The Lack of the Female Protagonist – Part Two

Samus Aran is a good start, but the video game industry could use more female protagonists.

This is the second of a two-part series examining the lack of female protagonists in video games. To read part one, click here.

The Advantages of Being Inclusive

When the issue of including more female protagonists in games arises, it is often met with fierce criticism from a mostly male audience. These arguments have been chronicled extensively elsewhere, and  before I break down some of them, I thought it important to first discuss the positives, simply beyond seeing the world through a different set of eyes.

One of the issues plaguing video games is the portrayal of women. It goes beyond over-sexed caricatures – the image of the “perfect” female form that is often purported in mainstream games is impossible to achieve. And it is both damaging to the psyche of young women and to the medium – when every female character in Dead or Alive has breasts that are unrealistically proportioned to the rest of their body, it gives outsiders the false impression that video games are immature, that we only view women as a walking pair of breasts to ogle. And when that image is so widely accepted by a male audience, it gives young women the impression that, in order to have any value, they have to conform to a highly unrealistic set of standards, which can have negative and harmful consequences. In order for the medium to be taken seriously, we have to treat all aspects of video game creation seriously, including the way in which women are presented.

By changing the portrayal of female characters toward a more realistic standard, and by including more female protagonists in general, this body image issue will severely decrease. In turn, the portrayal of women will shift from objects to be desired toward people to sympathize with. It will allow gamers, both male and female alike, the chance to place value on a woman for more than just her looks – her personality, morals and actions will instead be the deciding factors.

Female protagonists unrealistic portrayals

These unrealistic portrayals of women do little to help the medium grow and mature.

By welcoming gender diversity, developers will also open the door to new stories, and even possibly new genres. Video games are capable of handling serious subjects, and it is highly likely that a whole array of stories are being shut out simply because they do not apply to men. And even stories focused on men could be refreshed and given new life if some on the development team brought in a different, unique perspective. Nearly every action game that hits the market is some take on the standard male power fantasy – the fate of the world is at stake, and the only thing standing between the bad guys and total destruction is a muscular dude with a shotgun. Eventually, this story gets old (if it hasn’t already), and it would be refreshing if another archetype could be introduced to the gaming masses.

This would seem to be enough – if more female protagonists meant more realistic portrayals of women and a host of new stories to tell, then developers should do everything they can to make this happen. But perhaps the best reason to include more women in games is because it would solve the problem Jezebel author Laura Beck has with Grand Theft Auto V – it would get more women to play games.

Viewing Video Games Through Someone Else’s Eyes

When Bioshock: Infinite was released, the game blew me away. I was immediately drawn into its world, and instantly cared for the characters. I felt a connection to that game that no movie or book has made me feel in years. And as with anything important to me, anything that I feel passionate about, I wanted to share this game with my wife.

I dislike the idea of “casual” and “hardcore” gamers, but for the sake of this argument, my wife is a hardcore gamer. I’ve watched her sink untold hours into her Redguard warrior in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, enough to know that, just like me, she sees the value in video games as a medium. And so I wanted her to experience the world of Bioshock: Infinite. But much to my dismay, I couldn’t get her to pick up the controller and try it out for herself. She was content simply watching the game, as if it were a TV show she could pick up and put down whenever she wanted. It frustrated me – why wouldn’t she want to experience this world firsthand?

Fast forward two months, and we found ourselves in the exact opposite role – there she was, spending countless hours on a game I hadn’t played, her trying to convince me to pick up the controller and play it for myself. The game was Fable III.

Watching her play through Fable III and hearing her passionately discuss the game left me confused. Surely she wasn’t saying that Fable III was a better game than Bioshock: Infinite – how could she? The Fable series has always been one burdened by grand ideas that were never executed well, whereas Bioshock: Infinite met most of it’s lofty goals. But then it hit me – I was missing the point entirely. What Fable III did better than Bioshock: Infinite was that it allowed her to relate to the characters, and thus to the world. She wasn’t some noble prince, ready to claim the throne and rule as a king – she was a “goddamn queen” (her words), and she wouldn’t hesitate to kick your ass if you crossed her. Fable III offered her a world where a character she could relate to could be the center of the story. Bioshock: Infinite required her to play as a man rescuing a woman – it was doomed from the start.

Female protagonist in Fable III

It should be a no brainer, but it’s true – female gamers enjoy playing as female protagonists.

Seeing the joy on her face as she became fully immersed in a video game made me realize that this is a medium that should be experienced by everyone. It truly is a powerful form, capable of eliciting the strongest emotions within all of us. Why shouldn’t this be made available to everyone? Why must it only be given to men?

Dismantling the Common Arguments Against Female Protagonists

Of course, providing positives isn’t enough – many of the above arguments have been made before, to seemingly no avail. In my experience, there are three main arguments against increasing the amount of female protagonists: female leads will be unrelatable to men (and possibly emasculate the male audience), female gamers who want more female-centric video games should make their own video games and, finally, there is just as much sexism and objectification geared toward men in video games as there is toward women.

Unfortunately for those who take up these stances, none of these arguments hold any water.

