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The Difficulties and Controversies of Designing Female Characters - Or, How Not to Add a Woman's Touch.

The issue of sexism in games has been around for awhile. Today's post talks about several ways designers are not helping matters with their designs.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

March 23, 2012

7 Min Read

There have been several pieces lately highlighting the issues of derogatory or sexist imagery in games. First was a post by a League of Legends artist who was rationalizing why their female characters were sexualized. Then a few weeks ago there was controversy over a comment about fighting games that sexual harassment of women is part of the community.

Whenever we have discussions about sexism and misogyny in games, the issue with female characters in games is brought up. Many titles treat women as either a sex object to lust after the player, or characters that have no real impact in the game.

Part of the problem has to do with how designers come up with designing female characters. And there is a general practice that having a female character is better than having no female characters in your game. This goes into this problem of just checking things off a list instead of making a reasonable attempt to fix it. However, for this post, I'm going to look at ways that it's far more damaging to have certain female characters in your game. Before we get started I have to say that this is all my opinion and I have no insight into the female mind. Some could argue that I don't have insight into the male mind either, but we'll leave that one alone.

1. Walking breasts: This one actually came from an interview about a TV movie but it does fit here. When Scfy channel released a movie based off of Peter Pan, they added a new female character. During an interview the director said that the reason for the new character was because they needed a woman to fill out the cast of men.

Having a female character whose role is to be a female character is not helping anyone. These super ancillary characters may have a few words here and there, but are for the most part relegated to the back. They may have one important scene used to rationalize why they are there, but after that it's back to the ether.

Recently with Gears of War 3, for the last game in the trilogy Epic added in two female characters. There is a far bigger issue of lazy writing by introducing characters at the end of trilogy that we are all suppose to care about. However as someone who has a very limited understanding of the series, it seems weird to have playable female characters who just show up at the end of the story.

2. He-Male or man-wo: Another common practice is designing a female character, with every defining trait is masculine. How many times have you seen a female character who is a tough, cocky, profanity spewing SOB who doesn't take anything from no one? The defining aspect of these characters is that you could replace them with a male counterpart without skipping a beat. Now I'm not arguing against strong female characters such as Samus from Metroid (ignoring Other M of course.) or Kerrigan from Starcraft. I’m against female characters that have an extra Y chromosome.

The problem stems that most games are not about dealing with emotions or personal threats, and instead about monsters and saving the world. It's hard to write a character that can let their guard down without it turning into a 20 minute soliloquy (once again not going to go into detail about Other M.)

Most designers place their female characters on one end of a spectrum. Either as a whiny scared baby who can't do anything without the player’s help. Or super tough bad-asses who would rather shoot you then help you, which sometimes transform into the other example near the end of the story. From what I saw in the first two Uncharted games (did not play #3 yet,) the women were written very well to be within that middle ground.

3. Fashion Failures: This one could fit into #1 on this list but it is extensive enough to stand on its own. These are female characters that are designed to wear next to nothing or provocative clothing. It's common practice that male characters in RPGs wear full body armor, while a female character gets the chain mail bikini. If you look at Ivy from the Soul Calibur series, not only does she wear less clothing in each sequel, but her breasts get bigger as well.

This issue also fits with the League of Legends problem. On one hand I agree with the artist that you have to design over the top characters to make them stand out in a 3/4th field of view. However, when you have a character whose background is that she is from the frozen north. Having her wear a two piece bikini is not helping your cause.

In a recent edition of Game Developer Magazine, there was a piece dealing with this issue. The author's solution which I agree with has to do with keeping the fashion consistent. One of my favorite examples of how to do it right, then went completely wrong is the Prince of Persia trilogy. In the first game: Sands of Time we're introduced to the Prince and the love interest/sidekick Fariah. Both characters wear less than normal clothing, the Prince is shirtless if I remember right, and Fariah wears the classic Arabian garb we've seen before. Unlike other games, it doesn't feel like the men and women were wearing completely different fashion styles.

Then we go to the Warrior Within. Where the Prince is now wearing body armor and the first female shown is wearing a chain mail breastplate and a thong. Somewhere I think the wires got crossed with that decision. From the article, it talked about how it's ok to dress female characters to be seductive when the time is right. I highly doubt someone entering a giant battle would decide to wear nothing but a bra to cover her chest.

Another point about fashion is making female characters that are in power, still a male fantasy. Once again I don't have any insight into the female mind, but how many women would like to wear a bra in the shape of two groping hands?

While I was at GDC, I attended Mare Sheppard's talk about the problem with women in games initiatives. After the panel I talked to her for a few minutes and asked her a question: “Do you feel that Bayonetta is an example of a positive model for women?" She responded with a very good point, that the character of Bayonetta could be an example if there were more variations of female character design.

When you look at male characters there are: average looking, muscular, thin, fat, ugly, bald and many more. For women we have predominately super models and that's it. Now this next part is completely my opinion but I have a theory why there are so few types of female characters.

I think most designers see it as a catch 22: if they create idolized beautiful women, they'll be seen as sexist. However if they create ugly, unattractive women then they'll come off as being misogynistic. From that, they decide on the lesser of two evils. Now you may be asking yourself an important question: "instead of going for 100% beauty or 100% ugly, why don't we see more middle ground design?" I wish I had an answer for that but I don't.

The culture of female characters seen as the lesser of the two sexes, or the object of desire has been around for a long time. Unfortunately evident by the fighting game controversy and women still receiving less pay then a man in the same job. As the game industry becomes more ingrained in popular culture, these issues are going to have to come to a head at some point. From Mare's talk at GDC, many women don't feel comfortable working in our industry and with how many gamers treat female characters and to some extent women, it's no wonder why.

Once again I wish that I had some kind of thought provoking miracle solution to fix this, but I don't. I don't know if I'm even the right person to have this conversation. I was raised primarily by my mother while my dad was working. However my mom did not raise me with a feminist point of view. But of an equality view: to not look down at anyone because of differences like skin color or sex.

Hopefully as more of these issues come to light, the industry as a whole will be able to reflect on these issues. I don't know how much of either an attack or praise posting this is going to get me, but I just wanted to get this off my chest.

Josh Bycer

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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