Opinion 4

Men and Women In Gaming: My Protagonist Problem

There’s been much discussion across the internet recently about male privilege in video games. Men don’t have to worry about discrimination based on their sex, they’re never sexually harassed online by the opposite gender because of the way their voice sounds and the validity of their ‘gaming cred’ is never on the line because of the chromosomes that make them who they are.

One huge negative to this male-oriented world is the over-abundance of male protagonists that fill the role of main ‘good guy’: the person the spotlight is almost always on and, more importantly, the character that players will spend a vast majority of their time controlling and connecting with.

Just off the top of my head I could name Kratos, Jak, Cloud, Mario, Marcus Phoenix, Dante, Mega Man, Wander and many more without so much as the blink of an eye. And in many of those situations, there is a woman that needs to be rescued or protected. It would take me quite a while to come up with that many female leads. I mean, a seriously long time.

The few that immediately come to mind are Bayonetta, Zero from Drakengard 3, Lara Croft and Samus, which I think more than a few of us mistook for being a guy until one of our friends in the know said: “Actually, that’s a chick kicking all that alien ass!” It’s a sad truth, but many of gaming’s greatest heroes have a penis. But this article isn’t about the under-representation of women in gaming – it’s about who I think makes the better character. Who draws me in the most and grabs my attention? Who best gets my blood pumpin’ and my tears flowin’ and gets me ready to fight that final boss and watch a sad tale, long journey or hard-fought battle come to a joyous close?

While I can’t answer that question for any of you (I wouldn’t even know where to start), I can without a doubt say that a strong male character will always pique my interest the most. Surprise, surprise, trust me, I know. But that’s just what I like, and quite frankly, it’s what I’ve almost solely been exposed to for the majority of my life – playing games or not. At a young age, I fell in love with Secret of Mana and the story of a boy from Potos village who had to kill his pet dragon to save the world, a task that also erased one of his best friends from existence.

Move down my gaming timeline several years and I come into contact with two games that I still consider to be some of my most influential interactive experiences: Kingdom Hearts and Shadow of the Colossus. The former has a young island-dwelling boy (about my age at the time) named Sora fighting to rescue two childhood friends from the grips of the darkness, a force that looks to consume all that is good. Throw in a handful of Disney and Final Fantasy characters, an upbeat and incredibly atmospheric soundtrack, and the age old story of good vs. evil with elements of bravery and the importance of friendship, and 12-year-old me couldn’t ask for a better game. It’s a childish title with cliché after cliché (I knew that even back then), but it keeps my eyes glued to the screen for hours at a time with over-dramatic proclamations and over-the-top combat to back it up.

Three years later, Shadow of the Colossus came to take all of those lessons of heroism and good guy overcoming the bad guy and turned them upside down. The game’s protagonist, Wander, is a mysterious warrior we know nothing about, other than his quest to save a deceased woman he brings to a forbidden land. In order to resurrect this person, he must defeat 16 colossi that guard part of the land. After each victory, Wander becomes more battle-worn and dark, eventually succumbing to what appears to be a demonic possession. Throughout the game, the lines blur between right and wrong and the focus shifts more toward what a person will do to bring back the ones they love; basically, this game is melancholy incarnate. It was one of the most subtly breathtaking games I’ve ever played, and still has me holding my breath for The Last Guardian.

As a writer, man, human being, art enthusiast and , most importantly, gamer, I love these titles for so many reasons I could never hope to express with a few paragraphs. These stories, among many others, did their best to engage me with gameplay, emotion, art style and soundtrack, but one part of them I will never forget are the characters used to enrich all of these aspects. From smaller traits such as eye color, fashion sense and hairstyle to more substantial features such as background, morals and personality, I wouldn’t want these characters to be altered in any way – and that includes gender.

