“Guns? Check. Explosives? Check. Minivan? …” What makes a Gamer? or Personalized Gaming Experience and the Gender Dynamics of Video Games

Princess Peach

“Guns? Check. Explosives? Check. Minivan? …” What makes a Gamer? or Personalized Gaming Experience and the Gender Dynamics of Video Games

Molly Chapman
Published by the PIT Journal: 


This article closely examines the past and present representation of female characters in video games, investigating the correlation between “video game realism” and the de-objectification of female video game characters.  Although there is an overwhelming amount of evidence for the sexualization and objectification of female characters in the video game industry, there is also an emerging trend of realistic and proactive female characters.  These progressive changes are a result of the video game industry’s growing emphasis on personalizing the gaming experience.  A video game is no longer a simple “button-mashing” time consumer, but an immersive, compelling story propelled forward by the player.  The main character in this interactive plot is relatable and the player’s relationship with that character personal.  This article analyzes character roles in video games, character presentation, and the recent emergence of notable heroines in action games to show how video games and their characters have changed to achieve this new standard of “video game realism”.  The analysis of female characters in video games which emphasize player involvement and choice, such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, support the theory that video game realism plays a crucial part in the development of realistic and independent female protagonists.



Since 1947, when the earliest known interactive electronic game was developed, the gaming community has grown into the enormous and diverse audience it is today.  The individuals who comprise the contemporary gaming community no longer fit the stereotypical mold of a gamer: the jock is just as likely to play social-slayer mode on Halo as the geek, the 30-year-old as likely to play Assassin’s Creed as the 15-year-old, the sister as much as the brother.  With this broadening of the gaming audience and redefining of “gamer”, one is lead to wonder if the female character is also breaking out of her stereotypic mold of busty, scantily-clad, damsel.  Has the role of a female video game character moved out of the digital kitchen and into the video game world as an independent, strong-willed hero?  Is she still more breasts than brains?

Fig. 1 Screenshot from the video arcade game Ms. Pac-Man

Fig. 2 Screenshot from the video game Dragon Age 2

From the release of Ms. Pac-Man in 1981 to the release of Dragon Age 2 in 2011, video game graphics have progressed from colored pixels to realistic, textured figures and gameplay has transformed from a single, mindless goal to varying, in-depth character development and story-progression.  As the complexity of video games has increased, so has the depth and relatability of the female video game character.  Is this due to the video game industry’s growing awareness that females play video games and enjoy sword flourishes, sniping targets, looting, and perilous adventures just as much as their male counterparts?

The connection between female gamers and progressive changes in female characters is the growing emphasis on personalizing the gaming experience.  A video game is no longer just a form of entertainment, but an immersive, compelling story in which the player guides his or her protagonist through numerous trials and decisions to a hard won ending.  The goal of a video game developer is to make this main character relatable and the player’s relationship with that character personal.  Through the exploration of character roles in video games, character presentation, and the recent emergence of notable heroines in action games, this article will show how video games and their female characters have changed to achieve this new standard of “video game realism”, or the ability of a game to immerse the player in a believable, realistic world by creating an emotional connection between the player and the game’s characters through character relatability and by providing the illusion of control over the protagonist’s destiny through an interactive narrative.  The video game industry’s growing awareness of the female gamer community is one of the many causes for the progressive changes seen in female video game characters, but games featuring an emphasis on narrative and character relatability have resulted in the strongest and truest female heroes.  The point of view of a female hero is a virtually unexplored perspective in the video game industry, a perspective that is just now being discovered.  By analyzing games which emphasize player choice coupled with realistic, independent female protagonists, this article will offer another way of viewing a heavily criticized, yet drastically evolving, form of entertainment.

Female Video Game Characters - Who They Were and Who They Are: A Review of the Literature

Fig. 3 Screenshot of Ivy from Soulcalibur IV. Example of a stereotypical femaie video game character.

