Thursday, June 20, 2024

On the Treatment of Female Protagonists in Games and How They Come to Be (Or Not)

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This piece is a guest post by Arisa, Student of New Media and Digital Culture, creator of many hypothetical games and a huge fan of many real ones. 

As a person with general nerdy interests, current/future game dev, and certified Blue-Haired Feminist, female protagonists in games are a subject near and dear to my heart. Many nerdy girls from my generation went through a similar experience growing up: most of our media did not have female protagonists, or even female major characters, and the precious few that existed were often one-dimensional. Games were especially rife with this issue. Trying to glean hints about Princess Peach’s personality based on her singular appearance at the end of Super Mario Bros was a futile endeavor. I also distinctly remember deciding, purely for myself inside my own head, that the blocky, baseball hat-clad main character of Pokemon Yellow was in fact a girl when I played (the Gameboy Zeldas were easier in that regard as Link’s depiction was, as ever, cute and androgynous).

Since I’m neither a programmer nor an artist, I figured that studying game design and level design would be the best course of action for me to break into game dev. Writing about games sounded good, too—so in 2016 I began studying for a bachelor’s degree in New Media and Digital Culture, with a specialization in video games.

I was pleased to see that a large majority of students signed up for the same degree as me were women—initially, out of about 60 people enrolled, more than 40 were women. Over the course of the first year quite a few people dropped out, raising the women to men ratio even higher. Once we were properly split into groups by specialization, the Video Games group—the people hoping to be game devs, reviewers or analysts—was around 20 strong, and 17 of those people were women. Score, I thought, here’s to us The Future Of Gaming, it’s now gonna be female protags all the way down, sexism is over.

Well, not quite.

Our first brush with designing games on their fictional level—that is, planning out the basic outlines of characters, plot and worldbuilding—was during a class on Gamification. Gamification is, by and large, the building of game-like systems (most commonly for marketing reasons, but occasionally as social campaigns) to push users towards certain behaviors. Games like Zombies, Run! are a good example—by having the player complete missions and collect items as they jog in real life, they take advantage of our natural competitive and completionist instincts to encourage exercise.

With corporate gamification systems that score points based on nebulously defined productivity or (potentially unpaid) overtime, and pitting employees against each other being a particularly grim example, our group decided that our project will focus on the social campaign aspect. Namely, we’re going to develop a gamification system to encourage elementary school children to complete homework and take part in extracurricular activities. Sure, it’ll require extensive cooperation from the schools themselves, which is beyond unlikely to happen in real life. But this being simply a class assignment project, we decided that the sky’s the limit.

So, the fiction. The fiction… the first person to pipe up on the subject was a girl I’ll call Amy, a gamer herself, and a perceptive and competent student. She half-jokingly said, “Let’s not do something with knights and princesses in it,” to which I half-jokingly replied, “Yeah let’s do something with just princesses.” Somehow, this stuck. We did indeed end up with the basic premise of “a princess needs your help dressing up, you will receive new clothes every time you complete homework.” There was a little more to it, but overall it was… not too deep. Not exactly the end of sexism I envisioned, but then again, dress-up games are extremely popular for a good reason (I see you on Dolldivine during this 8 AM lecture, other New Media students, and I am also on there myself, as it happens), and perhaps second graders doing their homework with the assistance of an explicitly female princess was good enough.

Well, our lecturer didn’t quite agree. During the presentation, it came up that while we envisioned our target audience to be elementary school children in general, the lecturer, a woman, said in so many words that the game was too girly. The target audience for this cannot include boys, she said. Boys will never play this, you should develop a sister game where you tune up cars instead of putting on sparkly wings and tiaras, or maybe scrap the princess aspect altogether and replace the character with a gender-neutral animal.

That sounds nice, but I have to point out that this is all happening not in English, but in a different language, one that has a grammatical gender. And most “gender-neutral” animals are, in fact, grammatically male. This doesn’t mean they’re automatically presumed to be male characters unless clarified… but really, it does. If the hypothetical protagonist was a cat, raccoon, fox, dog… you would properly refer to it as a “he.” If the character was clearly a cat in the visuals, and its species was never explicitly named as being a “female cat” (which would frankly be more than a little odd to bring up in a game for children where the animal’s exact gender is not at all relevant to the story), it’s a boy cat, period.

The idea to let the players choose the gender of their Dress-Up Whatever came up as well, but honestly, how do you tackle this? Give this Hypothetical Hello-Kitty-esque prepubescent cat big eyelashes and maybe a larger chest, or some other cartoonishly sexist Tertiary Sexual Characteristics? Make them look exactly the same as the male cat? Harold, they’re cats. Of course they look the same. Why not just let it be a Gender-Nondescript (coughBOYcough) Cat.

