Character Gender Equality: Are We Just Treading Water?

As the festive weeks are now fading and 2017 is beginning to warm up, I wanted to start the blogging year with what was the guilty pleasure of those lost days; the gaming equivalent of wearing pajamas all day, eating ice cream straight from the tub, and the almost constant stream of murmurings based around putting the kettle on for just one more round of hot drinks. This year I tackled both Resident Evil Revelations 1 & 2… but no, each time I thought about putting together that post my mind kept jumping back to things that just havn’t sat quite right with me in some of the recent titles I’ve played, so Revelations will have to wait for a week or two whilst I get this ramble off my chest.

… and before I really start to let my fingers run away over the keyboard, I should clarify that this is a rant/ramble. I’m not sure if I have a point, and I know that I’m likely to pick up on examples and titles which only represent a small proportion of games. In short this is not even in the same extended neighborhood of a scientific and balanced piece… just some niggling little twinges that need stretching out…

A little while back I jumped into ‘Dead Rising‘ for the first time and, without re-wording that post, it turned out to be an enjoyable experience despite the ten years that had rolled by between its release and it finally making it to a system that I could experience it on… enjoyable except one aspect that sat really uncomfortably. Frank’s ability to have a Kodak moment and snap some cleavage or a crafty upskirt shot for a significant XP boost and print for the family album filed under the category of “erotica”. Part of me might have dismissed this as ‘in-keeping’ with the quirky garish humor of the series if it hadn’t been possible to do this with the human survivors Frank encountered along with the zombies. This photographer who finds vulnerable innocents, takes them to a locked security room, stands close enough to mist up their glasses, and points a SLR at their chest (all in the quest for a few more XP) unsettled me more than any of the walking dead roaming the surrounding shopper paradise. It’s stuck with me since then, rattling around in my brain, part of me thinking “that was made 10 years ago, games have moved on“,and the other part of me asking “have they?“… So have they? has the depiction of women in games really been improving? or is it just making enthusiastic arm swinging movements whilst marching on the spot? With my hands held high in the air I admit that I had probably been in the camp of “oh yeah, things arn’t perfect, but they’re much better than they were“… but I’m not so sure…

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Oh yeah, he looks all innocent with that teddy-bear face, but with that camera in his hands it gets more sinister 

A quick tally down my steam library reveals one of the first awkward truths, around 60% of the games there feature a solely or majority male playable roster with a little over 22% giving a pretty much even split between genders and that final 18% being games where the playable protagonist(s) are all/mostly female. Immediately there is a skew away from women taking the leading role in the game; in many cases the female roles in plot driven games are as a supporting character, and in titles where you can select your virtual presence it’s often a lone woman standing in the lineup of men. Of course I don’t want to ignore your screen shouting so I admit that this is only my library and is of course skewed into genres by my own personal preference of Ceylon, but I’d prefer to stick to one ramble at a time (Athena over at AmbiGaming is currently rounding up some thoughts on the ‘gendering’ of games which is well worth reading). I did find it uncomfortable however that right off the bat women seem to be often pigeonholed as ‘supporting’ characters in games. The second awkward moment of looking through through my catalogue was the age demographic that the female leads or NPC’s occupy, and whilst it is a problem with with media in general, maybe you can take up the challenge of naming a leading lady depicted over 30 years old? For male characters it’s fairly straighforward; just looking over the various game related artwork scattergunned across the walls here, I can see that the entire cast of TF2 are arguably over 30 (with the exception of the scout) and ‘Left4Dead’ features three male protagonists over 30, with Bill at least in his 60’s

to be honest it’s probably some kind of relief for women over 30 to know that the odds of them being thrown into a zombie survival scenario or gripping action crisis dramatically dropped as they entered their 4th decade of existence whereas for men the reality is that these types of situation could strike at any moment (even past retirement), but most likely if they havn’t had a shave for a few days… 

