Is Sexism in Gaming an Easy Target?

Are all the criticisms of women in video games justified or just fodder for social commentary?


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Discussion about how women are portrayed in video games is not a new topic by any stretch, but recently the debate came more to the forefront with Anita Sarkeesian’s series of videos and the responses they elicited from both internet trolls and sincere critics alike.

The concept of the Damsel-in-Distress is one of the oldest and over-used setups for a story since tales were told by firelight. Sadly, a helpless female character as a goal or an object to find is too often an easy out for storytellers. And in video games, developing complicated plots and indepth characters can take a backseat to action, visual effects and nifty do-dads.

Conversely, there is also the stereotypical bad-ass female character who overcompensates for the damsel image. She can more than manage to do what her male counterparts can, but usually with much less clothing, some added jiggle and a breathy ‘come hither’ voice.

Do all images of females in the game world really fall into only these columns?

Was Old School a Bad Teacher?

In the days of 8-bit games, backstory and character development were often thin, if there was any at all. The setup had to be done with little or no dialog in the opening cut scene or first moments. This meant, keep it simple and keep it quick.

And so, one could compare the early video game plot lines with children’s primary readers. Pac-man must eat dots and not get caught. Kangaroo must rescue her baby from the evil monkeys. A spaceship must destroy asteroids (not sure why). And Mario must save Princess Peach from Bowser (or Pauline from Donkey Kong). 

Now, that was twenty-five to thirty plus years ago. And many franchises have simply built on their foundation or copied what worked for others in the previous generation.

This was obviously not always the case as Metroid’s Samus Aran and even the generic Amazon from Gauntlet proved. Can the legendary Samus even count however, since most players had no idea the character was female until the final moments of the game.

Dude in Distress, Damsel to the Rescue

Flipping the switch on the damsel trope has been seen in games before. Jennifer Tate from Primal, for example, must rescue her boyfriend by fighting monsters and harnessing her demon powers along with her little sidekick.

But, is this just an easy out?

One criticism of female heroes by some feminists is that they are simply male characters with a female body and merely acting how men would instead of how a woman would. They contend that a woman may not respond in the same fashion as a man in the same crisis.

Perhaps this issue is less about gender and more about gameplay options. More complicated games like Hitman and Assassin’s Creed for instance, allow for more than one way to resolve a problem. You can choose to bulldoze through a mission or use your brain more than your trigger finger. Early games didn’t have such depth.

Video games can also completely level the playing field, but is this at the cost of realism? Look no further than your average fighting game. In all fighting games, each character must be capable of defeating all of the other characters. The only difference is supposed to be the player’s skill in using those characters. This can create some very unrealistic match-ups in the fight arena, but it’s not about realism, is it?

One of the reactions to protagonist gender is the notion that men would not feel comfortable playing a female character (beyond fighting games at least). Yet, female gamers deal with this issue constantly. It’s a known fact that a large number of women play Call of Duty, yet all of the avatars are male.

More and more though, games are offering both genders as a protagonist choice. This is very much so in MMORPGs, where a player can create an avatar to their own liking, but even this can be an issue if the options are limited (see my article on Dragon’s Prophet for instance).

Just One of the Guys

With all the criticism, is the ideal to have a game where the gender of characters is completely inconsequential?

One character that might lend something to the discussion is FemShep. Actually, this is Commander Shepard from Mass Effect as when played as a woman.

Mass Effect allows an option for character gender. But, the story itself does not change and other character’s reaction to you are not effected whether you’re male or female. 

But, is this really the end goal?

It sounds good on paper. After all, FemShep is given no special treatment or prejudice because she is woman vs. the male version. The people she encounters, issues to resolve, even her reactions, etc. are all the same.

Is that genuine? 

In a more modern western culture or sci-fi universe, a commanding female character is accepted as a norm. But, in historical situations and in more patriarchal societies, the reaction of others would not be the same as to a male character in the same position of authority. And would the character themselves behave the same?

Scientifically, it has been proven again and again that not only are men and women physically structured differently, but we’re mentally wired differently. Not better or worse. Just different. For instance, men and women generally navigate using different methods (geometric vs. landmark). So, in situations that various kinds of critical thinking, would a male and female Shepard have the same reaction?

Perhaps an example of a competent female who can function in the male realm, but has her own motivations is The Boss from Metal Gear Solid. She is called ‘The Mother of Special Forces’ and is given a fairly preposterous backstory of being pregnant and giving birth on the D-Day battlefield. Yet, The Boss is written and portrayed as a more complicated figure over the course of the franchise storyline, including the decision to sacrifice herself for the good of her country.

Steps in the Right Direction

Lara Croft was once the poster girl for what was wrong with women in video games. She had a cartoonish figure, dressed overly sexy, and reacted to her environment in a fairly masculine fashion by bashing or shooting things. To her critics, Lara was the male fantasy in digital form.

On the positive side, Lara did prove that you can get males to play as female characters and sell a lot of games doing so.

Still, the criticisms must have been something Lara’s publishers took to heart when Square Enix re-imagined Lara Croft for 2013’s Tomb Raider. Lara was now grittier, more grounded but still very capable. This would be like comparing Stallone’s Rambo to Willis’ John McClane. Both get the job done, but McClane is more believable and sympathetic.

Also, she now reacts remorseful to the killing she had to do. Was this change an attempt to make women more sympathetic to Lara? Some critics felt it didn’t equate to the fairly violent methods she could use to kill an enemy.

There other examples of female characters that are not merely damsels, love interests or female tanks.

  • Elena (Uncharted) – Nathan Drake’s female counterpart and eventual wife, she is every bit as capable as he is throughout the series and their developed and complicated relationship earned her critical acclaim by some as being one of the strongest female characters.
  • Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2) – Gordon’s partner throughout the game actually aids him in escaping at the beginning of the story and works as an equal partner throughout. She’s smart, capable and believable.
  • Madison Paige (Heavy Rain) – Some sexy scenes of Madison have been criticized but, the character even admits that she uses her feminine wiles to obtain what she wants. Otherwise, she lends aid to Ethan during the story and strikes out on her own to investigate the Origami Killer.
  • Jodie Holmes (Beyond: Two Souls) – The protagonist of the upcoming title is a young woman who has a spiritual companion (Aiden) who only she can communicate with. It empowers and protects her while she tries to unravel who and what Aiden is.

As the gaming industry itself matures, perhaps the concepts of character types and story are also maturing. While there are still plenty of examples of Damsel or Dead Damsel in next gen gaming, the growing trend of female players and steady increase of women in the gaming workplace may eventually make them  the exceptions.

In the meantime, like with the criticism that Hollywood makes a lot of bad movies, if you want that to change then protest with your dollars. That really is the bottom line. It’s not a conspiracy by the heads of the gaming companies to create only negative female stereotypes. They are simply looking at the spreadsheets and often only take the safe bets on what has worked before.

So, if the gaming public shuns the tropes and embraces games with positive images then the studios will have to go that route to be successful.

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Capt. Eliza Creststeel
Amazon, Pirate and Gator 'Rassler who terrorizes the seas aboard her frigate The Crimson Widow in the original Pirates Online and now in The Legend of Pirates Onlines ( Also an administrator of the Pirates Online Wiki ( Have swung a hammer in Guild Wars 2, slung a S.A.W. in Defiance and winged across the galaxy in Star Wars: The Old Republic.