The Proof is in the Icon

The notion that men will be unable to relate to a female protagonist is simply untrue, for two reasons. First, there are currently games that feature a female in the lead, and these games sell incredibly well. And second, when a female lead is poorly portrayed in a video game, men recognize it for its faults, showcasing that men can and will relate to strong female leads.

Although there may not be many examples of female leads, one franchise, Metroid, illustrates how men have no issue playing as a woman. In earlier games, the gender of hero Samus Aran was less of an issue because, frankly, her gender is next to impossible to distinguish under her armor. But in the later games, specifically the Metroid Prime trilogy, her gender is conveyed through two subtle, yet powerful ways. First is through her reflection across her visor – whenever there is a large explosion close to Samus, the resulting brightness causes the reflection of her face to briefly fill the screen. This brief moment communicates to the player that Samus is indeed a woman, and you are seeing the world through her eyes. Being that the game is in the first person perspective, you are inhabiting the body of a woman to fight off swarms of enemies.

Coincidentally, it is an even more recent Metroid game that proves my second point – that men have no problem relating to female protagonists, and will speak out when one is handled poorly. Metroid: Other M was a departure from the typical Metroid formula in many ways. However, the one that stuck with most gamers was the characterization of Samus. Developer Team Ninja wanted to create a game that humanized Samus more than any entry before. Sounds good at first, until you play the game, and Samus is reduced to nothing more than a common male fantasy – the strong, sexy woman who is still a subordinate to her male superiors. In most Metroid games, Samus will lose some of her unique abilities early on in the game, and the majority of the game is reacquiring these parts so the player can progress. However, in Metroid: Other M, Samus never loses any of her powerful abilities, but chooses not to use them until her male superior tells her that she can. This aspect was called out by many reviewers and gamers, almost all of them male, and rightly so. And in calling this out, male gamers everywhere proved that they could relate to a female protagonist, and were disappointed when that character was handled with less than optimal care.

I’m Taking My Ball and Going Home

The second argument, that women who want to see more women in video games should make their own, is both insulting and indicative of the gender equality issue plaguing the industry. Throughout every medium – books, music, movies – the fans will complain, and often very loudly, if their favorite character or TV show or band is heading in a direction that they do not prefer. This aspect of fan-artist interaction is as old as art itself, and never has the “make your own” mentality been a reasonable argument to use.

To prove this, one only has to look at the recent debacle surrounding the Xbox One. Microsoft unveiled a console that would radically change the meaning behind game ownership, seemingly at the expense of the everyday gamer. And what did the gaming populace do? They complained, signed petitions, tweeted Microsoft employees, and eventually Microsoft relented. But never was there a call by those from Microsoft challenging disgruntled gamers to make their own console. And that’s because the argument is akin to taking your ball and going home – it is one only proposed by children.

The Myth of Misandry

Finally, the argument that best highlights the disconnect between the male audience opposed to female protagonists and the rest of the gaming world is the claim of sexism and objectification of men in video games. When Kotaku highlighted the over-sexualized female characters in the upcoming game Dragon’s Crown, it set off a fierce discussion, and many male gamers offered the counterpoint that the male characters in Dragon’s Crown were just as exaggerated as the female characters. A typical depiction of a male character in that game is so muscle bound that it makes Gears of War protagonist Marcus Fenix look like a boy. The argument here was that not all men could possibly live up to that aesthetic standard, and therefore the game was just as sexist toward men as it was toward women.

Female protagonists Dragons Crown Heroes

This is not the same as over-sexualized women fighting in thongs and string bikinis.

Two things come to mind when addressing this argument – first, even if the game was equally sexist toward men as it was toward women, that wouldn’t justify the art style. In theory, it would make the problem even worse, but for many the justification was “if I am a man and I do not find the sexism discouraging, then women shouldn’t have any issues with it either.” Unfortunately, that’s not how society operates – women are often seen as inferior to men both physically and intellectually, which is why there is still a large gap in income equality between the genders. So simply comparing your experiences with those who are often disenfranchised is not accurate or appropriate.

That said, the male caricatures in Dragon’s Crown are not sexist toward males, because the style does not imply the aforementioned inferiority. In fact, the muscle-bound hulking brutes only empower the male power fantasy – they do not diminish it. The issue with this game, and the argument as a whole, is that it fails to recognize how women in games are objectified. They are seen as powerless objects, while the men are seen as powerful human beings. Male gamers cannot claim sexism or objectification when those portrayals are so overwhelmingly positive and in-line with the already popular male power fantasy.

A Call to Developers

It is clear that this issue needs to be resolved, and the first step is for developers to acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place. By understanding the issue, developers can begin to incorporate more positive portrayals of women in their games, which in turn will allow more women to enjoy this medium, which in turn will inspire more women to enter the video game industry. This can only lead to growth and acceptance, both of which are important aspects of any artistic medium.

It’s time for developers to take a moment and really analyze the issue. If you truly feel that your games would be less rewarding and exciting by including female protagonists, then that is ultimately your choice. But for those who refuse to see the exclusive nature of the industry and the harm that it inflicts, do not be surprised to see your games slowly, steadily forgotten.