The Games We Play: The Default Hero

Despite the fact that, according to the ESA, gamers are about 40% women and girls (to be really general), it doesn't seem that the world of developers and marketers has caught on terribly to these stats. Or to many things, actually.

The standard hero in video games tends to be the embodiment of a pretty narrow view of what the gaming industry believes their demographic to be. Young, straight, white as a full moon, male, and apparently as barrel-chested as a Marvel Comic character.

Sure, some games, like Bioware's Mass Effect and MEII and Dragon Age: Origins (and the DA2 demo I played at this post's writing) allow you to choose from a gender binary without any hit to your stats and only minimal changes to overall plot dynamics with regard to who you are allowed to form intimate relationships with and how the story can ultimately end, but the details are relatively minor as interactive RPG events go. Even Fable III (being my first thorough foray into the Fable series) allows you to choose to be the Prince or the Princess, changing only the name and gender of your love interest; everything else is the same. (Thanks for that bone, Peter Molyneux.)

World of Warcraft allows you to play a woman of any race or class across the board without penalty to ability. Even the ridiculously, absurdly, difficult JRPG (to play and pronounce!) Deamon's Souls decided that it would be OK to allow you to be a female hero if you so choose. But if you look carefully at the covers, adverts, and video promos for these games, you'll pick up on something: The hero is almost always depicted as the default male.

That's because the option to be a female hero or Playable Character (PC) is just that: an option. It's the other choice, the only other choice, something tossed into the character creation just in case some girls come along and decide a game might tide them over until their soufflés are ready. With very few exceptions, the default playable character is always a white man, and the exceptions, being so notable, make the rule. In fact, these exceptions are, almost without fail, sexy women in chainmail bikinis, marketed specifically for the gaze of those believed to be the dominant demographic.

But a default gender isn't the only problem. Games like MEII and DA:O from BioWare have a one up on most other options, and that is setting aside my frustrations with titles like Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed (where I wanted to play a woman but was denied, and was stuck either not playing at all, or playing as a dude). Often you are stuck with the white het dude as your PC, and if you want to continue the game you had best deal with this. MEII has a variety of non-white options that you can adjust to get something that might represent what you are looking for. With DA:O, I was able to make a PC that closely resembled myself (well, my ass is something closer to pre-pregnancy, but I digress), but I am often misracialized, so that isn't the best example of a success story. My point is that there isn't a lot of room for non-white Playable Characters in gaming. There is no excuse for this in my humble opinion, but I've heard plenty of attempts.

One main argument I hear for why there are so few non-white PCs in gaming is that many games are set in places based on Medieval Europe, where white people were apparently in the majority. This always reminds me of Bao Phi's retort, that there were way more people of color in Medieval Europe than fire-breathing dragons, or in the case of Final Fantasy XIII, people who could pull motorcycles out of thin air.

I've also heard that it's too hard and too expensive to make games with adjustable avatars, because the interface has to be adapted for the entire gameplay for
each one. I guess I just don't feel bad that developers have to do their job to sell me a game that appeals to me. If you want to sell me a game, make one that I like. If you want me to spend sixty bucks on it, make it one that I will love putting myself into.

I read and hear many reasons why there are so few women protagonists in games, and why there is little diversity in PCs. Many of them don't hold water, to me, and like Brinstar at The Border House says, it doesn't make sense to continue to chug out many of the same games with the same vanilla characters. Why wouldn't you want to create games that have well-rounded and diverse characters which would be something new and possibly competitive in the market? It seems to me that in addition to misunderstanding the gaming demographics, these companies don't have a sense of what might be competitive. Although, when we look at how a game like EA's Mirror's Edge was received (not as well as it should have been), we see that perhaps there is something to this argument, though I am more inclined to believe this is the result of the loudest people being the ones who objected to not being allowed to objectify an Asian female protagonist.

But why? Why is it that we see "gamers" as being comprised of a certain demographic? Or rather, why do game developers refuse to see the the rising numbers of the rest of their market? What will it take to expand gaming past the Default Hero?

by Brandann Hill-Mann
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39 Comments Have Been Posted

I think some of the issue is

I think some of the issue is who the gamers are. Those stats are exciting but the definition of game is very broad. Women tend to play more 'casual' or 'social' games like Bejeweled, Farmville and the Sims. Console and PC games like the RPGs and FPS and MMORPGS that are the core of the games 'hardcore' gamers play are veiwed differently culturally than social or casual games. Knowing the subcultres of gamers plays into this I think .

Finding out the percentage of girls and women that are 'hardcore' gamers may skew differently. I would be curious to see those numbers actually. 'Gamer' women are a very different market than the Farmville playing women ( though no doubt there are those who do both). The game fill different niches and attract different audiences. Those of us who love RPGs and FPS may still be the minority of the percentage of people who play that particular genres of game. In which case then it's us hardcore gamer females wanting better representation in our genre where we are still not well represented as consumers.

(If you happen to have those stats please link them to me! I want em! =) (thank you for the link to the study btw, I had found it before but didn't book mark it!)

Part of the issue I think is that hardcore gamers receive the lions share of social and media commentary. Partly due to the sometimes controversial nature of the games they play, the behaviors attributed to them or the ills these game supposedly pose to society. We don't hear about the hardcore Words with Friends players or CityVille masters. These are not recognized the same way. Does that have to do with the majority demographic that plays those games? Or just their uncontroversial nature? I don't know.

