The State of Female Characters in AAA Games

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Header Art by Zakurarain.

This time last year I was ecstatic over all the amazing 2016 games showcasing female protagonists. It seemed like things were starting to look up for those who’ve been demanding more diversity from the mainstream, AAA video games. Unfortunately, I realised after this year’s E3 and looking at the Fall to early 2017 lineup I was being a little too optimistic. Not only is there a lack of women, but big games and publishers are actively avoiding putting women in their games. In an industry where more than half of those who play games are women, it’s frustrating that sexism and misogyny keep pushing women to the sides or entirely exclude them from AAA games. From the typical oversexualized portrayal to a more subtle misrepresentation to outright exclusion, there are different ways in which the AAA games in this article (and many others we couldn’t get into here) are a disservice to the potential of video games and the players who love them.

Not Even Trying

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EA’s Battlefield 1 is one of the biggest titles of 2016 releasing next month. It boasts the largest beta participation ever with over 13.1 million players. Fun fact: players cannot play as a female soldier in either in the campaign or in online multiplayer. When pressed about this gross misrepresentation internally project leads told programmer Amandine Coget that women were excluded because “boys wouldn’t find it believable.” They further stated that “it’s just not the game we’re making.” Battlefield 1 is sending a very clear message to players: if you’re not a boy, they don’t care about you.

First, we need to get rid of this gross misconception women didn’t serve a fighting role in World War 1. They absolutely did. Women fought in large numbers for Russia and Finland, as well as the Ottoman Empire, Australia and even the US Navy, many of these women giving their lives in service of their country. Even in non-combative roles, there were staggering numbers of women in the action and many died while serving (Canadians too).

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Personnel from the Australian Women’s Land Army

Battlefield 1’s development team at DICE has stated that they’re taking plenty of historical liberties to make the game more enjoyable for players. From the lethality of parachute drops, altering tank functionality, changing uniforms and even giving players guns early in the campaign that were not even invented yet! But no, they could not bend a little historical realism to let players play as a woman, who actually did exist throughout the whole war, unlike the weapons they let players use before they were invented. The leads cited a desire for historical realism as the reason to exclude women. You can’t cite “historical realism” as a reason for not letting players play as women when you’ve previously stated that you want to bend historical realism to make the game more fun. It’s contradictory and only serves to expose the sexism and complete lack of any care for female players that DICE has.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

link-breath-of-the-wild-full-2009958Another AAA game to purposefully exclude women as playable characters is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Many were hopeful that the androgynous Link shown in the reveal trailer meant that players might finally be able to choose Link’s gender, or at the very least he wouldn’t be so plainly masculine as he was in Twilight Princess. However, project lead Eiji Aonuma quickly stomped out all hope. In an interview with GameSpot Aonuma stated that “[we] decided that if we’re going to have a female protagonist it’s simpler to have Princess Zelda as the main character.” But Aonuma rejected that idea because “…if we have princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do? Taking into account that, and also the idea of the balance of the Triforce, we thought it best to come back to this [original] makeup.” As for what would Link do while you’re kicking ass as Zelda, he could sit in a tower and wait around all game unless men can’t do that for some garbage, misogynist reason.

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Link from Tri-Force Heroes

 

So that’s why Zelda is not a playable character but as for Link being androgynous or gender neutral Aonuma said in an interview with Time that “[a]s far as gender goes, Link is definitely a male.” So Link, a character who’s been a wolf, a chalk drawing, ghost, a tiny version of himself, four versions of himself, worn a dress and even and transformed into an octorok, can’t be a girl? For a character who has no dialogue and is constantly changed and altered to explore new stories, it’s pretty stupid that the designer has ruled out being a woman from Link’s potential. Rather than trying to reason it away with excuses or nonsequiturs, why not just say that you don’t want to make Link female because of your arbitrary, personal bias? It’d be much more honest with your fans, plenty of whom are women.

 

Final Fantasy XV

Lastly, I want to talk about Final Fantasy XV. The cast of character in FFXV is around 20 strong with probably more we don’t know about (all of whom are white, but that’s another issue for another article). Of these 20 characters, the character you play as and his three supporting characters are all white men with different styles of long pointy hair. There’s a very samey feeling between the four protagonists as if the only heroes from the supposedly massive and diverse world of Eos are somehow the same four skinny white guys. These guys meet a couple women in their journey from what we know so far. The first is Lunafreya who, surprise surprise, is a princess engaged to the main character. She is a love interest, the oldest trope in video games. When the inciting battle sparks tensionsffxv between the two kings of Eos at the start of the game she is moved to safety in a far off city, waiting for her fiancee to save the day so they can get married.

The second woman the Eos Bros. will encounter is Cindy, a mechanic whose uniform consists of a bikini top and tight pants. This is literally the exact opposite uniform someone who works on heavy machinery would wear, there’s no protection from grease, cuts or grime. The outfit is specifically designed to attract the male gaze and devalue Cindy as a character, turning her into a sexualised object. But don’t worry, after some sharp criticism regarding the hypersexualization of her character the designers toned down the amount her breasts jiggled when she moved (Source: Famitsu). The female representation in Final Fantasy XV is abysmal, to say the least, especially seeing as Square Enix wants this game “woo a new generation of players” by making a game that appeals to all.

