The State of Sexism in Gaming
IGN posted an editorial commenting on the state of female characters in gaming. The editorial in question chastises gaming for having female characters that are constantly in need of the help of men and/or played for their sexuality in order to sell games. While I certainly agree there is a problem with weak or unrealistically sexual female characters in games, I very much disagree well portrayed female characters are as rare as the editorial claims. The author of the editorial couldn’t come up with ten female characters who met the parameters specified above. As a counter argument, I present the following list:
Strong female characters in gaming who aren’t portrayed in hyper sexual ways in their games:
Alyx Vance (Half-Life series): Witty, charming, and an expert with a pistol, Alyx is the emotional heart of the Half-Life sequels. Her constant commentary pertaining to the story and setting give an otherwise lonely and dreary game much needed levity and character. Wearing blue jeans, a hoodie, and a suede jacket, Alyx isn’t presented as a sex object in the least. She’s simply a charming and endearing companion on your quest to stop the Combine. She also has a really bad ass robot for a pet.
Wynne (Dragon Age: Origins): Wise, powerful, and more than a little in love with books, Wynne is an important companion in Dragon Age, as she’s one of two mages you can recruit. She acts as the unwavering moral compass of the group with her steadfast conviction and years of experiance.
Kreia (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords): Shrewd, morally ambiguous, and willing to break the tenets of the Force itself to serve her purpose, Kreia is a force of nature. At first glance she appears to be an old, blind Jedi, but in reality she is much more. An exiled Sith Lord, Kreia has a rather gray view of the Force that she shares with you over the course of the game. It really makes you question the nature of the Force outside of the extreme Jedi and Sith philosophies. More than anyone in this list, Kreia has total confidence in herself and her goals and isn’t afraid to sacrifice people to get the job done.
Tali (Mass Effect series): Confined within an airtight suit to protect her weak immune system from airborne viruses and bacteria, Tali is unable to have physical contact without a sterile environment and a cocktail of immune boosters. She may have started out a kid in the first game, but by Mass Effect 2 she’s in a position of authority, commanding her own squad of Quarian Troops and acting as a confident member of Shepard’s squad in a tech position.
The Boss (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater): Not only did she train Big Boss, but she led an elite squad of super soldiers during World War II. Her philosophy and duplicity can be a little hard to follow at times, but there’s no denying The Boss is a true bad ass that is worthy of respect. It’s also worth noting that she’s the only character from a Japanese game on the list, which isn’t surprising given that Metal Gear Solid 3 is the most western game of the series.
Captain Veronica Dare (Halo 3: ODST): She’s got intelligence, infantry armor, and she has Nathan Fillion totally whipped. She assigns a squad of ODST’s a mission that can help win the war against the Covenant and sees it through to the end. It’s also rather impressive that the entire game your ODST team is trying to find her, as you assume she desperately needs your help when in reality it’s more the other way around.
Claudia Auditore da Firenze (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood): She may have taken a bit of a back seat in Assassin’s Creed II, but in Ezio’s second chapter his younger sister plays a much more important role. A book worm and excellent accountant, Claudia defies her brother’s wishes and becomes the manager of a brothel in Rome. The brothel acts as a nerve center of intelligence, allowing Claudia to gather information on Ezio’s enemies. Think of her as a renaissance version of Batman’s Oracle. Her actions elevate her into the ranks of fully fledged assassins by Ezio’s side.
Elena Fisher (Uncharted series): A journalist whose trigger finger is as capable as her wit, Elena is a trusted confidant in any situation. She travels to warzones to report her stories, which takes courage and tenacity. She saves and assists Nathan Drake, the main protagonist of the series, on more than one occasion. If Nathan Drake can appeal to the “everyman”, Elena is very much the modern woman holding her own in a rough and violent world.
Catherine-B320 (Halo: Reach): Second in command of Noble team, a squad of Spartans stationed on the human colony Reach during its fall to a Covenant armada. She fills the roles of tech expert and intelligence officer with a capable confidence that makes her the most valuable member of the team. Noble team truly relies on her over the course of the campaign, as she always is the one with the ingenious (yet ridiculously dangerous) plans. She also has a really cool bionic arm.
Faith (Mirror’s Edge): A courier for a small underground resistance movement, Faith is an expert in parkour (Russian free running) who travels by roof top to avoid detection from a toleration state. Faith is simply dressed for mobility down to her running shoes. She also has a very believable body type for someone who spends their entire day sprinting. It’s also worth noting that you see her character model very little in the game, as it is played entirely in first person.
Shale (Dragon Age: Origins): Admittedly, Shale is a bit of a cheat. She WAS a female dwarf. A member of the Legion of the Dead, a battalion of Dwarves who dwell underground fight the Darkspawn, she volunteered to be made into a stone war machine known as a Golem. The strongest companion (as far as brute strength goes) you can acquire in the game. Shale has a quirky personality that also makes her worth keeping in your party.
Other characters I have seen but don’t know well enough to provide commentary on are Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, Imoen from Baulder’s Gate, and Elaine Marley-Threepwood from the Monkey Island series, as mentioned by IGN’s article.
