The video gaming industry has never shied away from having female characters in their games. Whether the female were the protagonist, antagonist or the damsel in distress, women have always had a role in games. However, there are some controversies over how women can be represented in video games.
One of the biggest issues, it seems, with having female video game characters is the need to make them oversexualised. This trend comes from having a primarily male audience for video games, but recent studies show that female gamers make up around half of the gaming population now. So why are female characters still being oversexualised?
I don't have a problem with characters being sexualised if it fits the context. If they're a prostitute, it makes sense for them to be flaunting their bodies. However, more often than not, their need to wear the least possible clothes doesn't fit the context, is often impractical, and sometimes even takes priority over personality.
For example, the lesson about women's clothes in MMOs and RPGs is often 'less is more.' What's supposed to be armor barely covers the essentials. Is it really practical to have most of your body on display? This 'armor' really isn't going to protect you from any sort of attack, and yet it's often all that can be found in these types of games. It doesn't make sense in the context of the game.
The other issue with the sexualisation of these female characters is the disproportionate and unrealistic ways in which their bodies are designed. They're often designed with 'ideal' bodies - large breasts and butts, but very skinny. In reality, this is actually very rare. Body proportions work that typically if you're skinny you have small boobs and bum.
This is giving off an unrealistic view of women. This need to highlight the sexual parts of their body makes them less likely to be regarded with respect - gamers focus more on their physique than their personality. This is a flaw of game design. If a character's body is more important than their personality, then they're a two-dimensional character and completely uninteresting.
This is evident, for example, in the older Tomb Raider games. Lara Croft (considered by many to be the most iconic female video game character ever) is an intelligent, witty and very capable character, but often this was undermined by her abnormally large breasts and hour-glass figure. However, the reboot in 2013 made her body more realistic and created a character that went beyond her physique. This makes her a much more interesting character and gives her more depth. Tomb Raider (2013) remains to have the highest sales of any Tomb Raider game to date, showing that it isn't necessary to oversexualise these female characters in order to sell the game.
So is it necessary for female video game characters to be this sexualised? Not really. I'd say that at least 90% of the time, it doesn't fit the context of the character or the game. It's just a cheap way to create two-dimensional characters and sell games.
Another big issue with female video game characters is the role they have in the game. Some characters are given degrading and weak roles, whereas some are essential to the story (even if they aren't protagonists) and show that they are as capable as the male characters.
Take Mario, for example. The whole series is about saving Princess Peach, because she can't look after herself. She's a very weak character, and is entirely dependent on Mario. I know everyone seems to love the games, but her character is strictly there to be the goal at the end of the game.
In contrast to this, characters like Lara Croft show in the game that they can look after themselves, and don't need to be saved. This shows that women aren't the weaker gender and that female characters can be just as capable as male characters.
More than just being capable, these characters should also have a personality. It's good having characters that can look after themselves, but characters (both male and female) should have a distinctive personality. If they have sexuality and/or capability, but no personality, they're still a two dimensional character.
Any character (regardless of gender) with no personality is not a good character. A character should have an authentic, realistic voice that comes across. They shouldn't just be perfectly good or bad, they shouldn't be simple enough to define in any less than a hundred words. One way to look at it is that if you took dialogue out of the game and told a fan to work out who said it (without using the actor's voice), they should be able to work out who the character is, just by the way they talk and their dialect.
This is often forgotten about in female characters. Sometimes they're just there to be sexy or to be saved, and so they don't need a personality. Where most games feature a male protagonist, this isn't really a problem for them, because the protagonist always gets a personality. But secondary protagonists or minor female characters often don't get a three-dimensional personality.
An example of these female characters with personality is Chloe Frazer and Elena Fisher from the Uncharted series. Yes, Elena needs saving a lot and Chloe's the game's sex appeal, but they both have individual personalities. You could compare lines of dialogue from each and tell the difference between them just because of the way they talk and the way they view things. The very fact that they disagree on things shows that they have different personalities. However, one thing that the franchise got wrong was how to develop these personalities. Chloe saw little to no character development, whereas Elena went from 'Let's go on adventures' in Drake's Fortune to 'Stealing is wrong and this is dangerous so we should go home' in Among Thieves, without any explanation or direction. It was almost as though they'd forgotten the personality they'd given her in the first game and thought 'meh, we'll do what we can'.
Regardless, having a character with any sort of personality is a good start (even if it's not well-developed) and is key to making good characters and interesting games.
So What Makes A Good (Female) Character?
The thing is, to make a good character you need to forget about their gender. If you think about a character's gender before anything else, then they're going to fall into gender stereotypes. You should have a character's personality, then be able to flip a coin for their gender.
Okay, some people fit into certain gender stereotypes but not all people fit into all of them. A stereotype is an over-simplified ideology of something. So saying that all girls like pink and wear dresses isn't correct. Some girls do, but not all.
So you should be able to make a baseline character, with an attitude and interest and a personality, and then flip a coin and say whether they're male or female. Sure, you can add in a few bits here and there once their gender is decided, but a character's gender shouldn't decide their personality.
A good example of this is (obviously) the Mass Effect trilogy, where you can play as either a male or a female version of Shepherd (the protagonist). There's very little differences in Female Shepard and Male Shepard, and so they're both great characters. They both have personalities and can be seen as three-dimensional characters. By allowing the player to chose the gender of the protagonist, Bioware is pointing out that female characters in video don't need to be that different to male characters and can play the same role.
Some of my favourite female video game characters are Jodie Holmes from Beyond: Two Souls (2013), reboot Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider games (2013-present), Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite (2013) and Clementine from The Walking Dead (2012-2013). My favourite of all time has got to be Ellie from The Last of Us (2013).
These characters all have unique personalities and interesting stories that were made more important than their gender. If you think about it, you could change any of the characters' genders and it wouldn't really make a difference to the character themself. And they're not all the same, they're individuals with distinctive thoughts and emotions. As I've said before, it would be easy to tell one of Ellie's quotes from Elizabeth's or Jodie's.
At the end of the day, there's no other form of media that is as one-gendered as the gaming industry. Films, books, TV shows, music... all of it has a mainstream genre for each gender. However, despite the gaming industry now having a pretty much 50-50 split of male to female audience, it's still targeted at men. I'm not saying we should make video games pink and fluffy, because women seem to like the content of the video games as they are.
Male characters in video games have always been well-rounded and interesting characters, and our generation has actually turned out some very interesting female characters. The gaming industry should strive to make more riveting and engaging female characters like these, because honestly we love them!
Who's your favourite female video game character? Let me know in the comments!