Gaping gap in gaming for girls


Which character comes to mind when someone mentions video games? Is it Mario? Link? Sonic? Perhaps it’s someone a little more human, a little more chiselled. Solid Snake. Nathan Drake. Ryu Hayabusa. Maybe it’s someone that can’t really be seen at all, like Master Chief in Halo. Maybe it’s not one character, but many – all kicking and killing and dodging on the screen – engaged in Mortal Kombat. Like it or not, video games have become a cornerstone of the modern media landscape. Each passing year shows just how far their influence can reach. Children and teenagers know these characters’ stories as if they were their own. So, who would an 11-year-old girl see when she’s asked the same question?

The gender issue in the gaming industry has bubbled to the surface and into forum discussions. It’s common knowledge that the player gender breakdown is split fairly evenly – 46 per cent female, as reported by major gaming associations in America and Europe. Game makers, quite wisely, have responded to this by including more female character options. In Fortnite, seven of the 14 characters are women, with a sizeable share of female character ‘skins’ as well. In Overwatch, 14 of the 31 playable characters are women. Of course, many games these days even allow for completely customisable player avatars. Representation, it seems, is being fought for and slowly won. But what kind of representation is it, really?

Lara Croft in Tomb Raider: Underworld published by Eidos Interactive

Imagine one of these female characters, if you will. It doesn’t matter which one. Lara Croft. D.Va. Princess Peach, even. See how they stand starkly opposed to their chiselled, armour-clad male counterparts – wearing steel nipple-pasties of every imaginable colour. Maybe they’re in ripped and torn ‘adventurer’s clothing’ instead, though it perhaps more closely resembles a set of apocalyptic lingerie. Or maybe they’re merely in something form-fitting and pink. No matter the garnish, their bodies are the same, sickly thin and impossibly enlarged in all the ‘right’ areas. Watch them as they gaze with parted lips, and legs, at invisible cameras. For whom are these characters made?

Someone asking such questions is Associate Lecturer in Serious Games Design at the University of the Sunshine Coast Dr Katryna Starks. Katryna believes that, while much progress is being made, heavy sexualisation is the steep add-on fee to these otherwise well-intentioned female characters. And while many are quick to point to the existence of unrealistic male characters, Katryna says the critical issue is whose fantasy is being represented.

“The idea behind it is that when they make the ideal male it’s designed so that the guy will see himself in that and want to be that,” Katryna says, “whereas the woman is designed that way to be sexually appealing to the guy.” Katryna laughs when describing some of the female character concepts she’s seen over the years, though it’s tinged with an exasperated incredulity. For her, it’s clear which kind of gamer these designs are for. “It’s never a power fantasy for her, it’s a sex fantasy for him.”

It’s so blatant that young players can see it see it too. Daisy Gilkes-Cox, a 15-year-old gamer on the Sunshine Coast, says that even she knows these characters were not designed with her in mind.

“I think most video games are aimed at men and teenage boys,” Daisy says. “It’s all tiny waists, big boobs, big butts, big hips – it’s just all over-exaggerated.”

Screen capture of Ice Princess Real Dentist Experience on GirlsGoGames

The oversexualisation of female characters is a major reason why she and other girls her age aren’t engaging with a lot of mainstream action games. “Girls are sick and tired of playing these hardcore games that all the boys play – they’re fun to play but they want to have a game with better female representation.”

But for many young girls such a game doesn’t exist. The strong female protagonists out there are made inaccessible by their game’s M or R rating. Parents who don’t want to expose their children to violence are finding little alternative.

Katryna tells a story of a game developer she knew who told his own daughter that Link from Legend of Zelda was a girl, so she’d have someone she could look up to. Even Daisy admits there were never any strong, story-driven characters she felt she could connect to while she was growing up. There’s a gaping hole here that few people seem to be trying to fill. For young girl gamers, it’s crucial that it is, because the current alternative is just as insidious.

If over-sexualisation is the rock, ‘Pink Games’ are the hard place. There is an infinite quagmire of glittery cartoon girls just waiting to be dolled up, dressed down, made over, restyled, dated, doctored and ‘fixed’ in every way imaginable. These games use well known characters as lures, such as Barbie or Elsa, and have them endure varying levels of humiliating cosmetic procedures, from a mild spa day experience to a bizarre trip to the dentist. By the end of the game there’s a pimple-free, polished, perfect princess where an ugly girl once stood. Tired of cosmetics? Not to worry. Why not try looking after a pony, romancing the man of your dreams, or decorating a bedroom. The possibilities are endless, so long as they’re confined to extreme gender stereotypes.

Image from Beyond Eyes, published by Tiger and Squid

Access to these games is effortless. All that’s needed is a computer, an internet connection, and the wherewithal to type ‘girl game’ into a search engine. Katryna believes that the proliferation of these messages is causing harm to girls, whose lives consist mostly of school, home and media.

“The media they consume is actually really important because it has a larger effect on who they are,” Katryna says. “It’s reinforcing what society is saying, which is telling women that, in so many ways, we are not enough.” Although she knows she can’t erase these games, Katryna hopes they can start a dialogue with young girls about representation in media.

There is hope, of course. Games are out there that offer young girls someone adventurous and intelligent to look up to. Broken Age, Never Alone, Child of Light, Beyond Eyes, and Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles are all recommended by Katryna. She says the industry is slowly changing, and more stories are being told every day.

Daisy knows these characters are more important for the girls growing up after her, girls like that 11-year-old, who might someday soon have a long list of characters she can think of, who all get to live her fantasy.

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