Girls in Video Games

Anyone even remotely interested in, or impacted by, the video gaming industry will be aware that there is a lot of controversy surrounding the availability and treatment of women characters in modern video games. There have been multiple articles written and studies done on the depiction of women in video games, from the lack of availability of female characters all the way through to so-called strong women with huge cleavage (to attract male gamers, you know) and the prevalence of games that use violence against women as “plot points” to either encourage a male character to action, or force a female character to be “strong”.

I’ve had no interest in writing about that debate.

First, I’m not a gamer. Despite my addiction to the original Civilisation and X-Com games in my youth, it’s a long time since I’ve had any interest in losing myself in a computer game.

Secondly, everything that needs to be said has already been said by people more vocal and informed on the issue than me.

But here I am writing about it anyway. You may be wondering why. (Or you may be wishing I would just get to the point.)

The reason is simple: My “Mother” button was pushed.

I’ve mentioned before that my children don’t watch TV. They also don’t play video games. At least, not as part of their usual routine. But as a very special holiday treat, when we go stay with my parents, Big Brother is allowed to play their Wii. He really only plays one game — Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing — and he’s limited to a maximum of 30 minutes at a time, up to twice a day. But he plays a video game and he loves it.

Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing

If you haven’t seen this game, it’s one of those racing games in the style of Mario Kart. It came free with my parents’ Wii when they bought it a few years ago. It’s a bit of a mish-mash of 20 favourite Sega characters, each of whom has a different car, bike or hovercraft. They race around various tracks, picking up power-ups and blowing up their opponents. Oh, and they all have an individual All-Star move.

We’ve been playing this game a few times a year for the last couple of years, and I certainly enjoy it as much as Big Brother does. I’ve never given any thought to gender equality in the game, or any other hot-button video gaming issue for that matter. I mean, it’s a family racing game.

Or I hadn’t until last week.

Completely out of the blue, Big Brother said to me, “Mummy, you know the racing game at Nana and Grandad’s house? Why are there lots of boy racers and only two girl racers?”

I had to stop and think. Really hard. There must be more female options than that, surely.

But after straining my brain, I could only remember one.

“Who are the girl racers?” I asked.

“There’s Ulala and Amy,” said Big Brother. “Amy is a hedgehog like Sonic. And Ulala is pretty and has a bottle of perfume for her All-Star.”

A few little alarm bells started ringing in the back of my head. “What’s Amy’s All-Star?” I asked. Because I honestly couldn’t remember. I don’t think I’ve ever played one of the female characters.

“She has a giant, sparkly pink hammer.”

Right. So there’s 18 male racers with All-Star moves like martial arts, super-speed, and turret guns. Then, for the girls, there’s a choice between Sonic’s girlfriend with her sparkly pink hammer, or the hot chick with a bottle of perfume.



But wait. This game isn’t exactly breaking new territory when it comes to characters. It’s a mascot game, a “best of” game, full of Sega’s most beloved characters. So surely the game itself can’t be held accountable.

Maybe so. But consider the fact that Sega looked through their backlog of games and chose the most interesting, unique, and loved characters they could find. This game includes characters from 14 different game worlds (assuming you class all the Sonic games as a single world). And from 14 games, they only chose two female characters. Sega has a grand total of two interesting, unique and lovable female characters.

Tell me you don’t think it’s a little concerning that this is what our children are seeing when they turn on a non-violent, child-safe video game.

Tell me you don’t think it’s a little concerning that I’m so used to not having female characters to choose from, it didn’t even register with me that there were only two of them.

Or tell me that you agree with Big Brother’s statement:

“That’s really not fair. There should be the same number of boy racers and girl racers. Because there’s the same number of boys and girls in the world.”

Have you noticed gender-inequality in children’s TV or video games?



Filed under Life With Kids, Opinion

22 responses to “Girls in Video Games

  1. Now that I think about it, No one knew Samus was a woman in the original Metroid until the end of the game. Now, she does have an “enhanced” bust in her modern game portrayals.

    In Portal, you may be a female character (Chell), but you can only tell when you see yourself in a portal. Also, while GLaDOS has a female voice, the computer is far from a respectable role model (she consistently tries to have you killed).

    Personally, while Space Channel 5 was silly, I liked playing Ulala, dancing with Space Michael, saving people from brainwashing. Even if her legs were IMPOSSIBLE.

    One of the problems is that game makers make what sells. That’s usually to the male market. All those historically loved games were marketed to boys. While the past 10 years has seen an increase in the female demographic, we still have a long way to go past Barbie-style action figures.

    One way to attract a wider playerbase to a game with a female lead is to make her… well… Lara Croft, for instance. Need another example? Look up Bayonetta and YouTube her special attacks. That suit is made of HAIR.

    • While it’s definitely true that the video game industry caters to the market (they do have to make money, after all), it’s hard to judge what, if any, difference to the bottom line it would make if there was a broader range of female characters. I know it’s getting better. It’s just jarring when you’re asked about it by a child, and you’re put in a position of having to explain WHY it’s like that.

