Something that has always struck me as odd is that playable male characters in games, for the most part, are pretty ordinary looking, while the women are quite often very unique. This rattled around at the back of my head for a while until I realised the obvious truth of this - they are still made for men.
The male characters are a fantasy that you're supposed to identify with - they have fairly generic looks and personalities, and it’s not too much of a stretch to put ourselves in their shoes. Female characters on the other hand aren’t like this - they are not made for you to identify with, but admire instead.
Now there are many exceptions to this - as an industry we are getting better at designing good female characters, but there are some common, more subtle flaws in our depiction of women than their commonplace objectification in games. I think it’s important to recognise these flaws and avoid giving ourselves a pat on the back just for making a protagonist female, and there are several reason for this.
A subtler fantasy
So first our female protagonists: Unlike their male counterparts, they are often very stylised, quirky and ‘badass’. Sure, these designs have become more subtle since the original Tomb Raider, but the underlying direction is still the same - they are adolescent male fantasy women - 'cool' and alternative. The kind of women the designers imagine will appeal to their audience. I think this is backed up by a few things.
First, take a look at the designs in these games - almost all of the men wear ordinary clothes, jeans, t-shirts, shirts. Almost all the women wear very designed gear, they look impossibly made-up compared to the rough-and ready, stubbled male designs. They are always clean, while the men are covered in sweat and dirt. Male design tends to focus on realism, while the women err towards fantasy - a sweaty man is fine, we can relate to that - a hard-working, tough-looking character. The women however are not meant to be identified with in the same way, and so they’re almost always impossibly stylish and clean.
Of course these designs are not a problem themselves, it's perfectly fine for a character to be as mundane or over-the-top as the developer wants, but the abundance of this trend sheds light on these issues.
The other supporting piece of evidence, is that unlike games with male leads, games with female leads rarely include a love interest of any kind. Very story-based games with a male lead rarely go without, no matter how well-written they may be, or how superfluous it is to the storyline.
As an industry and especially as these topics become more and more contentious, I think we too often point to female protagonists as if they’re the solution to a problem, without realising that many characters who are NOT highly sexualised are still designed for men. It’s an easy trap to fall into as a developer - just because we don’t treat the character in an actively negative way doesn’t mean they aren’t still targeted at a largely male audience.
Not enough female voices
As we create more female-friendly characters and stories, we help to generate a virtuous cycle where more women are drawn to the industry and can add their voices to the process. Of course the main issue is the audience that these characters are targeted at and not the gender and sexuality of the creators, but as a developer it has always struck as mildly absurd when a group of men hold a meeting to make sure the female characters they are writing are portrayed well, stopping short of actually talking to a woman. It's not impossible for a man to write a strong female character, but it is certainly something we don't seem to excel at in general. Until our industry is more diverse, a little focus-testing certainly couldn't hurt.
Polls have shown a growing majority of gamers are women, and last year that figure climbed to 52%, yet the vast majority of the industry is still male and still creating characters for men. Simply as a business, we are supposed to be designing for our audience, and this for the most part is no longer the case. We need to begin to think how we can really make characters that women can identify with, and don’t just tick the boxes on a shallow level.
Take a good example: Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. Now her design does not steer completely clear of what we've talked about so far by any means - she's quite unique looking though not out of place among the other characters, her clothes are fairly normal - a jacket and trousers. She's been designed to appeal to a wide demographic. However I've chosen her as an example not for these reasons, but because she's been designed not to be sexualised, and while sexuality is in no way a bad thing, in games where you are expected to take control of a character, if handled badly it can stop you from identifying with them as someone who you are supposed to inhabit, and turn them into something you are distanced from because the developer wants you to see them as an object of attraction. For me this is an extremely important point, it’s a subtle shift but it makes such a huge difference to your experience of a game, as a man or a woman.
Jade from Beyond Good and Evil
Abigail 'Fetch’ Walker from Infamous is another good example - she fits into the game as a whole, she's pretty much a female version looks-wise of the male lead. She has sexuality, there is a minor romance subplot between the two, but it serves a greater purpose in her character. In fact it’s not something that’s skirted around by the writers, there is one particularly lecherous character that constantly hits on her - on you, but her sexuality works in this game because it’s not for us, it’s for her and because of this it doesn't distance the player from her character.
Fetch and Delsin from Infamous: Second Son
The difference between sexual expression and fetishization, and the distance it can create
Sexualising the character for the viewers pleasure can cause this perspective shift where you are no longer empathising, but are now outside looking in. This happens when they cross the fuzzy boundary between relatable and sexual object, so let’s look at the specifics of why that happens.
Firstly, the issue is not about a character's sexuality, but who that sexuality is for. A woman expressing her sexuality is an expression of power and emancipation, but if the way a character has been designed is a fetishisation, then it isn’t her sexuality at all - it’s not for her, it’s for the audience.
So let’s look at an example of this - Bayonetta. In no way does she represent the majority of character design, but she's an extreme example of a commonplace problem: The problem with her portrayal is that her sexuality is not her own, it is an expression of how her creators want us to see her. Unlike Fetch in Infamous, her sexuality is not part of the story, it’s not directed at anyone in the game, it’s directed at the camera - at the audience.
She performs for the audience, for the camera. It's also evident in the way the camera obsesses over her - moving round her in voyeuristic ways, up her crotch, through her breasts. Her special move sees her strip naked through a ridiculous conceit (her clothes are made of her own hair, and so in order to use her 'hair magic' she must get completely naked. obviously). As the player we are not her, we are the camera. It’s the fact that she has been created for voyerism.
Again to reiterate - this is not about female characters not being allowed a sexuality. If the character has sexuality because it is part of the story the developer wants to tell, then like any other part of the game's design - it has a place. If it’s there just for viewer pleasure then it's not her sexuality at all, but something imposed upon her by the designer.
Of course, doing this isn’t necessarily ‘wrong’. If a developer wants to make a game to appeal to a specific demographic in this way, then they’re free to do so. The point here is not to point fingers, but to explain why this is an alienating design practice. Personally I find it embarrassing to play something that so blatantly thinks I want it to show me a naked computer generated woman. Maybe the game is not meant for me - but I can't help but feel that if they just didn’t fetishise her, I and many others, would be able to enjoy it as well.
If we do want to make a woman more can identify with, then along with many many other things, we at least need to make sure that her sexuality actually plays a role in her portrayal, and that the camera is showing the player and the character what we need to see to play the game, and not just doting on her form.
In the less extreme cases, we need to be more aware of who exactly we’re appealing to. The point I'm trying to make here is that in many cases, I don't actually think the developers are intentionally trying to appeal solely to men, but fall into these pitfalls nonetheless. Whether you like it or not, you run the risk of cutting off an enormous portion of your sales if you portray these characters clumsily.