The Sims (3 specifically) is actually a great example of a game that has evolved to allow super customizable avatars.
I fond video game characters debates to tie in closely with the comic book characters debates as both industries are selling idealized avatars/superheros. Both create hyper masculine/feminine attributes...*sigh*

I hop this makes sense, I am at work and gotta dash for a meeting.

I am so excited about this column btw! I love this piece and I look forward to the rest.

These games are why I play

<p>My husband is a big console gamer, but I got into it with Elder Scrolls iV: Oblivion, where you could choose to play as male or female across a variety of fun races and could make yourself any color you wanted. I really enjoyed that aspect. Picked up Fable II, then Mass Effect and finally Dragon Age (Counting the days until DA II !).

My point is, being able to identify with the characters turned me into a hardcore gamer. I'm still very discriminating in my game selection, though. Oh, and as a tech reporter, I've asked the BioWare team about the difficulty in creating multiple colors and sexes of characters. They said it's really not that hard if you do the coding right and if your engine is compatible to that kind of design. Love BioWare as a studio because they have been consistently committed to providing games with characters we can all identify with.</p>

I think they are on the right track.

I think they are going to be the company that brings us the most diversity first (and I am not shilling for them here). They have the largest variety of character creation available so far, and I think that as consumer demands push for it, we may see them give us more yet. I see them respond to customer wants. I would like to see them broaden gender representation more and step out of the binary, and I think they are the company who will do it first, were I a betting woman. I would like to see other companies that give you some options, like Lionhead, to jump on board.

I personally haven't played anything by Bathesda (I don't think I have?), but my partners says that <em>Elder Scrolls</em> does this similarly (I see there is a new game scheduled for November!).

But yes, I think having a PC that you can identify with is part of what allows a gamer to immerse themselves in the game.

I wonder, and didn;t flesh

I wonder, and didn;t flesh this out in my first comment, I wonder if it's like this self perpetuating cycle. Games are made for the while male teen-20 something demographic because those games sell, mostly to men, and they are the games that get all the press, the media and culture assumes only this demographic likes these kids of games and so that's all we see, and so that who we make those games for...because we women and girls don't see ourselves in those games..we're not in the social narrative that they are for us and we are not well represented in those games because it's not in the social narrative that we should be.

Creating better female avatars and less gendered plots and more racial diversity, and then using it in adverting these games (if it exists in that game, like DA) seems like a no braner to get more gamers, but not until women are seen as hardcore gamers too. How many other potential slayers are out there?

I also like Bioware. Although DA:Origins is still kicking my butt, I was actually pretty amazed at how customizable my character was and that the plot conformed to my chosen character and was treated like any hero lead. Wow.

I grew up playing all games, I am less of a hardcore gamer now than when I was younger, but it never made a difference to me when I was younger. I was a Gamer Girl. ( and also this was long before I hopped on the feminist wagon too, I was blithely ignorant for a long time). Nowadays I am much more discriminating and critical.

I do spend an inordinate amount of time playing the Sims though. =)

In response to both of your

In response to both of your comments, KJ, I think that one thing we have to consider is that people who play "casual" games, like <em>Farmville</em> and <em>Bejewelled Blitz</em> are not mutually exclusive from people who play <em>Call of Duty: Black Ops</em> or <em>Final Fantasy XVIII</em>. Not all of them, anyhow. I like <em>Tetris</em>, but I don't play any Facebook aps (not even DA: Legends). I don't need another timesuck. I'd rather be running my Warden through some plot, or figuring out what the poop is going on with Desmond. I have a level 82 Night Elf Death Knight who is learning to tank (and a column to write about all of it!).

But perhaps it is a bit of a self-perpetuating cycle. Speaking with our dollars is, perhaps not enough. One thing I enjoy about some companies is that the game developers often get involved in the threads in their forums. I think that if we keep these discussions going then someone is bound to hear our voices. Is that too idealistic of me?

Oh I think we absolutely need

Oh I think we absolutely need to be speaking out in forums, dollars are faceless without surveys to see who bought what. If we're not in the discussions, how will we get our ideas, thoughts and feedback to these companies? (you know aside from emailing their help or feedback departments). And we need to, in the anonymous wold of screen names and avatars, be vocal about being female gamers. is that something that you will write about or link to? I haven't ever participated in online game forums...mostly because my gaming hasn't been political...and maybe even more so..I game less than I once did and am less vested in the community. But that wouldn't stop me if I knew the best places to go.

I agree that the boxes aren't great. But when ever is a box good! I used quotes around 'hardcore' and 'casual' because I disagree with them. I have a distinct feeling there are people out there who spend more time playing Farmville than I do Dragon Age and the Sims...but I did want to highlight the use of the terms since that is the language being used in the dialogue about gaming in our culture (and I will add the caveat I mean US culture, since that is the gaming culture I have experience in.) I am definitely someone who plays a variety of games as well. I love me some iPad games..Dungeon Hunter Alliance..Spore..Wizard Hex..Mahjong..all I will be playing on the train tomorrow!

In fact, I am often sometimes hesitant to bring up my love of the Sims partly because is is considers a women's and girls games, this is an internal dialogue I have issue with..I have that internalized from being a young girl growing up immersed in gamer culture (along with gamer boys and boyfriends) growing up that games like Warcraft, Fallout, Doom, Halo, MoH, FF, Zelda, etc are BETTER than other other kinds of games. ..and that still persists even though I know it's not true.

