The Dilemma with Female Leads

Posted June 17, 2014 by Robert Steltenpohl in Video Games

Me: “Want to hear a joke?”


Wife: “Sure?”


Me: “Woman’s rights.” (cue playful laugh)


This is a joke that I said just a few weeks ago. I’m aware that this isn’t a clever joke and it can be offensive. At the time, I really didn’t care. My friends knew it was satire and that I love women. However, I never realized who it was hurting. It’s funny what a short time, a conversation about history, and a computer can do to change one’s mind. I have to take a second and thank my good friend, Megan for leading me to my conclusion while we discussed history’s failure to acknowledge woman. We were talking about woman’s assistance during WWII, and how the Smithsonian seems to show woman as only being valuable because no men were around. It’s something that, in the back of my mind, I knew, but never truly invested much thought into the concept. The ironic part about it is that my wife is in the army, and she has served two tours in Iraq. She oozes out the notion that woman are equal, and I still failed to realize it. Until now.

Our discussion has guided my desire to discuss today’s topic: Where are the strong, not over sexualized female lead characters in video games? I’m not here to speak on woman’s rights in terms of laws or try to start a bra burning, but I do want to point out some elements of our favorite medium’s inability to shine a bright light on the female lead. I will say that it is so much better than it was, lets say, 10 years ago, but it could be a lot better. I want to keep this within the past year to prove a point, so I will be referencing 2013’s game list. Top 10 List

Before I begin, let me show you some statistics. This is a study done by Entertainment Software Association (ESA) showed that “45 percent of the entire games playing population and 46 percent of the time the most frequent game purchasers are female.” The same study also stated that “Adult women represent a significantly greater portion of the video game-playing population than boys age 17 or younger, and nearly half of all video game players are women.”

Women, statistically, are beginning to take over the video game playing majority. The percentages and sales numbers prove that. And if this is true, then why are there not more female lead characters? From my perspective, I see we have four types of female characters in games:


1)                   The over sexualized side character: This is the female character that is USUALLY dressed scandalous and is usually saying provocative quips to the main character. You can find these types of characters in games like GTA, Assassins Creed, or any Metal Gear Solid game.


2)                   The over sexualized lead character: This is the female character that is the main protagonist and is USUALLY placed in tight (mainly leather), revealing outfits. We can usually hear louder grunts or moans from this character, or she has more animations in her chest and butt than most of the gameplay. You can find these characters in games like Tomb Raider, Bayonetta, and Heavenly Sword.


3)                   The side character that is vital to the story, but is used more as a gimmick: This is the female character that is very important to the plot (maybe to the point where she should be the lead), but she is used more for gimmick gameplay or an AI that doesn’t really do anything. You can find these types of characters in Bioshock: Infinite, Last of Us, and some Resident Evil games.


4)                   The lead character because you could choose to be a guy or girl: This is the female character because they gave you a choice of your gender. Most of the time, this has no direct affect on the game. It’s just a “skin” to your character’s appearance. You can see this in games like Dragon Age, Skyrim, or many other RPG-type games.


2013 was a fantastic year for video game lovers. It was a year that gave us plenty of games with a incredible narrative and gameplay. It gave us, specifically, four games that were in contention for Game of the Year. What do these four games have in common? They were all games that showed the accomplishments and failures of developers trying to use female characters. (I am going to speak about these games as if you know of them and played them, so be aware of spoilers.)

Since I am the one writing this, I am going to use my own personal list of top 2013 games to continue this discussion. You can see that list here. Let’s begin with Assassin’s Creed 4. This game was a pleasant surprise and acted as rejuvenation to the beloved franchise. However, it failed to give us any female that could be “lead” worthy. The only women that we interacted with were local prostitutes, a secretary, or an assassin that was disguising herself as a guy. Now, I am aware that most of that was for time period reasons, but couldn’t we have had a female Assassin that wasn’t trying to hide her gender?