Before I go any further, it’s worth noting that the editorial posted on IGN makes some excellent points. The portrayal of women in games has been (and, for the most part, continues to be) sexist. Character models in MANY games are simply ridiculous. From Lara Croft, to Ivy, to Bayonetta, women have been given impossible proportions and thin characterizations all in the name of selling units. Slowly, but surely, however women have been portrayed in more equal and realistic ways. Note all the examples above have been from the last ten years with many appearing in the last five.
Japan, on the other hand, has been falling behind in not just their physical presentation of female gaming characters, but how they’re written. Soul Caliber IV alone could cause a field day in any equality organization. The most baffling and insulting instance as of late is the writing of Samus Aran. In the original game, Nintendo surprised the world when it revealed that Samus’s gender as female. The mystique and professional attitude continued into the heavily lauded Metriod Prime trilogy developed by Western company Retro Studios. Unfortunately, Samus’s reputation took a hit in Super Smash Bros: Brawl when Nintendo revealed her suit underneath the armor to be a skin tight cat suit wrapped around a generously curved body for no reason whatsoever. To worsen the blow, the narrative in Metriod: Other M (developed by the Japanese Team Ninja) reduced Samus to an emotionally scarred girl complete with daddy issues, a subservient attitude in the face of male authority figures, and entire monologues where she vents her emotions like a journal entry from Bella Swan. Metriod: Other M has since received a fair amount of backlash (for both its story and simplistic game play) from Western audiences.
A company that has taken a degree of responsibility for its sexual portrayal of characters is Bioware. The two most outwardly sexual characters in Mass Effect 2, Jack and Miranda, are given well written reasons for their attitudes and appearances. Miranda, for instance, is genetically engineered to be perfect. From her beauty to mental abilities, she is designed to have tactical superiority in any situation. Miranda understands her gifts and uses them to advance her goals, but they’re also a reason for a great deal of inner turmoil. In her mind, she has nothing that truly belongs to her. Every part of her body was designed by a team of scientists. Who is she, really? Can she even be sure if her personality is one she has earned, or simply the result of a genetic sequence? If someone were to fall in love with her, she wouldn’t know if they loved her for the person she has become or for what the scientists designed. Her identity crisis is a state of mind that leads her toward a business-like and coldly professional attitude towards others. Her sexuality is as much a protective shield for her emotions as it is a tactical advantage in her espionage missions. Despite her problems, she’s a very capable character in the game that’s useful for giving blunt and logical assessments of situations. She also happens to be one of the few characters that can command your auxiliary teams during the suicide mission with success. While, admittedly, Bioware does take a rather… liberal approach to the camera angles they choose with her, they actually serve to challenge your perception of the character in some ways. Are you, as Shepard, going to fall prey to the very beauty that adds to her crisis of character… or will you learn to see her for the person she has worked to become?
Jack is a character who throws her sexuality in your face along with the middle finger. On the outside she appears crass, vulgar, and self centered. The tattoos that cover her body in the place of clothing give off an aggressive and threatening demeanor. Her powerful biotic abilities allow her to become a wrecking ball of kinetic energy that can reduce reinforced steel to shredded scrap metal. Her powers came from being tortured at a scientific facility, until she broke out and slaughtered its inhabitants. Over the course of Jack’s life, almost everyone she’s met has tried to use her for her powers or her body with little regard for her well being. By the time you recruit her onto your squad, she’s extremely distrustful of others. In one of the first conversations you can have with Jack, she gives you the opportunity to engage in an emotionless and violent sexual encounter with her. However, immediately having your character use Jack sexually means that it becomes that much harder to earn her respect, resulting in possible problems for you in the game’s storyline. If you take the time to talk to her and care about her on a personal level, she begins to begrudgingly open up to you. If you play her romance plot line respectfully, it becomes a deeply emotional connection with a vulnerable and weary soul.
The fact you can engage in romantic and even consensual sexual relationships with the characters in the games doesn’t mean they’re not strong or simply played as sexual objects to sell units. When a character is defined by their need for a man or is portrayed in a sexual way with no justification, then the sexuality becomes a marketing gimmick. The Japanese excel at dressing their characters in provocative clothing with little justification, as seen in characters such as Tifa Lockheart and Ivy Valentine. It’s the difference between Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager and Six in Battlestar Galactica. One wears a cat suit for no reason other than to show off her curves to the audience, while the other uses her sexuality as a deep rooted character trait that has influence on the storyline.
The entertainment industry as a whole loves to sell you attractive people. Women obviously get the brunt of the sexist, impossibly attractive portrayals more than men, though it happens to them a fair amount as well. But before you grab your pitch fork and torch with the intention of damning the entertainment industry forever, look up at the characters above and check out their games. The playing field is, in fact, getting better little by little. If you want things to change, buy a game that comes out with a fair, honest portrayal of women. Nothing makes a bigger statement than money. It’s a big shame Mirror’s Edge sold badly, as that story is a simple murder mystery/adventure that didn’t involve sex in the least. It’s like that plenty of Western developers want to make characters that are realistic, but the problem is they need to make a profit on their products. Make a statement by vetting games through reviews and buying the ones that give fair characterizations.