Oh man, I am so stoked by the dialogue here. I wish I wasn't traveling the next few days but I am eager to read your next installments after having read the comments here. *fangirl squee* It's also super timely since I am currently immersed in all things video game for work! But much of that is focused on video games and learning... man Jane McGonigal's book was super timely too. That woman is fascinating to me, and another conversation.

That's an important point. I

That's an important point. I play some games from casual gaming sites like Big Fish, and there are TONS of games there with female protagonists. In fact, I would make a guess that the vast majority of their games (aside from the ones that have no human protagonist or where the player is treated as the protagonist without specifying a gender) have women as the protagonists. They are, however, generally white and presumably straight and cis.

Some of the Wii games that are popular with casual gamers allow players to create and use their own avatars, too.

That's not to say that diversity isn't important in hardcore games too, I just want to give credit where credit is due.

Question for you:

Do you think that "casual" games are made that way because they are considered "women's games"?

I think some of them are

I think some of them are definitely considered "women's games," yes. Others--particularly the ones that have no humans whatsoever, like some puzzle games--are more gender-neutral. The most popular games at Big Fish seem to be the Hidden Object games. Generally they are some sort of mystery, often a murder mystery, and the protagonist is usually a woman. There are whole series of games based on books like Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie's works. Men could certainly enjoy them as well, but I think women are their primary audience.

Time Management games also appear to be big sellers for them, and some of those are definitely aimed at women--not only are many of the avatars female, but the games often focus on traditionally feminine pursuits (baking cakes, planning weddings, and so on). There are also ones that are about things like building a business empire, though.

"Why is it that we see

"Why is it that we see 'gamers' as being comprised of a certain demographic?"
From my experience as a 22 year old gamer (who's been gaming since 8, thanks Squaresoft) it seems that demographic just <i>was</i> the gamers I knew growing up, though much more racially diverse. Certainly the mid-1990s was around the time this shifted dramatically, but it's still hard for me to imagine gaming as a gender neutral activity. Blame it on the marketing of video games towards young males (I mean it was called a Game <i>BOY</i>, how implicitly sexist can you get?), but they've always seemed like distinctly male fantasy and wish fulfillment.

"Or rather, why do game developers refuse to see the the rising numbers of the rest of their market?"
The majority of game developers are men. Anecdotes count for little online, but I personally know several people pursuing video games development (all male) and they're far from the most progressive people. I guess it's just difficult to break free of male fantasy and wish fulfillment when, essentially, the field is founded on and filled with the stuff. In creating something new for an underrepresented audience, developers have to fight this entrenched sexism every step of the way. It may just be too difficult, and they end up going nowhere. Or, worse, they make "Cooking Mama."

"What will it take to expand gaming past the Default Hero?"
Probably more original, inventive games. I'd argue that most lengthy, narrative heavy games (J/WRPGs in particular) are molded on Campbell's "hero's journey," rooted in millennia of an idealized male hero and their life. Breaking free of this literary structure and creating a new structure, probably something exclusive to video games, would be a step towards new ideas of the Hero and their journey. It's vague, I know, but I feel the only way to change video games is to do away with many of the concepts, ideals, and prejudices borrowed from other mediums (literature and film in particular) and create stories that could only be told in the video game medium.

And besides, we won't have anymore terrible Uwe Boll adaptations of video games, or glorified movie-games (looking at you, Final Fantasy). EVERYONE WINS!

looking at you, Final

<em>looking at you, Final Fantasy</em>

Seriously, when is Square Enix just going to admit they want to make really really pretty animated films with stop-button action, and not video games?

sooo right on

<p>I've been an avid console gamer since Pong, which had no gender issues as every player was a green rectangle. &nbsp;I kind of lapsed during the 90's due to my income going to other "priorities" (records and comics, two other gender-challenged worlds of their own) but when I met my husband he bought me a DreamCast and encouraged me to pick up my old hobby. &nbsp;We now own a PS3, XBOX 360 and a Wii and I buy maybe 3 games a year. &nbsp;I think when the "market" thinks of women gamers they think casual, like FarmVille or judging by this <a href="">list of games with women protagonists</a>&nbsp;games at BigFish or Pogo. &nbsp;These games are either female avatars slapped on to games where there's really no story (picture find or puzzle) or they tend to feature female charatcters in traditional roles: restaurant owner, beauty shop owner, wedding planner, etc. &nbsp;There's no Jane Doe's Architecture Firm or Franny Kelly's Chemistry Lab. &nbsp;The other thing I see in that game list is the big boob appeasement--okay, the main character in this game is a woman but MAN, she has big tits, so that's not so bad, right? (See Lara Croft, worst archaeologist in the world and a guilty pleasure of mine once they redesigned the control scheme.) &nbsp;And don't get me started on the inanity of the FarmVille type games, ugh. </p><p>I'm also tired of the excuse of "oh, we'd have to do so much extra work to make a female model" (especially from games that had a female model and then got rid of it, I'm looking at you, Tony Hawk) because to me that's saying, "we don't care about your experience, and we don't care about selling you our games." &nbsp;So I'm not buying your games, I'm not recommending them to friends, and I'm probably not going to buy any of the games you make in the future, either. &nbsp;</p><p>I give BioWare a lot of credit here for bringing the gender neutral RPG to the console--starting with <em>Knights of the Old Republic </em>they've consistently made games that give more weight to gameplay than gender. &nbsp;I mean, I am pretty sure that Dragon Age: Origins was designed for women or at least the storyline was weighted equally for both genders. &nbsp;I admit I haven't played through with a male avatar but I've played through 3 times just to have Alestair romance me again. &nbsp;And again. &nbsp;Have you ever licked a lampost in winter? &nbsp;LoL. &nbsp;Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and I'd throw in the Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind and Oblivion) and Fallout 3 (New Vegas is a wee sexist and buggy as hell so it's hard to give it an enthusiastic thumbs up) in as well as games whose gameplay isn't gender specific. &nbsp;</p><p>These games are great becasue of an egalitarian approach to storytelling and character, but it would be great to see more games that offer women as a main PC without dragging stereotypical "femaleness" into the picture. &nbsp;Of all the console games released every year since the inception of console gaming, there are five that I can recommend that featured female protagonists that I think were unique in gameplay with an engrossing story: Beyond Good and Evil, Drakkan: The Ancient's Gate, Summoner 2: A Goddess Reborn, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and Dreamfall--The Longest Journey. &nbsp;The Buffy games were pretty good, but that's money in the bank, not a big stretch there. &nbsp;Any others? &nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p>

