Thursday, March 31, 2011

Female characters in video games: Female protagonists

Seeing how it's still March, and thus Women's History Month, I have an excuse for a feminist post. Having read some interesting pieces on female characters in video games in the recent past, the topic has been on my mind. In this series of posts, I will share my thoughts on various issues of female characters in video games, as well as articles that helped provoke these thoughts.

Post #1: Depiction of women in video games
Post #2: Good female characters in video games
Pose #3: (below)

Female protagonists in video games

Yesterday's post was about making female characters in games strong characters. This is about the need for more games with female protagonists. Most games I play nowadays actually allow the player to choose the player character's gender, so in a way I can't really complain about not having enough female protagonists. But here's the question: Am I a fan of a certain type of game that happens to feature gender choice? Or am I drawn to these games in part because I can play as a female character?

Growing up with our Sega Genesis, I never thought much about games that forced me to play as a male. Still, whenever a choice was given, you can bet that I chose the female character. This doesn't mean I wouldn't try out Axel or Max, but I'd always come back to Blaze. It just seemed natural. Most of these games, however, were pretty light on plot and character. The character on screen wasn't so much your avatar as it was an image that let you beat up the bad guys. I didn't have to relate to the feelings of the cowboy or the hedgehog on the screen in order to enjoy what the game had to offer.

Those games can still be fun, but the games I truly love are ones with involved, engrossing stories and complex, engaging characters. And in these types of games, I have to admit: I have a high preference for games where the player character is female. In my post on female protagonists in Pixar and DreamWorks movies, I argued that one of the reasons we see so few of them is that girls are generally better at relating to the opposite gender than boys are (this may even carry through to adults and contribute to the perception of any non-action movie with a female lead as a "chick flick", but that is a discussion for another day). I still think there is truth to this idea, but I don't feel it as strongly when it comes to video games. It's one thing to relate to a protagonist in a book or in a movie, but the player character in a video game is special. Their choices are your choices, their trials are your trials, their triumphs are your triumphs. When you have control over a character's actions, the character starts crossing over from being just a character to being you. I love to be immersed in the stories of games I play, and I can't be as immersed when the player character is a guy because, honestly, I'm not very good at thinking and feeling like a guy.

So what RPGs have I played through as a male character? The list is pretty short.
1) Pokemon. You may or may not count it as an RPG, but either way, the main character's gender is pretty insignificant. I chose a character name that was non-gender specific, so essentially, my character might have just been a tomboy.
2) Final Fantasy Tactics. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it, but when I played this game, I pretended that I was actually one of the female members of my party, rather than the actual player character "Ramza". He may have been the boy born to privilege, but I was a close friend and advisor. Everything good Ramza did was with my advice, and everything stupid he did was against my advice (the story made more sense that way, anyway, as he does a bunch of dumb things beyond the player's control). So even though this was a game with a male player character, I found myself a female substitute.
3) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. KotOR2 did something clever that got me to play against type as both evil and male: You would get one of two possible party members depending on your alignment, and one of two other possible party members depending on your gender. So once I finished the game as a Light Side female, I went back and played through as a Dark Side male, so I could meet the two alternate companions. I had trouble enough relating to the protagonist when I played as a good female (this was one of my criticisms of KotOR2). But I definitely never related to my evil male protagonist, mostly because I usually can't stand making evil choices in games, but partly, I think, because he was male.
4) Uhh, actually, that's it!

Looking at this evidence, I am left to conclude that I really do heavily prefer playing games with female protagonists. I daresay I even feel a little sexist right now. A friend in high school gave me Grandia and I never played it--was it because the main character was a boy? Is this why I've still never tried out Half Life 2, despite many recommendations? Oh no--am I missing out on an expansive realm of fabulous games because I am prejudiced against male player characters?! OK, calm down, I think it's not actually as bad as it might seem. After all, it was only on my second playthrough of FFT that I picked out a female character to represent me; the first time through, I was perfectly happy to have a male player character. I'd still love to check out Half Life 2, if I ever find the time. It's just that BioWare makes really great games that I love for many reasons beyond having a choice in my player character's gender*. If it weren't for that, maybe I would have played as male player characters more often.

