Women In Games

A brief essay on how women are portrayed in video games.

Ian Smith-Garcia

CTIN – 190


Final Paper


Women In Games


            Games designers create and sculpt narrative structures around which stories are constructed. These stories are built by the players and by the gaming community, but a person can only manipulate the story so much. There are certain unchangeable traits of a game, which remain unmailable. More often than not videogames are male-centric narratives, meaning not only are players forced to play male characters, but that the narrative is constructed around the idea of a stereotypical American teenage male. It is  this type of storytelling, perpetuated by years of reiteration that refuses to allow women to be seen as more than objects within the narrative structure of most videogames.

            The narratives of games have been a major influence for me as a storyteller. It was through video games that I was first exposed to narratives. Since I grew up without a television, playing computer games was one of the few ways I was exposed to story, outside of the monthly film my parents would take me to when we went into the city. It began circa 1993. My brother and I had already been playing Wolfenstein for months. We were addicted to the structure of the game: running through Nazi castles, killing bad guys, picking up treasure to gain points and dog food to restore our diminished health. About a year later, my father introduced us to DOOM, which I would play for hundreds if not thousands of hours over the next twenty years.

            Why did these games appeal to me? I had no personal vendetta against Nazi Germany, nor did I believe that demons would soon be invading our world. The easiest answer is that it was a way for my dad, brother and I to bond. My father was never into sports, and as I said we didn’t have a T.V. And because he worked so much the only time I got to spend with my father was when we took a trip to his office at Vulcan Materials Corporation and would play DOOM on his work computer. It was the one thing we could do together and bond over. I did not notice it at the time, but all the games I played were narratives constructed not only from an exclusively male point of view, but actually to take it a level further, they ignored any semblance of femininity from the real world. In every single one of those early ID Software first person shooters (Wolfenstein & Spear of Destiny, DOOM & DOOM II, Heretic, and Quake), only male characters exist in the game universe. There are no female Nazis in Wolfenstein, no girl marines in DOOM and no woman witches in heretic. I didn’t think about this at the time. I was just a little boy who wanted to shoot some monsters, but the lack of playable female characters, combined with the obvious refusal to acknowledge even the slightest amount of background female talent, suggested a world that did not need a woman’s voice.

            Of course things have changed since 1993. And obviously, first person shooters are but one slice of the gaming pie. There is a multitude of different games from different genres. Now, female characters have at least made there way into the background, and while female driven games are not nearly as common as there male-gendered counterparts, the trend seems to be balancing out.

            We will delve more into that, but first let us discuss narrative more fully. It can be argued that a game is not necessarily a narrative because “narrative flows under the direction of the author,” on the contrary a game “depends on the player for motive power,” (Jenkins, 1). But games are not inherently stories just as stories are not inherently games, As Jenkins informs us when he says, “Games may be an abstract, expressive, and experiential form, closer to music or modern dance than to cinema. Some ballets (The Nutcracker for example) tell stories, but storytelling isn't an intrinsic or defining feature of dance,” (Jenkins 1-2). Either may be shaped into the other, and this is often the case as we have seen time and time again.

A narrative based medium such as a film might be transformed into a game, with a narrative that is parallel to the original work. Or it might be a game that shares its name with a film and nothing more, such as the Atari game, perhaps not so aptly titled, Star Wars. Jesper Juul writes about the 1983 game Star Wars that is loosely based upon a single sequence from the film. As Juul writes, “The primary thing that encourages the player to connect game and movie is the title "Star Wars" on the machine and on the screen. If we imagine the title removed from the game, the connection would not be at all obvious. It would be a game where one should hit an "exhaust port" (or simply a square), and the player could note a similarity with a scene in Star Wars, but you would not be able to reconstruct the events in the movie from the game,” (Juul, Para 20). And this is true. There is really nothing else to connect the game Star Wars to the film. The narrative is completely truncated and changed. This is not to say that there is no narrative. There clearly is a story, it is simply a less complicated one. There is no drama about Luke and Leia in peril. Or how Luke’s aunt and uncle were killed by storm-troopers. There is only an unnamed character flying a crudely designed spacecraft, fighting enemies, trying to bomb a square surface area.


But maybe games don’t need to tell stories. If we are to follow what Jenkins tells us, game designers are not so much storytellers, as much as they are people who design spaces where narratives may take place. He explains this saying, “Game designers don't simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces,” (Jenkins 3). It is these spaces that narratives are built around, sometimes as an integral part of the gaming experience. For example: Mario’s goal of rescuing Princess Peach was crafted around the design of a scrolling platform based game, where the player assumes the role of an Italian plumber, who searches for coins and fights anthropomorphic mushrooms. The intent of finding and saving the princess is important to the overall experience of the Mario franchise but if Peach were not help captive by Bowser, the gameplay would remain untouched. Even so, the idea of being awarded the hand of a fair maiden after rescuing her from the clutches of the cantankerous turtle-demon, seems troubling to say the least. And if game designers are merely the sculptors in a larger, grander gaming universe, then who is responsible for the ramifications of preserving a patriarchal standard where women are given away as consolation prizes?

