By Russell Barnes
The following article is part of a multi-part series of excerpts from the author’s senior thesis. Start at the beginning here.
Discussion and Conclusion: The Ideal Female Video Game Character
We all have ideal definitions of various phenomena that we encounter. In video games, there is an ideal character model that developers heavily base their characters on for success. It’s not just the physical characteristics of the ideal that are emulated in the final product, but also the personality and social traits. Most video game characters are presumably developed with hopes of creating a product that generates a profit. Many female video game characters whose depictions come under critical scrutiny, such as Lara Croft, lead their franchises to commercial success. Critical success could be analyzed as well, yet it is not always reflected in financial gain, which helps further finance the development of future video games for the company.
Female video game characters, especially serving as the primary protagonist, are not always seen as ideal, especially when starting a new franchise. There have been numerous exceptions to this; the most notable being the aforementioned Tomb Raider series starring Lara Croft. However, this notion of female-led video games generating less revenue correlates with their smaller budgets. Video game research firm EEDAR analyzed the marketing budget of video games with female-only protagonists, compared to female-optional and male-only protagonists. According to Geoffrey Zatkin, EEDAR’s Chief Operating Officer, games with female-only protagonists receive half the budget of games with female-optional protagonists, and less than 40 percent of games with male-only protagonists. A smaller budget translates into a shorter development period for the game and/or a smaller staff working on the project. This also has negative impacts on the amount of promotion these games receive, limiting the potential audience of consumers and thus potentially negatively impacting sales.
Going back to Tomb Raider, the 2013 reboot sold over eight and a half million copies to date, becoming the best-selling game in the franchise. This didn’t just happen for any reason. Tomb Raider sales had been declining for years, with the last game before the most recent reboot, Tomb Raider: Underworld, selling under 3 million copies. While that figure is still relatively huge in comparison with its competition, it’s less than half of what the original Tomb Raider sold. The Tomb Raider series went through vast evolutions as the video game industry has pushed for an increasing amount of realism in its video games. We’ve seen it with the graphical upgrades, we’ve seen it with increased product placement in various video games, and we are seeing it female video game characters’ bodies.
When it comes to the optimal female video game character, the main criteria are that said character has to be developed in order to help a video game’s sales. These sales lead to more profit for the video game developers and publishers, which allow them to become a successful economic operation. This isn’t a matter about exclusively pleasing critics, but the marketplace. What worked for Tomb Raider in 1996 would not necessarily work in 2013. Lara Croft in 1996 was heavily branded on her physical sexuality, and quickly became arguably the most popular female protagonist in the video game industry as a result. She was a character who was dressed provocatively, and was sexualized in additional media appearances. The main selling points of 1996’s Croft, an archeologist, arguably were her breasts and her revealing attire that would be deemed unrealistic amongst many archeologists. At the time, Lara Croft’s meteoric rise as a female video game was unprecedented. Besides the Metroid’s series’ Samus, whose gender you cannot clearly tell by looking at her character design, she was arguably the first female character to star in her own franchise and become a pop culture icon, and her sexuality lured in a predominantly at-the-time male audience.
However, in 2016, some would say the criteria necessary to sell a video game and make a profit have shifted, alongside popular cultural beliefs. What appears to have also shifted with this is the ideal definition of a female protagonist. Character models in video games, especially blockbusters, are starting to become increasingly more realistic and practical. Many video game players have complained over recent years that female character models are impractical for their allocated purpose in a video game. As previously mentioned, Lara Croft’s was one of the most frequently criticized. As an archeologist in the beginning of the series, her attire showed a lot of skin. In real life, archeologists try to cover their arms and legs to prevent sunburn, and often also wear hats for the same purpose. While this may turn many male heads a certain way or two, it also turned on some feminist critiques as third-wave feminism became more rampant through American mass media.
Lara Croft’s redesign was meant to give her a more realistic look, to make her “as believable and relatable as possible.” Part of that led to the abandoning of her physical sexualization. Long gone were the short shorts, tiny waist and oversized breasts. In were the cargo shorts, tank top, and a character that fights her way to survive. At times, she’s covered in dirt and blood. The new Lara Croft is a fighter, but she’s also more “normal” in her appearance. As she loses some of her hyperbolic sexualization, she becomes a normal human being that gamers – especially the growing amount of female gamers – can relate to. Similar trends were also seen amongst the female characters in the Mortal Kombat franchise.
But females are not exclusively playable characters, let alone the star of their own franchises. Lead roles in video games are still dominated by male characters, especially in blockbuster titles with larger development and advertising budgets. Secondary characters, including females, are often designed to complement a central protagonist that is oftentimes male. While we can continuously cite Peach’s portrayal as a damsel in distress being used as a storytelling device for Mario’s video game journey over the past 30 years, we can also see this in modern video game blockbusters, such as The Last of Us. The key difference, however, is that, in The Last of Us, the damsel is no longer rendered as completely helpless.