It turns out I’m not so satisfied with where we are now, but are there at least signs of improvement? Progress is always tricky to evaluate given the different generations, systems, and genres I’ve dipped into over the years, so I thought over one of the long running series that I have seen through multiple generations, Resident Evil (and regular descipherers of my ramblings will know the affinity I have for this series). Whilst it certainly doesn’t represent the pinnacle of sophisticated gaming, it does fit the jacket of mainstream, long running, series. The first two incarnations of ‘Resident Evil’ actually do a good job of gender equality and the portrayal of female characters, even if the dialogue wasn’t up to much. Both games provide the player with an equal choice of male or female protagonist; the first outing (1996) sees long running lock picking enthusiast, Jill Valentine, clad in a uniform which is not only appropriate given the situation, but actually comparable in skin coverage to her male counterparts. Likewise the rookie Rebecca Chambers, alongside being a fun character, presents us with someone who is believable (within the context of the series) as a young, inexperienced but enthusiastic, and professional addition to the S.T.A.R.S. team. The sequel (1998) also couples the equality of character selection with some excellent female support characters; Ada Wong is a suitably edgy and mysterious and Annette Birkin, Umbrella alignment aside, throws the player a shrewd scientist who fits well into the unfolding plot. In short, the bar was set at a good level to start with, so how have things changed over the past 20 years? RE3 & Code: Veronica maintained the status quo, but I would argue that things slid with RE4. As I mentioned at the time the primary female character is the president’s daughter, Ashley Graham, who’s main role seemed to be getting captured and showing the player her underwear as she jumped over things. My recent outing through RE: Revelations saw the Resident Evil universe dive further into the realm of ‘less-is-more’ when it comes to female combat clothing. Jill’s wetsuit was conspicuous, not only because her male counterpart wore something much more appropriate for the occasion of running around mostly in the dry, but also due to the magical zip which stayed a cleavage revealing amount of undone for the entire cruise. Likewise Jessica’s wetsuit, presumably made on a budget, was missing an entire leg… for unexplained reasons… and again looked laughable next to Chris’ standard issue combat outfit.

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Seriously… I have no idea why this is necessary… it must be cold too… 

… and I’m not arguing against sexy characters; it’s a fantasy world, it is natural that it would be populated by attractive people. What doesn’t sit right is the choice to only apply, contextually odd, revealing clothing to women, or the inclusion of a one dimensional character for the purpose of being the ingame eye-candy. Last year’s ‘Hot Ryu’ costume in SFV (I’m really hitting the CAPCOM games hard here) rippled through gaming news sites for changing the way that we looked at everyone’s favorite grizzled Karate expert. The key reporting point was that it was good to see a sexy male costume alongside the female ones. In the context of Street Fighter, a vibrant world where larger than life characters with super human powers fight in a ill-defined tournament around the world, it makes sense for the fighters to be clad in a variety of revealing & bizarre outfits… why not? … But for the female members of a military style agency alongside “normally” clothed men, less so…

I could carry on by listing how modern day incarnations of titles compare to those of yesteryear with respect to the portrayal of women, but I’m pretty sure that, like me, you can think of a handful of examples where things have either not improved, or even shown signs of worsening over the decades. Luckily for gamers, things arn’t all bad; there has been some excellent new IP in recent years which shores-up the gender imbalance in games in terms of the role, physical appearance, and level of character development. Both ‘Life is Strange’ and ‘Firewatch’ have gifted us with female characters who are well developed, interesting, and most importantly believable (at least in the context of the game), and I doubt that it is a coincidence that I gave those two games the dubiously honourable crown of being my personal pick of 2015 & 2016 respectively. Likewise Telltale, with their adaptions of ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘The Wolf Among Us’ (and I’m assuming their other interpretations of popular franchises), have excelled in providing well developed characters, regardless of gender. Away from story driven titles, my views of ‘Paladins‘ were somewhat tainted by a lack of diversity in the body-type of the female champions compared to the virtual ‘pick-n-mix’ of male ones up for grabs, but fortunately that more renowned class based shooter of the past 12 months, ‘Overwatch’, appears to have taken up the challenge in providing actual variety in female build, height, and shape which is encouraging to see.