In 1996 the first Tomb Raider debuted. Tomb Raider’s protagonist Lara Croft was the subject of a plethora of contrasting opinions. While the series has been immensely popular with both boys and girls, it received both high praise and harsh criticism. On one hand Tomb Raider was commended as being radical for breaking away from a male-centric gaming perspective. Others have castigated the game for what is seen as an overly sexualized, unrealistic Barbie Doll version of a woman who knows how to fire a gun.

Is Lara Croft a positive or negative role model for girls? Maja Mikula a video game scholar from the University of Technology Sydney, who writes extensively about gender and the sociocultural impact of videogames, discusses the ambivalence relating to this subject. In her paper, Gender and Videogames: the political valency of Lara Croft, Mikula writes, “Lara is everything that is bad about representations of women in culture, and everything good,” (Mikula 79-80). On one hand, Lara is a skilled fighter, successful archeologist and best-selling writer, who refuses to rely on men. On the other hand she appears as a caricature of a female, with overly large breasts and an unrealistically small waist. This personification seems to suggest that only women with fall into socially idealized standards of beauty can attain goals in life.

            Since Tomb Raider’s release nineteen years ago, one might think that the proverbial gates would be flooded with strong, autonomous, intelligent women who might be offered as many roles as their pixelated, male counterparts. And while that number certainly has risen (think Mona Sax from Max Payne & Claire Redfield from Resident Evil), it is not without a catch. Mikula explains that there is, “a recent tendency to allow female characters to be physically and emotionally powerful and independent—so long as they’re young, pretty and have large breasts,” (Mikula 80). But perhaps this is a necessary evil. If presenting game characters with exaggerated physical features is used to sell games that offer female gamers a chance to pilot a strong, independent woman, then maybe the reasoning can be justified.

When we consider the male characters of games, there exist similar problems of unrealistic physical attributes. Take a look at any male protagonist. All are six feet tall, have six-pack abs and perfectly chiseled chins. Admittedly, young boys are not subjected to the harsh, often unachievable expectations of beauty that girls are. In addition, it should be noted that unattainable standards of beauty are nothing new in the media. For the entire history of film, movie stars have been gorgeous; the most successful pop singers are always attractive. But games are not pieces of art where the viewer relinquishes control and authorship to the creator. Games are inherently symbiotic, with a team of game designers and creators, sculpting the original design along with a portion of the narrative, then allowing players to offer something resembling input by telling the characters what to do and where to go. I would like to suggest, that it is because of this shared experience, that the identity a player acquires through assuming the role of a character, becomes fundamental to how players self-identify and furthermore has a great impact on how a player will view themselves in the real world. It is for this reason that it becomes increasingly necessary to provide good role models for different groups of people, especially those who are underrepresented.

            Ironically when playing Tomb Raider, players are situated outside of Lara’s body. They are in essence allowed to control her. It is for this reason that accepting the role of Lara Croft can become a bit complicated. Tomb Raider is not a first person shooter. It is an adventure game, which is played in third person. We do not see the world through Lara’s eyes. We see the world through our own eyes, while at the same time able to see Lara and her body in full view. Mikula brings up an interesting point. “Male players seem to view themselves in the position of the subject and see Lara as the object of their ‘control’ and ‘care,’ (Mikula 81). Are males really identifying with Lara? I would like to suggest that through social roles acquired during the game of life, people follow established patterns and degrees of control, autonomy and dependence. By following these patterns throughout life, boys and girls unknowingly accept predetermined gender roles, institutionally shaped through years of public schooling and exposure to mainstream media.

            From the beginning, little boys and girls are treated differently. As Barrie Thorne writes in his book Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School, “Parents dress infant girls in pink and boys in blue, give them gender-differentiated names and toys, and expect them to act differently,” further supporting my argument he tells us, “Children pick up the gender stereotypes that pervade books, songs, advertisements, television programs, and movies,” (Thorne 2). This type of schooling continues into adulthood, where parents are no longer imprinting these standardized norms. Instead men and women willfully accept and enforce these roles by maintaining the often immutable grip of patriarchy. A male dominated society that tells us that women are objects molded to fit the majority of male-centric narratives.


Works Cited

            Jenkins, Henry. Game Design As Narrative Architecture. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Online.

            Juul, Jesper. Games Telling stories? -A brief note on games and narratives. Game Studies The International Journal of Computer Game Research. Volume 1, Issue 1

July 2001. Online.

         Mikula, Maja. Gender and Videogames: the political valency of Lara Croft. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies. Mar2003, Vol. 17 Issue 1, p79. 9p. Online.

Thorne, Barrie. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. Rutgers University Press. Print.

            Thornham, Helen. Ethnographies of the videogame: gender, narrative and praxis. Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, Vt. : Ashgate, c2011. Online.




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