What Do Games Say About Reality? Studying the Roles Female Protagonists Play in Video Games

By Erin Caine
Senior Writer

We’re all probably familiar with classic video game characters such as Ms. Pac-Man and Princess Peach, but female characters in video games—especially playable characters—have always been few and far between. What is more troubling than their scarcity is the fact that they’re still often subject to the same tedious and damaging tropes as always 00such as objectification, underwritten characterization, derivative designs (i.e. Ms. Pac-Man being just like Pac-Man but with a pink bow), being constantly barraged with gendered insults, and so on. The gaming industry’s attitudes toward and depiction of female characters, especially female protagonists, has been changing little by little in the past couple of years. Here are a few recent and upcoming titles to be excited about:

1. Horizon Zero Dawn, 2017. Not only does this game boast a vibrantly futuristic, post-apocalyptic world and a gripping story, but it also features a compelling, practically-designed, and consistently capable female protagonist: Aloy—who is from a goddess-worshipping matriarchal society, no less. This game is also one of very few in recent years to have a woman as its main protagonist without relying on the success of a previously established franchise with a male lead. In the wake of the game’s enormous success, both in sales and scores, the gaming industry might be persuaded to stop seeing female protagonists as unmarketable.

2. The Last of Us Part II, 2018. The original 2013 game was widely considered the best game of the year, if not one of the best games of the past few years. One of the reasons for this is the foul-mouthed charm and dogged grit of Ellie Williams, a young girl who follows the protagonist, Joel, throughout the game’s story. Though we can only play as Ellie in a single chapter of the first game, she is set to be the main protagonist of the upcoming sequel. Part II seems primed to add an even greater complexity to both Ellie’s personality and to her relationship with Joel. Moreover, Ellie is one of very few representations of LGBTQ characters in mainstream gaming right now.

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3. Dishonored 2, 2016. Though it is admittedly a bit disheartening that both this title and “The Last of Us Part II” seem to be using the success of their respective predecessors to take risky moves (that is, to more prominently feature their female protagonists), “Dishonored 2” is still doing a lot of progressive things. The player is given the choice of playing either as the first game’s protagonist, Corvo, or as the grown-up Emily Kaldwin, now an empress. While this may somewhat cheapen the experience of a female-driven narrative, it’s worth noting that Emily and Corvo are given special powers that are wholly distinct from, yet equal to, the other’s.

4. Rise of the Tomb Raider, 2016. The sequel to the 2013 reboot of the franchise, “Rise” gives us the inquisitive and tenacious Lara Croft without the tastelessly over-sexualized design of the series’ earlier predecessors. Not only is Lara Croft heroic and a determined survivor, but she also retains her identity as a top-notch archaeologist, often translating for the player ancient languages and giving us information on various artifacts she finds. While the electrifying gameplay and visuals of both games hold up on their own, it is the iconic character of Lara Croft—knowledgeable, crafty, dexterous, and yet totally sympathetic Lara Croft—that draws gamers back again and again to the franchise in all its incarnations.

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