* I am grateful to BioWare for giving us the choice in character gender (and for giving equal opportunities for romances in recent games). But even they aren't perfect. I'm tired of all the protagonists being male "in cannon" or "by default", and seeing only male protagonists in all the trailers and posters and promotional materials. Sorry, it has to be said.

Anyway, the point that I'm trying to make with this somewhat winding personal account is that this female gamer, at least, is drawn to games in which she can play as a female protagonist. And I'm sure I'm not the only one. Girl gamers are real, we are many, and we want to be marketed to. We want games that were made for us, or at least that were made with us in mind.

Why shouldn't there be games with female protagonists? Girls can be heroes, too. I understand if a historical FPS wants to have a male protagonist. But as I mentioned yesterday, in a fantasy or sci-fi world, the gender disparities observed in human history that have limited the number of female action heroes need not apply. Besides, the heroes of video games are super human, anyway--why can't they be super women?

Shepard. Kicks. Ass.

If my personal anecdotes aren't enough, here are some better arguments for seeing more female protagonists in games:
1. Female protagonists are not to be feared by Doc at Inner Child Gamer
2. Response: Female protagonists: A "risk" worth taking by Brinstar at The Border House
3. Halo: Reach writer – “We’re not serving half our audience” by Cuppycake, quoting Tom Abernathy, at The Border House

As argued in those articles, female protagonists won't hurt video game profits as much as you might think. And even if having a female protagonist affects them a little, it's the right thing to do. Young girls like to play games, they like playing games with girl protagonists, and they need good role models to look up to as much as boys do. They deserve it--it's only fair.

There's the well-known Catch-22 of women in video games: We need more women designing video games so we can get more and better female characters in games. But we need more and better female characters in games in order to make more women interested in designing games. The Catch-22 can be broken. We just need both sides to take a leap.


Hezabelle said...

I also find it harder to engage in games with male only main characters. I was mad in Diablo 2 that your gender was decided by which set of skills you wanted!

For me, video games are all about the story and the characters, and I don't feel like I can engage with an ALL male cast. Like you did with #2, I'd probably just identify with whatever female I could find.

Eleni said...

I guess it's not a bad thing for us to challenge ourselves to put ourselves in the place of a male character. Still, it's only fair if it goes both ways equally often, which it definitely does not.

I tend towards spell-casting, anyway, so I was happy playing a sorceress in Diablo II. But Diablo III looks like each profession can be both genders, so that's good :)

M. McGriff said...

I agree with you. I tend to gravitate towards games that have female characters. As a matter of fact, that's one of the first things I look for in a game! And yes, we do need to get some more female game designers - they can satisy a much bigger segment of the game playing population.

Eleni said...

Hi McGriff!

I remember how excited I was the first time I made two Portals to look at myself and found that my character in Portal was a woman. Not that Chell's gender comes into play at all, but since she is the only human character in the game (and the robots are arguably female as well), it's an entirely female dominated game without over-sexualized depictions. Interesting, at least.

Anyway, yes. More female game designers!

RachelLynn said...

Hey there, I found you on 20sb, and I LOVE your blog so far! I love video games too, and I knew that as soon as I saw the female Shepard in your header I was going to love this site. Lol. Following you now! I can't wait to see what else is to come! And definitely check out my blog for some nerdy fun (and a mass effect reference or two)! :)

Eleni said...

Hi Rachel! Thanks. I'm following your blog too, now--I do love some Mass Effect references :) With my busy school schedule I've been lazy this past week in terms of blogging, but now I have some expectations to meet, so I guess I better try to think of something ;)

It's been bothering me that I have TWO Shepards in my header, so I might have to switch out one of the images some time soon...

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