In video games, female characters are gaining ground. But, they're still hitting the pixel ceiling. The Call of Duty series is one of the most profitable franchises in video gaming history. This past August, ten years after the release of the original Call of Duty, it was finally time for the big reveal: In a trailer for the upcoming Call of Duty: Ghosts — after the dogs, and the drones, and the guns — the camera snapped back, a brief flash of a woman reloading her machine gun, a contented smirk at the mayhem she just wrought. Come November, for the first time, Call of Duty will let you play as a woman.
According to Call of Duty publisher Activision's CEO, the addition of a female character was the game’s most sought-after addition. So why did it take them ten years to do it? And, why add women now? It turns out, the reason had less to do with diversity or equality and more to do with the fact that Ghosts was ramping up how much freedom they wanted to give people when customizing their characters. They were already adding art for soldiers of all sizes, so throwing some women into the world wasn’t such a big deal. And that, sadly, is the state of women in most video games: woman are a toggle or a preference, not a priority.
Not all hope is lost. These days, nearly half of all gamers are women. Game development budgets are growing, users are getting more diverse, and game designers are growing up. Where women were once largely used as props — things that needed saving, things to look at — a growing slice of modern games now include women with personalities, flaws, and power. In a recent survey of 669 modern action, shooter, and RPG games, fewer than 300 let you play as a woman, and just 24 exclusively had the option of a female protagonist.
While women are gaining ground, they’re still most often found in five major roles:
1. Sidekicks: You can talk to and interact with Half Life 2's Alyx Vance, but never actually be her.
2. Secondary playable characters: Women you get to play, but who always come second to the story’s main protagonist, like Ellie in The Last of Us, Jill Valentine in Resident Evil, or Miranda Lawson, Jack, and Liara T'Soni in Mass Effect.
3. The male characters’ target or love interest.
4. The damsel in distress.
5. The “Woman in the Refrigerator": the woman who dies for the sole purpose of giving a male character motivation.
And while some female protagonists exist, they're not without problems. Take Lara Croft, for example: Where Croft once offered female gamers a vision of a woman with power, fighting and climbing and raiding a great many tombs, the gritty reboot meant to tell her origin story transformed her into a character that needs protecting, a woman whose crucible is the kidnapping and attempted sexual assault she is forced to fight off.
Another prominent female lead, Bayonetta, has high heels that double as guns, spends a lot of time naked, and blows kisses into the air to break through enemies’ defenses. According to journalist Leigh Alexander’s analysis, rather than lamenting the overt sexuality, “Bayonetta takes the video game sexy woman stereotype from object to subject, and it’s tremendously empowering.”
Even in Valve’s Portal — a puzzle game celebrated for its art, ambient storytelling, narrative, and characters — the leading lady, Chell, is a mute: a silent protagonist.
Many games that focus on storytelling, exploration and discovery — role-playing titles like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Mass Effect, or Dragon Age — give you the ability to create a character to match not just your gender, but your race, your history, or your sexuality. They provide a world to explore, either as someone like you, or from a different perspective.
Right now it is the role-playing games, which have a much longer history of character diversity and customizability, that are leading that charge. But as with Call of Duty: Ghosts, the pressure is there to get women into our pixelated worlds. There’s a growing demand in gaming for more leading women from players, who are increasingly female, from developers, who want the freedom to tell new stories, and from journalists and critics pushing for diversity and equality. Even gaming powerhouses like Rockstar, the makers of Grand Theft Auto, are talking about the possibility of putting women in the lead.
With all this pressure building, maybe publishers will finally catch up with the people making, and playing, the games they're selling. When they do, women will be more than just a feature, they’ll be just as playable as the dudes.
This post was authored by Colin Schultz.