A matter of character?

May 20, 2014, Author: Jonn Blanchard

We’re used to strong male characters in our games, macho storylines and females usually being cast as the damsel in distress or, at best, the flawed sidekick. What will it take to make the industry redress the balance?

The first revolution
Ours is a strange industry. We struggle for acceptance in so many areas and extoll the virtues of what we are achieving that it’s always a little strange when we find an area that we are failing in. Technology-wise, video-games push the boundaries of what is possible in software, our animators are second to none and our stories rival Hollywood. Yet these just highlight the bad side, the constant spectre of violence and how we portray women.

There are very few titles that have a woman as a main character and fewer still that don’t rely on sex or a feeling of vulnerability to sell the main plot. These are stereotypes that we have, as a civilisation, largely grown out of. So why are they still an issue in our modern gaming society?

We have to travel back a bit to see how it began, during the 8-bit era the market was mostly made up of teenage boys. Games were written and marketed to this demographic exclusively and two things could sell a product to them; sex and violence. Probably the single greatest example of this was the box art for Barbarian. Featuring a Conan-style hero with a giant sword and a very scantily clad Maria Whittaker (a page three model for The Sun newspaper [*spits* – Ed]), it got young boys pulses racing and ended up being put to the top shelf in shops.

The game sold, it sold a lot, although to be fair it was a fairly good title and received a fair amount of critical acclaim. That wasn’t the only title and, despite causing outrage, it was a pattern that would continue. Games were trying to be a successful entertainment product and they were aping the only other entertainment product that they could; movies.

By and large movies have always followed the same pattern: Girl is put in danger, man fights bad guys, man rescues girl. There are variations to the theme but that’s the basic premise for most Hollywood blockbusters. Sometimes the girl will be headstrong and fights for herself, but the end result is generally the same.

The second revolution
So games followed this basic formula. If they contained a hero, it would usually follow that a damsel was in the mix somewhere. Things changed slightly when an electronics giant named Sony decided to enter the burgeoning video-game market.

The PlayStation was released in 1994 and was the first console to be marketed to adults. Sony used its film and music power to push the machine to a new demographic, realising early on that adults had more spending ability. At the same time, Sony managed to show that games weren’t just the hobby for the nerds, geeks and outcasts. They managed to do the impossible and make gaming cool.

With this move they opened the market up and changed gaming forever. Female gamers had existed before but in a subculture known for being invisible. The new ‘cool’ factor changed this, as male gamers became more noticeable, the female gamer followed suit. The industry reacted, badly. Tomb Raider was the first big attempt to make a female lead, and she was pretty kickass, but we hadn’t changed our practices much and Lara Croft became better known for defying gravity in certain key areas than for providing much of a role model.

The other attempts were, possibly, worse. Designers saw this new market and threw pink and ponies around. We were at the ‘girls play with dolls, boys play with guns’ era of gaming and even though slight improvements were made, it was still a long way off where it needed to be.

The issue, of course, was we were still taking our queues from Hollywood. Hollywood insisted that if we had a female protagonist then she should at least be beautiful. Instead of saying ‘this is a strong human being’ they said ‘isn’t she pretty?’

So it continued, we only knew how to sell to men and we learned our lessons by selling to adolescent men, but why is that still happening when we have female writers, designers, programmers and artists?

The industry has a good stable of females apart from the well known ‘celebrities’ like Roberta Williams, Rhianna Pratchett and Amy Hennig. There are countless other females in countless other roles in the industry, but the issue hasn’t improved that much.

The problem is that although we have some great talent working in the game making side of things, they aren’t the ones that make the decisions. We could have an all woman studio start up tomorrow and the chances are that the situation wouldn’t change. We are missing one key part. The people who currently decide what games become AAA titles are the publishers, and there are very few women working in the decision-making areas of major publishers.

The third revolution?
Until that imbalance is resolved or publishers become less important we won’t have our next revolution. Is the revolution coming? Yes, and it won’t be long.

We still follow movies, but that is changing. The video-game market is now vastly more profitable than the movie market and Hollywood has noticed by buying more and more licenses to make movie versions of top games. So this is the time; the third revolution of games has a chance to throw Hollywood into a revolution of its own.