Women DO play computer games. This statement is hardly a novelty: in the last few decades the number of women gamers has significantly increased, as have women working in the gaming industry, creating games which enchant, educate and distract millions. While gaming is still a predominantly male area, numerous websites and initiatives exist specifically targeted at bringing women gamers together, allowing them to exchange experiences and ideas exclusively with each other.
As the gender of the ‘average gamer’ slowly shifts towards a more equal representation of both sexes, so does the industry, resulting in a creation of rather interesting characters that inspire controversy and discussion regarding their influence on society and the players themselves. Game heroines are becoming a constant presence in the gaming world in the role of the protagonist, no longer the side-kick healers, evil witches, disfigured monsters or passive damsels in distress in their pink dresses screaming for their knights trapped in an ivory tower of passivity. No, these women carry guns, kill with ease, and move like acrobats, while enjoying the smell of napalm in the morning, just like any male hero before them.
The problem arises when such a character is created in a world of predominantly male players, where the commercial success determines the very existence of a particular game. The dilemma is quite evident: how to make the female protagonist more relatable / playable to males? The usual answer is to make the female sexualized, attractive, reflecting masculine fantasies. That way, male players would be encouraged to play the game and feel like their ladies’ saviors while still being able to objectify her and view her female attributes using different camera angles, unlocking skimpy outfits and downloading nude patches.
Problem solved? Not quite, since not all males players operate on such simplistic principles and some of the players are indeed females who might not appreciate being treated like a walking cleavage and might find it hard to identify with the overly-sexualized heroines whose only function is to embody male fantasies and defy gravity with their flawless pixels.
The appearance and influence of game heroines seems to inspire conflicted views from the public, game critics, academics and your 90-year old neighbor: while some argue that these women empower and break stereotypes, others claim that they undermine female self-esteem by promoting an unattainable aesthetic ideal created by the perverted male imagination. One should think critically before making any generalized statements about the negative impact of virtual heroines on the ‘fragile’ female self-esteem. There are many examples of interesting, assertive female protagonists that re-configure power relations and hierarchies in the gaming world and real life, while at the same time presenting a positive and identifiable model for male and female players.