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The video game industry is booming, but it repeatedly comes under scrutiny for what appears to be the persistent sexualisation of female characters. Many critics have assertively spoken out about how strong female video game characters are rare, with the characters that do appear are often being presented as “prizes.”
But has female representation in video games gotten better as time has passed, or worse?
History indicates that women began appearing in video games around the mid-80s. Sometimes these female characters were barely distinguishable from male characters except for one minor characteristic, such as long eyelashes. Ms. Pac-Man is a good example of that trend. Samus Aran, a heroine in the 1986 Metroid game, is considered the first playable female character, rather than a woman who merely appeared in the background.
In Mario and The Legend of Zelda respectively, Princess Peach and Princess Zelda appear as damsels in distress – and, in many cases, the objective of the game is to rescue them from peril.
Clothing Lara Croft
The introduction of Lara Croft in the 90s presented what is now considered to be one of the first strong female characters not just in video games, but in media in general. However, Croft was depicted in tight pants and midriff-baring tops, and people asserted that this meant the focus was not on her strength, but on her sexuality.
There were also complaints about the character’s unnaturally large breasts. Those reportedly began as a joke shared in the office of her creators, but they were supported since the gaming audience for the Lara Croft series was predominantly male.
A few years after her introduction, the Lara Croft character got a makeover that remains today. She now wears a tank top and pants and firmly represents the role of a strong heroine.
Following Tomb Raider was Grand Theft Auto, an immensely popular series that began in 1997. The game glamorises stealing cars and has been shunned by some gamers for the way it glorifies sexual harassment and the murder of female characters, catering to cisgender males while alienating minority groups.
In one version of the game, the goal is to kill as many women as possible. Players are also urged to make a male protagonist grope a female stripper repeatedly before a bouncer discovers his tactics.
Despite these eyebrow-raising activities, the Grand Theft Auto series is perpetually popular. There are currently 11 standalone titles and four expansion packs, which have collectively sold hundreds of millions of copies. Some analysts even say Grand Theft Auto has drastically changed the video game industry.
However, people are understandably worried that such exposure to severe violence against women in extremely realistic video games normalizes it and even causes people to become less empathetic. Studies have suggested these things are true, which is particularly worrisome considering the people who play Grand Theft Auto most often are young males.
There is speculation that when individuals see so much violence against women within the game, they won’t feel as shocked by it in real life. If this is true, Grand Theft Auto could be one of the many things perpetuating violence against females. Some experts say women who work in the sex industry are already at an elevated risk for being harmed by clients, and that Grand Theft Auto isn’t helping that statistic go down.
There were several notable instances of female characters being cast as the antagonists in video games beginning in the early 90s. A small number of these characters, such as SHODAN from the 1994 video game System Shock and Ultimecia from the 1999 title Final Fantasy VIII, have earned particular acclaim from fans and game reviewers, taking their places in video game history as some of the most memorable characters of all time.
Because in most cases, these villains are key characters in the games and not merely given background or subservient roles, this is arguably a major transition that is mostly positive. Although it’s not necessarily a good thing for young girls to see women in games displaying villainous traits, it’s better than them only seeing females as sexual objects.
Teresa Lynch, a media communications researcher at Indiana University, completed a doctoral project where she evaluated 571 playable female characters in video games released from 1989 to 2014. Lynch looked for indicators of hypersexualization such as huge breasts and tiny waists.
She found that the extreme sexualization of women reached its highest point in 1995 and then declined. However, there are still issues with women only being shown in secondary roles and being objectified more than their male counterparts.
Although there is still a long way to go before women are consistently represented more favorably in video games, some characters have been boldly designed to break the mold. One of them is The Scythian. She’s the protagonist from Sword and Sorcery, a video game for mobile platforms.
The character is not defined by her gender, and she demonstrates that women can be mythical heroes just as effectively as men. She is also an independently existing character and not the family member of a main male character in the game.
Then there’s Jade, a character from the 2003 title Beyond Good and Evil who represents progress because there were plans to have her defy stereotypes from the start. The character’s creator, Michel Ansel, wanted her to be well rounded and not further the clichés of female characters who act like males.
Fan feedback is one thing that could help gradually increase the number of admirable female characters in the gaming industry. It’s also important that critics keep recognising the clear gender inequality and voicing their opinions that it shouldn’t continue. These measures are necessary to keep moving in a positive direction instead of becoming fixated on females who are objectified or only shown in minor roles.
What will happen in the future remains to be seen, but it’s helpful that women make up such a sizeable chunk of gaming demographics nowadays. If they speak out and say they want changes made in the way female characters are represented in their favourite games, it could have a major impact on the industry.