The next game up for discussion is Last of Us. This was arguably the best game of the Playstation 3’s lifespan. This game had a female character, Ellie that was a focal point for the game’s narrative. She was a young girl, teenager, that needed to get to a disease center because she was the cure for the infected. Our protagonist, Joel, was given the job of protecting her. Ellie, for most of the game, ends up being an AI that will periodically help you on your journey. The game would not have been the same without their relationship, but it’s just another situation where the female character could only exist, for a full game, if the male lead was present. There was also a very strong female, Tess, who could have been a lead and/or playable character, but was killed off in the game’s first couple of hours. I enjoyed Last of Us, and I’m not trying to make you not like it. I just want to point out the trend here that women seem to be expendable in most major titles.

Then we have Bioshock: Infinite. This was my favorite game of 2013. I loved it. The storytelling was top notch and the twist, at the end, was on a different level. However, Elizabeth is our prototypical type 3 female character. I feel this game could have easily had her as the lead character, and they did in the final DLC of the game. However, they end up using Elizabeth as a plot device and a gameplay element to “assist” the male lead. This story specifically has to have both characters, but I feel the game could have been just as strong with Elizabeth being the lead.


Now for a game that almost had it right. Tomb Raider. This game would have won multiple Game of the Year awards had it not come out the same year as Last of Us, Bioshock, and GTA. Lara Croft has been the argument for “The Female Lead” for years. However, Lara falls under the discussion of over-sexualized female lead. Since her traffic cone chest in the early 90’s, 2013 showed us a very sexy, over dramatized moans and groans of our heroine. Many would say that people were making too big deal about it, but I find myself not being able to diminish something if the insult wasn’t directed at me. I have spoken to many of my female gamer friends and they noticed it. They were offended by it, so I have to give credit to the notion that it was offensive. I will defend that Lara is a great lead, and she is a very interesting character. However, the making her wear low cut tops and making her fall, while moaning constantly, is unnecessary in my opinion.

Finally, I will speak about the game that only achieves the oppression of women in video games. Grand Theft Auto. To me, this game is utter garbage. I understand the physics, scope, and gameplay are revolutionary to video games, but I don’t need to see women brought down to only prostitutes, gangsters, or petty bots to kill. When Dan Houser, Rockstar co-founder, was asked about a female protagonist, he replied, “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story.” ( Really? Masculinity was the key to the story? So, why did you have to turn every female character, in the game, into a girl to sleep with or kill? There was no need for all of that. I can honestly say that I quit playing when I heard this on the radio, “Yeah man. I took this girl home and forced her to ride my …” I don’t need that foolishness in a game and I don’t see the reason it should be made either. Let me add, I’m not talking about the game being made because I know that many people don’t exploit the game for those reasons and truly enjoy it. I’m speaking of the content that shouldn’t exist in it.

Some may say, “You’re a guy. What do you know?” “I know you enjoy being male characters.” Or “But, girls play the games too.” All of these statements are true. I am probably not the best person to write this, and I may not have made any points here. But if I don’t say anything, what man will? I’ve had a change of heart and I hope gamers and game developers will too. I don’t want to sound hypocritical and I don’t want to sound redundant, but something has to change.

This problem isn’t going to be solved overnight and it won’t be saved by one simple act. It will take time and a culture change in the video games medium to change this situation. I don’t think the answer is to have a rubber band affect, and just cut all male leads now. This doesn’t need to be some battle between the sexes for face time in video games. It does, however, need to be a balance between a male lead and a female lead. Women need their time for the spotlight in games. The stats back up the fact that more women are playing each year. That means that the culture needs to evolve with the times. Men aren’t the only ones that have interesting stories to tell, and they aren’t the only ones that can be bad a’s in video games. Women bring a dynamic to the world of video games that can be compelling and interesting. It just takes some developers to realize that women aren’t only able to lead when the men aren’t around to guide a narrative.

About the Author

Robert Steltenpohl

I'm a teacher from Georgia. I love sports, video games, comics, and movies. I think the Bioshock series tells the best story ever in video games.