This is the fourth of six weekly blogs for my J375 class, Race, Gender and Media. This week I will offer my thoughts on the portrayal of female characters in video games.
I have played video games pretty much my entire life. My first experience with them was when I held another kid’s Game Boy and reveled in the powerful feeling that the character would move in the direction I indicated on the directional pad. For me, video games have been as ubiquitous as breathing, and it’s always amusing to see the medium analyzed by “expert” studies that present the findings so that non-gamers can understand them. I disagree with the notion that video games are sexist as a general rule. That may have been true at some point, but I think current trends in game worlds depict females in a very flattering way.
The games I have always played have usually been from Japan (I’m a big Nintendo fan). Sexism really don’t show up in games about plumbers, walking mushrooms and elves that play ocarinas. However, I can talk a little bit about gender in the games I’ve enjoyed the most while growing up.
It might be considered sexist that it’s usually the male protagonist that is rescuing the female. But the females in Japanese games have proven capable of handling themselves when they need to. Zelda, the titular princess of the Legend of Zelda series, is usually the person that the player is trying to rescue, but she has also acted in ways that are anything but helpless. In Ocarina of Time, Zelda adopted the persona of Sheik, a warrior who gave Link help throughout his quest (and can be a force to be reckoned with in a fight):
In Spirit Tracks, Zelda is attacked with a magical spell that puts her body very near death, but as a spirit she accompanies Link on his quest, helping him work out situations that he would have been incapable of getting through on his own:
In probably her strongest role in the GameCube title The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (my personal favorite game of all time) Zelda served as a feared captain on a ship of pirates that aided and undermined Link throughout his quest (depending on their mood):
Zelda isn’t the only strong female character in Nintendo’s repertoire. Samus Aran, the lone bounty hunter in Nintendo’s Metroid series, is respected and feared across the galaxy for her skills in combat and infiltration. She has destroyed entire enemy planets and saved a dying race from extinction from an interdimensional war, and was the first playable female protagonist in a home console game.
Even Peach, Mario’s damsel in distress, was a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2, and has had her own adventure as the heroine in the game Super Princess Peach, where roles were reversed and she set out on an adventure to rescue Mario. Peach also remains one of the most formidable foes in Nintendo’s fighting series Super Smash Bros.
Even games with more of a Western flavor also have a myriad of femme fatales. Just off the top of my head, there is Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2), Joanna Dark (Perfect Dark), Rayne (BloodRayne), The Boss (Metal Gear Solid), Jill, Claire and Ada (Resident Evil series), Elika (Prince of Persia), Faith (Mirror’s Edge), and Jade (Beyond Good and Evil). Even in the massively successful PC title Portal, the player-controlled silent protagonist is a woman named Chell.
I think women in video games are always going to be made to look attractive and unrealistic, and to that degree I can understand criticisms that video games can be sexist. But are video games that different from other forms of entertainment media? Viewers want to look at beautiful people, after all. But to argue that women can’t stand toe-to-toe with men in video games is to ignore current trends. Women aren’t objects in games, they are butt-kicking action heros that can make their way anywhere, even in the historically male-dominated world of video games.