Why a Female Protagonist in Video Games Shouldn’t be a Big Deal, but Still is

Why is playing like a girl such a bad thing?

Recently there was a lot of discussion over the new Lara Croft and how she was or wasn’t a positive female role model in video games. Then earlier today Riot Games announced the re-design of one of their female characters, who will now show less skin and more armor to be in keeping with her lore. There seems to be more and more strong female characters in video games, but for some reason we as gamers still feel the need to make a big deal about it.

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When I was growing up a female video game character was more of a novelty than a feature. Most games like Legend of Zelda and Super Mario were simple “hero saves the princess” stories, but there were very few examples of the female characters who could save the day. Metroid even went so far as to surprise its players with the fact that they had been playing a girl the whole time. But as time has gone on female characters have became more commonplace and the idea of playing a game with a female lead is no more astonishing than any other storytelling elements. But there is still a huge divide when it comes to a female character, and a strong female character.

Game development is still a very male dominated occupation. According to a recent article from The Boston Globe, women account for only 11% of game developers, and although the number seems to be on the rise, it still has a long way to go. So then it comes as no surprise that most games lack a woman’s touch and that most girls don’t want to play games made by boys for boys. It is the worst kind of circular reasoning. Girls don’t play games because they aren’t making them and they don’t make them because they don’t play them. The numbers on the topic say that gaming is divided 60% male and 40% female, but that is also taking into account mobile games and casual games. I personally believe that if you were to break it down into big budget console/PC games the percentages would be much different. But I don’t think that a lack of presence in the game development process is the biggest problem facing female gamers.

I linked to two opposing reviews of the newest Lara Croft game at the top of the article and I think that they are a perfect example of the bigger issue facing feminists in gaming. Both reviews are written by women, both women identify themselves as feminists, but while one praises the new “more human” take on Lara, the other condemns it. Saying that by making her “weaker” they took away what made her great. As a man, and more importantly as a father to a young girl who loves to play games, it just makes me sad. I believe the game industry is not dominated by women hating chauvinists, but by guys who are just waiting for women to tell them what they want from a game, and when you get such opposing arguments from the feminist side of the fence it is easy to see why they would just rather not make female characters.

There are some other recent games that have introduced positive female characters who aren’t just huge boobs attached to a gun, or a weeping mess hidden away in a castle. Portal introduced us to Chell, a silent protagonist who wears a jumpsuit and is no more sexy than Gordan Freeman (Note: some people really have the hots for our crowbar swinging friend) and Half Life 2 even has Alyx Vance as a smart, resourceful, fighter who can hold her own. Faith from Mirrors Edge is another great example of a great female lead, as well as Nariko from Heavenly Sword. All these games introduced us to the idea that a strong female lead can be a normal functioning character but this is only a start in a industry that is still dominated by alpha male heroes.

Another way that games have introduced female characters is in the create a character screen. Most of these games are simple enough about it, where the decision only changes what you see on screen, but some games go out of their way to actually change depending on the gender you choose. Games like Mass Effect will give you different choices and paths depending on your gender, but still keep the story the same, and I think these games do it best. I’m not a girl, so I can’t speak from experience, but I don’t think that a female gamer wants anything different from a game than I do.  I think they just want to play a fun game where they don’t get insulted by character design, or lack thereof.

I think that right now the world of gaming needs more people like Jade Redmond, and Rhianna Pratchett (writer of Mirrors Edge, Heavenly Sword, Lara Croft 2013, and more!) girls who just like playing games and don’t make a big deal about being female. There was an interview recently where Rhianna was speaking about having a conversation with the game developers of Tomb Raider. The designers had put bra straps on Lara, and she asked them to take it out and just have her wear a tank top. When someone asked why she remarked that it was unrealistic, that a woman in similar circumstances wouldn’t wear one. I really was blown away at how simple but honest her answer was, and the volumes to which it spoke about her as a game writer.

As a man I know that my opinion on the matter is not going to be regarded very highly, but I really hope that by the time my daughter is old enough to play more complex games, that she will have more role models from her games, and that the gaming scene is more girl and woman friendly. The change will take a lot of work from people inside the industry, and from us as gamers, but I really believe it can happen. Thanks for reading and if you have anything to add let me know in the comments below!

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My name is Levi Haag. I am a father of two amazing kids, husband, a writer, and most people tell me I’m a pretty good guy. It can be tough to find good games and take care of kids, so I decided to try and help other dads out by reviewing games that I can play with my kids or while they are asleep.