On Writing: Female Representation in Video Games

I’m categorizing this as “On Writing” (for my own sanity and the sake of continuity) even though it’s not strictly concerned with writing (I also meander into anime/television a little bit for some examples). Important to note: I’m including those who identify as female under my umbrella of “female” in this discussion. I’m also approaching this from the perspective of Western feminism – not necessarily fair to apply to Japanese media, but I think my points still stand.

Here we go – this is a loaded topic, isn’t it? Since spending a bit more time on Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of people discussing this sort of thing – more recently, one specific tweet came across my feed. The tweet itself was one of those edgy, spicy takes about representation, and it was received… poorly. I’m not going to @ the individual or disclose their handle, as I’m sure they’ve gotten enough attention already, but this is a topic that I think about a lot, and it confuses me that people think it’s meaningless. Though this is only going to be a very surface-level discussion on an incredibly nuanced topic, I’ve wanted to talk about it for a while. This discussion will focus exclusively on female representation – as a middle-class, suburban white kid, I don’t feel especially qualified to get into the issues surrounding representation of people of colour, or the LGBTQ+ community (though of course, there is a ton of intersectionality between the topics).

The broad overview of this discussion is going to address a few different topics, beginning with the politics of representation – in order to reason through why this matters, we’ll need to start there. Then, I’m going to discuss problems with certain female representation, why this can be damaging, and how it can inform negative attitudes. I want to wrap up with some more general observations on the concept of gendered language in gaming culture, and how this may be exclusionary to women as players. So for the purposes of transparency, yes I will be generalizing (no need to hit me with “well what about this character??”), yes I am focusing primarily on negative representations, and no, I will not be including games that either a) let you create your own character or b) let you choose between a fixed male/female protagonist. Sure, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey gave us Kassandra, but she’s indistinguishable from Alexios, story-wise, and based on the character used in all of Ubisoft’s marketing (hint: it wasn’t Kassandra), I think we can guess who their “canon” protagonist is.

Ultimately, I’m hoping to explore some potential answers to the question: why does representation matter? The tweet that I mentioned above reads:

“if representation is more important to you in a video game, then you’re not a gamer, you’re a narcissist. Video games allow you to become something you’re NOT! Why would I want to see myself in a video game, when I can be an alien, a robot, an Italian plumber, or a blue hedgehog?”

I know a lot of people share this sentiment – why does it matter what colour the hero is? What gender? Well, let’s talk about it. I’ll begin with what I feel is one of the most pertinent points when it comes to this topic: the politics of representation. I’ve seen people make that argument that “forcing” inclusion is making some sort of grand, sweeping political statement – you know, pandering to the SJW’s. However, this argument fails to consider the other side of that coin – if forced inclusion is a political statement, then isn’t it ALSO a statement to intentionally exclude women? People of colour? To pretend they don’t exist? That only men save the world, or go on fantastic adventures? Sometimes, silence on a particular topic says more about the sentiments of our culture than any explanation ever could. Deliberate (or thoughtless) exclusion of women says a lot about how gaming media (fed by larger societal ideals) shapes its stories, and views its heroes.

Let’s talk about sex

So let’s start with the biggest elephant in the room: the gross sexualization of female characters. I’ll use an example, after a quick note: I’m not trying to shame anyone who likes this game, nor do I expect anyone to feel the same way I do. If you enjoy the game, didn’t notice this aspect, or didn’t care, that’s fine. I’ve never played the critically acclaimed NieR: Automata. And I never will. For what seems like a very small, petty reason – a particular trophy, to be exact. There is a trophy in the game called What Are you Doing? Getting this trophy requires you to angle the camera to look up 2B’s skirt 10 times. I don’t remember where I first saw this, but I do remember feeling sad, and very, very tired. I don’t even know how to articulate why I find this so frustrating – I mean, beyond the obvious reason that this is so blatantly sexist and creepy. Moreso the fact that this is presented as blasé, as par the course, as being okay. Sure, there are a million and one reasons why this might be the case: it’s just fanservice. The creator, Yoko Taro, is a weirdo. 2B is an android, not a real person, so it’s not the same. Stop being such a delicate snowflake. But for me personally, this is just one of those awful reminders that seem to pop up when I’m least expecting it; when I’m enjoying a piece of media – game, movie, TV show, or otherwise – that pulls me straight out of the story. Intentional or not, it feels like I can hear the writers chiding me: oh, you thought you were the hero? You thought you were here to save the day? Let me remind you why you’re really here: you’re eye-candy, you’re entertainment. You may act like the hero, but let’s be honest, no one really believes that. That’s not the role you were made for.

2B_Nier
2B, NieR: Automata.

