I was born with a NES controller in my hand.
Well, that was the story my mother told me when, at age 5, I asked her about video games. I was wondering why my grandfather would always sit down on the coffee table and play Super Mario. I wondered why my uncle would often visit my grandparents, excited to be talking about the latest Nintendo. I wondered when we’d get our own.
From a very young age, I’ve been surrounded by games. They were a great escape from both the common troubles of childhood - bullying, trying to fit in, school concerns – and those that were not so common, like abuse. Alongside reading, gaming was the way I could mentally remove myself from my problems. I was able to dive head first into the adventures of heroes that my friends and I all hoped to emulate.
As I grew older, I began to play more RPGs. My focus shifted from playing platformers toward games that were more story-driven. The games that had an overall arc and character growth were the games that held my attention the most. And the first game that really moved me was Final Fantasy III/VI.
Final Fantasy VI was the game, for all intents and purposes. The characterizations, the overall story, the music – it completely blew my nine year old mind. I was so engrossed in it that I would often game with my uncle – him playing, with me holding a copy of the Nintendo Power guide, to help him along – and it was the ultimate idea of having a good time. But the absolute best part? A female main character.
I hadn’t given much thought to the concept of a female protagonist, and when I noticed that Terra was the first playable character, I almost didn’t believe it. There was a woman I could relate to. And I was so happy to play a game that had a girl you could directly control. And her story – as well as the stories of the rest of her allies – made this game my favourite for a very long time.
That got me to thinking. Why weren’t there more female protagonists?
As I grew up, I tried to keep an eye out for more games that had girls or women, and I kept getting disappointed. Sure, you had the occasional Metroid, or you’d see a great character like Heather (Silent Hill) or Jade (Beyond Good and Evil) now and then, but by and large, the vast majority of characters were male. They pandered to the males playing the games. And I couldn’t understand why there was so little representation for people like… well, like me. Where were my heroes?
More importantly, why is it still like this, some two decades later?
We all too often hear about the lack of strong female characters in video games. Although this is slowly changing, it’s at a snail’s pace at best, and the small amount of games that feature women are largely dwarfed by the number of games that feature men. It doesn’t take much research to see that – despite 45% of gamers being female - we’re still getting overlooked in favour of the coveted 18~24 male demographic. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of characterization and their importance in storylines, yet.
What is especially irritating is the fact that some writers claim that writing females is a difficult process for them. I certainly understand the concept of ‘write what you know’. I have to wonder, though: is being a woman so far removed from being a male? And if so, does that explain why these kinds of statements are not only seemingly commonplace, but acceptable as an excuse to not create potentially wonderful female characters? Somehow, I doubt it.
So what makes a female character a strong one?
The same attributes that make a male character strong: a character whose skills and strengths compliment their story or universe. And this isn’t necessarily about physical strength; mental, spiritual, or emotional all ‘count’. These characters grow, change, deal with loss, and celebrate their successes. Maybe they surpass the Hero’s Journey and go on their own tale of adventure, knowledge, love, and triumph. Ultimately, I think it’s about creating a character that people can simultaneously admire and relate to.
Why can’t that character be a woman? Why are developers so hesitant to create strong, important female leads? And why are we, as a gaming culture, so reluctant to accept female protagonists in our stories?
I’d like to welcome you to Antepiece. My goal with this column is to open a discussion on gaming and gender issues, gaming culture in general, and to sound off on current events from a somewhat jaded, older gamer point of view. In the future, I’m going to flesh out some of the topics I’ve addressed above – character creation, storytelling, marketing, and the like – so consider this a small taste of what’s ahead. I hope you’ll enjoy it, and participate in the articles to come.