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Women in Games: A Personal and Industrial Journey

In light of International Women’s Day, here’s a word from former Q3 Editor Sarah Thompson about what it’s like to game as a woman in today’s landscape.


I’ve been involved in the gaming scene since I was a toddler watching my mum play Tetris whilst desperately trying to figure out why my lines weren’t vanishing. I can’t imagine my life without video games; what did people do for fun at 8am on winter Sundays before? They were the root of many arguments and laughs with my older brother and, despite growing up as player two on FIFA and Tekken, I’d never really contemplated video game sexism. It was just part of my life.

I was known as the girl gamer in my secondary school. Yet despite frequent invitations to Call of Duty clans, I could never seem to avoid juvenile remarks like ‘you got killed by a girl!’. When I was younger, I took pride in proving that my vagina doesn’t inhibit my skill. But as years went by, this pride subsided into frustration. Why to this day am I still told I don’t play any real games? Is my 400+ collection of titles not enough? What more do I need to do to be considered as equal in the gaming community?

I’ve not played a football game where I can be the Arsenal women’s team despite their roaring success, and to this day, female clubs are not available at all in FIFA – though perhaps this reflects the state of the sport rather than the state of the gaming community. Perhaps the issue is that female gamers are not screaming loud enough. We can’t blame game companies for failing to cater to quiet demands. With the recent influx of gynocentric films and the feminist movement, perhaps this trend will see video games commit to more than Barbie Riding Club or Cooking Mama.

Even in the mainstream annals of game history, Grand Theft Auto and Super Mario Bros lend credence to concerns of apt representation when – within these games – women are either sex objects, damsels in distress, or simply useless. Even when they exhibit competence, Metal Gear Solid’s Quiet, Street Fighter’s Cammy, and Final Fantasy’s Rikku are nevertheless thrusting about scantily-clad, whilst their male counterparts are more modestly depicted.

Fortunately, the tide is changing, and the industry has taken gargantuan leaps in addressing this issue. The more recent Tomb Raider games chart Lara Croft’s journey from naïve explorer to habituated killer, a far cry from her PS1 outings in which Lara’s character consisted of large breasts and a passion for locking elderly butlers in fridges. More recently, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a game which explores the trying ordeal of mental health, is carried by the stellar performance of its titular female lead.

The more personally nuanced and less polygonally-breasted Lara Croft of today is a welcome evolution

My personal favourite game, Alice: Madness Returns, explores similar territory. It’s the story of Alice Liddell and her journey to overcome the trauma of being blamed for the house fire which engulfed her family. Throughout, Alice confronts her hallucinations and madness in pursuit of the truth and personal redemption. It’s a powerful depiction of not just mental suffering but also the crushing weight of wrongful blame. Alice takes place in a Victorian dystopia, but in our world, it’s not dissimilar to the consequences of rape culture.

Another area in which the industry has evolved tremendously is customisable avatars. Many popular games now provide the option to play as a female from the get-go. Pokemon, Fallout, Mass Effect, and now Assassin’s Creed give you the choice to play as female characters as well as male, a choice which bears no impact on gameplay. There is no change to storyline or the way NPCs treat you, and the clothing style for the female characters is equally questionable to the male choices.

As with most mediums and their cultures, sexism is a part of video game history and, despite major progress, the journey is not over. But as companies continue to cater and progressive industry trends strengthen, these attitudes will surely permeate the wider community, even if it is a slow burn.  To any girl or woman reading, as frustrating as male scepticism can be, it matters not. Enjoy your passion shamelessly – it requires no one’s ratification. Whatever game you play, share your joy with the world irrespective of what may be expected of you. The industry is listening, and the world is coming around.

Tangentially, anyone passionately involved in gender equality in video games ought to consider arguing for racial equality, too. Many minority demographics remain underrepresented, and having experienced the joy of relating to Alice Liddell, I would be remiss to deny others that opportunity.