Who would do that?

<em>I mean, I am pretty sure that Dragon Age: Origins was designed for women or at least the storyline was weighted equally for both genders. I admit I haven't played through with a male avatar but I've played through 3 times just to have Alestair romance me again. And again. Have you ever licked a lampost in winter?</em>

Or to have him get all stern an take charge-y? <a href="">Who would do that?</a> [link leads to Alistair *squee*]

Ha ha. *ahem* I will move on and be more serious now.

Though, in <em>Mass Effect</em> and MEII there were no homosexual romance options if you played with a male avatar. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Great post!

I just wanted to pop in and say great post! You have no idea how excited I am for this series. Woot woot! I love gaming soooo much but unfortunately, it's one of the most overtly sexist and hostile environments I constantly put myself into as a woman. I feel as a person who plays mainly FPS currently, I feel the sexism and hostility a lot more than a lot of other genres I've played and still do play. If while playing multi-player I make the mistake of actually talking on the mic, I get three reactions from the often young, white, males that I'm often playing against. 1st one: "Wow, girls actually play Call of Duty/Battlefield?" 2nd "Hey sexy lady, how you doin?" and 3rd Some sort of insane sexist remark/action done against my character. I've been told that "bitches don't belong here. Or GTFO bitch" and while in prone position (laying down, for those who don't know... I'm not trying to insult anyone's intelligence but I legitely didn't know what it meant for the longest time LOL) this scum bag moved back and forth directly in front of me saying things like "suck it, bitch" and "you like that?" Needless to say, I never turn my mic on anymore or talk... which saddens me. Anyways, once again, great post!

I think this is a good time to mention...

I am loving the commentary, but I would really like to mention that I prefer that we keep a check on ableist language while we discuss unsavory behavior.

We are right, the environment towards gamers living in certain oppressions is indeed hostile, but the actions of these people should not be conflated with mental illness, please.

I actually plan to discuss ableism in gaming and games later as well.

Here are some insights on why <a href=" language</a> matters to <a href=" discussions</a>.

As a feminist nerd, I feel

As a feminist nerd, I feel mostly disgust for the gamer dudes I encounter in video game stores, online reviews, and yes, Azeroth. The gaming sect of the nerd community is easily the least progressive. I'd much rather converse with a Trekkie, Browncoat, or comix geek any day.

A fun video about the dominance of male protagonists in the gaming world:

A video from a male gamer singing stereotypes about female gamers:


Isn't it the worst?

I never use Vent either, because Azeroth has some of the most hostile chat I've encountered.

I plan to talk more about the hostile environment of online gaming (XBL, WoW, etc) later on.

I'm not a gamer myself, but

I'm not a gamer myself, but my boyfriend is an avid gamer and participates in the gamer community through sites like Gamespot. I've come to appreciate video games greatly through him, even if my gaming ability is limited to the Luma in Super Mario Galaxy and Naruto Clash of Revolution (and Pacman. I'm awesome at Pacman). I've noticed that two games are notable absent from both the article and the discussion here: Metroid and Fallout. Metroid's hero is Samus Aran, whose female status was a surprise at the end of the first game, playing off the assumed male identity of video game heroes. It's true that Samus is white and blond and clad in a form-fitting space suit when not in her armor, but her sexuality and personal relationships are thankfully not present in many of the Metroid games (I have no knowledge of Other M, which seems to explore these topics a little more, I'm just going off what I've seen). Samus Aran is also my boyfriend's all-time favorite video game character. The other game I think needs mention is Bethesda's Fallout series. I've only seen Fallout 3, but in this game you choose your character's sex and race (though this is strictly delineated into white, black, "Asian" and "Hispanic," which obviously has some problems), and can tweak the facial features, including the skin tone, in a very detailed manner to get the character to look however you want. Again, sexuality is not terribly present in the game, though it does offer both homo- and heterosexual coupling options. But the female characters, though clearly female in terms of anatomy, are not hypersexualized, and wear the same clothing as the male characters. (I know this because my boyfriend plays as both male and female characters--he's enlightened like that). I also thought that homosexual pairings in Dragon Age: Origins were possible.

Other M

I should and probably will do a post that discusses Samus Aran, especially after watching the Escapist's review of the game (I am not going to link to it right now, because Yahtzee needs about a hundred Trigger Warnings). My husband had some choice things to say about the way Samus was treated in <em>Other M</em>.

