Abbie Warner sheds light on the representation of women in the video game industry.
If you are a friend of mine, you will probably have heard me tell you about how much I love Horizon Zero Dawn about 20 times already. Never before have I got so hooked by a game, and a large part of this is due to the strong female lead.
If you haven’t heard of Horizon, it’s a PS4-exclusive game, set in a post-apocalyptic world where humanity has almost been wiped out, and machines have taken over. You play as ‘Aloy’, an outcast of the Nora tribe, who embarks on adventures to discover her past and future, taking down machines along the way. Not only is it refreshing to play a game with a female lead, but she isn’t sexualised, as is too often the case with female characters. Instead, she makes for a strong, opinionated and independent lead.
Video games have been increasingly including women characters, representing more people in the gaming community. Games that had traditionally been limited to male characters have started including women: Fifa, for example, finally included women football players in 2016, and many other games have started to allow for a choice of genders for characters. However, it often feels like the representation is tokenistic, with representations of men still outweighing those of others. Left for Dead 1 and 2, for example, have only one woman as a character option out of a possible four, and often in games, women are only playable as a second option, when the male character is for some reason otherwise occupied, showing that men remain the default.
But when women are featured in games, they are generally sexualised to gratify a target market which is perceived as dominantly male. While I will always defend a woman’s right to wear whatever she wants, the inclusion of women characters in games should not depend on them being ‘sexy’. Not only is it derogatory to include women solely for sexual entertainment for a perceived heterosexual male market: it is unrealistic and nonsensical for a character who is meant to be fighting in a zombie apocalypse (see Resident Evil 5 and 6, Dead Island), to be wearing little protective clothing, or hardly any clothing at all. As a woman gamer, I get tired of seeing female characters wearing next to no armour, while the men are kitted out to the max. Take Dota 2, a massively popular game on the gaming platform ‘Steam’, in which the majority of the women characters wear highly revealing outfits – one even appears to be completely topless – with armour often missing from breasts, legs and stomachs.
In video games, women are also consistently stereotyped as weaker characters. In Dota 2, the gamer is able to play as a variety of ‘heroes’, which fall into multiple categories, such as ‘strong’ heroes, who have higher levels of physical ability – e.g. the ability to perform better melee attacks – but only 1 out of 37 of these ‘strong’ characters is a woman. This is further seen by the excessive use of the “damsel in distress” trope in games, where you spend the whole game playing as the male character (Mario) rescuing the female character (Princess Peach). This is particularly well discussed by Anita Sarkeesian in her 3-part YouTube series “Tropes vs Women”, where she explains in detail the continuing presentation of women in games as in need of rescue. So although women may be featuring more in video games, this presence hardly seems to be aimed at representing a diversity of women – instead, it aims at satisfying a male fantasy of superiority. For this reason, Aloy, with her practical clothing for the setting, and her dry, punchy wit, is such a step forward for the gaming industry.
But why does this matter? Diverse representation in video games is important for many reasons. First, women play video games (as much as the industry seems to ignore that fact), so it’s only fair that they should be legitimately represented. People tend to feel more inspired by characters they identify with, increasing their enjoyment of gaming. Second, the stereotyping of women characters sends out the wrong message to other players, encouraging disrespectful behaviour and discrimination. The effects of this are clear in the experience that many women have gaming online.
Women gamers often face comments about how they’re ‘sexy’ for playing video games and face unwanted advances. They are told they are just looking for attention, or receive insults such as the classic ‘go make me a sandwich’. Sexism can also occur without the perpetrator realising they’re being disrespectful: women gamers often experience men trying to ‘protect them’ in games, which simply ruins the fun. My own experience of online gaming was so poor that I stopped as I grew tired of dealing with constant comments. Of course, better representation in video games alone will not solve this problem, but it would go a long way in challenging outdated attitudes among other gamers.
As well as the reasons stated above, better gender representation is simply an important thing in itself. Although women are beginning to be better represented, there’s still a long way to go in order to make games adequately diverse, including the representation of BAME characters, characters with different abilities, alternative gender identities, and a variety of other intersections. A world without diversity is unrealistic, and in failing to recognise this, the gaming industry is falling behind in the times: as one of the biggest entertainment industries in the world, it cannot be allowed to do so. We want a gaming industry that reflects us, too, so that all people feel represented and included in a community that above all should be fun and exciting.
Illustration by Rivka Cocker.