The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Feminism Week: Where are the Ripley’s and Starbuck’s and Brienne’s of Tarth in Video Games?

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

CC2K’s Big Ross examines the state of women in some of the most popular genres of video games.


As quickly as you can, I want you to name 5 protagonists from popular video games/franchises. Just start rattling off names. GO!

Got all five? I’d be really curious to see your list. Maybe you can post it in the comments section below (and respect the honor system by being COMPLETELY honest). Here’s my list:

1. Master Chief
2. Mario
3. Kratos
4. Geralt of Rivia
5. Ghost (or whoever that main guy in those Modern Warfare games is)

Notice anything about my list? Notice anything similar about your own? I’d bet $20 4 out of 5, if not 5 out of 5 of your names are just like mine: they belong to male characters. If “you” are yourself male, I’d probably be willing to bet a more significant sum. If “you” are female, I might not be so confident. You might be more inclined to pick female protagonists like Lara Croft, Samus Aran, or Chun-Li (whose characterization as a protagonist may be up for debate), though I’m fairly certain that at various times all three have been portrayed in less than a positive light.

Why do I bring this up? Well, you may have noticed that it’s Feminism Week here at CC2K. There were some great articles a couple of months ago on Kotaku and Destructoid discussing the portrayal of women in video games and how female gamers tend to be treated both by developers and other male gamers. These lead to more articles responding to the response (backlash would be more accurate) these articles garnered. They were a great read, and I’ll be linking to them in a little bit. I wanted to offer some of my own thoughts on this subject, especially given the topic of this event week.

I won’t be saying much if anything about how women are treated when playing online multiplayer games. I’m just too ignorant on the topic to offer anything remotely insightful. A) I’m not female, B) I don’t know any female gamers with first-hand experience, C) I almost never play online multiplayer games. Though as I mentioned, Destructoid & Kotaku had some great articles on this very topic. I invite you to go and read them. I’d also love to hear more from female gamers about this, maybe we can get a discussion going here in the CC2K forums. [Begin Shameless Pitch] And Hey! If any of you reading this are gamers (male or female) and would like to write about games for CC2K, hit me up via email. [/End Shameless Pitch]

Getting back to my little quiz that opened this article, what I do want to talk about is how women are portrayed (or not, as the case may be) in video games. Of course, “video games” is a pretty big umbrella, so I feel compelled to try and discuss this rather broad topic in terms of various genres of video games, in part because women are portrayed quite differently depending on the genre (I realize that’s something of a stereotypical statement; I’ll try to back it up with evidence). I’ll be exercising my prerogative as the writer/editor of this article, so the categories that follow may (and likely will) not be all-inclusive. If I may offer a concise, guiding argument for this article it would be the following. Women are woefully underrepresented in all genres of video games, and typically when they are represented, it’s often (but not always) in a negative light.

Action/Adventure Games

Women primarily as the “damsel in distress”:

  • Princess Peach – Mario franchise
  • Zelda – Legend of Zelda franchise
  • The Sultan’s Daughter – Prince of Persia
  • Princess Daphne – Dragon’s Lair
  • Mono – Shadow of the Colossus
  • Mrs. Marstan – Red Dead Redemption

Aside from the obvious questions, (Why doesn’t the woman try to save herself? What about a woman saving a man?) The main problem with the “damsel in distress” motif is that the damsels are hardly ever real characters. They become (or start out as) living trophies, goals to be reached and victories to be won, and little more. And even with games as innocent as various entries in the Super Mario franchise, the fact that Princess Peach keeps getting kidnapped by Bowser and must rely on two men to rescue her, well it doesn’t send the most positive message to girls, does it? But it’s not all bad in the action/adventure genre.

(Mostly) positive female adventurers:

Samus Aran – Metroid franchise – I can’t remember, but in the days before the internet I don’t think it was common knowledge that Samus was female until the cool reveal at the end of the first game. The victory screen showed Samus sans helmet, pixie-faced and long-haired, the 8-bit representation of a woman. Although the coolness factor of this revelation was somewhat marred by “secret” endings that showed Samus in various states of undress. This was repeated in Super Metroid (now with 16-bit graphics for slightly less blurry cleavage!) and most of the other Metroid games. You can find screen grabs of all of them HERE, though as the site points out “To prove Nintendo isn’t into gratuitous exploitation, you usually only get to see Samus without her suit if you complete the game super-fast and get everything in the process.” Right.

