Beyond the portrayal of women in video games

Writer Dennis Scimeca argues that the problem of equitable representation of women in video games is just the tip of the iceberg.

In social justice circles a 101-level conversation is the kind of conversation one has with a person who debates the existence of prejudice or inequality. The 101-level conversation is often exhausting because to a social justice activist the problems being addressed are painfully obvious. I feel much the same way on the issue of the portrayal of women in video games. The fact that it’s a problem is self-evident to me. Never mind referring to the established and deep body of critical work on the subject, we need look no further than the video games in my own collection.

In many of those games women are simply not present. I can’t think of a single woman character from any of my Call of Duty or Battlefield games. If there are any women characters in the Resistance or Killzone franchises, I certainly can’t remember them. There are no female avatars in Brink because the team over at Splash Damage didn’t want to budget the time and money to create a female model and then make female versions of all the clothing items in the game’s very deep customization system. Women were optional.

Damsel in distress

Often when there are women in my games they adhere to stereotypes, like the painted-up baby-doll Mad Moxxi in Borderlands who offers me missions over the radio in a lascivious voice. Every woman character I can remember from Max Payne 3 was a damsel in distress. In Heavy Rain Lauren Winter is a whore with a heart of gold and Madison Paige is either a sexually-manipulative woman trying to grab a scoop as a journalist and/or a love interest for the hero. Or there are games absent from my collection like Metroid: Other M which takes Samus Aran, a woman character who had previously been either portrayed or implied as a strong, independent woman, and reduces her to a young girl who requires male approval or authority to take action. I had zero interest in seeing such a strong, female character reduced in this way.

Some social justice activists consider characters like Anya in Gears of War 3, Gunfighter 11 (the woman AH-64 Apache pilot) in the 2010 Medal of Honor reboot, CIA operative Tara Strickland from Crysis 2, Lilith from Borderlands and Trishka Novak from Bulletstorm to be improvements. The question is one of representation, of video games that present women as something other than over-sexed figures meant to draw the attention of a male audience and/or vulnerable figures to be rescued. Even if these woman characters are not particularly well-drawn or deep, they are at least presented as competent equals to the male warriors in the story.

The importance of Femshep

I think the gold standard for the portrayal of women in video games falls mostly to the role playing games published by Bethesda and developed by BioWare. Fallout 3, Fallout: New Vegas, and the Dragon Age and Mass Effect franchises have either allowed players to take the role of a woman protagonist and shape them into fully-developed characters, or portray women as non-player characters in a variety of different ways. That role playing games are in the vanguard for equitable character treatment of women should come as no surprise because role playing games place narrative center stage more than any other genre, and thus characters are less an accoutrement to mechanics and more a necessity.

The importance of Commander Shepard from Mass Effect in feminist criticism of video games cannot be overstated. When BioWare decided to put the canonical portrayal of the female version of Shepard, known colloquially as FemShep by fans, up to a public vote on Facebook the outcry was immediate and vociferous because male standards of beauty were clearly evidenced in the voting patterns. FemShep was important because she belied the male gaze that so often dominates the way women are portrayed in video games. By carrying character choices over between all three games in the Mass Effect series, BioWare had allowed players to fully flesh-out their version of Commander Shepard, potentially resulting in a woman protagonist of unique depth and complexity in the video game world.

Ludonarrative dissonance

Commander Shepard is also an important case because he or she could be portrayed as any race or ethnicity, and by the third game in the series as holding a variety of sexual orientations. Social justice is an intersectional issue at heart, and this is no different in the realm of video games. The questions around how women are portrayed in video games are opening the doors to other, related inquiries. Evan Narcisse’s Kotaku editorial ‘Come On, Video Games, Let’s See Some Black People I’m Not Embarrassed By’ and the work being written by Denis Farr of the website are great places to start reading about how people are questioning the depiction of race and sexual orientation in video games.

What punctuates all of these issues is the problematic nature of portraying characters of any design in video games. Game designer Clint Hocking coined the phrase ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ to describe the conflict between how characters are presented in cutscenes and how they are portrayed within game mechanics. Nathan Drake from the Uncharted franchise is a suave combination of James Bond and Indiana Jones in the cutscenes but in the game itself turns into a sociopath who murders hundreds of people. Tom Bissell’s recent work on the website Grantland has delved into the question of whether or not it’s even possible for certain video games to portray proper characters in light of this quintessential conflict.

White straight male

This problem becomes a serious issue for the portrayal of anything other than the stereotypical white, straight, male protagonists that we’ve been seeing in video games for decades. That these characters aren’t really characters isn’t as great of a loss because at least white men have been receiving representation of some sort in video games. For women, people of color, or persons of varying sexual orientation, to have the few and far between examples of video game characters they can relate to relegated to similar stereotyping is a proportionately greater loss. Before video games can divorce themselves from the lazy casting of women, persons of color, or people of varying sexual orientations as predictable stereotypes, the video game industry has to learn better how to depict characters across the board, or how to create game mechanics that allow for the creation of real characters without the dissonance that currently plagues video games.

Thus the issue of the portrayal of women in video games has become a 101-level conversation within its own confines, meaning the problem with how women are portrayed in video games should be so obvious by now that we can move beyond validating the existence of the problem and instead focus on solutions, but it’s also a 101-level conversation for this larger discourse of disproportionate representation in video games for many different groups of people. And floating above all these conversations is the need to continue promoting diversity within the video game development community itself.

The fact that game development is still dominated by straight, white men is ultimately the root cause of all these issues, because that equates to the perspective of straight, white men being the default perspective taken by almost every video game the industry produces. When the challenge of diversity within the development community is properly tackled, the rest of the changes social justice activists would like to see in video games, will naturally follow.

>>This article is published in Control International #9. Read the entire magazine for free online.<<

Dennis Scimeca
Dennis Scimeca
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, Massachusetts. His video game opinion column First Person runs on The Escapist. You can follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca, and find his personal blog on

Related articles