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I was going to put up a screen from ‘Life is Strange’.. but decided to put up an image from ‘Project Zomboid’ where we’re pretending to be in ‘Life is Strange’… that works right?

I know that I have oversimplified here what is a wide ranging and complex issue (and certainly not one that is limited to the world of gaming) into a sub 2000 word blog post. I have been back and forth about even hitting post on this. with a large degree of “As a manI’m not qualified to make these observations” rolled up in those internal debates and if you don’t think I’m qualified then I sincerely apologise. My intent is not to offend, patronise, or pretend to understand what it is like to be on the other side of the see-saw when it comes to gender bias in digital arts. As a gaming enthusiast, I will (and have) defend gaming as a past-time & form of entertainment which is suitable for everyone… and hope that at some point it might be universally welcoming to everyone. If anything, my intent has been to vent these thoughts and maybe get people to think a little more about gender portrayal in the games that they play; do you agree? are things getting better? … do you just want to yell at me for getting all this wrong?….

21 thoughts on “Character Gender Equality: Are We Just Treading Water?

  1. Fantastic article! I’m glad you decided to write it 🙂

    I think you’re spot on. I agree that yes, we’ve come “a long way” insofar as we have games that even *have* well-written women protagonists and women characters, but like you said, there is a lot of room for improvement (just like in any other media, and just like in real life). I still feel bad for Lara Croft – she was originally conceived as a female version of Indiana Jones (smart, capable, and still attractive), and she turned into one of gaming’s biggest sex symbols because… she had pixelated breasts??

    As a woman, I’m glad to see a man (and other men) taking a look at this issue. Everyone has a unique perspective to offer, and they only enhance the discussion (barring obvious hate-speech). And unfortunately, minorities don’t usually make much progress without the support of those in the majority.

    Thank you for writing this!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂. I wanted to mention tomb raider, but I don’t have much experience with the games, as I agree that Lara has always been ‘badly treated’ as a charter by the gaming community…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d love for my wife to find more games that portray women as the leaders and protagonists, that don’t function as eye candy for the player. I know she’s loved ReCore in particular because she can play the game without having to stare at an overtly sexualized female character.

    She notices things that don’t occur to me as well, like Lara Croft’s almost-sexual noises she makes when leaping around and getting hurt. Sometimes we both notice the issue in games though, like with Quiet from MGSV…

    Personally, I’d just like to have some more variety in games.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, I hadn’t come across recore (I’ll need to go and look it up now).

      Quiet in mgsv is a bizarre choice (although I’ve not played the game) , but mgs as a series doesn’t have a great track record in that department.

      Quite right, variety is just lacking in female characters… Possibly one of the reasons that portal was so successful was due to glados, a really well put together female antagonist and a rarity because it!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Portal’s Chell also made for a great character, despite the lack of meaningful interaction. It’s just sad to me that it surprised me at the time that I was playing as a woman.

        Finding the balance between inclusion, pandering, and fanservice is going to be an issue for a long time I’m thinking. Maybe once the next generation of game industry professionals get into the field, things may become better…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think that the surprise was natural (afterall there were no ‘indicators’ until you caught sight of yourself in a portal), and maybe she worked so well because there was no big deal made about her.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The problem is not about women being objectified as sex objects in video games, it’s about glorifying the strong over the weak. It’s about the misconception and fear of women. This is a huge problem beyond video games, sadly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, this is a big problem with all entertainment mediums, and my worry is that reality will start to reflect art (rather than the other way around). As gaming becomes more and more popular it needs to become more and more incisive and diverse otherwise we run the risk of particular groups feeling like they have a lesser place in society if their on-screen counterparts are always bring placed in a minor role…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah I think it has already been a problem with pop culture in fact. 😦 Though, I don’t mind playing male protagonist at all. I just wish developers have respect for women with their choices in clothes. Like you mentioned about Jessica’s outfit, the one showing one side of her bare leg, it’s laughable. Though it was created intentionally to mock “hussy” women as silly or stupid. She even has a makeup bag attached to her outfit and her dialogue is always so seductive around Chris. She even demands lunch from Parker! My real concern is stereotyping women as bad girls because they wear make-up, or dress sexy when in fact, it’s just misconception. Confrontational women are often frown upon because they speak up in society, generally, but it doesn’t mean some of them are evil like some men portrayed them to to be.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article.

