character–Tropes vs. Women” Retrieved from www.feministfrequency.com/2013/11/ms-male-character-tropes-vs-women/

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