It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in many branches of the entertainment industry. Male leads dominate Hollywood, it can be difficult to find women’s sports on television and we’ll be damned if we can find a breakfast cereal sold to us by a single cool ass, female cartoon mascot (it’s amazing the sort of shit that really grinds your gears at 3am after a bottle of spiced rum. Coco the Monkey can totally be a tomboy, right?). But one may think that at least in gaming, where developers are free to create whatever concepts and characters their hearts desire, there may be more gender equality.
This issue was brought to light in rather shocking fashion last month when an article on NPR related the incredible story of a 12-year-old girl who recognized what many older gamers casually gloss over: that male characters are almost always the default options for players. The girl, Maddie Messer, took issue specifically with Temple Run, a wildly popular mobile app game that at the time offered only a white male as a free, playable character. With her curiosity sparked, Messer researched by downloading other, similar games, and she found that only a ridiculously low minority of them employed free female characters for users to play with.
Expanding on her research, Messer ultimately wrote an op-ed that got picked up by the Washington Post. It subsequently prompted the creators of Temple Run (one of whom is a woman) to write to Messer and promise a free female character. That’s a pretty admirable triumph for a 12-year-old girl, and I’ll go so far as to applaud the makers of Temple Run, too, for correcting a problem they seem to have caused with innocent intentions. Unfortunately, however, neither Messer’s triumph nor the shift in Temple Run has fully corrected the larger issue at hand, which is that girls and young women need to see positive representations of themselves in gaming.
This is not a problem for boys and young men. Depictions of male characters are generally skilled, athletic, heroic, and just about every other positive quality out there. Female characters in gaming, however, are often portrayed as being weaker, needy and generally lacking even the most basic self defence skills that could prevent their ass getting grabbed up by a 100 pound supervillain (three words, sister: Pepper Spray Keyring). Consider even Princess Peach, the most significant female character in the most significant gaming series in history. Not that Mario is the most glamorous of male characters, but at the end of the day that overweight, fashion challenged schlub of a man is still a hero rescuing a hapless, pathetic princess.
Fortunately, there are some Mario games in which Princess Peach is a more powerful character, fighting for herself rather than waiting to be rescued. For instance, the Super Smash Bros. series has allowed players to embody Peach (and other female characters from Nintendo games) to jump into combat against other characters. And seriously? Princess Peach can beat the shit out of anyone and everyone now. Which is a pretty admirable feat for someone still solidly intent on entering combat in a ball gown.
The issue which Maddie Messer and Temple Run made clear is that we need more modern games with strong, playable female characters in them. But that doesn’t mean some such games don’t always exist. So for girls and young women looking for games they can enjoy as female characters, here are some of the most prominent examples available today.
They see me brawlin’, they hatin’
Expanding on the Super Smash Bros. mention, the “brawler” category has actually been one of the best areas of gaming when it comes to presenting strong female options. The Street Fighter series leads the way within this category as arguably the most highly regarded brawler franchise in history (even if it is one still problematically dominated by overtly muscular, meat-head men).
For about as long as there have been Street Fighter games, the female character Chun-Li has been playable, and even trailers for the upcoming Street Fighter V use Chun-Li and Ryu in a demo, as the unofficial defining characters of the series. Similarly, the Mortal Kombat brawler franchise has always employed female characters. And for a more modern example, app games like Injustice: Gods Among Us and Marvel: Contest Of Champions have done a wonderful job of utilizing female superheroes as playable options.
Somewhat surprisingly, the online casino gaming market has also been one of the more consistent branches of gaming in which to find a strong female character presence. At Betfair’s arcade site, there are gaming options ranging from Cleopatra Megajackpots and Amazon Queen to Fire Queen slots. These games don’t feature playable characters so much as imagery and settings as backdrops for casino games. However, it’s still nice to see a clear effort to include female icons alongside the male superhero characters traditional in casino arcades. In fact, there’s even a game called “Robyn,” which basically uses a cartoon, female version of the classic Robin Hood character.
In the garden of tomb raiding and beyond good and evil
Aside from casino gaming and brawler franchises it’s difficult to pinpoint an entire genre that employs strong female representation on a consistent basis—but that’s not to say there aren’t some excellent examples. Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider franchise is probably the strongest example, and characters like Jade of Beyond Good & Evil and Elena Fisher of Uncharted are also wonderful for girls and young women to see and embody.
My hope, and the hope of many young women, is that as this issue continues to be talked about there will be even more strong female characters in gaming. But for now, there are at least these options to help teach girls that they can kick just as much ass as the boys!
Teresa Pollard is a web designer and a freelance writer with a passion for all things tech and gaming.