The Lack of the Female Protagonist – Part One

One of the biggest games of the year features three male leads, and no female leads. Is this an issue with the video game industry?

I recently came across an article on Jezebel titled “I Really Want to Play Grand Theft Auto V, But I Won’t. Here’s Why.” It caught me off guard, since I don’t often go to Jezebel to read about video games. I read author Laura Beck’s arguments against playing the game, which essentially breaks down to the gender of the game’s three main protagonists. In her opinion, developer Rockstar Games had a golden opportunity to showcase a strong female protagonist in what will surely be one of the year’s highest profile games. After all, for the first time in franchise history, Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) will feature not one but three playable leads. Unfortunately for her and millions of female gamers, Rockstar chose to create three male protagonists. Because of this, and despite the very promising early promotional material, Beck said she would, on principal, sit this game out, saying she is tired of always having to play as a male. And the fact of the matter is, she is right.

It’s 2013, and video games have a gender equality problem.

An Initial Defense Falls Flat

When I finished reading Beck’s argument against GTA V, my initial reaction was dismissive. It seemed to me that she was nitpicking the game, and was a little too eager to criticize an artistic choice – after all, it is within the right of the creator to include and develop the characters they feel fit their story best. “Maybe Rockstar thought to include a female protagonist, and it didn’t fit their vision,” was my initial hypothesis, and without any evidence it became my conclusion. And so I dismissed the article. Who would want to see women become an item on a checklist that every developer was forced to include in their game? Wasn’t this the preferred method, to have women organically included at the developer’s discretion?

But it wasn’t until I read another Gawker Media article, this time posted on Kotaku, that this argument began to quickly lose credibility. In the article “A Game Creator’s Argument For Only Letting You Play As A Boy,” author Stephen Totilo interviews developer Gavin Moore, creative director for the upcoming game Puppeteer. In Puppeteer, the player can only play as a boy, and Moore sees no issue with this. From the article (emphasis mine):

“I think we should be making what we want to make, and if somebody is upset by that than [sic] please don’t buy the product,” he said. “I grew up under strong women, I know how the women are strong and I love women. I think they are wonderful, but, I’m not going to change my creative vision over something because somebody tells me that that’s what’s important now. Because I don’t think that’s important. I tested this game with kids. Girls and boys. Not one of them has mentioned it. Not one of them cares. Now all of them had fun.”

Female protgonists - Puppeteer

In Puppeteer, your only choice is to play as a boy, while girls are relegated to supporting roles.

When I read this quote, I immediately recalled the numerous studies I’ve read regarding the lack of women developers, including one from the Boston Globe, which stated that “Women account for only 11 percent of game designers and 3 percent of programmers.” With so few women working in the industry, there are nearly zero voices calling for gender diversity. When Beck says in her article that she want’s to play video games starring women, the response from a male-dominated industry is that they will make the games they want, which appear to be focused on male protagonists.

Could I now, in good conscious, trust my conclusion, that Rockstar gave serious thought to including a female protagonist in their game? Especially when male developers have gone on record saying that they do not consider it an important issue? How could they, when only 11 percent of the workforce is female? Granted, Moore does not work for Rockstar games, and there is evidence that other male developers do not share his views. Developer Naughty Dog recently hit back at a review that insinuated that their latest, The Last of Us, was a game made by men, for men. But what are the chances, really, that every male developer, all 89 percent of them, think like Naughty Dog? What are the chances that some of them, most of them, think like Gavin Moore?

How Does This “Hurt” the Industry?

When I realized that the argument of artistic authority held little weight in an industry almost exclusively male, I began to question why there is such a strong backlash to female protagonists. What harm could it do? And what good could it do?

A quick look at my official author biography shows that Mass Effect is one of my all time favorite video game series. I feel the trilogy as a whole is the pinnacle of modern gaming, and will be the bar future games are measured against. And part of what makes me feel that way is the amazing opening act. The original Mass Effect has aged well, and it set the stage for one of the grandest adventures in video game history. It allowed me to do something all great games do – see the world through a perspective different than my own.

My decision to first play as “fem-Shep” was purely due to voice actor Jennifer Hale. I felt she gave Shepard a wide range – I could barge into a room and scream my enemies down, or I could comfort those who have lost loved ones. But as the game wore on, it became cemented in my mind that Commander Shepard was always intended to be a female. It has rarely occurred to me that Commander Shepard could be anyone but the black haired, pale, pointy-faced Sarah Shepard that I’ve spent countless hours with.

Female protagonists Mass Effect

Commander Shepard is a great example of a strong female protagonist… if the player chooses to play as a woman.

At first, my choice in gender was purely cosmetic (I’m sure a psychiatrist can tell more about me than I care to admit just by my description of Sarah Shepard), until I was tasked with finding the location of a character who may have mission critical information. This lead me to a disgraced security officer, Harkin, whom I could press to get the information I needed. I remember walking up to Harkin, him drinking away his problems in a bar, and asking for information. His response was alarming:

“Hey there, sweetheart, looking for some fun? ‘Cause I gotta say, that soldier getup looks real good on that bod of yours. Why don’t you sit your sweet little ass down beside old Harkin? Have a drink and we’ll see where this goes.”

To put it mildly, Sarah Shepard did not take too kindly to his condescending attitude. I recall thinking how his mockery and dismissiveness made me feel, and how my reaction was to threaten him immediately with physical violence, to show him I was the one in power. And in Mass Effect 2, when Harkin is revealed to be a central player in a new criminal outfit, I made sure to take extra time interrogating him, to inflict as much physical punishment as possible, all because of the words above.

This example perfectly illustrates the power of video games. The chance of someone ever trying to make me feel inferior because of my gender, had I chosen to play the game as a male, are very low. In fact, playing this same scene as a male leads to a very different conclusion, one where the player is never forced to deal with feelings of inferiority. Playing this scene as a female character made me, an adult male, feel on some level (even if just a small one) what it is like to be valued for my curves rather than for my intellect or ability to get a job done.

Getting back to my two initial questions, the answer to the latter is obvious – the good of having more female protagonists in games is that it forces me to reevaluate my own personal opinions and biases. It has made me more conscious of the way I interact with women, made me more sensitive to how I place value on them. I sure as hell didn’t like being talked down to, and it’s not a stretch to logically assume that women feel the same.

As to what harm it could do, the answer, simply, is that it doesn’t matter. The positives of playing a character of the opposite gender are so great that no meaningful negatives present themselves. Any perceived harms are more of a reaction to change in the industry, rather than actual, established arguments. In fact, I believe it is more harmful to the industry to continue excluding female protagonists from games than it is to feature more.

In part two of this essay, I will examine the advantages of an inclusive video game industry, as well as examine some of the more popular arguments against the inclusion of more women in video games.