Numerous studies present a deleterious portrayal of the typical female video game character.  Tracy L. Dietz conducted a content study of 33 Nintendo and Sega Genesis games popular in the spring of 1995, with the goal of describing the portrayal of females and the use of violence within the games (432).  Of the 33 video games analyzed only 15% portrayed women as heroes or as action characters (in many instances these heroes were dressed in stereotypical female colors and/or sexualized clothing), 41% did not represent the female population at all, and 21% of the time portrayed women as the proverbial “Damsel in Distress”(433-435).  In the next decade, Karen E. Dill and Kathryn P. Thill conducted a visual content analysis of gender-stereotypic portrayals of video game characters in the January 2006 issues of six top-selling video game magazines (855).  Their findings were similar to Dietz’s; women were unrepresented in video game magazine articles and advertisements and over 80% of female characters were depicted as either sexualized, scantily clad, a “vision of beauty”, or any combination of the three (858-859).  However, Dill and Thill noted that unlike in earlier studies (e.g., Deitz 1998) the majority (62.2%) of female characters was presented as aggressive with many of these female characters glamorizing and sexualizing aggression (861).  Jeroen Jansz and Raynel G. Martis conducted a study of the introductory films of 12 video games released from 2000 to 2003; the analysis of their nonrandom selection of games found the sex of video game characters to be predominantly male and female characters to generally be hypersexualized (146-147).  However, the results of this study also indicated “that the number of female characters in recent games is far larger than it was in earlier games” (146).  Not only were 6 of the 12 leading characters  female, but Jansz and Martis also found no submissive female characters out of the total 9 female characters featured (147).

Fig. 4  Image of Princess Peach, a character from Nintendo’s Mario series.  She often plays the damsel in distress role and needs to be saved by Mario, the male hero.

These and similar studies provide strong evidence that the majority of female video game characters were sexualized and negatively stereotyped.  If a female character wasn’t submissive, in need of rescue by the male protagonist, fragile, or primarily described as good-natured and nice, then she was a violent, hyper-sexualized tart.  But it is also clear from these past studies that this generalization does not apply to all female video game characters.  Male characters may currently outnumber female characters, but quality is more important than quantity.  The continuing trend of scantily clad and unrealistically proportioned female video characters is as undeniable as the emerging trend of tough and competent female characters.  Featured in the December 2010 issue of the popular video game magazine Gameinformer is an article titled “The 30 Characters Who Defined a Decade”.  Of the 30 characters, there is one “female” AI, one “male” robot, 21 males, 6 females, and one character whose sex is determined by the player.  The sex distribution (more males than females) follows the trend noted by the aforementioned studies; yet, words such as strong, independent, intelligent, brave, selfless, tough, and real are used to describe these 6 and a half female characters.

The lack of studies researching the positive trends of female characters creates a lopsided view of this field of research.  The question researchers strive to answer now needs to become “is this character an independent and realistic female,” instead of “is this character sexualized/curvaceously thin.”  One of the main complaints mentioned by Joe Martin in his review of Dragon Age 2 (released in  March 2011) was the companion character Isabella, whom he describes as “a recruitable pirate-cum-nymphomaniac whose every conversation is disguised titillation” (par. 4); he then goes on to mention that “at first it feels refreshing to have a strong, sexually empowered woman so close to the spotlight, but then you realize that she’s actually only there to sucker in the 13 year-olds with her skimpy outfit and constant teases” (par. 4).  

Fig. 5  The character Rayne performing one of her signature combat moves in BloodRayne 2.  Example of a female character sexualizing aggression.

Researchers have already taken note of the importance of video game interactivity and character relatability and believability.  In their article “Media Psychology ‘is not yet there’:  Introducing Theories on Media Entertainment to the Presence Debate,” Christoph Klimmt and Peter Vorderer explain that “enjoying a video game” generally means “players are drawn into the represented world and become less aware of the mediated quality of the experience” (Jansz and Martis 142).  Kwan Min Lee refers to the resulting sense of “being there” as a state of “presence” (Jansz and Martis 142).  Jansz and Martis note that “many video games enable their players to enact identities in the most literal sense of the word.  Gamers can actually ‘be’ their characters in a playful virtual reality” (Jansz and Martis 142).  A study conducted by Edward Schneider, Annie Lang, Mija Shin, and Samuel Bradley revealed a connection between player identification with a game’s characters and narrative: “Participants who played a game with a strong story line (Half-Life and Outlaws) reported a higher level of identification than did players of nonstory-based games (Doom 2 and Quake 2)” (Jansz and Martis 142).  However, little formal research into the possibility of a parallel between strong narratives and strong female heroes exists.  An immersive story line does more than simply create a higher level of identification between the player and character; it is a crucial part of video game realism, which is the fundamental stimulus of positive female character change.


Fig. 6  Elena Fisher from the Uncharted series, one of the female characters featured in the article “The 30 Characters Who Defined a Decade”.


Personalizing the Game One Pixel at a Time: 'Video Game Realism'

The gaming scenery has changed dramatically since Pac-Man brought personality to the video game industry.  Video gaming has moved from the dingy video arcade to the cushioned living room; improved video game graphics present players with detailed, textured worlds and lifelike game characters; and video games now have a comprehensive narrative, character development, and consequential reactions to the player’s actions and choices within the game.

