Videogames have long been seen as a boys’ club, mainly because of their hero-centric, sometimes violent plots. As a society, we assume that no girl in her right mind would want to spend her time practicing alien genocide in Halo, killing hookers in Grand Theft Auto, or rescuing the princess and saving the day in The Legend of Zelda. And then there’s the ingrained misogyny of gamer culture, on full display at Microsoft’s recent E3 gaming event, where an apparent rape joke sparked outrage.
Some gamers—such as YouTuber TheAmazingAthiest—argue that women aren’t the main focus in videogames because men are the ones playing and programming them. Yet according to an article from USA Today, women make up almost half of gamers now, 45 percent. So why aren’t there more female protagonists in videogame culture? In a survey by The Guardian, out of 669 current game titles in which the gender of the protagonist was obvious, only 24 were women.
Of course, there’s always Zelda, one of gaming’s earliest female namesakes. Nintendo recently announced its newest Zelda game, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, due out in November. Still, even though she’s the title character and has a kick-butt alter ego, Zelda remains the princess in the castle—waiting to be whisked away by her savoir, Link (understand the game title now? Clever, Nintendo), and she barely gets any face time throughout the on-average 42 hours of play.
One enduring barrier is that programmers assume male gamers won’t be willing to play as female characters. Games such as Mass Effect give players the option of being male or female—and critics have praised Mass Effect’s character, Commander Shepard, as being “one of the most emotionally well-portrayed women” in a video game. But most players in the game never get to see the female version of Shepard, because they always choose to play as a male. And games like Metroid Prime shield the female characters in armor, making them practically androgynous.
There are exceptions, to be sure. Take Tomb Raider, which, though a successful series originally, has failed to reach sales targets for its most recent game, despite setting a sales record for the first week. Then again, Tomb Raider’s protagonist, Lara Croft (played by Angelina Jolie in the movie spinoffs), is unbelievably sexy, a buxom male fantasy come to life—so perhaps the guys don’t mind playing as a female character if she looks like an animated porn star.
Meanwhile, some female gamers complain that they feel uncomfortable playing as male protagonists who often try to seduce or overpower the women characters they come across. As women increasingly make up the gaming market, will programmers create more products that reflect female identities and concerns? Perhaps, though Forbes points out that videogames with female protagonists are given half the budget of male games. If programmers have less money to work with, they have less power to make a great game that people will actually buy—making it a vicious cycle.
Still, there’s a chance that change could percolate into the gaming world from the outside. Strong female heroines are cropping up in popular culture these days, from art to film to television. The Hunger Games and Game of Thrones have given us Katniss and Daenerys, who would be perfectly at home dominating their own games. As Bonnie Tyler, another influencer of popular culture, once put it, “I need a hero”—but this time, Bonnie, let’s rewrite and say she’s got to be larger than life.