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The Changing Role of Women in Video Games

The Changing Role of Women in Video Games
By Dan Liebman

From damsel in distress to central protagonist, images are changing

Think back to the first few video games you ever played. How many female characters were in these games? How were the female characters portrayed? And just what were these characters wearing?

It may seem like a silly thing to consider, yet the portrayal of women in video games has changed significantly since their introduction. You needn’t be a grizzled ancient or sociological bigwig to appreciate the differences. In the earlier days, arcade button-mashers relied on simple stories to drive the action, typically pandering to a young male demographic. The imperative of Double Dragon centered on the heroic duo rescuing a damsel in distress. Mario was compelled to rescue Princess Peach, Link risked life and limb for Princess Zelda, and even the Ninja Turtles had their April O’Neal to liberate. Saving the world would sure look nice on a resume, yet the panicked cry of a girl in peril always provokes an animal response.

With the advent of personal computers and home gaming platforms, play sessions changed a bit. Instead of standing in a dingy arcade and chugging out quarter after quarter, players could kick back and really take their time with a game. Longer games offered a change of pace, a shift in scope, and – if you cared about it – a more in-depth narrative. When the Prince of Persia made his debut in the late 80s, he embarked on an all-too-familiar quest to rescue a princess from a wicked vizier. When the franchise received a reboot from Ubisoft 14 years later, things had changed. Instead of chasing some helpless dame, the Prince found his female companion at his side throughout the adventure. From dizzying puzzles to deadly battles, Farah was always there to lend a hand to the nimble noble. To this day, the Prince is never far from a female sidekick.

Today, few brows are furrowed when a female finds herself right in the middle of the battleground. Redfield’s got Alomar watching his back in the fifth Resident Evil, Alyx fights alongside Gordon Freeman in Half Life 2, and Zoe is just one of the lucky survivors in Left 4 Dead. The gender ratio is beginning to change, as well. Strategy games may have female units within their ranks, fighting games contain more women going toe-to-toe with men, and even realistic shooters like Ghost Recon haven’t shied away from placing female soldiers in war zones. Depending upon the game’s mechanics, the ladies still find themselves frequently occupying “support” roles. A strong, female protagonist at the helm of a game was not often seen in video games – until one day, Lady Croft showed up.

Say what you will of her improbable physique, but there is little question that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft has achieved iconic status in video game history. Scaling sheer cliffs, crawling through ancient ruins, and fending off gargantuan beasts were all in a day’s work for the aristocratic archaeologist. Lara was not “helping out” a male hero, or even partnered with one. She was on her own, facing insurmountable obstacles that would make Indiana Jones blush. Setting her unmistakable likeness in a genuinely fun game has ensured the success of the Tomb Raider franchise for years to come. No longer is the female protagonist such a rare sight in a game; in fact, one can scarcely walk two feet in a game shop without running into Heavenly Sword, Beyond Good and Evil, or some other title that puts us in the shoes of a daring heroine.

As women play a greater role than ever before, it should be fairly obvious that role-playing games have shown considerable changes over the past few years. Character customization is deeper than ever before, so players expect to be able to choose the gender of their avatar. Typically this will impact at least a few areas of the gameplay, with respect to the way others respond to the character. Generally though, the gender has little impact on the overall experience. The player is instead judged by their own actions within the game. This makes for an interesting, idealized setting that approaches true gender equality. Whether you’re playing Fallout 3 or Knights of the Old Republic, there is no task or quest too large for your female lead.

And if you are so foolish as to doubt the increasing power of women in video games, it might be best to keep those thoughts to yourself. Samus is watching.

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