I forgot that Fallout was Bathesda. I kind of dig Fallout, though I haven't played a ton of it. It is a little too shooter-y for me. But yes, they do have character creation, which is neat-o, though not relevant to the story (though I think there are a few dialogue and story options that change in FO3 depending on your gender). My hubby liked to traipse through the Wasteland in a bonnet and hoop skirt wasting things.

Homosexual pairings are possible in DA:O, with <em>some</em> charactes. If you hold on we will get to this topic later too. I don't want to spoil DA2 for anyone, so we will discuss it then, and hopefully run it after the release day (but who's counting those days?).


...from what I saw of Other M, I was not impressed, and neither was my boyfriend, which, due to his Samus fandom, says something. I'd be interested to know about it and its treatment of Samus. I'll be looking forward to that! I just skimmed the Escapist review and, yeah, it seems pretty weak.

Hurrah for blowing shit away in hoop skirts, though!

This article seriously underrates videogame heroines

While I applaud the intent on this article, I have a hard time believing that this was written by a hardcore gamer, mainly because the OP missed so many obvious videogame heroines. Samus from Metroid? Joanna Dark from Perfect Dark? Jade from Beyond Good and Evil? Konoko from Oni? Maya from Septerra Core? Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield from the Resident Evil series? I could go on and on. And that doesn't include the slew of female RPG protagonists I've run into through the Final Fantasy games. Speaking of Final Fantasy, it's worth mentioning the female only trio in FFX-2 or FFXIII's female protagonist. And there are more examples than what I brought up...

On another note, the sexualization of videogame heroines can be problematic, especially with fighting games. Just look at any of them in the past couple decades, and you'll find many examples. Soul Caliber and Dead or Alive are the worst offenders, though even the more conservative Street Fighter, Tekken and Virtua Fighter have stripperific women as well (though at least the sexualization goes both genders). Bayonetta is another obvious example, and so is Tomb Raider's Lara Croft. The interesting thing about the next Tomb Raider game is that it aims to subvert Lara's sexualization, while elevating her to a sympathetic heroine. If you haven't read Game Informer's recent article on the next Tomb Raider, please do. Not only does Lara's new design look more modest, she's a far more organic character (as well as the game itself). Ironically enough, Lara 2.0 looks prettier than ever, but partly because it's surrounded by an edgy mystique, and a strong will to survive the harrowing trials on the island the game takes place in. I wasn't a Tomb Raider fan before, but I'm sold this time around.

Yes, the overall number of female protagonists is more limited (hell, there's an RPG trope called the "three females rule" that lampshade this), but I've played enough videogames in my lifetime to run into numerous videogame heroines that are all seen as headstrong women instead of weak damsels in distress. And not a single time did controlling them bother me one bit. As long as the gameplay and character compels me to play, I could care less which gender (or species) I'm playing. In fact, with my Mass Effect file, I have both the default Shepard AND a black female for two different quests, simply because it would be fun to play two protagonists that are dissimilar in background, race, gender and moralistic decisions. And I'm a black male gamer for 20-something years, to boot. To be honest, I've seen more female protagonists than non-white protagonists, but that's another discussion entirely.

As for the number of commenters railing against sexist male gamers, rest assured that there are plenty of other open minded ones that exist. In fact, in a recent Game Informer letters section, there are plenty of male gamers that crave race/gender diversity in gaming, and welcome it with open arms. So please stop sniping that ALL male gamers won't appreciate a more gender balanced gaming industry. There are more of us than you think.

In my first post, I mentioned

In my first post, I mentioned that I am not what you would probably call a "hardcore" gamer. But I think there is a lot of leeway in the boxy definitions anyway. I am a gamer. I play games. Many games, and I play them with a lens on.

In my very second post, I am sure you can see that I didn't discuss every teeny tiny detail to death, but there are in fact many things you mention here that I am hoping to approach in the coming weeks. Many of the games and protagonists you mentioned are actually on my schedule, so I hope that you will hang on and check back in for when we take a look at female protagonists in games later on.

One note on female protagonists: so many of them stand out because they are so notable. We notice them because it is unusual and unique. I applaud the developers who put them out, and rally around the ones who manage to do so without perpetuating tropes.

I am really glad that the dichotomy of "headstrong" or "damsel" doesn't bother you personally. What I want to see more of is a variation, or something that more people, women or otherwise, can identify with. Hopefully game companies will begin to recognize that there is a variation of people who also want to be compelled to play based on a character they can identify with.

I also don't think anyone here is saying that ALL male gamers are against diversity. That is not the discussion that is going on here. There is, however, a precedent of male gamers who create a hostility towards anything outside of this narrative. It is heartwarming to see that you are on board with this, and I hope that you can encourage more male gamers to accept such a progressive attitude.

Fair enough

<i>In my first post, I mentioned that I am not what you would probably call a "hardcore" gamer. But I think there is a lot of leeway in the boxy definitions anyway. I am a gamer. I play games. Many games, and I play them with a lens on.<i/>

Fair enough. Sometimes I forget that not every gamer has super broad knowledge on the medium. Hell, some of my examples were fairly obscure (after all, not many people played Oni or Septerra Core). Still, a feminism discussion on videogames without mentioning Metroid's Samus does a disservice to the topic. As one commenter already stated, the "gender flip" twist of the original NES Metroid still gets talked about in gaming circles, even for gamers who were too young to experience it firsthand.

<i>One note on female protagonists: so many of them stand out because they are so notable. We notice them because it is unusual and unique. I applaud the developers who put them out, and rally around the ones who manage to do so without perpetuating tropes.

