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Ladies of E3: The Good, The Same, and The Ridiculous.
by Heather Hale on 06/09/12 07:10:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


 In the wake of E3, I took some time to sift through the many, many, soldier and/or zombie oriented games to look for any traces of promising female characters in this upcoming gaming year. What I found I’ve broken down into three categories: “The Good”, “The Same”, and “The Ridiculous.” 


The Good

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation: PS Vita


A bonafide “full Assassin’s Creed Experience” boasts Ubisoft, featuring a half French/Half African-American Protagonist in 1700’s New Orleans. Albeit, maybe trying to kill a few too many birds with one stone, seems like a pretty cool concept. In my mind, this seems to me a heck of a lot cooler than it’s big-system companion game, George Washington’s Creed. At least they are experimenting with a female protagonist, even if it is on the smaller hand-held console scale. The main character, Abeline, looks kind of like a badass female Jack Sparrow as she flies through the swamps sticking knives down people’s throats. If I had a Vita, I would definitely be excited to check this out and see what they do with this character.


Beyond Two Souls: PS3


Starring Ellen Page as a badass bald girl with a big ol’ scar on her head. Coming from the creators of Heavy Rain, I expect this to be a game to experiment with some interesting things in terms of decision making and gameplay in general. The trailer shows Page’s character using telekinetic powers to fight her way through various obstacles. The gameplay footage shows her using her abilities to do everything from knocking a water bottle over to busting through a line of police officers. I’ve always been a fan of Ellen Page, despite how generally annoying Juno was, and seeing a female protagonist with a normal shape and underdog size is a welcome sight. Hopefully it will encourage more normal looking female and male protagonists in the future.


Borderlands 2: PC, PS3, Xbox 360


I for one, more or less enjoying playing through the first Borderlands game. I can’t say my experience was greatly enhanced by playing as the sassy looking female character. I did enjoy changing her hair color every now and then, and I did like the way she looked holding a gigantic rocket launcher, but that was about it. Honestly, it made no difference which character I was playing as they have next to nothing to do with the story as individuals, nonetheless, I had a good time playing (despite the fact they killed off T.K. Baja.) A rare couch co-op gem that even has vertical split screen! (Seriously guys, what’s with the horizontal only split-screen? If you have a new gen-game system, you have a widescreen TV. Who can see anything with it split that way? Get your acts together.) My assumption is that Borderlands 2 will provide a similar experience, but with many, many, more guns as much of the promotional material has promised. The trailer did feature a female narrator, but I wouldn’t put any money on any one of the characters being too fleshed out. All and all, I’m up for some more cool guns, couch co-op fun, and dancing Clap-Traps, and will be picking this up after it’s September release.


The Last of Us: PS3


The latest Naughty Dog opus grabbed my attention. On top of some of the gameplay footage I saw taking place in my hometown, I expect it to be every bit the theatrical thrill-ride that we found in the Uncharted series. As far as the female side-kick goes, I haven’t gotten a good sense of who she is or what she does other than follow the protagonist around, but as an irregular character type, I’m excited to find out more about her. (Despite the “changes” made to the original character, she still looks a heck of a lot like Ellen Page, but hey she could have looked like Lara Croft.


The Secret World: PC


If this game was available for Mac, I would probably pre-order it today. I remember reading about it awhile back and being drawn to it’s modern setting and unique claim of “no classes, no levels.” I never expected to want to play another MMORPG after turning in my World of Warcraft armor years back, but I must admit I am intrigued, I didn’t let myself get too deep in the array of videos on Funcom’s website, as I didn’t want to further sadden myself over the PC only release, but I give them major kudos for originality in an MMO. With all the customizability that most MMO’s deliver, you can define your own identity, in my mind this is definitely worth checking out.


The Same

 Dead or Alive 5: PS3, Xbox 360


Infamous for it’s big-breasted fighting action, Dead or Alive 5 seems to deliver exactly that. In the trailer we get to see a traditionally garbed Japanese girl kicked some ninja in the face with her Geta sandals. Expect the expected when it comes to this new release in terms of female characters.


“Brave” The Video Game: DS, Wii, PS3, Xbox 360


Featuring Disney/Pixar’s rowdy new red-headed heroine, Brave the game looks like a top-down style dungeon crawler which I’m assuming tells the story of the movie. Probably not making any great strides here, but who knows, it might be the natural segway for little girls to go from Disney toDiablo. Disney is also releasing a bevy of other girl-centric games that looks more or less insulting, but only the array of real-life clothing brands featured in the soon to be epic, Disney’s: City Girl will let us know for sure.


