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The cultural influence of females in video games

As someone who has been researching in the area of video games for almost a quarter of a century, I have witnessed first hand the significant impact that video games have had in popular culture. Almost everywhere you look, you can see their influence on films, television, and popular music.

From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, most people would probably agree that video game playing was the domain of a mainly male adolescent subculture. But that is not to say there haven’t been pivotal moments where videogames crept into more general consciousness. After Pong’s introduction in 1972 we saw more and more iconic videogames and characters flirt with the cultural mainstream, including Space Invaders in the late 1970s, Pacman in the early 1980s, and the Mario Brothers in the mid-1980s.  This even spawned a film, Super Mario Bros., in 1993, which although a critical disaster marked the first real foray of videogames into big-budget movies.

For some though, the real point at which videogames became part of the cultural mainstream was the success of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series. When it comes to computer games, cyber-icon Lara Croft was one of the most psychologically interesting phenomena of the late 1990s. With her exaggerated bombshell figure and assertively aggressive attitude, Lara was the first sex-symbol of the digital age as well as a symbol of change within the videogame industry and wider culture.

In the UK she coincided with the rise of the ladette, the Spice Girls and Grrrl Power. She represented fearless femininity combined with a traditionally masculine drive to succeed and conquer which made her both a pin-up and a non-traditional female role model. Traditionally, cultural pastimes open up to the involvement of women thanks to torch-bearers, strong role models who inspire others in their path such as Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Sandra Bernhardt, and Vivienne Westwood. We also witnessed this in Hollywood blockbusters with strong leading female roles for Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in the Alien films, and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in The Terminator films and television series.

Then came the turn of video games. Female video gamers needed strong female icons to bring them into the fold and Lara was created partly in response to this absence.  However, it was suggested that far from liking Lara, most women felt intimidated by her because she was the ultimate male fantasy. What’s more, others say that Tomb Raider was another example of men manipulating women to become their creation, their plaything – albeit digitally.

However, this is too simple a view of such a powerful cultural icon. To say that she is the ‘Page 3 girl’ of the cyber world is to look merely at the surface.  Most Tomb Raider players weren’t lusting adolescents. Lara was unlike any other female that appeared in videogames before her. Up until Tomb Raider, females tended to be cast as victims of violence (e.g. Night Trap), victims to be rescued, and/or diversions from the action (Sonic the Hedgehog’s girlfriend, the princess in Super Mario). Lara on the other hand was the all-English action heroine and good-time girl. She didn’t rely on super-human powers – she was someone who worked hard and achieved more. Later versions of Lara – such as Tomb Raider: Legend – featured a less sexualised version.

Her femininity enhanced her, it neither hampered nor defined her. Although we could not now imagine Lara without her pneumatic figure, she is not labeled solely by it.  She is the woman who broke away from the female whilst embracing it, a cyber-dichotomy who broke free of the perceived limitations of her sex while still retaining her femininity through her body.  She achieved what women still struggle with, accepting her body in all its freakish proportions (and they are freakish) and still solving the riddle and defeating the bad guy.

Despite Lara’s influence, there are still a few video games where the female characters are ancillary, a sidekick, and/or cast in the victim role (such as the princess in Prince of Persia that has to be rescued, or sidekicks such as Mona Sax in Max Payne or Sheva Alomar in Resident Evil 5). However, there is now an abundance of strong female protagonists.

Historically, the bounty hunter Samus Aran (from the Metroid games) is held up as a positive role model in video games. In fact, most players were unaware that the lead protagonist was female until the end of the game because she wore mechanical armour. In this instance, her female characteristics were not emphasized over her viability as a video game character. Post-Lara, this is further reflected in characters such as Chun Li (Street Fighter), Nariko (Heavenly Sword), Cate Archer (No-one Lives Forever), Jill Valentine (Resident Evil), Faith (Mirror’s Edge) and Chell (Portal). Perhaps the new breed of immensely powerful female protagonists is best exemplified by Bayonetta Her character has been described as a “hardcore badass brimming with sexual energy” and a “Lara Croft without the prudishness”.

Why should women in videogames be ugly and frumpy? Gaming is a form of escapism, not a reality. We construct our fantasies with what we actually desire, not what we think we should. Look at films, look at music. The unattractive women in dowdy clothes and unflattering haircuts are nowhere to be found. Pop is full of nubile nymphets, straight out of Lolita, or vamps with Monroe-esque curves. We want to look at beauty, at sex. We want to look at Bayonetta, at April Ryan, at Cammy.

Lara Croft was the first and the original cyberbabe and brought video games into the cultural mainstream. She was (and arguably still is) highly popular not only because she was the first, but more importantly because Tomb Raider itself is a good game. That is not to say that the portrayal of women in video games has ceased to court controversy. Violence against women (such as particular scenes in the Grand Theft Auto franchise) is still present but appears to be diminishing. Therefore, digital media creators need to realize (if they don’t already) that their character representations have the power to engage or disengage their audience and players. Online games have the potential to take things to a different level. Players can create their own avatars and gender swap. They can experiment with different parts of their personalities. Some real time strategy games include women as a prominent part of the story line (such as Warcraft III, Command and Conquer). Additionally, they include female fighting units that can be created, recruited, and controlled by the player.

Strong females like Lara and Bayonetta, help shape represent modern femininity. Often described as “tough chicks” and “action girls”, they display hybrid attributes that are both masculine and feminine. These new visions of female role models offer female empowerment. However, there are clearly many different gaming audiences, and everything associated with a game and game character is subjective. Gaming has grown up and it is now possible to create unique and/or distinctive characters that have a generally broad appeal across gender, age, and gamer types – not just adolescent boys. Recent research has also shown there is a desire among many gamers to see more varied female characters in games. The significant increase in the number of strong female characters within mainstream games is not only a sign of the times but something to be applauded and built on.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Psychology Division, Nottingham Trent University, UK.