      And as a side note, although video gaming is often seen as a male-dominated market, I’ve read research that shows that currently, about 40% of serious gamers are female. (I wish I could find the link to it… If I find it later, I’ll add it in.)

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. Jim Franklin

    Back then it was very much a male dominated activity (not at all now though, apparently it’s a fairly even male/female 50/50 split which as a gamer I think is great). So, those games are going to play to the needs of the user base. I don’t think it has ever been a case of reducing the importance of woman in video games but rather an indication of the importance of woman in the gamers lives. They were a chance for the gamer to feel heroic and important. A lot of novels and films are based on the notion of ‘getting the girl’ it’s just with the quality of gaming back then there was no room for adding depth of character, so the rescued heroins were all rather textbook.

    But that was back then, things are much different now. There are many more female leads in video games, or you’re given the choice of playing either gender. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fall-out, Elder Scrolls, these all allow you to create either gender (amongst a gajillion others). From a legal standpoint game developers have to very careful about promoting one gender over the other.

    So with all that waffle, I think what I am trying to say is that games back then were simpler and a lot of the players were probably rather shy and retiring and needed some ‘save the girl’ romanticism. Now things are equal; games have stories, plot lines, character advancement, a bigger and more diverse player base. Now the gender of the main character matters as much in games as it does in a novel. It’s all about how it is written.

    • I appreciate that things are changing, and I know that’s happening. But keep in mind that this particular game only came out in 2010. That’s three years ago.

      Yes, I know it’s based on characters from beloved (and older) game worlds. But I wonder at the choices they made. For example, this game includes a character from the game Jet Set Radio Future. Now, I actually played (and loved) that game back when it came out ten years ago or so. And one of the great things about it was that there were HEAPS of female characters. In fact, the starting characters were Yo-Yo (male) and Gum (female). I played Gum all the way through the game, and she was pretty much the best character for speed and maneuvering (although pretty lousy for health). And yet the character chosen for the All Stars game was Beat — an early unlockable character with ordinary stats. Why? I’ve never played any of the other games, but I wonder whether there were choices of female characters in them as well.

      But as I say, I know things are getting better. I know there’s more opportunity for female characters, and the stories involved are more intricate and important. Maybe I’m just impatient.

  3. I don’t have anything to add to the gender debate, but I was slightly amused by your description of a game in which “they race around various tracks, picking up power-ups and blowing up their opponents.” as “non-violent”.

    • Hahaha! You know, I didn’t really consider the juxtaposition of those phrases. 🙂 I guess what I meant by “non-violent” was that no one gets killed, it’s not a 1st person shooter, and even when you blow up the opponent, they just crash and then continue. But yes, very amusing. 🙂

  4. Gah. I don’t know how this changes. Most women depicted in media are window dressing. That’s why my son will watch Buffy when he’s older.

    • Joss Whedon does know how to write good female characters. Buffy, Willow, Anya, Drusilla, Faith (Buffy), Cordelia & Lilah (Angel) Inara, Kaylee, Zoe (Firefly). Vampirism is certainly an equal opportunities employer.

      • Joss Whedon is like unto a God. He’s one of my heroes. My favourite quote of his comes from an interview that went something like this (I’m quoting from memory, so it may not be verbatim):

        Interviewer: Why do you write these strong female characters?
        Whedon: Because you’re still asking me that question.

  5. Historically speaking, I imagine the reason there tend to be more male characters than female characters is the same one there tend to be more female dolls than male ones (inverted of course); demographic targeting. That also would explain why the female characters that do appear have certain attributes more often that not.

    That said, newer games are making some pretty big strides away from that as gaming is becoming more mainstream. The next incarnation of Lara Croft is an anatomically believable (ish) athletic woman. Several role playing games allow the main character to be female. The female version of the protagonist in Mass Effect is rather notably baddass:

  6. I haven’t noticed that there are fewer female characters, but then I don’t pay much attention to Mario Kart. The same is true for most everything though isn’t it? Star Wars is the same way.

  7. That’s pretty good point you make here. I hadn’t encountered anything like this yes, nor had to contemplate it. The only video games our little B.T. has been exposed to, primarily, are simple learning games on touch-screen devices (like the iPad and Nook). Mostly stuff like identifying shapes and colors and animals, etc. I can only think of gender being a factor in two of them that he’s seen so far: one in which he helps guide a little boy to school by using pattern-recognition and basic problem-solving skills, and one in which he’s given a choice between a girl bug and a boy bug to be his guide (He’s played that game twice, and chosen each of the two bugs once each.)

    My personal, all-time favorite games are the Zelda games… and in those the protagonist is almost always Link (a male)… For some reason I can’t feel ashamed about that… but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in this demographic problem. I’ve seen the problem you’ve described here, and I agree it’s very troublesome. On the other hand… I do see some signs that there’s a shift happening in some studios on this issue. (I haven’t gotten to play any cool, recent games like Mass Effect, for instance, but everything I’ve read suggests that the game plays best with the female protagonist option… and that she’s not just eye-candy, clad as she is in a bulky space suit.)

Speak to me.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s