The Last of Us has received multiple accolades from critics: it won over 200 game of the year awards and is widely regarded as one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. The game tells the story of Joel, who is the primary playable character throughout most of the game, as well as 14-year-old Ellie, who is playable in a few segments. Joel is tasked to protect Ellie throughout the game, as if she were a typical damsel in distress, after they meet. This is linked to Joel’s failed attempt to protect his daughter, Sarah, who was killed in the beginning of the game after a soldier shoots her while in Joel’s arms. Sarah’s death is set up as Joel’s tragedy, and Sarah and Ellie’s personality traits are similar throughout the whole storyline. Yet, this doesn’t mean that Ellie’s character development isn’t important to Joel’s. As a matter of fact, Joel would not be able to survive without Ellie, and Ellie is portrayed as a strong woman who can physically protect herself, even killing a cannibalistic rapist in the process.
Unlike similar games like 2005’s Resident Evil 4, where Leon Kennedy’s storyline is to near exclusively protect the president’s daughter, Ashley Graham, Ellie isn’t just being protected. Ellie helps Joel out in fights throughout the game, and exposes Joel’s weakness, even saving his life when he is critically injured. While some of The Last of Us’ final moments involve Joel rescuing Ellie from a surgery that could kill her, Ellie’s character was depicted with an unusual amount of resilience that her character’s foundation is not on her being a damsel, but for being a strong-willed and fearless woman. Ellie would showcase similar traits and star in a downloadable prequel to the initial game, The Last of Us: Left Behind, released nearly a year after the original game.
What helps Ellie stand out as an anti-damsel of sorts is her sexuality. She is a teenager, but, as gamers discover in Left Behind, she develops feelings towards her best friend, Riley, and kisses her. With the damsel in distress trope, the rescuee is oftentimes the love interest of the rescuer. While Ellie and Joel’s ages should automatically strike this notion down, the prequel’s storyline further solidifies Ellie’s status as a member of the queer community; the game’s screenwriter confirmed that Ellie was a lesbian. It’s easy to say that Ellie’s sexuality sets her apart from the traditional damsel role, and that’s she’s much more outspoken than your stereotypical female video game character. However, Ellie’s status as a lesbian reflects the gaming industry’s push to increase the incorporation and acceptance of marginalized communities into its products. The storyline cements her as a pioneer for being depicted in a female same-sex relationship that happens to evolve into a more serious stage, while also affirming the virtual presence of the queer community as actual human beings instead of mere parodies.
As mentioned earlier on, a Swedish survey from 2013 found that 49 percent of gamers felt that it would be a “very good” idea to have more female protagonists in video games that were less sexualized. That appears to be the direction that female characters are being taken. However, females are also beginning to not just have more realistic body proportions, but to have more realistic personalities. As third-wave feminism continues to grow in popularity and acceptance as a social movement, we will continue to see its teachings reflected in mass media, including video games. The industry is still heavily male-dominated, and that’s likely not to change any time soon, let alone overnight. We most certainly haven’t seen the depiction of women, as well as their relationship and power dynamics with male characters, completely change overnight, either. However, it is unfair to say that no progress has been made.
There appears to be a movement to make video games less fantasy, and more authentic. While the increasing quality of graphics help make characters look more human-like than ever, this movement appears to nearly parallel with the increasingly widespread acceptance of feminism throughout Western culture. The #Gamergate hashtag has served as a platform for increased discussion on these issues, yet changes in video game development have been in the process before the hashtag went viral. As critics grew tired of the pixelated depiction of the female gender, major game developers and publishers appear to have taken notice.
Obviously, this “war on women” is not necessarily over. While we are seeing more women dressed in appropriate clothing, an increased representation of GLBTQ characters, it is often Caucasian female characters that receive the most benefit from this. Lara Croft, Sonya Blade and Ellie all appear to be white. It’s great to see women presented in a more practical, relatable and diverse way in a medium that is expected to grow for many years, and therefore become an integral part of popular culture. Yet, as the movement moves forward, a stronger push for women of color to receive these changes is necessary if video game developers aspire to genuinely practice third-wave feminism.
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 Futter, Mike. “Tomb Raider Reboot Marks 8.5 Million Sales Claiming Franchise Record.” Www.GameInformer.com. Game Informer (Gamestop), 06 Apr. 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.
Elliott, Phil. “Eidos Posts 6-month Revenue Hike.” GamesIndustry.biz. Gamer Network, 27 Feb. 2009. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.
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 The Last of Us. Naughty Dog. 14 June 2013. Video game.
 Resident Evil 4. Capcom Production Studio 4. 11 Jan. 2005. Video game.
 The Last of Us: Left Behind. Naughty Dog. 14 Feb. 2014. Video game.
Russell Barnes is a recovering news reporter, chronic video game lover and donut addict. You’ll likely find him walking around one of Minneapolis’ lakes playing Pokemon Go.