Fable: The Journey: Xbox 360


Let me begin by saying that I am a big fan of the Fable franchise. An equal-opportunity adventure, you can always play as a woman, (albeit a strangely large woman with no suitable in-game men to mate with, but still.) Featuring a story as gender-neutral and unbiased as the Mass Effect games, the Fablefranchise has done a good job. The co-op mode has also evolved in a cool way throughout the series, with the last game allowing you to play couch co-op with two completely individualized characters which was pretty darn neat. The trailer for this new installment however, makes me completely uninterested. An average looking male youth summoning fire-balls in this Kinect-sploitation trailer does no justice to the revolutionary elements of the Fable games. Especially in the wake of some of the amazing trailers for previous fable games this trailer does nothing for me but isolate me as a female gamer who doesn’t own a Kinect.


Tomb Raider: PS3, Xbox 360


Lara Croft’s creator once explained that he envisioned here as, “a female character who was a heroine…cool, collected, in control. It was never my intention to create some kind of ‘page 3’ girl to star in Tomb Raider.” But, low and behold she will go down in infamy as the poster girl of the sexy stereotypical female game character. As far as the new game is concerned, her boobs are smaller, so I guess we have to give them that. I am on the fence about the new Lara. The trailer gives us a taste of what could be an interesting journey in terms of character development, but in my opinion, if they had just called her by a different name, I think this could have possibly been a big achievement in terms of allowing a female heroine to take the stage in a big-budget game. Instead it reeks of a stigma concerning female identity in games that I don’t think can ever really be shaken. But, it of course, will sell a trillion copies so what can you do?


The Ridiculous

 Aliens: Colonial Marines: DS, PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360


I really cannot even begin to fathom why, a game based on a franchise with one of the most memorable, strong female protagonists would be mutilated into just another generic soldier game.  This is gigantic missed opportunity if there ever was one in terms of creating a game heroine who could be easily both sexy and badass with no public backlash because the character already exists and has been loved for generations. Honestly, what were they thinking?


Demon’s Score:  Android/iPhone


If you’ve always dreamed of a music game featuring a scantily-clad pink-haired heroine with a dancing Teddy-bear companion, well my friend, it’s your lucky day. This one I almost couldn’t believe, and almost really want to play for some strange reason. Thanks, Japan. You never let me down.


Lollipop Chainsaw: PS3. Xbox 360


When I saw this one I let out a genuine “ugh.” Yet another zombie killing game, only this time featuring a busty blonde cheerleader yielding a chainsaw. Just what I’ve always looked for in a game, unlockable costumes! It makes me sad that people spent so much time and effort to put such a game out into the world. As a fan of Troma and the like, I wish they had taken the overweight Asian woman with a meat-cleaver from the Sleeping Dogs trailer, and made the game about her. Now that is a game I would have spent sixty bucks on. Whether a game is self-aware about it’s ridiculousness or not, this is still as generic as it gets.


So that’s it for me as far as what I gleaned after sitting through 3,000 Speed Stick deodorant commercials on Gamespot. By the time I got to the end of the list, I felt exhausted after watching so much of the same. People are finally starting to acknowledge the importance of games, and E3 is one of the most talked about gaming events of the year. It makes me sad that the fictional female soldier voiced by Jane Lynch in the Wreck-It Ralph trailer was the most promising new female game protagonist, and it’s not even for real. I’m anxious to see what comes of the few promising characters I’ve mentioned, but overall, it’s sad to see the lack of any kind of shift in general. For now, I guess we ladies will have to throw on our cheerleading uniforms and keep yielding our chainsaws, in hopes of a better tomorrow.

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Joe Cooper
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"a game heroine who could be easily both sexy and badass with no public backlash because the character already exists and has been loved for generations"

Weren't you complaining about exactly that in the paragraph directly above that one?

Nick McKergow
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Lollipop chainsaw generic?? It stands well out to me. It's my most anticipated title on this list.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

k s
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I don't want to sound like a sexist jerk but when women complain about the portrayal of female characters in games it just bugs me. Yes games do a poor job of portraying women as people and not objects but complaining doesn't do anything really, if you want to change things lead by example don't moan about what the industry is doing wrong. Actions have always spoken loader then words!

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Joe Cooper
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There's nothing uniquely wrong about reviewing games in these particular terms. It's what concerns the OP and the OP is both a customer and in this case a participant.

To speak is an action.

k s
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@Joshua I think it would be more productive to develop the games she'd like to see rather then complain about the games she doesn't.