It’s the same feeling I got watching Froppy save Mineta in season 1 of My Hero Academia – after she’s saved his sorry ass, when they’re being attacked, and everyone is in legitimate danger, he takes the time to cop a feel of her chest. Isn’t that great? Some top tier comedic relief, right? I stopped watching the show shortly after. Another reminder, another writer showing me exactly what female protagonists are good for. I’m tired of looking the other way, of letting this shit go, and trying to enjoy a piece of media regardless of instances like these. I’m not perfect either – I’m biased, and I forgive the games I love that treat women poorly, like Persona 5, because they’re phenomenal otherwise. I understand people making the same concession for NieR. At the very least, I will always draw attention to the fact that these games engage in this kind of insidious sexism, where “letting it go” just feeds into the process of normalizing these kinds of attitudes. Because short of exercising my rights as a consumer (to simply not buy these kinds of media, not support them) what else can I do?

Role call (out)

This idea of “normalizing” sexual aggressions, and objectifying women perpetuates a long history of these kinds of portrayals. It feeds our expectations and understanding of certain roles: men are heroes, women are damsels in distress, or simply there to be attractive. We’re all familiar with the tropes I’m talking about, the stereotypes that women continue to be pigeonholed into: the tragic Ophelia’s of video gaming, the waifs that are the epitome of femininity, that will inevitably sacrifice themselves for some greater good. Or maybe, we get the unrelenting badass (probably self-proclaimed or labeled “not like other girls”) whose value stems from her ability to fight like a man. This is problematic for a plethora of reasons, but I’ll focus on two: the first of which comes from the stories where women are excluded, sidelined, or fall into the above roles. You’re peddling the idea that women’s stories don’t matter – that people don’t care about their adventures, or worse, that audiences can’t relate to women at all. The problem I’m touching upon here is the idea that women’s stories are for women, whereas male stories are for everyone.

Aerith
Aerith, Final Fantasy VII Remake.

I find this issue to be especially glaring in the realm of video games, which has lead me to draw the following conclusion: we’re not taught to empathize with women the same way we’re taught to empathize with men. I’ve been Link – his struggles were mine – I shared his highs and lows. I’ve cried over Arthur Morgan’s death, celebrated with Kratos and Atreus in Jotunheim, and fought with Jin Sakai to reclaim Tsushima Island. I’ve saved New York with Peter Parker (and Miles Morales!) sacrificed my life as Wander in Shadow of the Colossus, and terrorized Bullworth Academy with Jimmy. Do you see where I’m going here? How often do I get to celebrate with a female protagonist? When do I get to sympathize with her, to feel her happiness, her grief, her determination? Women aren’t given the same screen time as men, and as such, we’re – consciously or not – taught to view them in a different light. I can’t even explain the amount of good it would do to have more female protagonists – to normalize walking in our shoes. To have more Ellie’s, more Aloy’s. I’ve played hundreds of games, and never once complained, or even thought much about having to pilot a male protagonist – though I can name several instances off the top of my head of hearing my friends complain about having to play as a woman. Wow, women in a game about World War II? That’s just historically inaccurate, and clearly pandering, but all of the other wild, unrealistic shit I can do? Checks out.

I remember when Final Fantasy XV first came out: there were some rumblings in certain corners of the internet about the shape of the narrative: the boys-only roadtrip, with very few significant female characters. The director, Hajime Tabata (in an interview with GameSpot) addressed this point by stating that an all-male party was “more approachable” and the dynamic of the male roadtrip would be changed with female inclusion. Ignoring the insulting comment about approachability, I don’t disagree, honestly – dudes act differently when women are around, sure, I’ll give you that. However, this is said with such blissful unawareness of the implications of his statement, it’s hilarious. Oh Tabata, you sweet summer child; you babe swaddled in a cashmere blanket of ignorance. He makes it sound like the “female roadtrip” plot is oh-so-common. Like, don’t worry ladies, your turn is just around the corner. Surely the next AAA title will be for you, but sorry, this one is just for the guys. What an absolute joke. We’re taught to celebrate and embrace male camaraderie, but never the female counterpart. When’s the last time we saw the positive portrayal of female friendships? In any media honestly – how often do we see a female volleyball team in anime? a female fellowship in literature? A fighting party in video games? Too infrequently, I would argue.

Persona 5 Royal_20200408202135
I am deceased.

The second major problem that stems from stereotypical roles is the contribution it makes to perceptions of what “being female” or femininity is or should be. A lot of the tropes reserved for female characters draw from traditional notions of the roles that women fill – namely, support, sacrifice, or romantic interest. God forbid you attempt to portray a woman who strays from tradition, in any sense – just look at the backlash Abby from The Last of Us 2 received. Whether you like the character/game or not, there’s no getting around that much of this hatred was simply a result of her physique, and her perceived lack of femininity. People were scrutinizing her workout schedule and trying to rationalize why it was impossible for her to look the way she does (i.e. absolutely jacked). In a world of Barret’s, Ryu’s, and insert-other-ultra-buff-male-character-here, I think we can all agree that no man would EVER be subject to this type of criticism or level of scrutiny. I can’t help but feel like this is a reflection of our society, and what we value in terms of the feminine – and what we view as transgression. Obviously, female characters always have to be a) attractive, b) thin, and c) traditionally feminine. This is why the Aerith’s will always be beloved, but the Abby’s will not. Not only do female characters deserve more representation, they need more diverse representation. There are so many ways to express femininity beyond the traditional, and I (and countless others) would appreciate seeing that in the media we consume.