In his article “What Are We Really Looking at?  The Future-Orientation of Video Game Play,” Barry Atkins comments that in order to discuss differences between video games and movies one must consider:

…the specific temporality of video game play where the aesthetic is generated in a maelstrom of anticipation, speculation, and action.  Video games prioritize the participation of the player as he or she plays, and that player always apprehends the game as a matrix of future possibility.  The focus, always, is not on what is before the player or the “what happens next” of traditionally unfolding narrative but on the “what happens next if I” that places the player at the center of experience as its principle creator, necessarily engaged in an imaginative act, and always orientated toward the future.  (Atkins 127)

Fig. 7  Screenshot of Isabella from Dragon Age 2

As previously mentioned video game realism is the ability of a game to immerse the player in a believable, realistic world by creating an emotional connection between the player and the game’s characters through character relatability and by providing the illusion of control over the protagonist’s destiny through an interactive narrative. The focus on player participation noted by Atkins in video games is what made video game realism important.  The more relatable the characters, the more interactive the plot, the more immersed and engaged the player is in a game.  Even though the storyline of a video game is already determined, the need for a player to complete missions and make decisions to move the story and main playable character forward allows the player to feel as though he/she is creating the story and has control over the final outcome of his/her character’s actions.  This control over the character and illusion that the player is the creator of the narrative strengthens the realism of a game.

Fig. 8  Catwoman, one of the female playable characters in Mortal Kombat VS DC Universe.

In the gaming industry there is a distinct difference between games that provide simple time-consuming “entertainment” and games that provide a narrative-driven, immersive “experience”.  Games which seek to only entertain focus on the combat system and the aesthetic appeal of characters, while games which seek to provide an experience focus on plot intrigue, character believability, and the emotional appeal of video game characters.  Mortal Kombat VS DC Universe (MK vs. DC) versus Halo: Reach is a prime comparison.

Fig. 9  Noble Six, the playable character in Halo: Reach, whose gender is determined by the player.

In MK vs. DC, players are tasked with finding a way to close the link between the Mortal Kombat universe and the DC universe before the merging of the two universes result in their destruction.  Halo: Reach is the prequel to the popular Halo series that relates the events leading up to the fall of Reach, a planet colonized by humans, and the sacrifice made by the game’s protagonist, Noble Six.  Although both focus heavily on combat, MK vs. DC is a fighter game and Halo: Reach is a first-person shooter, the relationship between one of the playable characters in MK vs. DC and the player is completely different from the relationship between Noble Six and the player.  During the development of the MK vs. DC characters, the developers focused on their abilities and appearance; more attention was put into Catwoman’s outfit and Wonder Woman’s breast movement than their personality and significance to the story.  The gameplay of MK vs. DC consists of grueling two-person battles that move the simple plot forward with each victorious knock-out by the player.  Each victory is rewarded with a short pause in combat to either switch to another playable character or provide some dialog between the game’s characters.

The primary focus during the development of Noble Six was how she/he affects the Halo Universe and what kind of Spartan (the name for elite human soldiers in the Halo series) she/he is.  In Halo: Reach, the gameplay consists of a series of sequential “scenes” which require player-completion in order to progress in the game and thereby progress in the game’s narrative.  Story-progression is marked by a pause in combat with either dialogue between the characters or a short “movie”.  The story of Halo: Reach adds complexity and depth to the game, unlike the story of MK vs. DC which simply gives a reason for the combat.  Whereas the playable characters in MK vs. DC are seen as a means to an end (beating your opponent senseless or watching Wonder Woman's breasts swing), there is an emotional connection to Noble Six that evokes sympathy for the character simply because Halo: Reach has a strong and serious storyline in which this character, and thereby the player, plays a key role.

Fig. 10  Lara Croft in the 1996 video game Tomb Raider
Fig. 11 Newest version of Lara Croft

Another difference between these two games worth noting is the level of character customization.  In MK vs. DC, there is no character customization; what you see is what you get.  In Halo: Reach, not only is Noble Six’s armor style, color, and emblem dictated by the player, but, for the first time in the Halo franchise, the sex of the game’s hero is determined by the player.  The stoic, faceless hero of Reach is far from the cookie-cutter sexualized female character past research has found as the norm in the video game industry.

