Curiously, no matter how fiercely critics react to poor treatment of women, the portrayal of female characters in AAA games seems actually to be getting worse. Women are almost entirely unrepresented, and when they are represented, they exist only as a player objective.
In light of the fast approach of the release of Anita Sarkesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” series, concern about sexism in video games is a sleepless dog ready to get back to barking soon.
In recent years, there has been an increasing outcry against the sexual harassment that inundates the industry and community, it’s something that more and more people are paying attention to (no matter how hard they try not to). But curiously, no matter how fiercely critics react to the poor treatment of women, the portrayal of female characters in AAA games seems actually to be getting worse. Women are almost entirely unrepresented, and when they are represented, they exist only as a player objective.
The problem is different than in film. In film, when women are objectified, they are reduced to a good or service for the consumption of a male protagonist. The problem with portrayals of women on the silver screen is that they exist in service to male characters. Everything a woman in a film thinks and does is in response to a man, and without a man, she’s unable to think or do anything. At the very least, though, she has thoughts and actions. These may be entirely in response to the male lead, but at the very least, there’s some acknowledgment that there’s something resembling an identity somewhere beneath her hormones and vanity. There’s no doubt that that’s a problem, but women in films are, again,at the very least, given some human characteristics -- even if they are characteristics that serve a man.
In video games, however, women aren’t even given that much. They aren’t reduced to an object for consumption. They’re reduced to a win-condition. In a video game, women are not just objects, they’re objectives. This is different from being an object. An object gets screen time. An object is shown to have some use. If there’s a woman in a video game, she’s a princess in the last of a series of castles. The princess is there to be pursued and, when captured, to conclude the story before she’s given the chance to really exist as anything other than something that the male hero wanted. Because games often focus so much more on a conflict than the resolution or consequences of a conflict, a woman is usually just the arbitrary reward that flashes by the protagonist before the credits roll.
This kind of portrayal can’t be chalked up to a handful of characters acting according to individual and discrete personalities because there’s such an established pattern of their existence in games. The problem is that the princess in another castle trope is depended upon so often and so heavily in video games -- to the point that when a woman doesn’t fit this trope she is considered exotic. She’s a high-score screen in pink dressing used to motivate players.
The player lacks the coveted princess at the start menu, and when they’ve recovered her, the game ends. Women aren’t just things to be possessed. They’re carrots on the ends of sticks. Ultimately, women in games can’t even be owned because the second that they’re acquired there is no longer a story to tell. If the rescue fails, then the player returns to a checkpoint and tries again. The hero never really owns the princess because she isn’t even a thing to own. She’s just a figure to desire.
There’s no indication of what life is like with the princess or why the hero pursued her in the first place. There isn’t even a reason for the princess to be captured. The princess is just there because, well, the hero needs something to chase after. There’s seldom any explanation for why Peach or Zelda are ever abducted. They don’t have any apparent political value, they aren’t visionaries needed by their people, they don’t appear to be responsible for anything, and they’re MacGuffins. Zelda almost never has any personality, goals, desires, wishes, fears, flaws, quirks, responsibilities, or anything to make her into a believable human being. The few times that Nintendo has put any effort into developing her character, they erase her humanity the second that she discovers her destiny and dons her pale pink captivity gown.
And while Nintendo may be responsible for the prototypical princess, they’re certainly not the only offenders. Shadow of the Colossus, for all its artistry, follows the exact same template: a male hero surmounts a number of obstacles to earn himself a woman. In Bioshock, the hero is ultimately either rescuing Rapture’s little sisters or killing and harvesting them for their power. In either case, the little sisters are rewards at the end of the journey. Dom of Gears of War is motivated by the search for his wife. The player never sees Maria or hears her speak for herself other than in one dream sequence in which she hands Dom some orange juice. The only thing that establishes that Maria and Dom were happily married is Dom’s word. But when Dom finally finds Maria injured in a POW camp, he puts her down like a lame bitch. Dom, a private with no known medical background, shoots his traumatized, malnourished wife in the head and leaves the rest of the camp imprisoned rather than calling in backup. Yet the supposed tragedy of the scene is that Dom has found his princess in a state in which she is not of any use to him.
Alan Wake, Limbo, Shadow Complex, Kingdom Hearts, Ghosts’n Goblins, Resident Evil 4, and Double Dragon are all games about men chasing princesses from castle to castle. These are all good games with a lot of merit to them, but these games all fall into the same trap in which their female characters serve as distant, impersonal win-states. In these games, women are things to desire and when the male hero earns possession of them, everyone may live happily ever after. If they fail to possess them (as Dom does), then their lives are over and we’re left to lament the character’s itch that will never be scratched. The princess is never a person. She’s barely the idea of a person.
Not every game must include a well-rounded female character as a mark of quality. Not every game really even needs to include women (if anything, it’s better not to include a character at all rather than to force an offensive or superfluous token character into a plot), but every failure adds up. Every title doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and every time a game excludes or dehumanizes women by making them objectives, it’s another example of gender bias in the medium. Each game that designs its female characters around the “Princess in Another Castle” model reinforces the stereotype. It’s the prevalence of the image that’s the problem. The problem with Ico isn’t that the boy leads the girl, the problem is that there are already so many games about active men leading passive, incompetent women, and Ico is another instance of a harmful trope.
There are only a handful of acceptable character templates for female characters. Depending on whether she’s aligned with the heroes or villains, she’s either a child/brat, maiden/whore or mother/crone. In the end, she’s still just a goal. She’s something to protect, rescue, destroy, or convert. In any case, the princess is there only to await a man’s action. When that action is fulfilled, her role is complete.
The solution to this problem is simple. Just stop making women into objectives. Include female characters and give them their own plans, make them active agents in pursuing those plans. If they fall in love with a male character, then it should be because of who he is and not because of something he’s done to prove his worth. If a woman is kept in a castle, make it clear why she’s being held and what the consequences of her abduction will actually be. Give her personality, goals, desires, wishes, fears, flaws, quirks, and responsibilities. Make the women in games people. It isn’t very hard. It isn’t as though it hasn’t been done before -- there are well written female characters in games. Some of them even wind up captives in some form of castle -- but not enough. Every instance that bucks the trend is welcome.
Games are not just for teenage boys. It feels stupid to have to keep hearing and reading that but until attitudes change its needs to be repeated. Games never have been just for teenage boys but now more than ever people are losing patience with the juvenile nature of the medium. But until games themselves are willing to start showing that women are people, not things to covet, the undercurrent of chauvinism will not disappear.