Gaming Companies: We Need Better Female Characters
The gaming industry has some issues, but one issue they could fix easily is how some female characters are portrayed and treated.
From the young and innocent age of three years old, I have been exposed — or played — video games. Video games are a huge part of my life. To this day I would consider myself a gamer despite in recent years I only play a handful of games. You only have to look at how many hours I’ve played The Binding Of Issac Afterbirth+ and Slay The Spire to see that — which is, by the way, almost 2300 hours and 571 hours respectively.
The fact remains that I’ve seen — and played — plenty of games over the past two decades of my life. And thinking back to everything that I’ve been exposed to gaming-wise, I’ve noticed a few things.
Specifically with female characters and their development over the years.
From a consumer standpoint, there aren’t many prominent females characters. At least when you compare them to the number of male prominent characters.
This isn’t to deny that there are no female characters at all. There are great characters in Samus Aran, Lara Croft, Tifa Lockheart, Jill Valentine, and Princess Zelda, amongst many others.
But when you think about those characters from those particular series, in most cases, you’ll find multiple male characters who have just as much recognition.
Cloud, Barrett, Cid, Leon Kennedy, Chris Redfield, Albert Wesker, Link, and Ganondorf.
Even in Metroid — the first game starring Samus Aran — most people thought Samus was a “he”. Even the instruction manual implied this only to shock gamers back in the day if they finished the game fast enough.
Sure, there are a lot of male characters over female characters in gaming. Why does this matter?
Part of it is to do with the growing market. It’s also worth looking a little more at the quality of the characters in general.
There Are More Female Gamers Than You Think
Getting statistics on gamers genders from 2006 to 2019 in the US shows a lot. In 2006, the female gamer population was smaller with 38% of gamers being women and 62% being men.
But as the years rolled by, there has been a steady rise in female gamers, with the current standings being a 46% and 54% split. It’s no 50/50 split, but we can’t deny that the number of female gamers is on the rise.
But this growing trends brings to light a problem that so many industries face today: industries that are male-dominated.
Similar to what danielle ingrid anais tcholakian mentioned in her Toy Story 4 article, there aren’t many women in powerful positions in a production studio, let alone a gaming company. Or if they are, they are at a serious disadvantage compared to their male co-workers. As a result, it’s easier for men to exert their opinion and determine how a character is written and portrayed.
This has been the norm for quite some time and looking over the games I’ve played, I’ve taken note of some.
Female Characters With Power, But Are Terrible With It
To see a perfect example of this look no further than one of the most iconic games since the 8-bit age: the Mario franchise.
While these games are fun to play and are iconic, it is worth looking at the overall story. More importantly the roles two prominent female figures play in the Mario canon: Princess Peach and Toadette.
Let’s start with Princess Peach.
Going back to the classic story of Mario, we find the main reason for playing the game is that something has happened to Princess Peach. While there have been a few mixtures to the formula over the vast number of games the story mainly stays the same:
Princess Peach — the “ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom” — continues to make numerous mistakes that jeopardize her life and her people. This forces Mario & Co’s hand to play the hero and fix the problem.
To Nintendo’s credit, Peach has taken some initiative over the years. She is a playable character in some of the more recent side scrollers (ergo she isn’t kidnapped by Bowser). There is also some character development that we’ve seen in the form of Super Paper Mario and Super Princess Peach.
However, the fact still remains that Peach is written, in general, as a poor ruler.
Why hasn’t Peach beefed up her security after so many years of being constantly invaded by Bowser?
Why hasn’t Peach taken actual measures to better defend herself?
If Peach is seen in some spin-off games as a capable woman who can handle herself, why don’t we see that behaviour in other games?
Why is she letting herself be constantly kidnapped by the same person and does virtually nothing to change her situation?
In the main Mario canon, she is basically written as a textbook example of an insane character. She makes no changes to her behaviour and judging by her shocked expression every time she’s kidnapped, it’s safe to say she was expecting outcomes to be different this time.
She’s been virtually in this bind for over 30 years. You’d think she’s learned a thing or two by this point, right?
Of course, this is all theory. I can’t tell you that Peach is actively looking to ruin her entire kingdom by being kidnapped constantly. We honestly don’t know much about Princess Peach to adequately determine if she is insane.
But that raises another aspect: Peach hasn’t seen much character development over the years.
The only notable character development we see is in Super Paper Mario, where she joins the party. She joins as a way to atone for her passiveness and sitting by the sidelines waiting to be rescued all the time.
We see this same behaviour in Super Princess Peach, a 2005 game where she rescues the Mario Brothers from Bowser this time.
We see her written in those games as an active woman who wants to make a difference.
And that’s a good thing.
But in most other games — especially main franchise games — we don’t see that behaviour.
It’s also worth noting that Super Princess Peach is the only game ever released by Nintendo where Peach is the main protagonist.