I am really glad that the dichotomy of "headstrong" or "damsel" doesn't bother you personally. What I want to see more of is a variation, or something that more people, women or otherwise, can identify with. Hopefully game companies will begin to recognize that there is a variation of people who also want to be compelled to play based on a character they can identify with</i>

Agreed, though I argue that there are already plenty of atypical female videogame characters, though most of them are in RPGs. The best example IMO still comes from Mass Effect. From the crew members to the NPCs (i.e., non-playable characters), there are a wide variety of women to speak of. There's Ashley Williams, the poetry reciting soldier who's trying to overcome her family's shamed military history (and believes in God to boot), there's Liara T'soni, an introverted archaeologist, and others that are various degrees of brave, cowardly, conniving, optimistic, joyful, sorrowful, etc.

So yeah, it's already here in more subtle ways, and it doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.

<i>I also don't think anyone here is saying that ALL male gamers are against diversity. That is not the discussion that is going on here. There is, however, a precedent of male gamers who create a hostility towards anything outside of this narrative. It is heartwarming to see that you are on board with this, and I hope that you can encourage more male gamers to accept such a progressive attitude.</i>

I won't lie. There are legions of male gamers, particularly amongst online FPS games, who are generally immature and act like a-holes the majority of the time (part of the reason I've focused on single-player experiences lately), but there are also those who are pretty cultured and respectful to gamers outside their race/region/country.

Though I hear rumors lately about some hardcore gamers feeling increasingly xenophobic towards the Japanese (quite ironic, given the nature of the videogame industry), and that frankly disturbs me. I understand why some people prefer not to play online games with anyone from the east because of lag issues and/or the language barrier, but the hostility, not so much.

As for the perceived attacks toward male gamers, I got pretty defensive because I grew up knowing so many male and female gamers who are, for the most part, cordial to each other. One of my former next door neighbors has a trio of daughters who played SNES/N64 and watched anime years before it got popular stateside. I know a lesbian from middle school who enjoyed fighting games and Dance Dance revolution. I also had one high school [female] friend who wasted hours on the bus playing Pokemon, hours at lunch with Magic the Gathering, and RPGs at home. They're more interesting than the sometimes too common Madden/NBA Live players with black male gamers (something one black female gamer once complained about), or the testosterone filled environment that surrounds online FPS games like Halo or Call of Duty (a genre unequivocally dominated by white males, or males in general). But again, don't think those irritating meatheads describe every male gamer, and that there are many male gamers who hate them as much as you gaming ladies do.

<i>In my very second post, I am sure you can see that I didn't discuss every teeny tiny detail to death, but there are in fact many things you mention here that I am hoping to approach in the coming weeks. Many of the games and protagonists you mentioned are actually on my schedule, so I hope that you will hang on and check back in for when we take a look at female protagonists in games later on.</i>

Will do.

Elf Power!

<em>With DA:O, I was able to make a PC that closely resembled myself</em>

I loved DA:O because I was able to create a PC with my skin color and more importantly, a character whose experiences through the game resonated with me as an ethnic minority. I will never forget the first time I played the game as a city elf, and the blacksmith in Redcliffe said, "You didn't sound like an elf through the door." I just about died laughing, because if I had a dollar for every time I've heard "You didn't sound black on the phone", I'd have enough to buy a game or three.

Taking the fantasy elf trope and turning it on its head to make the elves a dispossessed, despised outsider class, was kind of brilliant on Bioware's part, especially since there were elements of many different minority experiences combined in a way that made sense (most notably Native American/Australian. African diaspora, and Jewish history). I felt a personal connection to my Tabris character (and to a lesser extent, my casteless dwarf and my mages) that I didn't have with the other origins.

I admit to being deeply disappointed that I can only play a human in DA2, and also by the decision to make the elves more physically distinct from humans. The fact that humans and elves can interbreed, and that the physical differences are minor--and often used as a slur--underscored the theme of racism. When elves really aren't "like us", I'm not sure it'll have the same impact.

The Dalish

<em>I will never forget the first time I played the game as a city elf, and the blacksmith in Redcliffe said, "You didn't sound like an elf through the door." I just about died laughing, because if I had a dollar for every time I've heard "You didn't sound black on the phone", I'd have enough to buy a game or three.</em>

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard "You don't <em>look</em> Native". It is something that I get a kick out of when I make a character that has dark skin, and then my parents or relatives have the fairest skin ever.

The Dalish Elves experience, the way their history was taken from them, the way they are forced into alienages, and how they fight to gain their history, language, magic, everything back strikes with me because of my own history of growing up on a reservation, yet separated from so much of the history because being Native was not as cool when I was a child. The idea that breeding with a human and having a child who "passed" as human really spoke with me. There was so much in that character line...

I am getting a little off-topic. This perhaps can be fleshed out later. It wasn't something I planned, but my schedule has room to be organic.

"It's the other choice, the

"It's the other choice, the only other choice, something tossed into the character creation just in case some girls come along and decide a game might tide them over until their soufflés are ready."

Honestly, for some games, I don't think this is necessarily even a consideration. For the first couple years I played WoW, I was assumed to be a guy even though I have a female avatar. I was in my first guild for over a year when I logged on TeamSpeak and suddenly about three different guys went "HOLY SHIT Vera's a GIRL????"... and it's not like I made my gender a secret.