It might be that I grew up in a time where lead female characters barely existed or it could be that I feel more attached to someone because we share a common trait as seemingly trivial as what we have between our legs, but when it comes to protagonists, I prefer men to women. It might be a stupid, uninformed and largely ignorant opinion, but it’s mine and nobody can take that away from me. One thing, however, is for sure: As ignorant as I might be for having that opinion, I would be a thousand times more so if I didn’t understand that there are millions of women out there who want and appreciate the same thing I do: a protagonist they can relate to through gender, as well as personality, morals and whatever else a person thinks creates a truly memorable character.

The games I listed above truly shaped who I am as a gaming enthusiast, and I have come to expect the same level of storytelling, sound design and gameplay from anything I pick up. Every gamer has these same building blocks in their past. Games that we will forever remember and hold close to our hearts. Games that will dictate how we look at every other title that comes into our hands. Like so many other parts of life, the first things we do in anything will continue to echo with us every step of the way.

But what does that have to do with determining which gender makes a better protagonist? Quite frankly… everything. For me, I wouldn’t change a single detail about those games. Those original experiences created an outline for my gaming expectations that will last the rest of my life. As a young kid, I didn’t really have much of a choice. Everything that looked fun to me happened to have a male protagonist. But, again, that’s because almost everything had a dude at center stage. For that, all I can say is I’m lucky to be a 24-year-old white male (a saying I’ve found will almost certainly never lose its validity).

But what about all the girls and women out there now who want the same things as me? What about the females who want to play as females?

Well, as it turns out, while there may be a decent number of games to support female avatars; in games like Zelda, Halo and Ratchet and Clank (where the character is much more developed than just an avatar), the pickings are quite slim indeed. Keep in mind, I’m talking main characters – while there are many great supporting females in gaming, the number of female title characters is sorely lacking. Here’s the list of many of the biggest female characters in gaming:

Samus Aran, Lightning (FFXIII series), Zelda (terrible CDi game) Aya Brea (Parasite Eve), Jade (Beyond Good & Evil), Regina (Dino Crisis), Sheva (Resident Evil 5), Bayonetta, Zero (Drakengard 3), Faith Connors (Mirror’s Edge), Nilin (Remember Me), Lara Croft, April Ryan (The Longest Journey), Chell (Portal series), Terra (Final Fantasy 6), Miku Hinasaki (Fatal Frame), Ms. Pac Man, Red (Transistor), Aqua (Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep) and Ellie from the Last of Us and its Left Behind DLC.

There’s 20 names right there. Although it’s not every single female protagonist, that’s a huge portion of them. Spanning all of gaming, I was able to come up with 20 names. Compare that to male protagonists and, well… there is no comparison. Now, understanding this, think about the fact that in a 2014 study by The Guardian, it was revealed that 52 percent of gamers are female. Sure, that includes mobile games that often times don’t feature main characters, but with numbers like that, surely 30-40 percent of women must be playing the titles that offer protagonists. Even if just 10 percent of the 52 percent were playing story-driven games – let’s face it, 10 percent of main characters are not female. It’s sad, but it’s true.

Now, I know there’s going to be people out there who say, “Who cares about the character? As long as the gameplay is on point, what else matters?” or, “Most games with female protagonists don’t sell as well so developers stray away from them” or, “Game development is a male-dominated field and the games only reflect that because it’s easier to tell a story about a guy if you are a guy.” Honestly, the arguments go on. We’re in the middle of a very heated time in gaming’s history and there are plenty of viewpoints to be heard and opinions to be explored.

But amid all the outcry and accusations, I come to you to simply say that people care a great deal about the characters in the games they play.

I’m not here to talk about how women should dress in video games (fashion has never and will never be my strong suit); I’m not here to say we need more women working on video games and I’m not here to talk about the obscene injustice that befalls not only women, but everybody during online gaming interactions (there’s a lot of potty mouths with low self-esteem, weak moral guidance and a penchant for acting tough out there. Shocker, the internet is a horrible place that brings out the most vile in people.)