To make matters worse, after multiple games of Samus silently and stoichally kicking Metroid ass, she’s given a voice in Metroid: Other M. And while I haven’t played the game, it seems the way Samus was portrayed in this game angered A LOT of gamers, as you can get a taste of in this COMMENT THREAD.                             

Lara Croft – Tomb Raider franchise – Croft has always been something of a controversial character, often cited as a catalyst to bring more female characters into games (but has she really?), but she’s also considered a genuine sex symbol. It’s hard to tell which is better, that fact that she has so often and for so long been sexualized and fantasized over, or that she is often depicted as an intelligent, resourceful, courageous, self-reliant female character. Would this be an issue if she was less attractive? Would she be a lead character in a game?

The Tomb Raider franchise is getting rebooted with a new game due out early next year, and the developers have already taken steps to avoid the exploitive nature/history of the character and focus more on the positives. That’s certainly a good thing.

There are probably other examples of strong, mostly positive female characters in action/adventure games, but these are the two main characters that most readily sprang to mind. While these are certainly a good start, women are still woefully underrepresented, or relegated to supporting and/or non-playable roles. We’re on the fourth or fifth Assassin’s Creed game, and the protagonists have all been male. We’ve had more Castlevainia games than I care to count, and I don’t think there’s been a one with a female Belmont setting out to kill Dracula. Can we finally move from a design mechanic/mindset where women are trophies, helpers, or hindrances, to games where they can stand on their own, without the assistance of a man?

Role Playing Games

It may be personal preference, but I think that RPGs have consistently done the best job of portraying women, or at least giving gamers the opportunity to play as female characters. Admittedly, that’s not the same thing, but let’s focus on the positive before the negative. Given their focus on role-playing and creating a gaming experience tailored to one’s personal preferences, RPGs were some of the earliest games featuring women in lead (i.e. playable) roles. Fallout and its sequels, The Elder Scrolls games, Star Wars: KOTOR, Dragon Age: Origins, the Mass Effect series, and so many more. Considering the Mass Effect games for a moment, the simple fact that you play as the hero not just of Earth or of humanity, but of the entire frakin’ galaxy, and you can do this as a woman, as graphically well rendered and vocally well presented as her male counterpart, is awesome. The Mass Effect games have presented the choice with more bells and whistles perhaps, but the choice has been in the RPG genre for years. And having that choice available to gamers is huge. It puts men and women on equal footing, sends a message to gamers that anything a man can do and woman can do better, or at least as well. Men can be heroes, but women can be too. There’s empowerment in that, I think, and it continues to be a good thing. And yet…

And yet RPGs, particularly those coming from Bioware, have been taking a conspicuous turn of late. Notice anything about the following images?

Morrigan (DA:O)

Isabela (DA II)

Liara (ME)

Miranda Lawson (ME 2)

Ashley Williams (ME 3)

And it’s not just Bioware games. CD Projekt’s The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings is full of women with almost the same body type: full hips, narrow waists, voluptuous bosoms, usually spilling out of corsets or laughably ill-designed suits of armor. I’m not opposed to making female characters in these games attractive, particularly if they’re intended to be a romantic interest. That’s been standard practice in the film industry for decades. But can we get a little variety here? The Witcher 2 is an amazing game with a beautiful design and fantastic sense of place, but all that effort is ruined a bit when every single woman I encounter has flawless skin and an hourglass figure. Am I meant to ogle all of them? What about the women playing these games? And speaking of women as sex objects…

Fighting Games

If there’s a mainstream genre of video games where women are treated more as pure sex objects than fighting games, I’m not aware of it. Here’s a (not all-encompassing) list of female characters from various fighting games hyperlinked to images of each:

Ivy, Sophitia, Taki – Soul Calibur
Morrigan, Felicia – Dark Stalkers
Mai Shiranui – King of Fighters
Cammy – Street Fighter
Hitomi, Lisa, Christie, Tina, et al – Dead or Alive – most of the girls in this game series are such sex objects they’ve had spin-offs like Xtreme, Xtreme 2, and Xtreme Beach Volleybal, all ofl which are just excuses to show them bouncing around in string bikinis

Possible Exceptions (Women who just kick ass):

Chun-Li – Street Fighter – The only character most people might know of is Chun-Li. She wwas the first female fighting character, and for the most part she was (and still is) not sexualized, or at least not exploited to the same extent as other female characters in this genre. She even had a pretty decent storyline. She is an Interpol agent on a quest for revenge for the death of her father. Not bad, but in the end she’s really just the exception that proves the rule.

