I've been thinking lately: what is the difference between a well-written female video game character and one that makes me want to throw the controller at the screen? The answer comes down to a simple rule. A well-written female character is treated the same as a male video game character.
It's so straightforward, but so rarely seen.
Of course, it's always interesting and gratifying to see games that acknowledge the unique difficulties a female character might have in a particular setting, the discrimination she has to overcome or simply the ways that different expectations and opportunities affect her. Those sorts of games are the icing on the cake. But cake without icing is still good, and games where the female characters are given equal treatment (in development, in their role in the game, and in the costumes that they wear) are more than enough for me.
So what does "equal treatment" mean, in practical terms? Let's break it down.
- Beginner Level -
Really, really basic, but missed by many games.
In Super Mario Bros Wii -- a game without much plot, or depth at all -- there are four playable characters. As the game is a basic platformer, it doesn't really matter who they are (beyond, of course, the obvious Mario and Luigi). Two of them are anthropomorphized toadstools without any backstory of personality at all. Yet they are still all male. And sure, this is just one basic platformer. It doesn't really matter. But it's representative of the set-up of most games. The playable characters -- the heroes -- are all guys.
In less straightforward games, it would be great to have female playable characters, or the option to make your character female in customizable RPGs. If the main character is a man, a game could include female characters as allies, as rivals, or as enemies. Making sure women actually exist in the game world is a good start. As long as...
She is not an object
Back to the Mario example: Princess Peach seems to spend her whole life being kidnapped by Bowser (or else playing all kinds of competitive and cooperative sports with him). Princess Peach doesn't really matter in the game. She's a name, a goal, a reason why Mario must kill koopas and jump over bottomless pits.
But women are left as Princess Peaches in all kinds of games. They are the prize, or are thrown in as something nice for the player to look at along the way.
A good female video game character should have her own reason for existing. She should not just be another part of the scenery, or a trophy to collect.
She is physically capable of standing
Realistic anatomy, please.
She's not risking her life to be "sexy"
Because bikini armor isn't really realistic for a skilled warrior.
If a game manages to achieve these simple goals (and already, many game series have been ruled out entirely) and has complexity beyond your basic platformer, they could try for:
- Advanced Level -
She plays an active part in the plot
The female character has some influence on events. Perhaps she's an ally who screws you over, or a rival who sets the plot in motion, or someone who offers assistance (for her own reasons, of course). Even if she isn't the protagonist, she must exist for a reason and engage with the game world in a significant way.
She has personality and reasons for her actions
She isn't just doing things because they need to be done for the plot. She has goals and motivations. She's sweet, or she's snarky, or fierce, or afraid... it doesn't really matter what her personality or goals are, as long as she has ones that aren't built up of sexist expectations and flat stereotypes.
She's not treated like a big deal
The main character in Portal is a woman. But casual players might not know this, because it's never explicitly mentioned. No one in the game makes a big deal that the protagonist is female. She just is. Although the presence of a female warrior might be notable in certain game worlds, not every game needs to shout to the rooftops that it is daring enough to have a woman in it. We're 50% of the population. It shouldn't be that unusual.
- Master level -
She is not invisible
Even the Dragon Age series, which feature great female characters and a highly rewarding plotline for female PCs, do not feature their female characters in the ads, beyond the sexy and scantily dressed Morrigan. By looking at the advertising or the packaging, you would never know that you could play as a guy and as a girl, or that the other female characters you encounter are compelling individuals as well. It's great when games include wonderful female characters... it would be even better if marketing allowed for it as well.