Close but not quite…

Dishonored 2

Even Dishonored 2, a game that does have a strong female lead, includes the ability for players to play through the entire game as Corvo, the silent male protagonist from the d2first game. This might not seem like a big deal, but it sends the message to the player and other studios that they didn’t feel Emily was a strong enough character to stand on her own or that they’re buying into the bullshit theory that AAA games with female leads don’t sell. That they felt they needed to include the ability for male players to play as an obvious, deep voiced male because they couldn’t relate to a woman or some nonsense. This decision also feeds into the old, sexist video game trope of designing the female character to be the weaker, nimbler and stealthier character taking the cautious and careful approach avoiding a head-on confrontation. This is an issue female characters have had in games for decades, it perpetuates the misconception that women can’t be the strong confident one, they need to be quiet, subtle and subdued. While Dishonored 2 is definitely taking some strides in the right direction there’s no doubt that it still has some glaring issues with some of its choices.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Another game to pull the “Here’s a female lead- But! Don’t worry we have a guy too!” was Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. There was a deservedly high amount of ridicule for the debacle of Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s complete lack of any representation other than white guys with a little bit of stubble and even more deserved ridicule when they explained their exclusion of female characters by saying that women are hard to animate. With Syndicate they settled on the protagonists being two twins, Jacob and Evie Frye. And as you’d expect, Jacob is a confrontational, go-get-things-done loudmouth whereas Evie is the stealthy thinker who carefully plans all options before doing anything. This feeds directly into the sexist notion that girls need to be smaller and quieter than men, that they can’t be the big buff strong one but they need to make up for it in smarts and stealthiness.

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This is a terrible idea that continually gets perpetuated as mentioned earlier in Dishonored 2 but in other AAA games like Borderlands, Batman Arkham Knight, The Legend of Zelda, Metal Gear Solid and plenty others. This harmful stereotype leads to high rates of anxiety, eating disorders and body shaming that women who don’t fit those defined female norms endure. (Stanford Study, Psychology Today). Just as egregious and painful as those tropes are, the fact that they make Jacob the default when the game starts only makes matters worse. You actually have to go into the menus to switch to Evie. This gives the player the notion that they’re expected to be a guy, that you have to go out of the way to be a girl. That’s so shitty! Easy fix: When the game starts you press left trigger for a male character and right trigger for a female character. Done. Players now don’t feel like an inconvenience trying to play as a woman.

Glimmer of Hope

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Faith Fan Art by 2DForever

All of that said, I am still hopeful. With titles like the incredibly diverse Mirror’s Edge Catalyst earlier this year and Horizon Zero Dawn promising to deliver a superb character in Alloy (minus the white person dreadlocks, again another article for another day) next year, there is still progress, albeit not as fast as I thought it was. While the indie scene still remains the best and brightest place in our industry, AAA studios are still stuck in the 90s and early 2000s of trope-laden, sexist characters. That needs to change if video games want to be perceived as anything other than a hobby, and want to be taken seriously as a form of expression and exploration of the human experience. Despite what studios seem to believe, the majority of humans aren’t male and the majority of players aren’t male (a little over half of those who play video games are female). But AAA developer’s’ continued desire to exclude this huge portion of the gaming community by catering to a privileged minority only serves to keep video games from becoming anything more than a regurgitative cycle.

But change is happening and will continue to happen, slowly but surely. More women are breaking into the industry so heavily closed off to them for so long. As the status quo of all male teams gets shaken up and diverse voices begin getting heard we will see new and exciting characters and games. And when these new and exciting games start gaining fans and acclaim we’ll see that games can be more than what they’ve been, that they can become better than what they’ve been. Games that appeal to more people mean more people play means more games can get made. No one who claims to love video games can get upset about more of what they love.

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5 thoughts on “The State of Female Characters in AAA Games

  1. Great post. I’m definitely a fan of Link being female in a future game, and when BotW was first unveiled, I was excited at the possibility that this would be the game to give us that version of Link. It honestly would have been pretty awesome.

    • It would be, and it still might happen in the future. Aonuma isn’t going to be making Zelda forever and Nintendo is going to be handing over their most beloved franchises like Zelda to new talent soon and I’m definitely hopeful 🙂

      • Yeah, it’s definitely a possibility in the future. The world and consumers demands are changing every day, so eventually I know we’ll get that game. 😛

        That said, do you share these posts on any video game websites? I work over at Now Loading and this sort that makes for a great read. If you were open to the idea of posting your work on our site in addition to also having your blog, I’d be more than happy to help you get started. My e-mail and more info can be found on my page (o^.^)b

  2. Please Learn History

    Russia was the only nation to officially employ women in combat, and Serbia does have a few notable women that served in combat roles. All stories of women serving in the Ottoman empire have effectively been dismissed, and any historian with his or her salt would say that it’s incredibly unlikely any women served in the Ottoman Empire’s armed forces. As for the US, Canada and Britain, officially, women served as nurses and other forms of aid, they were in non-combative roles, which is also generally still true as most people can’t pass military trials, and the genetic dimorphism found in humans tends to make men bigger and stronger than their female counterparts (although this is not always the case, there are many individual women who possess the physical skills to be soldiers). There are a number of other reasons that generally the military does not employ women in combat, ranging from physical ability to perceived risks of having women in combat, many of which I think we would actually both agree are born out of genuine misogyny, which I think still has a strong hold on many military leaders (for example, women are often cited as “hurting unit morale and cohesion” which in turn “will hamper mission effectiveness”.

    Ultimately though, the number one reason as to why most games involving combat will not include women is because they aren’t in combat as a general rule. Even to this day, the number of women in combat is incredibly low, and the number one root cause of this isn’t even the sexism that is still present in the military, but the standards we hold our soldiers to are better suited to very fit men over everyone else, including the average man and woman, and including most very fit women.

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