First-/Third-Person Shooters

The problem with this genre isn’t so much the objectification of women as it is their under-representation. This genre was originally dominated by men: Wolfenstein, Doom, Duke Nukem, Serious Sam, Quake, and others likely reflected the supremacy of action movies by Stallone, Willis, Seagal, Van Damme, and Schwarzenegger. However, while ass-kicking women have been knocking down doors and busting through ceilings in the action movie biz, still not much has changed in the world of FPS games. To wit:

  • It wasn’t until Gears of War 3 (2011) that we got a female COG
  • There are apparently no women in the space marines in the Halo universe, at least none that we see until Halo: ODST (2009) and Halo: Reach (2010)
  • There are no female soldiers in the Call of Duty franchise, or any of the other military shooters modern or otherwise (though there was a female pilot who had to be rescued in COD4)
  • Apparently some of the Ghost Recon games allow you to choose a female for the multiplayer portion, though it’s uncertain if the campaigns feature female soldiers (I’ve never played these games). This is disappointing, since the latest Ghost Recon game is called Future Soldier. No women soldiers in combat, even in the FUTURE?

There are some possible exceptions to this lack of women in FPS games, as follows:

  • Chell from the Portal series is the main, and only really, human character in those games, though technically Portal is not a shooter in the same vein as other games in this genre. It’s more a puzzle-solver/platformer, but it is first-person and you have a “gun”. So there’s that.
  • Zooey & Rochelle from Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 both feature prominently in Valve’s zombie FPS games.
  • Perfect Dark, a landmark FPS that came in the wake of GoldenEye 007 featured the character of Joanna Dark, an agent of the Carrington Institute, whose impeccable scores in training have earned her the codename “Perfect Dark”.
  • Claire Redfield was the lead in Resident Evil: Code Veronica, though some might argue that the idea of putting a woman in the main role of a survival horror game is a cheap ploy to ratchet up the tension, i.e. women are more vulnerable than men.

Sports Games

Which is worse, being underrepresented, exploited, and marginalized, or being completely ignored altogether? If it’s the latter, then sports games are the worst offenders of them all. I got to thinking about it, and then I did some research on the internet, and as far as I can tell there is a complete and utter lack of women-centric sports games. Obviously, you can’t just throw some female characters onto MLB teams, or trot out a female kicker in Madden NFL 12 like Kathy Ireland’s character in Unnecessary Roughness, so with the exception of cheerleaders/dancers/fans, there isn’t much place for women in sports games. But what about female sports? There was MVP 07 NCAA Baseball. How about MVP 12 NCAA Softball? There’s NBA 2K11, why not WNBA 2K12? Or a Women’s NCAA Basketball 10 equivalent of NCAA Basketball 10? Can’t our college athletes be exploited equally by EA? Tiger Woods has multiple golf games, why doesn’t Annika Sorenstam get one of her own? And while the likes of Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Rafa Nadal and even fucking Mario all have their very own tennis video games, I can’t find even one for either of the Williams sisters. But hey, Jennifer Capriati had her own game…on the Sega Genesis back in ‘92. So there’s that.

Maybe I’m taking an overly simplistic view on this, but is there really that much more to it than taking NBA 2K11, swapping the male player models out for female ones, tweaking a few other aspects of gameplay, and slapping a new cover on that sucker with WNBA in the title? Can’t that be done with about any of these sports? Regardless, I know what the argument would be against making these games.

“They won’t sell. It’s cost prohibitive. Most gamers are male in their teens or twenties, and they want to play as Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods and Derek Jeter, not Diana Taurasi or Michelle Wie or Jennie Finch.”

This argument could be extended beyond sports games to any of these other genres and adjusted to argue against expanded and improved roles for women in video games. My response is simple.


The average age of gamers is 37, or at least over 30 years of age. And the myth that most gamers are male? 42-47% of gamers are women, and female gamers over the age of 18 are one of the fastest growing demographics.

Women and girls may be perfectly happy playing as male characters. Or they may be willing to accept that they have little choice in the matter, resigning themselves to playing as men. They might grudgingly accept the scantily clad women, the damsels in distress, and the lip-service non-playable/sidekick roles given to women (that don’t really matter). Maybe they are willing to do all of these things, but I don’t know. I’m not a woman, so I can’t answer that question. But I think it’s a question that should be asked. And I think video game developers should pay attention to the answers female gamers give them. Then maybe they should stop marginalizing women or simply ignoring them, and actually start considering them when making video games. If nothing else, it would be smart for business.