Gendered language

This is the final topic I want to touch on briefly before wrapping up: the concept of gendered language. Once you start to pay attention, you’ll notice how often this is used in gaming, and writing in general. You can see it in the way that strange, non-human protagonists are still, more often than not, coded as male (referred to as he/him). Or, my personal favourite, the prophecy-that-is-intended-for-a-man. Think about it: how many games have you played, or stories have you read, that have some kind of nebulous prophecy – it’s a big mystery, but the prophecy usually states that a hero will rise – “he” will be destined to save the world on “his” journey. Well, that’s not much of a mystery, is it? It’s automatically assumed the hero will be male – and we all know it will be anyway. Is it really so hard to change that to “they” – to keep up the pretense of mystery, that the hero could be any gender? Or is it so laughable that the hero will be female that we can’t even do that? Instead, there exists this unconscious agreement, that collectively, we all know the hero will be male; the idea of a female hero is simply outside the realm of the possible.

BotW2_Zelda
For the love of god, make Zelda a playable character.

I see this kind of gendered language in many real life gaming spheres as well – namely, Twitch and YouTube. I’m sure anyone who has watched a video or streamer in the last couple years has heard the popular celebration phrase: “Let’s go boys!” This is only one of many such phrases that cater toward a male audience. I am fully aware that this is not meant to be exclusionary, however, at its core, it is. Do I take offense to this? No, not at all. But, it does make me think about the person I’m watching, and the audience I assume they’re picturing: an audience that doesn’t include me. The viewers that they’re trying to appeal to, the viewers that they’re speaking to and connecting with doesn’t always include women, and in formal language, that sucks.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I wish gaming had progressed more than it has. Indie games seem to be making great strides in terms of better representation, but I can’t say the same for the mainstream. I can’t help but wonder about the impact it would have on younger gamers (like myself, growing up) if maybe, just once, we could play a game where Zelda was the hero, instead of Link. Or, if we learned from mistakes and progressed beyond cheap titillations and objectification of female characters in games where it doesn’t belong. I’ve already seen discussion on Twitter about a similar trophy to the one I discussed above in NieR Replicant. We’re stuck in the same cycle of damaging portrayals because people are conditioned to think this kind of thing is okay – that’s it’s not a big deal. But it is.

We’ve discussed objectification, gendered language, and the representation of femininity – but what does it all mean? We’re back to the central question: why does representation matter? I wish there was a succinct, eloquent way I could explain this, so troglodytes the world over would have an epiphany and understand why this is important. But I can’t, and they won’t, so here’s the gist. Representation matters because stories matter. It’s a collective agreement that humanity has had since time immemorial: I mean, that’s literally the purpose of art, to record, to fictionalize, to critique, to share, to dream. Stories (and art more generally) have always been used as a mirror to examine the culture that produces them – so what then does it say when we purposefully exclude certain segments of society? Or worse, when it comes to women, and their only sources of representation are overly-sexualized caricatures? I feel like a politician, answering a question with another question, but seriously, how does representation NOT matter? What a dull, narrow view of humanity we see when every story is white, every story is male. Unfortunately, this means being critical of the media we consume, whether people like it or not. We also have to question the media that we produce – that reflect our values, our beliefs, and our attitudes – so that we can improve.

With each year that passes, more women get into gaming, both on the development side, and in the player-base. More people (not just women) are being vocal about the issues of problematic portrayals. Because of this, I’ve allowed myself to hope for better female representation. I keep hoping for that game that makes me feel as though I’m welcome in its world; that my gender isn’t a hindrance, or something to be ashamed of. Maybe there will be one game where I won’t be the one left behind, while the boys go off on their adventures. Maybe there will be a game where I’ll get to enjoy the emotional resonance of the narrative, when I’m not busy trying to look up the main characters skirt. There might even come a game that doesn’t try to shoehorn me into one of the tired, cliched roles that I know so well. But who knows? We’ll see.

I feel the need to end on a more philosophical note: extremes in any form are bad. Extremism in religion, politics, and yes, feminism. Not everything has to be either-or, this or that, black or white. There is always a middle road – and that’s what we should be striving for. No one is suggesting that men are horrible, and their stories need to be erased to make way for female-lead narratives. There is room for both, for all – it’s simply a space that we as a collective need to create. No one has to grovel, or scrape, or apologize. We don’t need to be sorry – we just need to be better.