A discussion on how we should perceive female characters in games.

Those of you who have been following me for quite a while know that I do not like writing about women. I do not have anything against women – quite the opposite, actually. It is just that I prefer to avoid writing about hot-button issues – feminism, sexism, racism, politics, religion, et cetera – because the accompanying comment section usually devolves into controversy and shouting matches. Moreover, I feel like these issues, especially feminism, have been discussed to a point where I do not feel like I have anything additional to add to the conversation. Yet, here I am right now sharing my thoughts on women in video games, for the first time ever (and, to be honest, likely the last).

The reason why I wanted to bring up this topic now is that in the past month or so, the matter of females in video games has been reinvigorated thanks in part to one company’s mindless remakrs regarding the subject. Ubisoft, when asked why their upcoming game Assassin’s Creed Unity does not feature playable female assassins, responded by saying that they did not have the resources nor the time to implement a playable female character in the cast, to which everyone and their mothers proclaimed, “bullsh*t.” Ubisoft, are you really trying to convince me that in arguably your biggest game of the year – one that prominently features cooperative play, no less – you cannot afford to add a single playable female character option into the game? Either Ubisoft is straight up lying, or they have their priorities in the wrong place. It certainly does not help that not only a year ago they released a game featuring a female assassin, meaning they have the assets somewhere in their building but refuse to use them. (Disclaimer: I am not a video game developer and thus do not how difficult it would be to transfer assets from one game to another, but I assume it cannot be that difficult.)

All of this is made worse by the fact that when asked about playable female characters in Far Cry 4, the company made the same exact excuse.

I do not want to focus on just Ubisoft here; Ubisoft’s ridiculous PR disaster serves only to illustrate our entire industry’s general attitudes towards female characters in games. The topic of women in gaming has long been debated, though recently it has gained much traction thanks in part by the proliferation of the feminist movement in our modern culture. Even if you do not agree with the feminist agenda, it is difficult to disagree that the gaming industry is primarily male-centric, and as a result so is our gaming culture, which unsurprisingly scares away many female gamers who want to get involved with the hobby. This begs the question of whether we can do anything about it.

When it comes to the feminist movement regarding video games, there are commonly two camps. The first camp, which I will call the “passive” camp, would like to see more female characters in video games just for the sake of having more female characters in video games. There should not be any need for a “reason” or “explanation” as to why the character is female; if males and females should be treated equally in video games, then a character can be female for the same reasons another can be male – that is, for no reason at all. The second camp, which I will call the “active” camp, would like to see more female characters in video games, but only if there is a reason as to why the character is female. If a female character is thrown into the game without explanation, it does not really fix anything, and implies that the action of making a character female is almost meaningless.

I, personally, fall into the passive camp, and for reasons I will explain later. But first, I would like to talk about one company in particular: Nintendo.

Nintendo has always been perceived for being disconnected from reality and has long been under fire for retaining old-fashioned tropes about women in their games. The most popular example of this is the portrayal of Princess Peach in the Super Mario series of games, where Peach is kidnapped repeatedly and it is up to Mario to save her. In the past, this trope may have been more acceptable, but as times have changed, Nintendo seems to refuse to budge, and so Princess Peach continues to be a target of criticism within the feminist circle (though some would argue that Peach is actually an example of a positive woman in gaming). Those who have been following the industry closely for the past several years may recognize the name Anita Sarkeesian, who infamously posted a video on the internet decrying Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda series because the games’ Princess Zelda is depicted as helpless unless donning a masculine persona as Shiek or Tetra.

However, recently Nintendo has been doing a remarkable job at being inclusive of female gamers when it comes to their software titles. The most recent entry in the Super Mario franchise, Super Mario 3D World, features a playable Princess Peach with her own unique ability, a float jump – which, by the way, is not at all sexist, unlike another game featuring Princess Peach in which her powers are literally her emotions. Last year’s Pikmin 3 featured, for the first time, a female explorer, a botanist named Brittany. Even Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, a game that was released earlier this year, featured a playable female character, Dixie Kong (welcome back, Dixie!). Nintendo seems more progressive as ever when it comes to including female characters in their games, and what better way to drive that point home than by looking at their presence at E3?

Yes, Nintendo – who is often seen as a close-minded company – managed to show off more female playable characters in a forty-minute presentation at E3 this year than any other company in the entirety of the show combined. Look at Splatoon, for example, Nintendo’s newest IP, in which female characters play a primary role in the game’s advertising. Bayonetta 2, though far from featuring the most idealistic woman in history, has a pretty cool female protagonist. Hyrule Warriors includes more playable female characters than male. Xenoblade Chronicles X allows players to choose between either a male or a female character and customize them in any way they want. And finally, Super Smash Brothers features a wide array of different female fighters to choose from, one of which was announced at the show floor this year – Palutena from the Kid Icarus series. Nintendo even had numerous female developers and representatives showing off their new games both on the show floor and at developer roundtables.

Yet everyone seems to be ignoring these triumphs by Nintendo and instead opting to focus on Ubisoft’s complete butchering of an explanation as to why their games no longer feature female protagonists. In fact, the biggest debate coming out of Nintendo during E3 was whether Link was a male or a female, because somehow that is a big deal (more on that later). Is it not sad that we choose to ignore in which places video games get women right?

Actually, no, it is not. I sort of prefer it to be that way, in fact.

I mentioned earlier that I fell into the passive camp when it came to putting female characters into video games. This is because while I would love to see more playable female characters, I do not want it to be the focus of discussion. I would rather see discussions about video games be about the games themselves, not that they are some sort of social commentary (unless they are, of course, deliberately political in that manner). When you read impressions on games like Splatoon or Bayonetta, you do not see many people praising Nintendo for being so progressive; you instead see reasons as to why the game is fun. It is almost always game over characters, which is what Nintendo has always been about anyways. I think it is a good thing that people are just accepting the fact that these characters are female rather than make a big deal out of it. (And yes, I know I am making a big deal out of it myself right now, but I do it for the sake of making a point).

And in regards to whether Link is a male or a female – does it really matter? The idea that making Link female somehow alters the very essence of what the series is about seems preposterous. Last I checked, Zelda games have always been about exploring a massive world with childlike wonderment and willingness. I think we can all relate to that, whether you are male, female, or a cucumber.

Do you agree with my perspective on female characters in video games? Are you in the active camp or the passive camp? Speak your thoughts in the comments below, and please keep comments civil. Thanks for reading!


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