I’m just here to say that I still remember the first time I beat Kingdom Hearts and saw Sora make an incredibly cheesy, yet powerful promise to one of his best friends ever. I still remember watching Wander’s horse, and only link to the living world, Agro, fall from a cliff in Shadow of the Colossus. The sad look on his face as he walked away to face the last colossus; a rare moment of emotion from the rather stoic warrior. And I remember watching my brother finish Secret of Mana and restoring peace to a land plagued by evil – a memory I had from a time when I could barely hold a controller.

These are characters I will surely remember as long as my brain is able to store information. They have made me smile, laugh, rage, wonder, crave, and rejoice. Such strong feelings have come from something as simple as a few properly placed pixels and that’s silly, but that’s who I am, who I’ve come to be and what I’ve been exposed to. I couldn’t have asked for anything more as I’ve been blessed with great games and unforgettable moments afforded to me by, you guessed it, my favorite characters.

The only thing I do ask is that women be afforded the same chance to have those deep experiences with female characters. Nowhere does it say that females must play as females to get the full experience – absolutely not! But it would be nice if they could at least say they had more of an equal opportunity. I mean, even though I prefer male characters maybe I could benefit more now from a few more strong female leads. Tomb Raider and Metroid Prime are some of my favorite games of all time, so why should I stop there?

For that matter, why should anybody stop there? Why should developers stop there? We need more African, Native American, Asian, Mexican, etc. protagonists. Not just for all of the races represented there but for everyone. A little diversity could go a long way in this industry. I mean, it’s a little strange that almost everybody worth making video games about are white males, and again, for that I’m lucky to be a white male, but variety is the spice of life and, for me and many others, gaming is a lifestyle. Let’s do something about that.

This article will be part of a two-part story with the second article giving insight into the minds of the rest of the Power Up Gaming crew and how they’ve been affected by the same phenomena within their own gaming career.

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  • kasl005

    As an obsessive female console gamer, I can honestly say that it has never bothered me what gender I was playing if the story was engaging. Far Cry, Deus Ex, any of the assassins creed entries… All male leads and i never once thought “oh damn id love this more if i could play as a girl” in fact, in games where gender was selective like Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls, id usually have multiple run throughs in both genders. Perhaps this is more influenced by the fact that I’ve always been a big fiction reader too, where immersion is all about a quality story and doesn’t necessarily require you to see yourself in the main protagonist. While I’m all for equality in all things, not just gaming, alot of the whole “gamers gate” shenanigans has had me rolling my eyes.

    • AFlynn

      See, these are the kind of constructive comments the Internet needs more of. This actually gives insight into the mind of someone and tells a little about them as a person without just disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing and then leaving the conversation cold. The second part of my article actually continues with this thought. The thought that maybe women don’t mind playing as a guy over and over. I think we can all agree that gameplay, storyline, soundtrack etc. come before gender of a character, but inversely it’s very important to others that we see forward progress along with these other aspects as well. Thanks much for the comment and would you be opposed if I use it in the second part of this?

  • Grim

    I don’t think it’s strange that most games are about white men since the people who made them are white men. The same goes for Japanese games since they contain horrendous amount of Japanese characters. European developers tend to make games about work(think of the horrendous amount of simulator games out there), grand strategy and medieval times.

    Game devs make games based on what’s close to them at heart, stuff that are familiar to them tempered by their decades-old established demographic. It’s weird seeing all the gaming media calling for, belittling these old devs to change and make a new demographic when they really should be calling out newer devs to pick up the new wave of gamers.

    Why does one demographic must be crushed to make room for a new one?

  • AFlynn

    Nobody’s saying to crush any demographic, we just think it’s time for more of everything else. That doesn’t mean completely wipe out what has been established and never use a white male again. If anything, I think I state pretty clearly that I wouldn’t change anything about the characters I do love. Rather, I just want more of a chance to branch out from that.