With game companies targeting their growing female audiences more, numerous games have been released in recent years with gender issues in mind. There are many strong female leads to choose from; Metroid’s Samus Aran, Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine, Yuna from Final Fantasy X, Lara Croft, etc. Now it seems the list of weak or stereotypical female characters is limited to the genres of retro, arcade, and fighting.
Part of the reason is that, like the feminist movement, it takes a while for people to change their attitudes towards gender roles. Take Half Life as an example. Half Life 1 starred a male protagonist and male scientists, security guards, and soldiers (much like Officer Jenny and Nurse Joy from Pokemon). Half Life 2 introduced Alyx Vance, the gifted daughter of one of Gordon Freeman’s colleagues, who does get into trouble a few times (as does Gordon), but is just as ass-kicking as our crowbar-wielding hero.
Several story and gameplay issues are involved here. One is the nature of video game characters and how we view them. If a game to you is just something to play to blow off steam or play with friends, then gender doesn’t matter. When you play Mario Party, do you really care if you’re Yoshi or Daisy (though her annoying voice may make this a moot point)?
It also matters how game developers view games. Does it matter that Mario must rescue the princess from Donkey Kong, or is it just a player navigating a virtual world by way of a sprite that just happens to look like a plumber? If video game developers do not aspire to tell stories with their games, then their characters, male or female, are simply placeholders and nothing else.
As game designers change the way they approach games, their stories have become more developed and thus have room for real characterization, more than just sticking a bow on Pac-Man’s head and calling it Ms. Pac-Man. Let’s take a look at the Resident Evil series. Female and male characters alike are developed to various lengths, and there is usually a male and female lead in each game. For example, Resident Evil 4 had two returning characters, Leon and Ada, and both are zombie-killing machines. RE characters run the gamut from pathetic Sherry to Wesker the badass, and everything in between. Some are stereotypes (Ashley, the damsel in distress) and others have a bit more depth (Claire the biker chick).
The point is that gender is not a factor here. Jill may be stacked like older video game icon Lara Croft, but she can decapitate a zombie faster than you can say “objectify.” And we have a variety of macho and not so macho guys to choose from for our protagonists (there’s a reason Chris has been in more games than Steve). In this series, it is character, not gender that matters. I take this as a sign that video game stories have seen improvement in the way women are portrayed, and I predict we will see even more development in other aspects of storytelling and social issues as well.