So sometimes I wonder if the token female characters aren't even for women, but for men, the male gaze, all overly sexualized and frequently "put in their place." I wonder if there isn't a factor of punishing men for enjoying playing female characters (because gods forbid a man like anything girly). I'm not trying to erase the issue here, just posit that in some cases, it doesn't seem like women are even a second thought at all.

Not erasing the point at all...

This is a great point.

There is so much to discuss and break down, and this is a great point.

My husband very often plays female Night Elves. Just because. But I have heard that men will sometimes roll up a female toon because <a href="">"I'd rather stare at a chick's butt all day than a dude's"</a>. The male gaze is definitely a consideration, and I wonder if it was more a priority than giving women an avatar to submerge themselves into.

A lot of people have more or

A lot of people have more or less said it already, but I think it comes down to sticking to the box and label that 'gamer' has: a young, white, socially inept male. Challenging that means challenging how the white western hegemony does....a lot of things, really. So when a marketing decision gets made, the cultural bias to sell to who they THINK they should be selling to, rather than any accurate demographic data, is perhaps stronger than anyone wants to admit.

hero's journey

"I'd argue that most lengthy, narrative heavy games (J/WRPGs in particular) are molded on Campbell's "hero's journey," rooted in millennia of an idealized male hero and their life. " I'd argue that it goes deeper - see the 510 hero's journey construction at

How much does it matter?

I'm going to come in from a slightly different angle on this, which may get me flamed from any overt feminists.

I'm female and I barely notice any unusual levels of sexism in gaming.

I played Wow for three years; I ran a raiding guild and I don't recall ever once being treated any differently on Vent because I was a woman. I don't doubt that the twelve year olds on the trade channel would have made a big deal out of it *shrug* this speaks of their immaturity rather than any sexist bias within the environment.

My background is RP which fed me into PC games - so I come from what's considered a VERY male dominated area - tabletop RPG and LARP. I've no memory of ever being treated any differently as a woman there either - for example, if I wanted AC6 on a linear, then I wore chainmail, just like the men. If it was too heavy for me to catch the damn ghoul (usually played by the swiftest person monstering) then I got to deal with it.

Yes, it was nice to be able to choose gender in Dragon Age, but I fail to see why <i>not</i> being able to choose in other, more story-led, games like Assassin's Creed and Witcher was a problem. It's like the difference between a LARP and a freeform - in the former you create a character, in the latter you are given a character to play who has a pre-determined background. They are both fun and should be taken as what they are.

Overly curvy female NPC's in games, designed as eye-candy for the boys? Of course there are, just as there are on television and everywhere else. And yet, just as I never heard any screams of outrage when the Diet Coke Break ads turned the tables, equally I hear no complaints about the exceptional beauty of the male love interests in Dragon Age.

In summary, I think that a lot of women are a little thin-skinned still, due to the fact that we are not more than a few decades out from under the heel of really overt and one-sided sexism. Has sexism gone away? No, it hasn't, but in many senses it has become equal. We get to be sexist, too, and I submit that this is more fun than the flavourless controlled world we would live in if it was all quashed utterly.

*sandbags the area and waits for the flak to hit*

It's an issue because while

It's an issue because while there are plenty of games where you can only play as a preset gender, that gender is almost always male. I can't think of a game off the top of my head where you can only play as a woman, aside from games that are cutesy and highly normative in regards to gender roles. I can't think of a fantasy RPG where you can only play as a woman. (If someone knows of one, I'd love to hear about it!)

It's an issue because there are repeated quotes from game designers and marketers who say that it's pointless to target games toward women. There's the idea that women aren't "real" gamers, there's the idea that there are less women buying games than men (which really isn't true), and there's the idea that while women will play games that feature male protagonists, men will not play games with female protagonists.

Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age II show it's entirely possible to create a game and give options for characters of both genders. I would really like to see more of that in games, because I frankly hate that I'm essentially being told by game designers that there's no place in games for me.

On gender...

I don't want to stop at the binary... I want to see developers get with the times and recognize that gender runs a gamut of possibility and is more that a dichotomy. There is a chromatic range out there, and I hope for a day when games allow for that. We should recognize that there is more than "both" when discussing gender.

Definitely! Sadly, I doubt


Sadly, I doubt that's coming anytime soon when there's so much fail at presenting just *two* genders equally. :(


As stated before, I've run into a good number of games that have female only protagonists. The most recognized one is Samus from the Metroid series, and it's one of the most highly respected videogame series of all time. Only The Other M universally bothered people, because of its wonky gameplay, but more importantly, it reduced Samus's intellect to the level of a petulant child.

Meanwhile, I've run into numerous games that have a female only protagonist. Perfect Dark (Joanna Dark), Oni (Konoko), Septerra Core (Maya; though the ratio of male/female characters are on par with the Final Fantasy games, at least the main character's a woman), FFX-2 and FFXIII (which has a female only trio, the latter has a female lead character), etc. Beyond Good and Evil (which gained a cult following over the years), which has a female photographer as the main protagonist (Jade), is now being re-released on Xbox Live/Playstation Network. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, despite her super curvy design, is an okay example (though the upcoming Tomb Raider game makes Lara a far more fascinating character). I'm unaware of any fantasy RPG examples, but I'm not a fan of the genre, so I wouldn't know.

