Quick: Name as many female video game characters as you can. Got them? Okay! Now name as many female video game characters as you can who are the playable protagonists.
There are only a small handful of female protagonists in video games, and the most visible ones, such as Lara Croft and Samus Aran, are hypersexualized.
The reasoning for the lack of adequate female representation in gaming has been attributed to the assertion that the culture of gaming itself is predominantly male. But recently, it has become clear the women make up nearly half of the number of all so-called “regular gamers.” Yet with each passing year, more and more titles continue to feature only men. Last year’s Batman: Arkham Asylum, for example, allowed you to play as Catwoman for only about ten percent of the game, and even then, she was dressed head to toe in impractical clothing and was heavily sexualized.
Thus far, the only studio that seems to really be making strides in terms of female representation in gaming is Bioware. The Canadian company has been responsible for several highly praised RPGs, such as 2003’s Game of the Year Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and Mass Effect. In all three series, the game allows you to choose the sex of your playable character, and the events that follow throughout the games are tailored to fit that choice. Although I am saddened by the fact that there seem to be no games in which wonderful, multi-faceted female protagonists are the default option or the only option, I sincerely applaud Bioware’s efforts to open up the experiences of their series to both sexes.
Of series mentioned above, I have found Mass Effect to be the most engaging. It is a multi-dimensional science fiction odyssey featuring the exploits of Commander Shepard and her or his fight against the threat of the mysterious, ancient beings known as the Reapers.
Jennifer Hale, one of the eminent voice actors of this generation, has given life to what I feel is the most well-rounded, engaging, and frankly inspiring characters in video game history. She gives the Female Shepard (FemShep) both the gentle side of a human being and the rough edge of a soldier. Her performance is so engaging that I find it difficult to imagine that the “Default” Shepard is actually male.
And therein lies the problem. Although FemShep is as equally valid and option as Male Shepard (BroShep), the latter is seen as the so-called “default” option. He is also presented that way by EA Games, which splatters BroShep on all of their marketing. Only with the release of Mass Effect 3 earlier this year did they even create advertisements with FemShep; even then, the box comes with BroShep on the front, with the option of taking the sleeve out of the box and turning it around to feature FemShep.
Bioware and EA had an enormous opportunity to present a fantastic female character and break new ground. They had a game with a truly inspiring character, and they built on that. But I feel that all that good work came undone when EA decided to fall back on old marketing habits and feature the male option as the centerpiece of the series. Even worse, a film version of the Mass Effect series is in development, and they have already announced that Shepard will without a doubt be male.
Mass Effect is a game built on the fact that the player creates her or his experience for herself or himself. Just interacting with other players online has shown me how different an experience just a handful of people can have with the same game. As such, the idea of a film being made of the series is preposterous. We will, in effect, be told that Movie Shepard’s choices were the “right” ones: who to romance (when there are over fourteen different characters you can romance over the course of the three games), whether or not to play as a Paragon or a Renegade, and much more. Most of all, we are being told that while those choices are being carefully chosen “to reflect the journey of Commander Shepard,” it has already been decided that Shepard is to be male. In effect, we are being told that BroShep is the “right” Shepard.
My experience with Mass Effect was dependent on a badass female warrior with a heart of gold saving the galaxy when men could not. She epitomized strength and courage, and fought to bring alien species together to fight a galactic threat. When a man does that in media, I feel that it is more or less a cliché of the “adventure” story. Men have brought cultures together to fight an insurmountable force countless times in hundreds of movies, books, and games before. But for a woman to do so is especially poignant, and that, I feel, is why I feel such a great attachment to the Mass Effect series.
I am now being told by some that Mass Effect is really just another science fiction adventure story, and that FemShep was included merely to appease the “small group of women who actually play sci-fi games” and to allow male players to engage in a lesbian romance with Liara, the female Asari who is romanceable for both FemShep and BroShep.
Bioware, more than any other video game studio working today, is paving the way for broader representation in games. The number of problems they encounter in their efforts to do so is not necessarily indicative of misogyny, but of the main issue in gaming today: the continued lack of female presence in the development of the games themselves. As we have seen time and time again, it is men who primarily create media; as such, their efforts to represent women is impeded by the fact that they cannot truly get inside a woman’s mind, understand their struggles, or comprehend their viewpoint.
For all my complaining, I have to say that I really believe that the Mass Effect series is a truly phenomenal epic. And as I have said, FemShep is, to me, the greatest video game character of all time. I can only hope that, next time, someone like her is the main protagonist of a game, not just an option for a playable character.
Not only is representation of women in the game world horrific, but representation of women of color is far worse, as Becci pointed out in her recent article. The industry has some serious work to do when it comes to making strides for gender and racial inclusivity, which we will be discussing more in our subsequent articles in this series.
As you wait for part two, let us know: What do you think of FemShep and other women characters in games, and how can the industry begin to improve? Join the discussion in the comments below!
Written by Taylor Morgan