This focus on a game’s plot and characters is the first stepping stone to the ultimate goal of video game realism.  To personalize the game, developers create characters that players can identify with and feel for. The newest version of Lara Croft, one of the most iconic sexualized female characters, is being redesigned to be “’as believable and relatable as possible’” (Brian Horton, qtd. in Tomb Raider, 45) in her unreleased title Tomb Raider.  Practicality and sensibility direct Lara’s new wardrobe, not the amount of skin revealed.  “Eye tracking studies of the new Lara versus the old revealed that instead of looking at Lara’s arsenal or curves, most participants spent their time gazing at her piercing brown eyes” (Meagan Marie 45).  The goal is presenting Lara as a fictional person, not as a sexualized character.



From Ms. Pac-Man to Lara Croft to FemShep: Looking Beyond Looks

This new emphasis on giving Lara a personality and humanity reveals the de-objectification of female characters in the video game industry and the important role realism plays in producing a relatable character and compelling narrative.  Meek and highly sexualized female characters have been the norm in video games; if they weren’t in constant need of rescue, then their figures were ridiculously proportioned or clothing revealing.  Now the realistic, practical, and proactive female heroine has found her place among the inner fold of notable video game characters.  The discussion of video games stereotyping female characters has seen an influx of new ideas, observations, and opinions about the reasons for and causes of negative gender stereotyping and this recent emergence of independent and practical female video game characters.  In her article “The Gender Gap”, Megan Marie explores the reasons for a lack of heroines in action games.  As Megan Marie points out, the “numbers matter”, or the player demographic factors into game design, and as of now female gamers are the minority, albeit a growing minority (1).  With this knowledge of a growing female audience interested in video games yet a lack of lead female characters, the question becomes how to cater to this group of gamers and how to create characters they can identify with.  According to Clifford Bleszinski the design director for Epic Games, the key to finding the perfect female protagonist is more straight-forward than people assume, “The real trick for creating a female playable character is roughly the same for any playable character, which is to make them relatable so that both male and female players want to play as them. But for a female character, they have to be attractive (but not sl*tty), kick butt (but not too butch), and be smart (but not too nerdy)” (qtd. in The Gender Gap, 4).  This statement is very similar to the conclusion that Elisabeth Hayes, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, comes to when discussing how to successfully create video games that appeal to females, “Designing games that will appeal to women… is a lot like designing good games in general” (28).

Figures 12, 13, 14  (from left to right)  Chell from Portal 2, Kat from Halo: Reach, and Jade from Beyond Good and Evil:  Positive female characters

Fig. 15  Box art for Princess Debut

Both statements could not be truer.  In order to create games that females will enjoy, the goal of developers should be to make a video game inclusive of both sexes, not a game for females.  By separating the sexes and designing games for them independently, the outcome will lead to negative stereotypes and a game with hyper masculinity or hyper femininity.  This is apparent in the gender specific titles that have been produced, such as Princess Debut where the goals are unlocking outfits, learning to dance, and finding a prince.  Gender identity does play a role in game selection and game play, but there is also a universal consensus on what makes a game good.  A good game has a compelling plot, interesting and relatable characters, a believable setting, and a smooth combat system, all qualities both sexes look for in an action/action-adventure game or RPG.  This formula for a good game sounds eerily like the parts needed to accomplish video game realism.

Out with the Old and In With the New

Fig. 16  Screenshot of Anya Stroud from Gears of War 3

Lara Croft is not the only female character getting refitted and Tomb Raider is not the only game which focuses on the narrative.  The Gears of War franchise is introducing playable female gears for the first time in the soon to be released Gears of War 3.  Fighting to stay alive on a world called Sera, gears, also known as cogs, are the only remaining force of human soldiers after monsters referred to as the Locust began their attack on humanity.  Anya Stroud, a rarely seen but often heard supporting character in Gears of War (2006) and Gears of War 2 (2008), will be one of the featured female gears.  In an interview with IGN, Cliff Bleszinski talks about female gears and the evolution of Anya’s character,

Anya has evolved… from a pencil pusher at a desk to someone who can really hold her own in combat.  …

[There is also] Samantha Burn [another female gear], who can really hold her own alongside with Anya.  …We [Epic Games] take our female gears seriously...  We love sexy characters as much as the next guy, but in this universe we want to really take it seriously [therefore] females are… not half naked because it just wouldn’t make sense for combat.  (IGNentertainment)

Matt Miller in his Gears of War 3 preview for Gameinformer quotes the executive producer Rob Fergusson, “Every time we go do a convention, it’s always surprising how many female fans we have for this hardcore, M-rated game.  And we found that when they play online, a lot of people represent themselves in their characters.  We realized we really weren’t reaching out to that female audience, allowing them to see a little of themselves in their character” (43). 

An immersive narrative and compelling plot are not new features in the video game industry, nor is the connection between video game realism and strong female characters.  There are a number of other video games that successfully combine elements of video game realism and contain strong female protagonists and major characters, namely the Mass Effect trilogy and Dragon Age franchise.