Joe Cooper
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Why not just shut down all discussion about everything while we're at it and only focus on building games we like? There's little different between this and most discourse except for the slightly politicized nature. But it should be seen as OK to talk about things that some of us aren't comfortable with.

Benjamin Quintero
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KS in many ways I agree. Men are subject to the same kind of standards. While all women are positioned as these perfectly measured beauty queens who wage war in their swimwear, men are painted in much the same light. Kratos is a beefy loin-cloth-wearing beast of a man with the sexual potency of a bull and the commanding voice of a man's man. In just about any game where a woman is wrongfully represented, she is standing next to a man with 0% body fat, pectorals that would crush his spine, and a bulge in his pants that would make Ron Jeremy blush.

Philip Minchin
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@ Benjamin: Not the same at all! Male characters are given an idealised version of the masculine body that plays into typically male-dominant power fantasies.

Female characters are given an idealised version of the feminine body that plays into... typically male-dominant power fantasies.

All the obvious caveats about lumping people and what they like into homogenous groups apply (neither ideal appeals to me personally so I'm not assuming it does for anyone else). But at the level of generalisation we're using here, the difference is pretty stark. WHOSE ideal matters as much as the level of idealisation.

Jonathan Jou
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I'm always excited when I see people who want to genuinely bring a woman's perspective into gaming. This is a topic which my attempts to follow have always ended in confusion and lack of understanding. There seem to be a lot of different perspectives on what "good" representation of women in games would be, and if you (or any of the other people on this site who understand it) could answer these questions for me that would be amazing!

1. Is the ideal female protagonist a man in a woman's body (men writing women like they write men), or should there be some accommodations for gender difference? If so, what would be "just feminine enough" and what would be offensive?

2. Should female characters be unrealistically attractive, realistically attractive, realistically unattractive, or unrealistically unattractive? How would you define these four categories? How would a traditional male developer who is inundated with unrealistic proportions in many forms of media seek to educate themselves on these categories?

3. How many female characters is "enough" in a game? Does this matter as much when gender is arbitrary due to the race being non-humanoid? Can this be quantified somehow, or are headcount exercises a meaningless approach?

4. In a perfect world, what would mean balanced representation of women in games? Would every game promote fair and balanced gender representation, or face scorn and criticism? Would games based on male power fantasies even exist? Would idealization of anatomy in any form exist, or would games just be based on real life?

I am all for equal representation, by the way. I find myself struggling to really figure out what people who complain about this sort of thing want, though, and I have to wonder if the game developers who are targeted for these complaints feel the same way. In some sense no matter what they do, there is probably a way to identify something the women in a game do or don't do that can be used to fuel criticism.

Part of this is because almost every time I've seen someone talk about these issues, they've picked characters out of context and applied a critical lens to it, such as Chell being a silent protagonist (see also: Link) or two out of five of "Destiny's Edge" from Guild Wars 2 being female (only three are humanoid, so I'm not even sure if gender qualities apply the same way for the other races). I'm going to describe the dilemma I see, which is surely a misunderstanding on my part:
1. If the game doesn't feature women at all, it's sexist, if it does, it's sexist. (Reasons below.)
2. If the game doesn't feature a female protagonist, it's sexist. If it does, it's sexist. (Reasons below, basically as males we don't seem to be able make believable female characters.)
3. If a female isn't featured prominently in the game as an equal to males, it's sexist. If it does, it's sexist. (Manly women are not women.)
4. If the game doesn't portray women to be as attractive as the idealized man, it's sexist. If it does, it's sexist. (Male power fantasies are still sexist, but making men more attractive than women is probably sexist.)
5. If the game contains women with authority or power but also doesn't forget that they're *women*, it's sexist. If it does, it's sexist. (If they are powerful individuals with a soft side the soft side is sexist. If there's no soft side they're manly women.)

I fully agree that we could do with less ridiculous proportions, more believable female characters, and more clothing in general. But this looks like a damned if you do, damned if you don't sort of situation. The only thing that I can find in common with most every objection is that the person who complained would have done things differently...

Thanks for reading, I'd really be interested in what you have to say!

A Male

Amanda Lange
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"2. Should female characters be unrealistically attractive, realistically attractive, realistically unattractive, or unrealistically unattractive?"

In my opinion: yes.

Does that help?

Heather Hale
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As easy as it would be to become a game designer tomorrow and have the magical ability to manipulate the industry immediately, I think I might be too busy getting my nails done.