To sum up my feelings on gender-neutral main characters, I think that if the protagonist’s gender is not something that’s especially important to the plot and clearly pointed out in the game’s script, they’re likely to be assumed male unless they happen to be feminine-presenting. This is especially a problem in games with minimal plot (such as our hypothetical Princess Cat Dress-Up). Even if dialogue is present—or indeed abundant—characters who speak to the protagonist in the first person do not necessarily refer to their gender. We’ve come a long way from no-one at school believing you that Samus was actually a girl (to be exact, Metroid was a bit before my time, but I know all about the pre-internet era of unconfirmed schoolyard rumors about the ending of a cool game you only played for 10 minutes on your friend’s console). However, the prevailing notion that the protagonist must be a “he” unless stated otherwise still won’t go away completely.

Of course, any character whose gender is not explicitly revealed can be assumed to be female just as easily. But I think women gamers deserve better than that. We deserve “this protagonist is a woman like you”, not just “if you squint and use your imagination… this character maaaay… be… a girl! *wink*”. Representation for gender-non-conforming, nonbinary, or genderqueer individuals is also very important, and women’s representation cannot be lumped in with it. That is why I always try to shoot for feminine-presenting characters as protagonists.

I do understand the purpose of our lecturer pointing out the princess issue. The primary reason to teach us about gamification systems is for marketing and advertising, the principles of which are often based around outdated and sexist ideas themselves. Overall, this experience closely parallels a very typical case you hear about all the time in game development. We were gonna have a female protag, but the higher-ups nixed it. Marketing didn’t agree. Marketing said we need a big burly man on the cover, or it won’t sell. Marketing said boys won’t play this, so we changed the protagonist to be more neutral (read: probably male). Another potential video game lady bites the dust.

My second significant brush with the dreaded Female Protag Issue happened at the end of the second year, just a few weeks ago. We were yet again designing games, this time for the Game Rule Design class. No gamification this time, just actual games. Coincidentally, my group consisted of the same students as the Princess Cat Dress-Up project, and you know what? It went wonderfully, even better than I could’ve wished for. One person immediately pitched a great idea that involved a female main character.

Overtime, as we developed the plot more, we unanimously decided that the main relationship of the game will be between the main character and her mother. The idea of the central conflict revolving around a boyfriend was floated briefly and rejected quickly as too cliche, overdone, boring and generally not what we were about. We’d done it, sexism was over for real this time, and I couldn’t wait to show it off as well as see other people’s projects. Remember, around 85% of the people taking this class were women. There was a single “team boy,” but the other four groups had a majority of women. So, how many of the five games ended up with female protagonists?

Well, just one. Ours. The devs were 85% female, and yet only 20% of the games ended up with a woman as a main character. Two of the games had clearly and explicitly male protagonists. Another one was a RTS, so no single main character, only controllable units wearing face masks and helmets in the concept art. Some of them might’ve been women if the game ever got made, who knows.

The last game had an implicitly male protagonist, described as a “giant” and a “guardian,” both of which are grammatically male nouns. (You thought English had too few gender-neutral options? Try Polish). A word for “female guardian” does exist in Polish and was notably not used. I assume that if questioned about this, the developers of a game like this might imply that the character, being non-human, doesn’t have a clearly defined gender. That they are both, or neither, or anything in-between. I’m not sure if gender-non-conforming, nonbinary or genderqueer individuals would count this as representation. But the fact remains that the male-by-default interpretation tends to prevail, further reinforced by the lack of gender neutral language.

My first real, empirical game dev experience was quite a lot more encouraging than that. As a game designer, scriptwriter, and (ironically) artist, I joined up with a programmer to make a game for the Awful Summer Jam 2018. He was a seasoned Game Jam veteran, I was a complete newbie. I wasn’t expecting to have enough sway to convince him we needed a female main character. To be honest, I wasn’t even planning on arguing for it beyond a single suggestion. I was very pleasantly surprised however, as right off the bat his concept included a protagonist with a placeholder name that intrigued me: {Sadie}. Why, Sadie is a girl’s name, I thought. Sadie it is. Sadie is now my Precious Daughter, for whom I will draw sprites and write a story and build an entire world and a bunch of friends. Sadie wears comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes for adventuring, because Sadie is a feminist hero.

It’s a start: a very short Game Jam game starring a no-nonsense redhead and Certified Hero who also happens to be a girl. I hope Sadie’s game makes it. I hope a lot more female protagonists and their games make it.

Image Courtesy of Nintendo

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