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A Double Standard for Female Characters?

by Sande Chen on 10/18/17 09:09:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topics of Diversity and Virtual Goods.]

Women in fields like high tech can feel like they're pushing against a double standard. They have to prove that they're beyond qualified for the job while at the same time, receiving a lower pay. They may feel like they're treated differently or belittled, their ideas claimed by male colleagues who fail to even let them finish speaking. I sometimes feel that female characters must feel the same way.  Think about how you treat your female characters.  Are they given the same opportunities as male characters?

For a long time, in film, the prevailing thought was that movies with female protagonists would never be major successes so why bother?  (Though recently, Wonder Woman smashed box office records.)  This same mantra seems to be repeated in the video game industry.  According to the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Design and Research Report, only 3% of top console games from 2005 to 2013 had female protagonists and publishers had very low expectations, as reflected in the low marketing budgets of those games. One game developer with a female-fronted game commented on how hard it was to get publishers to change their views: "We had some [companies] that said, 'Well, we don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that."


This had led to the male character being the default playable character, especially in mobile games, with female playable characters falling into the optional "pay extra" category or simply non-existent.  Despite it all, female players still clamor to be heard. They want female playable characters.  Repeat, this is just about the mere inclusion of a female playable character!  Even when female playable characters are included, they may be hypersexualized just like non-playing female characters whose only value seems to be their physical attributes.

If your game doesn't have a female protagonist, maybe you have a female character in a supporting role?  Let's hope she's not a badass there just to support the male hero as a plot device, much like the character Trinity in The Matrix. Give her a fully realized story of her own that could function as a subplot.

Does your female character have strong opinions? Careful now. Here's where criticism may come. Maybe she's too brash. Or too unlikable. Comes off as "too male."  These are charges that probably wouldn't ever be leveled against male characters.  Male characters tend to get away with all sorts of off-putting personality tics.

Male characters also don't tend to be threatened by sexual assault.  Yes, sexual assault is a concern for women and pertinent to some stories, but don't use it for shock value or as a plot device for the male hero to seek revenge.  Sexual assault shouldn't be the "go-to standard" for a female character's traumatic childhood. Don't use rape or attempted rape as a way to make a story "edgy." I'm sure there are other ways to insert danger into a female character's life story.

Female characters are deserving of better treatment. They too can have deep, intriguing back stories. We don't have to turn them into seductresses or subject them to sexual abuse.  We can attribute more value to them than their physical appearances.  Let's make sure we aren't applying a double standard and create stories that celebrate female characters.

A writer and game designer, Sande Chen has over 10 years experience in the industry. She studied science fiction and science writing at MIT. Her first published game was the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. She was later nominated for a 2007 Writers Guild of America award in Videogame Writing for the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher.

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