Culture Bytes: The Representation Of Women In Video Games

It seems like every time a new big-name game is released, we’re bombarded with allegations from the mainstream media that the medium is a sexist boys’-club; a den of misogyny and testosterone that exists purely as a way of objectifying women. But, with so many titles and with such a vast array of different video games, can this really be the case?

The really famous example of sexism in the gaming industry has to be the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise. Each time a new title is released the news story of the day is going to be the depiction of women. I have to say, they have a point. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a fan of the series and that my experience of it is limited, only really playing it at friends’ houses (usually just before we realise we have nothing in common and I am, in fact, there under false pretences). Most of the female characters in the franchise are prostitutes and all of them are scantily clad, objects of lust at the best of times and objects of scorn, disgust and often violence at the worst. This isn’t the most overtly feminist depiction of women we’ve ever seen.

But, hold on. Is this really any different from some Hollywood films? Doesn’t the objectification of female characters hark of, say, The Wolf of Wall Street? Is violence against women anything new to our screens? There’s the infamous rape scene in Straw Dogs, a film which is now often regarded as ‘a classic’, and viewers can tune in weekly to TV Crime shows in which women are brutally murdered or assaulted (Luther, anyone?). You could even simply pick up a tabloid newspaper to see naked women or for the writers to degrade celebrities down to nothing more than their physical appearance (Susana Reid having the gall not to show off her legs on Good Morning, Britain being the most recent example). I’m not defending the representation of women in GTA, but it’s certainly no worse than in a lot of places of the mainstream media. But saying every video game is like GTA is like saying every film is like The Wolf of Wall Street. It simply isn’t the case.

Another infamous video game franchise that could be dissected is Tomb Raider. The protagonist of these adventure puzzlers is Lara Croft, the voluptuous and impractically clothed adventurer, originally voiced by, model, Nell McAndrew. She’s also pretty kick-ass. Lara Croft is a woman who needs help from nobody and least of all from men; at least in the first three games of the series, most of the antagonists were male. In the first, she constantly outwits Pierre (who was taking orders from a female mastermind), eventually beating him in a gunfight. In the second, she races against the Mafia boss, Marco Bartoli, again overpowering him and his henchmen using superior wit, skill and strength. The third game follows a similar pattern after Lara is betrayed by her once-comrade Dr Willard. I’m not going to say that the characterisation is anywhere near perfect because, frankly, it isn’t; Lara Croft never rises above the archetypical ‘strong woman’ we so often see in the cinema. But, Lara Croft is still a positive representation of women in a video game and, from a post-feminist view, she’s pretty astounding, managing to be intelligent, cunning, both physically and emotionally strong while balancing these qualities with exterior beauty (or so the game would lead us to believe. I’ve never found pixelated to be a flattering look for anyone).

A less well-known game, certainly to the non-gaming public is Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. This is a Japanese Role Playing Game (RPG) that follows a year in the life of a high school teenager who is thrown into a web of danger and deceit in order to solve a string of supernatural murders; central to solving the case are your friends and the relationships you forge with them. Persona 4 is a goliath in terms of representation. Half of the group are girls and they couldn’t be more different from one another. Yukiko is the daughter of the owners of the local inn and her beauty is known town-wide, attracting attention from many of the boys at school. Attention, that is, that is most definitely unwanted. Yukiko yearns to be accepted and liked for who she is (the major theme in the game) and finds that within the group, revealing her true personality. Not only this, but Yukiko becomes a valuable asset within the gameplay, becoming one of the strongest magic users in the game and one the player would be a fool to ignore. Chie is completely different to Yukiko. Obsessed with kung-fu films and training at martial arts to the extent of near-expertise, Chie is an independent female who can defend herself and those she cares about even when the odds are stacked firmly against her. Chie has one of the highest physical attack stats of any character in the game, easily outranking that of many of her male counterparts. Rise is a teen idol who has grown tired of being accepted purely for her physical appearance and retires from show-business. She finds acceptance within the protagonist’s group and discovers that she can be loved for her personality, but also that her physical appearance is important to her as an individual (post-feminist to say the least). Rise even replaces the male Teddie as the support unit in battle, ensuring, no matter what party the player choses, there will always be a female representative.

Perhaps even more importantly, Persona 4 doesn’t shy away from the teenage interest in sex. There are scenes when the boys are attracted to the girls and just as many when the girls are attracted to the boys. Lust exists and often used to comic effect, but Persona 4 handles this in a way that is respectful to all genders and is almost puritanical when compared to GTA  or TV shows and films with characters of the same age group such as The Inbetweeners or Superbad.

Persona 4’s female characters and the game’s diverse central group contrast greatly with its Fantasy counterparts in Hollywood and even literature. The Lord of the Rings had a wholly male group of heroes and Conan the Barbarian was practically testosterone on film. And Persona 4 isn’t the only title that can boast well rounded female characters. The entire Final Fantasy series (along with its Kingdom Hearts spin-offs) are of the same ilk. Resident Evil (although coming under scrutiny for its poor choices of setting of late along with generally lacklustre later releases) often has female main characters or offers the option of one. And did anyone get any advice from the male supporting characters of Metal Gear Solid that came anywhere close to the quality of help given by Meryl, Mei Ling or Naomi? Going back to Persona 4 we even have the emergence of trans (Naoto) and gay (Kanji) characters. When was the last time the LGBTQ community was responsibly portrayed in Hollywood?

In conclusion, although the video game industry does not offer consistently perfect representation of women, it is certainly no more diseased than the film industry. Not only this, but scratch beneath the mainstream surface of the medium and we see just what a liberal genre video games can be and, hopefully, promise to be in the future. In short, there is sexism in video games because there is sexism in society, not the other way around.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a proud member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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