Play Games Like a Girl
When Samus Aran removed her armor at the end of the first Metroid game, revealing that she was a woman, it was one of the biggest twists in gaming history. Some of you may disagree, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we refuse to admit our assumption that Samus was male. As Americans, it’s part of our socialization to assume “white and male” as the default until we are told otherwise. This doesn’t make it okay, but it’s something we have to unlearn. And that’s why I loved Samus; she’s a space bounty hunter who defied expectations.
As I’ve progressed as a gamer, so has the industry. Sheik is my go to character in Smash. Peach’s ability to hover with her umbrella makes her a major asset in Super Mario 3D World. Chell from Portal has puzzle-platformed her way out of a gauntlet of situations. Everyone raves about Ellie’s character in The Last of Us. Bayonetta is ranked as a “must play” series, by many. FemShep has a cult like following. And Lara Croft is still going strong.
I am here for all of those characters and more. They are from franchises I fangirl over. They are the virtual idols I painstakingly cosplay. And they are the industry’s attempt at giving us strong female characters.
Unfortunately, many of the female leads/playable characters the industry provides are stuck in a box. This conclusion was reached by collaborating two of my collegiate peers: Jess Reed and Katherine Uhlenkamp. Both are female, feminist, and gamers. Here we are pictured all together:
We set out to discover what makes a strong female character but realized that many of our favorites either weren’t leads and/or they were designed/written in a way that was problematic.
We found that female leads often fall into three archetypes: Not like the rest of them, Femme Fatale, and Hidden Femininity. Please note that we concede our examples may not be perfect and that many others exist: however, we selected these based on our prior knowledge and the advice of other gamers we spoke with.
Not like the rest of them:
Definition: women that are hyper masculine in appearance/mannerisms.
Good: because it shows that women don’t have to be traditionally feminine.
Problematic: because it implies that masculine traits are more desirable than feminine ones. It also implies that masculine traits/feminine traits can’t exist at once.
Examples: FemShep from Mass Effect and Samantha Byrne from Gears of War.
In the Mass Effect series players can play as (default) male Shepherd or can change their avatar to female (FemShep). While developers are obviously restricted in making major persona differentiation when allowing the player to choose their gender, it is worth noting the default is male and thus FemShep is stuck conforming to a more masculine role. The reverse would never happen (i.e an effeminate male avatar). In fact, the only time FemShep’s gender is really acknowledged is as a put down: “Strippers quarters are that way.”
Samantha Byrne from Gears of War may be her own character entirely, but she, too, falls into this category. She is physically buff and is “strong enough to play with the boys.” While both these physically strong women holding their own in “a man’s world” can be empowering, it also implies that no one will take you seriously in your frilly pink dress (still waiting for a Princess Peach game that does her justice).
Definition: Strong, hot, badass.
Good: because the character has agency, independence, and their femininity is expressed (via their clothing).
Problematic: because they usually have a small range of emotion (cold, cool, & catty) and their femininity is sexualized. Lastly, expressing femininity through revealing clothing implies that being a woman is rooted in one’s biological sex [which is non-inclusive of transgendered people].
Examples: Lara Croft from Tomb Raider and Bayonetta from the Bayonetta series. Lara Croft has evolved a lot over the years but she’s still known by her tiny shorts and being a bombshell archaeologist-adventurer.
Bayonetta’s femme fatale-ness is even more explicit. From the game’s opening transformation scene we are set up to view her as a sex object that knows how to handle a gun. But there’s nothing wrong with either of these women’s outfits, women can dress as they please. However in the context of gaming, there is no choice—the character is already constructed for you. In this case, these women are designed as sexual objects.
Definition: femininity is downplayed or hidden.
Good: because it shows being a female isn’t the most important part of their character. It also challenges gender assumptions and commenst on how hidden femininity is sometimes “necessary” for survival.
Problematic: because it implies femininity is a handicap and feeds into idea that “no one wants to play as a female character.” This idea propagates the stereotype that women don’t play games when approximately half of gamers are women.
Examples: Samus Aran from Metroid and Chell from Portal. Samus is an interesting character because she floats between two worlds: hidden femininity and femme fatale. Samus’s traditional power suit and the first-person shooter (FPS) perspective used for console releases all make her sex invisible. While the zero suit’s tight spandex reveal her sex but leave little to the imagination.
Chell faces a similar dilemma. Portal is a FPS so Chell’s sex is also highly downplayed—only to be seen through strategic portal placement. Both these games are FPSs and for good reason. But it’s unfortunate that two great female leads are barely seen at all. Which brings us to some solutions…
The gaming industry needs…
–More female leads in games
–Personality and character design that’s more reflective of real-life women.
–To acknowledge the following: identity is shaped by gender but is not solely gender and gender expression is a spectrum that changes throughout the day based on one’s circumstances and preferences.
By doing the above, we will see a wider range of characters. This is beneficial not just for representation but because games will have more well-rounded characters and better stories as a result. We want characters who look like us, act like us, and face similar problems. We want characters we can empathize with and characters we can admire.
I’ll never stop loving Samus Aran as the hot, badass, intergalactic bounty hunter she is. But I want more female leads and I want developers to be aware of the implications that come with their designs.
I want more characters like Cassandra from Dragon Age Inquisition: she’s direct, bold, androgynous looking, passionate, and has a proclivity for romance novels.
We, as people, are multifaceted and we deserve characters as diverse as we are.