In any case, there is obviously no overnight or easy solution to this problem, and a general misunderstanding of what women want/need as far as representation is not a fill in the blank answer. However, I think it's fairly obvious that we've been given a bum deal with character choices for the most part throughout videogame history. I was recently talking with my younger sister about why she always picks male characters in games, and I think a lot of it is wrapped up in the fact that those characters just aren't cool or awesome to us. The female choices we have been given aren't who we want to be in the world of games. I honestly think this problem can't be quantified with body measurements or number of female characters in games, and the problem is not just with female characters.

In my opinion at least, many of today's most popular games have generic characters in general, they just so happen to usually be male. If there was a female equivalent to a Halo or Gears of War solider, it would do absolutely nothing for me. The last thing I would want is more female characters just for the sake of having more female characters. Sure it would be nice to see a few more ladies on the box, but I don't even want it unless there is something behind her boobs (no matter what size they may be.)

What we need is a good back-story, or a story at all. From something we can develop ourselves and create a connect to, (Fable, Mass Effect) or a carefully crafted story where the character seems like a people, not caricatures. I honestly have no problem playing as a male character who doesn't have the most generic and vague story to experience (which is why the ladies are infamous for showing the love for final fantasy and the like). In my mind, it is the connection to the character that appeals to women, flashy guns and nifty game mechanics are cool too, but without some meat to the story, it's not really worth the time (especially when the only females we see are throw-away bimbos). I would not be so offended by Lollipop Chainsaw if she had some emotional depth to her character, even for comedy's sake.

Gender and gaming is a crazy topic. I have never been someone who was easily offended or particularly feminist, but after playing a game where I could actually connect to the female protagonist with Mass Effect, I realized how much more there could be as far as connecting to games as a woman, and now it's hard to go back in the dark.

Beatrice Margarita Lapa
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"As easy as it would be to become a game designer tomorrow and have the magical ability to manipulate the industry immediately, I think I might be too busy getting my nails done."

Haha! And even if you are a woman game designer, you'd still be at the mercy of either the client or publisher. There were times when I've worked on a project and protested against the female character design specifications to no avail.

Arthur De Martino
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"Whether a game is self-aware about it’s ridiculousness or not, this is still as generic as it gets."

It's a Suda51 game, it's not only self aware, expect it to both mock and celebrate both it's ultra violence and sensual appeal.

Eric McVinney
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That's (one of) the finer points about that game and of Bayonetta. They KNOW what they are and how to market it off as part of the entire package.

Jeremie Sinic
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"A rare couch co-op gem that even has vertical split screen! (Seriously guys, what’s with the horizontal only split-screen? If you have a new gen-game system, you have a widescreen TV. Who can see anything with it split that way?"

I know it's not the main topic of this piece but that really struck a chord with me!
Playing on a 1920x540 screen is not optimal indeed, although I admit for shooters it's always nice to have a wide view angle.

Salwa Azar
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Just wondering if any male game designer/character designer has ever actually focus tested their female characters pre-release?

Some of you complain that you just can't get a straight answer as to what women want out of a game- well that seems like a massively lazy answer. Find out? you must have mums, sisters, friends who are female? Ask them.

Heather's right, if a character is made well it doesn't necessarily matter what gender you play as- but for us ladies, having a choice to play as a more than 1 dimensional character in a game makes the difference between feeling excluded from the story and feeling included.

FYI the ladies who game aren't necessarily programmers, designers or producers with the power to effect change in the industry. It's a lazy and quite honestly needlessly defensive reply to say "well, why don't YOU do better then".

If I could code, design or produce I would actively seek to redress the gender bias on both sides and make cool games for *people*. Making their skills and talents more important than their pecs or boobs.

If you then argue "well we play the "fantasy" version of ourselves", then I do have to argue back with that- yes the male gamers get the awesome with pecs like rocks and loinclothes that go on forever, but there are a growing number of women who want to disassociate themselves with the porn industry portrayal of women in media, and would like to look a bit more realistic. To ignore this is a bit bully-ish no whether for males or females?

There are soooo many games portraying both men and women as cartoonish caricatures, that surely someone somewhere could develop a decent game filled with less pecs, maybe a hamburger or two and something a bit more substantial than a cheeseslicer thong knocking about in your character's inventory?

Beatrice Margarita Lapa
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There are so few of us women game devs that we are hardly ever heard, unless if we were working in the casual game arena. We can't do better unless we finally do decide to put up our own studios. For now, we are just as powerless as the women gamers who are not part of the industry. For now.