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Who are the strong female characters in video games?

narikoFinding strong, female characters in video games, who are aren't overtly sexual, isn't easy. But strides are slowly being made, writes Tracy Whitelaw.

Most female gamers will know that finding a video game that features a female lead who doesn't somehow pander to the male gaze is a rarity. Even the big names in female characterization in video games tend to be overtly sexual in some form, be it look, action or dialogue.

Lara Croft is perhaps the most famous example of a character who whilst remaining relationship free in the game world, has the unobtainable body that only computer graphics can garner.

With feminists straddling both sides of the fence for some time in relation to whether Croft is a good role model for women or not, it’s interesting to look at the slight shift in how female characters are represented in video games in recent years. 

With the increasing number of women playing video games being well-documented, it’s easy to assume that this will have a dramatic effect on female representation in gaming. At present, there is a definite increase in the number of female playable characters in games, although not necessarily as much as one might imagine.

The issue seems to be that although women are increasingly playing games, they’re not increasingly involved in the development and production of them. The shift of consciousness needed to start producing more playable female lead characters in games who are represented in a positive way therefore may still be quite some time away.

There are still plenty of game releases that only feature one playable lead with no choice of gender and that gender is ultimately mainly a white male. The assumption  exists that the player will relate to this standardized character because more often than not the player fits this profile.

 Ignoring the existing and expanding diversity within the gaming demographic means that racial and gender choices are limited, even though your average gamer is no longer simply white males. 

Female games characters over recent years have included a plethora of whores, romantic interests, peripheral voices and fly-by-night characters whose only mission is to push the story forward for the male lead. There have however been a few female characters who are defined by their strong personalities, characters that fall somewhat short of the big breasted, no brain idea of old. It's a few of those - and the games they spring from that are worth taking a closer look at, as well as those who still continue to represent the overtly sexual female games character.

Lara Croft: love her or hate her 

LaraCroftThe aforementioned Lara Croft has been well-rested during 2009, but her iconic status continues to keep her at the fore-front of both gamers and non-gamers minds when it comes to female games characters. Croft made the leap - pun intended - from video game heroine to big screen siren, something few others have managed.

Lara Croft has the ability to stir both deep love, or utter distaste among women, dependent on which side of the feminist argument you land. Whether Lara Croft is a strong, independent woman of means, or a large breasted figure to be ogled at by men is an argument that will rage on eternally - perhaps she's both.

One thing is for certain, Lara Croft is the most prominent female video game character to appear since the dawn of household gaming. Lara Croft is a gaming icon and the fact she's female just makes her all the cooler. Many consider her the frontrunner that blazed a path for other female characters to appear in games.

Nariko: strong and independent 

Nariko2One of the better female characters to come out of video gaming in the last few years is Nariko from Sony and Ninja Theory. Nariko is the female protagonist in the 2007 title Heavenly Sword. Nariko still falls foul of the scantily clad heroine, but this aside she manages to sidestep many of the female character traits generally impressed upon female characters in games.

Nariko - like Croft - is a strong independent figure who essentially takes on male traits. She's the warrior, the leader, the thinker and in some instances parent. Heavenly Sword takes its female strengths a step further by adding a secondary playable character in the form of Kai, Nariko's younger adopted sister.

What makes Nariko particularly interesting is that she also carries the game as the main heroine, similar to Croft before her. There’s no choice of gender in the title, requiring both male and female gamers to play a female character. This is a rare phenomenon, although some developers appear to have noticed that diversity can add to the success of a title and offer gamers something they desire – choice.

Commander Shepard: choose your gender 

BioWare are one of the few developers who seem to take the female gamer demographic seriously and this shows in their female characterization. Science fiction title Mass Effect featured a main character - Commander Shepard - whose gender is chosen by the player at the start of the game.

The narrative works regardless of this choice and it changes little other than specific character interactions (the male Shepard can sleep with a particular female crew member whilst lesbian interactions in game are only available with the "mono-gendered" alien aboard the ship.

Despite this small hitch, Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard in her female form is one of the most interesting playable female characters to come out of gaming in the last couple of years. She also throws up an intriguing quandary regarding merchandising and game assets.

Most if not all Mass Effect models feature a male, Caucasian Commander Shepard, likewise the PR assets such as wallpapers, screenshots and videos also feature the standard white male Commander. There are obviously logistical reasons as to why this is the case, but to a small degree it may also suggest just who the marketing people believe worthy enough of representation.

Bayonetta: The camp dominatrix 

BayonettaWith the hopeful vibe that some developers are ‘getting it’ and realize they need to not only give players the option of gender in games, but also need to ensure the representation is positive for females, comes new title Bayonetta to throw the entire female representation in games discussion up in the air again.

Bayonetta is an unapologetically camp, dominatrix styled bad girl. She is a witch who sports pistols on her stiletto heels and can attack enemies with her hair. It's a strange game and one that has garnered many favorable reviews, but when examining the character herself she throws up some interesting questions regarding the use of overt sexuality and female stereotypes in games.

Needless to say male reviewers - for the most part - rated the title highly (though game play mechanics obviously play a large part in such reviews), but there are however some feminists who suggest Bayonetta is just another mostly naked, over the top female caricature. 