This brings me to Toadette. And if you think Toadette is different, well, prepare to be not surprised.
She made her first appearance in Mario Kart: Double Dash in 2003, and since then has mainly appeared in spin-off games. Through her appearances in Paper Mario: Thousand-Year Door, Mario Party series, and Dance Dance Revolution: Mario Mix, amongst others, Toadette is written on two ends:
- She’s temperamental when things aren’t going her way.
- She’s excited when things are going her way.
I can say this with confidence, especially when you look at Mario Maker 2’s Story Mode. In there, Toadette is known as “The Chief” and expresses this same kind of behaviour.
While Mario is restoring the castle to its former glory, Toadette talks about how excited she is about the castle. Mentioning that it’s her dream to build such a grand structure.
However, whenever the Toad workers are taking a nap, or have left their post for whatever reason, she’ll complain and get angry over the situation. She’ll vent by expressing stereotypical manager behaviour and complain about the union and even docking pay from her workers.
Even talking to the Toad workers can give you other interesting perspectives. One Toad says The Chief seems troubled, or they’ll say something behind The Chief’s back. One even suggesting equal treatment to all workers if they were in charge of this project.
But isn’t this dialogue meant to be light humour not meant to be read too much?
Sure it’s written to be like that but that does raise questions.
Here we have an official Nintendo product making a “light joke” about being anti-union (organizations that are meant to look after the little guy) and putting women in higher authority.
Either they were pushing that sort of agenda, or they don’t stand by it at all and off-handedly implied this stance.
Either way, this attitude that Toadette expresses paints a picture that she is kind of like Peach. Give her power, and she’ll find ways to prove she’s unworthy.
Female Characters That Get Build Up, But Set Aside
Thankfully over the years, there have been many notable female characters that have gotten character growth over the years. Maybe not so much in Nintendo’s case, but we start to see female characters grow in a wide variety of other series outside of that sphere.
Two series that I’m familiar with to some extent is the Yakuza series as well as Kingdom Hearts.
While Yakuza has treated their female characters incredibly well and some truly amazing moments, I can’t really say the same with Kingdom Hearts.
Yes. I’m referring to Kairi for this one.
While Kairi got the same kind of treatment as most female characters (damsel in distress) in the first KH game, we started to see her grow more as the series went on.
She went from being one of the Princesses of Heart to eventually wielding a Keyblade and being one of the light members in the final fight in KH3.
That’s a phenomenal amount of growth over the course of the story but it felt rather wasted at the end. Yes, she did save Sora that one time and was fighting a little bit, but outside of that, her potential felt rather thrown away as she was used as more fuel to drive Sora into saving her again.
This sort of treatment echoes what other prominent characters of power seem to have. Prime examples are Peach and Toadette who are written as authority figures but have virtually no or little authority.
Kairi is a significantly worse case in that there has been a good amount of character development for her. From flashbacks throughout the series to the training that she went through in KH3, we’ve seen Kairi grow periodically.
And that’s a good thing.
But to watch her be used as another point for Sora’s motivation felt underhanded for Kairi. It’s a waste of potential and getting the player excited.
Why Does Any Of This Matter?
Gaming these days is growing in popularity with more people playing video games now than ever before. Not to mention we are getting prominent actors hyping up games and even making appearances in it.
Paired up with amazing graphics and deep lore and plotlines, video games have evolved into virtual storybooks in essence.
While this is great, if you look to traditional storybooks, you’ll find that there aren’t that many women portrayed in prominent positions. You’ll find they’re written as supportive characters or omitted in stories altogether.
Similar to female characters in video games.
The problems we are running in with books is that many young women only have access to stories where the woman sits by the sidelines while men do all the heavy lifting. That or female characters aren’t even present at all in the story.
This leads to many of the gender issues that we have today. Women can’t get close and are meant to be at the bottom. Or if you give them power, they’ll find a way to squander it.
These kinds of beliefs are unfounded as we’ve seen time and again. And I think gaming companies know this.
From popular series like Final Fantasy, Bayonetta, Metroid, Persona, Yakuza, Danganronpa and many others, female characters are written with care, consideration, and respect. They’re treated overall as equals to men.
But I think we can do better.
I think gaming studios should be writing and creating more female characters who take more active roles. Not to mention being able to carry out those roles well.
And while they’re doing a good job with this for games for an older audience, I can’t say the same for a younger audience. My only example of a kid-friendly game is Mario and you already know how I feel about some of the female characters in terms of this topic.
At the end of the day, gaming is evolving into elaborate stories, and we know the sort of problems we face when there is little to no female presence or female characters portrayed in less than desirable light in those stories.
And while this entire problem can seem like a minor problem to an industry that has other bigger problems, I think it’s important we continue to work on this.
Because these are characters that we are writing.
And while the views of a single employee don’t represent how a company views a character, it still says something about the person behind the character.