A Feminine Touch: Representation of Women in Games

The companies are isolating our characters. They’re dismissing us as women, as gamers, and as customers.

I’m a passionate Fallout gamer; I’ve played them all from the top-down retro games to the newest and greatest Fallout 4. They have an enormous following of dedicated fans, and just recently Bethesda released the newest trailer for their DLC called The Wasteland Workshop. In the trailer, a male sole survivor (the player’s created character from Vault 111) narrates as he builds trap-riddled houses and ensnares deathclaws for his own fighting arena. The DLC looks expansive, and Bethesda has never been a company to withhold content from fans only to sell it to them later. Instead, they take time to expand their games with thoughtful additions that aren’t essential to the story but are still just as exciting.

However, it isn’t the content Bethesda has released that has me troubled, but the trailer itself. The trailer is narrated by a male sole survivor. He is shown walking determinedly along with Dogmeat (the German shepherd companion) and building his own home, but there is no representation of the female sole survivor; this is more than a little short-sighted of Bethesda given that most agree almost half the gaming population is female. Given the popularity of Fallout, it would make no sense to assume that only men are playing it or to feature only one of the options.

Now, this wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t so commonplace. Even in games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect where players can decide the gender of their hero, the trailers always feature men. All three promotional videos for the Dragon Age games had men leading the charge despite the female following the series has. Even with backlash from the community, Bioware refuses to put a female lead in their trailers. The newest trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda shows a male figure turning towards the camera, leaping violently at an enemy, and quickly sifting through images on a high-tech computer despite Bioware confirming that players will be able to play as female.

This isn’t just an issue of trailers, either, which are usually chaotic and easily missed. Cover art is dominated by male characters. The industry has developed a lazy sort of trend with their cases, and it’s easily to see when going into the local Gamestop where the games are lined up on the walls. The art is usually some landscape or even nothingness, wisps of smoke or fire, with a man standing in the middle. This featured man either faces forward or back, weapons displayed or arms reaching up. He may be just a profile or a full body shot, but the result is the same. In RPGs, in MMOs, and even in simple shooters, there is next to no representation of women.

Fallout 4’s cover art is an image of an unknown individual wearing power armor from the game which is gender neutral enough. The back, however, shows only the male version of the sole survivor again. Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy has always been unfairly dominated with images of the male version of Shepard, female Shepard not even receiving a default face until Mass Effect 3, the last of the series and only by fan demand. She was eventually given a place on the cover art as a reversible choice, but it is important to note that she was placed on the inside of the game cases. Male Shepard was prominently displayed as the default choice.

I understand these companies prefer to and know how to market to men. We see this in the few cases that do feature female protagonists like Tomb Raider or the upcoming Overwatch which has already suffered backlash for the main character’s pants looking more like a second skin than anything else. When women are displayed, they’re overly sexualized. They’re disproportionate or in awkward, tantalizing positions. Take Bayonetta as an example. The poor woman’s legs are so long, it’s a good thing her clothes are made of her own hair; she’d have to walk around naked otherwise. The female protagonist of Remember Me is lucky enough to be on the cover, as well, except that the light of the camera is firmly on her behind, her actual face cast in shadow and not nearly as detailed.

My point is that this mindless determination to market only to men doesn’t just annoy the female audience but also ostracizes them. It makes us feel less important, as if we aren’t even being considered. All the time and effort I put into Mass Effect making decisions that affected a cast of characters I loved becomes less impactful when I’m told my version of Shepard doesn’t even exist. All the work Bioware invested into making Shepard feel real is meaningless when she isn’t represented anywhere. The story of a sole survivor—a woman who is desperately looking for her lost son in a dystopian future—loses all of its power when the creators treat it as if it isn’t even canon. The companies are isolating our characters. They’re dismissing us as women, as gamers, and as customers.

I don’t expect a woman to be narrating every trailer that comes out for a game or dominating the cover art on game cases. I don’t need women on every poster that rolls through the stores or reversible cases. Equality, though, is something that should be considered. If the protagonist is a woman, does it really win that many more customers to have her in a bikini on the front of the game? How many women walk away from a game like that? How many female customers are lost? People who seek that sort of pleasure from a video game will find it elsewhere. They should be playing it for the story, the compelling characters, and the actual value it has. For all the work that developers pour into their games, for all the years they spend writing and coding, I would think they would have more respect for the realistic female characters they create—the ones that keep me coming back again and again.

Featured image courtesy of Polygon. Video released by Bethesda Softworks.

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