And even in the '90s (during the Playstation/Nintendo 64 era), I've noticed a trend of games that allowed you to play as two protagonists (one being male, and the other being female). These usually encourage you to play through the game with each character, since the quests aren't completely identical. Resident Evil is the best example, since the first game, the second one, and the more recent RE5 gives you the option to pick. The prequel Resident Evil Zero used a character switching dynamic unique to the series, and like the other games, it has a male and female protagonist. Sure, RE4 only had Leon S. Kennedy, but to criticize that, you have to ignore RE3: Nemesis and RE: Code Veronica, which only let you play Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield (the respective protagonists of RE1 and RE2). The only odd trend I've noticed with the games that allow you to pick a male/female protagonist is that the female side is generally easier, though the developers don't neuter the gameplay for these female characters. Enter the Matrix did the same thing.

So while I agree that there could be less sexism in gaming, it's not nearly as culturally regressive as some of you think.

After my original post I had

After my original post I had a long think about this and realised that, if we really do want to point the finger and scream discrimination, then the gaming community is the trees, not the forest.

I've got a massive number of fantasy novels on my bookshelves, and the majority of the heroes are het white male. Cast your eye down a list of movies in the same genre, and you'll see the same. Why are we railing at the games industry specifically? If they write fantasy RPG's, why <i>wouldn't</i> they - the comparatively new and small industry - fit in with what the big boys are doing?

There's no point blaming it on a male-dominated industry, either. Those same bookshelves are full of female authors. Is it the case that the vast majority of fantasy readers are white male, too? Because, if not, why are even the female writers toeing the line?

I'm not trying to say 'this is how it is'. It's quite possible that someone will happen along at any moment with a set of stats to tell me I'm wrong. These are merely my musings upon the subject. My gut feeling is that the root of the problem doesn't lie with gaming and the game-buying public at all, but is instead intrinsic to the fantasy genre.

Cost as Possible Cause

I got into a long, overly complicated argument (which ultimately descended into two camps - people making incendiary comments and people pulling up obscure studies and statistics) on Splash Damage's forum over the fact that there would be absolutely no female avatars for Brink. I found it baffling because there wasn't even your standard, "Oh, but women never left their thatched huts back in Ye Olde Time England," plot excuse for it. The cost of designing and creating . I was also disappointed because Bethesda, which had fairly gender-even avatars, is also behind the game. Splash Damage was the studio behind the avatars, so this was on them. According to a few of their staff members, the reason for not including female avatars were primarily for two reasons, though the first was primary.

The first was cost. Cost of designing and coding the new models, customizing the movements of the female avatars, etc. The second was aesthetic - Brink's avatars are all extremely brutish-looking dudes, heavy on muscle and ugly faces. Personally, I think the second one is only a problem because most male gamers (and some female gamers) would take issue with brutish-looking chicks. They'd want sexy female avatars. And the only reason the argument over aesthetic occurred was because of the suggestion of skinning the male avatars (ie, you wouldn't have to customize movement, etc). But I digress.

Their argument did seem sound, if screwed up. Why should they waste the money and *time* on creating female avatars when most of their audience will be male? [It's an FPS-ish game, which is typically male-dominated.] That's capitalism for you. If female gamers want to be represented in games, then it's a matter of "converting" other women into playing "hardcore" games and of actually working in the industry. Maybe the reason white men are so heavily represented on games is because they tend to be the ones working on the games.

Also, I don't think Mirror's Edge failed because of anything to do with the non-sexualized gender of the main character. It was an extremely short game (which is the primary complaint I heard), had some annoying gaming features (even I can admit to that) and a ton of male gamers I talked with really hated that they couldn't run up to cops, take their gun, and shoot *everybody.* When you put a gun into the hands of an avatar, pretty much everyone expects to be able to kill everything in sight, with ease. [Because that totally makes sense.] Basically, most camps came down into "too short" or "omg, I couldn't kill all the cops!" Stupid, but true.

Bethseda could've included female avatars if they really wanted

Not wanting to create female avatars for a videogame because of cost is an excuse if you ask me. While I know gaming development has its share of difficulties, the biggest headaches come down to gameplay quality, difficulty balance, and ironing out hordes of game-breaking bugs. Designing characters, in contrast, is one of the easier elements. As you mentioned, look at Mirror's Edge. It's hard to appreciate the female protagonists when the surrounding gameplay was far from perfect, and the controls were somewhat strange.

The FPS genre is extremely male-centric when it comes to protagonists, though. Gears of War, despite its fun, violent gameplay, is easily the worst example because of how obvious it is compared to the other games. Not only are the male characters designed to be exaggerated macho men, they even sound like it with their locker room language. And of course, the sole black character follows the same trash talking, take-no-BS attitude that's all too familiar in the media (and to top it off, he looks and sounds like a caricaturized football player). The only two female characters in the series is the mostly off screen Anya (for recon advice) and Dom's missing wife. At least the upcoming third game plans to include female soldiers, but it's still bothersome. With the exception of Perfect Dark, No One Lives Forever, and maybe Timesplitters, the FPS genre seriously lacks female protagonists.

And yes, the industry is mostly filled with males (white males at that), which creates difficulties with gender/racial diversity. Still, when even the questionably sexist Japanese culture gave the industry Samus Aran (Metroid), and jump started the trend of giving players the choice between male and female protagonists, the west really has no excuse to filter out female characters like Gears of War did. Fortunately, there are studios who are more liberal about that issue, past and present.

Shout out to Valve for

Shout out to Valve for creating a non-sexualized female protagonist (Chell, from portal) like it wasn't a fucking big deal...
I also liked in the article how the excuse for having no female/non-white characters was that it was hard to have them *too* because the default protagonist could never ever ever be non-white-male.

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