The problem with women in games isn’t bad writing

One of the opinions veering on the side of the women-in-games “war” that says representation / sexism isn’t the problem is one that says female characters are badly written, but so are male characters, so the problem isn’t sexism, it’s bad writing. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that writing in games is mostly crap. However, that does not mean there isn’t also a problem with how genders are represented. To me, the sexism / gender stereotype problem isn’t exemplified by bad writing, it’s exemplified by the utter and complete lack of variety.

Name 3 games where the protagonist, a party member or a story-important female NPC was teen-to-middle-aged, but not conventionally attractive (without being a parody)! Unless you dig very deep into the huge swaths of indie games, you’ll have enough trouble finding even one (and even then it probably won’t be easy). Because while most AAA games do indeed have bland, cardboard cut-out straight white male protagonists, most of them have supporting characters and/or enemies that are quite varied — they might be a huge muscle-bound tank, an average Joe, an emaciated mad scientist or maybe even a talking animal. All female characters that aren’t kids or grannies are always average hight, slim, conventionally attractive and in the overwhelming majority of cases dressed in an overtly sexualized manner.

And that’s just the physical appearance. Let’s not even get into the uniform sameness of the female characters’, well, characters.

And the point isn’t that it’s bad — what’s bad is the fact that it’s the only kind of women we get to see in games. Variety is where quality and change is born. The best way to fight both gender stereotypes *and* bad writing in video games is to encourage and support, wherever and however possible, developers who try to create as many different female characters as there are male ones.

11 thoughts on “The problem with women in games isn’t bad writing

  1. Challenge accepted! :D

    Hmm…

    1. Portal [2]/HalfLife 2[.x]/whatever else Valve comes up with probably;
    2. Civilization 4 (probably others too)
    3. TES 4/5, if you take a female ogre character :D
    3. OK, if you didn’t like (3), then Neverwinter Nights (since the characters are pretty low resolution)

    And… that’s all that I can come up with at the moment (the rest that I can think of aren’t AAA games). Yep, you made your point. :)

    Anyways, my experience with AAA games (and, in fact, any games) is pretty small, since I don’t have nearly as much time as I’d like for gaming. So if anyone else can improve on that list, I’d like to see it. :)

    • 1. Still average-to-above-average height, build, age and attractiveness (young, healthy, slim & pretty). And I’m not sure if first-person characters count, as they are usually not meant to be seen at all other than a glimpse here or there (mirror, portals).
      2. Strategic games *definitely* don’t count as we’re talking about individual characters, not mere anthropomorphic representations of civilizations / armies / groups of people. Unless there’s a character-focused story in there, like in StarCraft.
      3. Yes, ogres (or other “animalistic”) races are some of the few exceptions that let you play as a “non-standard” female. Then again, is it really a counter argument if the only way we can get some variety in female representation is by going to another (and usually made-up) species?
      4. Low resolution is not a design decision, you know. :D

      • I know, I know. I was just trying to think of SOME examples where things were done right. There must be. It’s a fun challenge. :)

        Anyways, I think that Chell and Alyx Vance are two pretty well done female characters. Average, yes, but not specifically sexified or uglified. I think they do count as good examples. Also, even though Chell was first-person, it was possible to see yourself with some well-placed portals. ;)

        • That was sort of my point — the sexualization is a problem, but I don’t think it’s the cause and it won’t be solved by getting people to “stop sexualizing women”. The problem, as i explain in the article, is the lack of variety. Even in such a shallow and seemingly simple thing as physical appearance, all female characters (who aren’t kids, grannies, parodies or throw-away “set-piece” NPCs) are the same. Same narrow age bracket (20-30, on rare occasions stretching as far as 35), same body type (average), same weight (slim). The only variety is found in the amount of the aforementioned sexualization (i.e., size of certain body parts and suggestiveness of movements/poses).

  2. Actually… I kinda just realized that I don’t really understand the essence of the problem, as dumb as that might sound.

    Computer games, by their definition, are fantasy worlds. They are places where players go to escape the mundane and boring everyday life. Even though their setting might be dystopian, it will still be romanticized in the player’s eyes; a better place to be.

    So why can’t we assign to all characters (both male and female) physical perfection and beauty? You can identify yourself as this gorgeous guy/girl and interact with similarly awesome peers – something which is often in stark contrast with real life. Fits in with the rest of the game. That’s why you’re playing it, right?

    Now, of course, if the game forces you to play a male character, or if it puts all female characters in weak/supportive roles – yes, that’s not good. Especially as an industry-wide trend. That’s something to fight against.

    But physical perfection? I dunno… why is it a bad thing?

    • Because it’s not about perfection or imperfection, it’s about variation. In games the men can be fat, skinny, tall, short, big, small, “manly” or “feminine” and all sorts in between (I’m not talking about games where you can customize your character, but about the variety of the characters that games present to you as you play them). Their faces can range from badly scarred, one-eye-missing, butt-ugly macho hardass to a delicate pretty-boy and everything in between. Women, on the whole, get only one body type and a very narrow range of faces (from neutral good looking to extremely good looking and/or sexualized, no scars or damage of any kind (unless it’s something a male character has to avenge or fix)).

  3. Well… The physical perfection can also come in lots of shapes and sizes. Healthy weight can be in great interval, and why should fixed height be assumed as the most beautiful? Also, the actual human tastes vary.

    Plus, current representations far to easily leads to false dichotomy: women who isn’t slim and tall, is dwarf or ogre. Unachievable beauty standards, depressed and/or anorexic teenagers, all that stuff…

    • Are you sure that computer games are fuelling the unachievable beauty standards, and not the other way round? Because, if so, then shouldn’t we also see a lot more violent kids because of the violent videogames?

      • 1. It’s a two way street. Any media, including videogames, is a way society communicates within itself. Of course society’s standards fuel the content of the videogames (and books, and movies, and …), but at the same time, those are the videogames the next generation grows up with. When every medium you see shows, in 90% of the cases, men as the strong “doers” and women as supporters and/or victims. Thinking that one is the cause and the other result is misguided. Improving society takes work on all fronts.
        2. Violence in games is not displayed as some sort of implicit “norm”, a “way things are”. It’s a means to an end. Enemies come at you (or at least want / try to) and you need to overcome them in order to win/survive/save the world/etc. Even when it’s all around, it’s explicit and there’s a reason for it (war, alien invasion, secret mission, etc.), it’s never considered so normal and unremarkable that it doesn’t need at least some excuse. Violence in the game is a job, it’s a task, it’s something you have to consciously choose to do. Harmful stereotypes are not. They’re an implicit background radiation that is not in any way directly connected to any specific circumstances, and you can’t even notice it unless someone explains why it’s problematic and shoves a Geiger counter under your nose. There are more differences I could point to, but I don’t even have to — research after research have found no causal link between video game violence and the real kind, and at the same time research after research have conclusively found that the implicit messages that media sends about gender roles and beauty standards *does* affect the consumers and on a subconscious level (i.e., the people themselves aren’t even aware that it’s happening).

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