FemShep: The Mass Effect Trilogy

Fig. 17  The many faces of femshep.  Shows how customizable her appearance is.

If tasked with saving the galaxy from imminent doom and destruction, how would you go about it and who would be the face of the galaxy’s savior?  Players get to decide exactly this when they play Mass Effect (2007), Mass Effect 2 (2010), and Mass Effect 3 (expected release is March 2012).  This space saga offers an immersive universe in which the player takes control of Commander Shepard, the galaxy’s last chance at salvation from utter destruction by an army of sentient organic machines called the Reapers.  Not only is Commander Shepard’s sex, appearance, and personality determined by the player, but how the story unfolds is dictated by the actions of the Commander, or more precisely the decisions made by the player.  The decisions made in each game build on each other, creating a virtual universe unique to that individual player.  Shepard may choose to spare or kill the rachni queen in Mass Effect, destroy or salvage the remnants of a reaper in Mass Effect 2; the different decisions not only causing a divergence in plot lines, but also having ramifications in the third game.

Shepard herself is as impressive as this type of interactive story telling.  Fondly referred to as FemShep by the gaming community, the female Commander Shepard is the epitome of a leader.  Whether she is hated or loved by the ship’s crew, the team will follow Shepard to hell and back.  Essentially the only difference between the male version of Commander Shepard and the female version is just that, biological gender.  The plot takes no notice of a change in Shepard’s sex other than a different selection of romanceble NPCs (non-playable characters).  FemShep is able to kick mercs through windows, negotiate with quick-tempered krogan, and sit with the calm, confident slouch of a born leader.  FemShep diverges from the objectified female video game character in role and appearance.  The most skin her battle armor reveals is her face, and when she is in her recreational outfit her breasts are hardly worth commenting on.

The Grey Warden - Dragon Age: Origins

Unlike the fundamentally egalitarian society in Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins presents a somewhat patriarchal society.  This difference is not detrimental to the plot or an obstacle for the female Grey Warden, the game’s playable character.  Any who question her validity or integrity as a soldier are either politely scolded for their naivety or skewered with a sword; the Grey Warden’s reaction is determined by the player.  The setting of Dragon Age: Origins (2009) is Ferelden, a country suffering from political turmoil and an invasion of blood thirsty demons called the darkspawn.  Stepping into the shoes of the Grey Wardens’ newest recruit, the player is presented with the challenge of amassing an army in order to defeat the darkspawn.  The player is able to customize their warden’s race (human, elf, dwarf), physical appearance (sex included), fighting style, and back story to their liking.  Dragon Age:  Origins offers numerous solutions to players for resolving conflicts within the game, and several varying endings are a result of these differing plot choices made by the player.

With the help of her assorted comrades the female Grey Warden paves a path to victory.  She takes on the responsibility of protecting the realm, even with the threat of imminent death, and is successful through leadership and intelligence.

Connecting the Pixels

Fig. 18  Female character featured in a game lacking an in-depth narrative.  Image of Morrigan Aensland from Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 Fate of Two Worlds

Fig. 19  Female character featured in a game with an in-depth narrative.  Image of Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 2

There are a number of causes for the changes seen in female video game characters, however the most influential cause is video game realism.  There is an undeniable correlation between games which seek to immerse the player in a riveting storyline and create a bond between the player and characters and games which feature strong female leads and/or realistic supporting female characters.  It is much harder to view a female video game character with enormous breasts and barely any clothing as a deep, meaningful protagonist or believable, realistic heroine.  Video game realism has moved the role of a female video game character out of the digital kitchen and into the video game world as an independent, strong-willed hero.  This is due partly to the video game industry’s growing awareness that females do indeed play and enjoy video games that feature sword flourishes, sniping targets, looting, and perilous adventures, but also to the mutually male and female desire for a good story.  The video game is an evolving form of entertainment and video game realism is an influential factor in the progressive changes of female video game characters.

The research should not stop here; for, much has been left unsaid about male characters.  Is a similar trend taking place for the male video game character?  Alistair, a male comrade of the Grey Warden in Dragon Age:  Origins, is best described as a sensitive, “pure” (yes, he is a virgin), humorous, insecure follower.  This statement not only goes against the common description of male video games (masculine, assertive, aggressive, heavily muscled), but it is also ironic in that Alistair himself has amassed a cult following of female gamers due to the optional romance the Grey Warden may pursue with him.  This single character is enough to warrant further research into the male characters featured in games with a focus on narrative and character relatability.

Works Cited

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Molly Chapman