    I have to say that the Resident Evil franchise has been bothering me for quite some time. I agree with what you said about Resident Evil 4 letting things slide. But then, more interesting to me is Resident Evil 5, which I think was the real game changer.

    Sheva was the primary female protagonist. She, although strong willed and able to handle herself and dressed…fairly appropriately (given the heat, I guess), was hugely disliked by fans. In fact, she was somehow even more offensive to players than the helpless Ashley from RE4 was. I don’t even want to think about what that means, but it stinks, for sure. Moreover, the way they transformed Jill in that game, metaphorically killing off her old version only to re-birth her as this spandex/ leather/ body paint/ whatever-it-is-she’s-wearing clad, sexy martial arts babe who needs you to beat her up so that you can release her from the mind control of the bad guy… was just plain insulting. It all feels like this odd combo of lady-hate and boob-worship and it was really confusing to play.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks – I have to admit that mainly because of the warnings (and I didn’t enjoy RE4 controversially) I’ve stayed clear of no’s 5 & 6, but it does sound a little distressing if the franchise’s fans are now rejecting efforts to make a strong female character.

      I am hopefully going to write up my experiences with revelation 1 & 2 which (despite the points I’ve raised here) I actually enjoyed – no. 2 particularly made up for the first one in bringing back a visibly older Claire Redfield. Her combination with Moira was certainly more interesting than Jessica and Jill in the first outing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Is that so? I’ve not actually played it. I kept clear of revelations 2 because I didn’t like the first one. But that is good to hear! I might try it out if I get the opportunity in the future, but I probably won’t go looking for it.

        I would recommend 5, if you have somebody to play co op with, because in that instance it actually can be a fun action game. (Although maybe not if you didn’t like 4!) 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. No. 2 was better plot wise, darker and more ‘Resident Evil’ than the first one. I think Capcom were struggling with the episodic release thing as there are certainly sections that feel like “filler”. You can pick up the first episode fairly cheap (on PC at least) .. I think I got it for less than £1 in the last steam sale and I think by then end of that you’ll know if you want to carry on with it or not…. as I said, hopefully I’ll write up some of my thoughts on both of them in the next week or so!

        Yeah, I felt very mixed about no. 4… maybe I’ll keep an eye on 5 next time it’s going cheap… just to say that I’ve given it a shot… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Yeah I wish Sheva was the protagonist. It would have been interesting to play from her perspective. The part where Jill needs to be saved by Chris made me cringed. It’s really sexual on purpose.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. That was a really great read and you are definitely qualified to give your observations on this sensitive topic. I honestly try to avoid it since it creates so many angry flame wars.

    I’m a female gamer who has been gaming for 24 years now. To me, things have improved significantly. There are several inspiring female protagonists that I look up to these days (Lightning, Faith, Samus, Jade, to name a few). I’m happy with the direction things are going, but like with everything, there’s always room to grow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks ☺️ – it’s been excellent to hear so many people’s views… And so many, like yours, that are positive that things are moving in the right direction. ☺️

      I was kinda worried about inadvertantly kicking off some kind of comments section flame battle… Which is a disheartening thought in itself ☹️…

      Liked by 1 person

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