Having played Bayonetta for many hours, it’s impossible not to feel that the character is there to titillate male gamers and doesn’t really offer much up for the female gamer. Yes, it has moments of class and wit and it’s clearly meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but the overtly sexualized nature of the character is so over-the-top it’s ridiculous.

What we can glean from it however is that over the top sex ridden female characters are not a thing of the past, but instead still a popular saleable asset. If Bayonetta featured a male witch who was mostly naked with a huge chest, skintight leather jumpsuit and camp wit, would it appeal to your straight male gamer, some of whom still think it's humorous to throw the word "fag" around on Xbox Live?

 Is there then still an ingrained double standard in video games, despite some development houses taking the female form and character more seriously? It seems that the shift towards better female representation is a slow and arduous process.

Some developers understand the need for choice, for diversity and for positivity with females in games, others however don’t. It is moving, but it will take time before we see truly consistently positive female gaming characters who aren’t overly sexualized or merely secondary to their male counterpart.

Tracy Whitelaw is a self-proclaimed video-game loving, gadget obsessed, geek girl based on the Gold Coast. Usually found debating pop culture with friends on social networking sites like Twitter or living out fantasies of rock god status on Xbox 360, Tracy is a writer who loves to share her geek love around. Having worked as a freelance writer for over 5 years, you can usually find her taking part in or writing for other lesbian/geek websites. With a diverse professional background including psychology lecturing, management and the creation of artificial intelligence brains, Tracy is interested in connecting with fellow geeks through new technology. 

Of course, this is only when not vegging out with her girlfriend and dogs to watch their fav TV shows on their 100" screen. Some of her favorite websites are: Lesbian Gamers, Lesbian Geek and After Ellen.


+1 #5 Youre being way too PC 2011-08-05 05:25
"If Bayonetta featured a male witch who was mostly naked with a huge chest, skintight leather jumpsuit "
Ever seen God of War? Except that it's more naked than skintight, that's pretty much him. His wit is just terrible though. Not as camp.
them erect nipples.
+2 #4 Alcos 2011-07-24 15:28
Wtf and what about Samus Aran :o ( metroid )
+1 #3 robtion 2011-07-21 22:43
Jade from Beyond Good and Evil (available for download on PSN and Xbox) is the epitome of a strong female character in a video game, and it's a great game too.

Nariko and all the characters in Heavenly Sword (another great game) were very well done.

How about Alice from Alice: Madness returns? Although slightly damaged she is a strong female character who overcomes her terrible past and current circumstances.

Finally, if you are looking for a strong independent female who is also attractive without being overly sexualised then you can't go past Modesty Blaise (please google it). She's not a video game character (I wish there was a game!), but I would highly recommend the 13 novels and numerous collections of newspaper comic strips published by Souvenir Press and Titan Books respectively. ;-)
0 #2 LosLesbos 2011-07-07 10:25
I agree with your article completely. I am an avid gamer, middle aged lesbian and feminist. My Commander Shepard would make anyone's heart skip a beat. Apparently pre-release there was an option for Shepard to romance her Yeoman but for some reason this option was removed. (Gee, I wonder why!) I have heard rumblings that Gears of War 3 will have a new female lead character and already the male players are whining about how it will ruin gaming forever and ever.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Perfect Dark and Perfect Dark II which feature the wonderful character Joanna Dark.

Lara Croft is getting a remake and, I must say, she looks so much more like a real woman than a sex object. When debating this I have been struck by the reaction of males when I have pointed out that female athletes would never look like the women depicted in most games. Don't they watch the Olympics or any womens' sports? Anyway, someone must be waking up bc the new Lara is truly a vision that even younger female players can relate to!
0 #1 Tasha 2011-04-21 15:49
This article is very interesting! I agree wholeheartedly about Nariko. Despite the skimpy clothing, she always seemed like a strong female character (perhaps more so than Lara Croft, because aside from Nariko's outfit, there isn't any excessive sexualisation of her). She's the leader, confident and tough. I'm not as sure about Lara Croft, because one moment you may see her in a role as an independant, resourceful fighter/thinker , but in the next she'll be unnecessarily swanning around in a bikini or some other scene made for straight males.
Bioware is definitely one of the best game companies when it comes to equal representation. In all of their games that I have played, in-game, the female leads have been every bit as empowered as the males, especially in the newer titles. And though ME's female Shepard has lost out in the marketing stakes to the 'canon' male Shepard, Dragon Age 2's female protagonist recieved a fair amount of attention, as did same-sex options, which is definitely a great step forward. It also features the supporting character of Aveline (the only female companion who isn't a romance option, though you can flirt with her and later help set her up on a date). She's not in the least sexualised - dressed up in full plate armour soon after you meet her, the desigatnated tank, both tough guard-commander and compassionate. I think she's one of the best strong female characters I've seen in years, and the other two female companions - Isabela and Merrill - also have good points for them, as does Wynne from Dragon Age:Origins and Sigrun from the Awakening expansion.
One game that should definitely be commended as well is Beyond Good and Evil, which was available on PS2/Xbox. The protagonist was Jade, a reporter who was responsible for looking after an orphanage and investigating the corruption of her government. I always thought she was a strong and inspirational character, and proof that a woman can be attractive and 'feminine', whilst being decked out in clothing that's appropriate for saving the world. :-)

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