Something Alternative: Women and their portrayal in video games

By Jessica McCartney
By January 27, 2014 December 25th, 2016 Blogs, News, Something Alternative

You don’t have to be a feminist to notice that there is a gender imbalance when it comes to video games. Trying to think of a positive representation of a woman in video games has proven difficult. They are rarely featured as the protagonist and are often subjected to being an unplayable character. It appears that the only portrayals of women in video games are that they are overtly sexualised protagonists; viewed as being a passive object or they play the role of a gendered stereotypical trope.


It seems that in the rare cases that they are featured as the protagonist they are either overtly sexualised or appear vulnerable. The most notable example of which holds both is Tomb Raider. Throughout the game series, the protagonist Lara Croft has been created to be overtly sexualised with regards to the way she is constructed and the revealing attire she wears. In arguments, sexualised characters have been referred as being “empowering” to women but as a female gamer, I find it hard to respect the female characters when they look like strippers with guns. With the recent release of the newly revamped game executive producer, Ron Rosenberg, stated that “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character, they’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of, ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and I’m trying to protect her.'” This is an interesting concept to consider as this is never shown to be the case when it comes to games which feature a male protagonist. They are depicted as being strong and independent which makes the player aspire to be like them.

Though, as mentioned above, women are rarely featured as protagonists in video games. In Grand Theft Auto V, you can experience the game through three characters, they each come from different backgrounds and yet there is one distinguishable similarity, they are all male. The absence of a female protagonist is a common theme within the Grand Theft Auto series, and yet this would have been an interesting addition to the new game. While there is still a large gap in the gender divide of video game players, there are many women who play games regularly. Yet GTA is depicted as being a game for boys. Perhaps one of the reasons Rockstar continued its male-biased form of gameplay is because they did not want to alienate their predominantly male audience by forcing them to play as a female character.

When questioned about this, Rockstar stated that they are not against using female protagonists but it is not an element to which they believe would work with GTA as “the concept of being masculine was so key to this story”. Right. They claim to want to produce a more complex set of character and yet if they had wanted to do so then the clearest choice is to feature a woman? Naughty Dog managed to accomplish this in The Last Of Us by centring the narrative on a young girl growing up in the post-apocalyptic world while still portraying masculinity. Throughout the entire GTA game though, there are no positive representations of women. In the rare occurrences of dialogue with female characters in the game they are portrayed as being self-involved and only caring about their appearance. The characters are constructed to be hated as they are portrayed as cheating wives, highly-sexualised strippers and psychotic women with feminist ideologies.

The “damsel in distress” is one of the most common clichéd routes when it comes to representations of women in video games. It is a recurrent theme to which is used within a number of video games which feature a male protagonist. The damsel in distress motif is a plot device in which the female character is left vulnerable and therefore in the need of help from a male character. GTA also includes this trope in that you have to save Michael’s daughter, Tracey, from her poor choices and Franklin’s friend Tanya is constantly bothering you to do a job for her. The use of stereotypes in video games is not a new phenomenon; the games in the Super Mario series also include this “damsel in distress” focus. This is represented by the character Princess Peach; in each game she is repeatedly kidnapped and the main objective of each is to rescue her. Here the character acts as a possession which is stolen from the protagonist. The Mario games present the common stereotype whereby female characters are often marked by gendered signifiers which offer an overplayed portrayal of femininity. These are presented in a number of different ways, the most obvious of which is the use of pink to distinguish female characters from others. One representation which shows this is the portrayal of Toadette. While the other Toad characters are identifiable by their colour, Toadette is signified as being female by being pink, having pigtails and a dress. This is so that you as a player are certain that she is a girl. This is a common feature to the games in the Mario series and is presented within other games. This in itself is not an issue, it is just the fact that women have to be distinguished and marked by gendered signifiers, whereas male characters do not.

Even today female gamers are met with distain. More often than not when I admit that I do play video games – perhaps more than I should, considering that I am supposed to be studying – I am met with a look of surprise which is then followed by a “really?”. Believing that the video game industry respects women is difficult when they depict them in such stereotypical ways. Why can’t women be presented as being strong and independent like their male counterparts?

Please discuss and leave your comments below.

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