Sexism in design: Why the setting of female characters is important?

From Lara Croft to Princess Peach in Mario, female characters in computer games have traditionally had two roles – to excite teenage boys or to be rescued by the male hero. But a new wave of female characters is setting the stage for a more gender friendly experience. Does it really make a difference for young female gamers?

When I was a young girl, I always watching my father play the Mario series.

A pixelated man with a red hat and moustache defeating the mushroom monster, and dodging the sunflower. He crosses the dark underground world and the deep sea, takes on the final monster and finally rescues a kidnapped princess. This man’s name is Mario, the main character of Super Mario Bros., the famous games from Nintendo.

From watching my father play it to having my first handheld console to play on, the only character people could choose from was this moustached man.

From my father to me, we played as this resourceful and brave man time and time again to rescue the Princess Peach who, to be honest, I only learned last year that this character actually has a name. But no one ever wondered why there is no female character could play as.

Nowadays, video games are gradually emerging with a number of distinctive female characters. According to a survey from Fnatic, a professional esports organization in London, shows that in 2020, only 18% games set a female character as their main character.

This figure is already 13% higher than in the previous year.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a world popular acrossover fighting game series. According to Eurogamer which is a British video game website, Princess Peach, as one of the optional characters, is one of the best fighters.

She was as beautiful as ever in her pink dress, flying through the air with her Peach Parasol in the air. But no one should underestimate her peach bomber, one of her surefire skills.

Her talent and grace make her a possible role model for this generation of boys and girls. Instead of just having an image of her as I do of an unlucky princess who was often kidnapped.

The blonde Princess Peach succeeds in stripping away the stereotype of the ‘damsel in distress’.(Image: Ryan Quintal from Unsplash)

Janice Lu, 31, has been working for a Chinese fashion magazine for six years. Ana Amari, a support hero in Overwatch which is a team-based first person shooter video game. This 60-year-old Egyptian sniper and bounty hunter is Janice Lu’s favourite character in this game.

In addition to the character’s excellent skills, Ana’s perspective on age was very encouraging to her.

“‘Age and beauty, I have you on both’ this is one of her classic audios,” said Janice. “She has fought on the front lines of the war and age has not stopped her. She even lost an eye, but for the sake of her loved ones and her country, she returned to the battlefield.”

Working in the fashion industry, she was once terrified of ageing. Wrinkles used to be one of her greatest fears.

“The reflection of the car glass, the mirror in the lift… wherever my face can be seen, I would uncontrollably move over to have a look. For god’s sake, I was only 25 years old at that time,” said Janice.

The female character in the Overwatch become a role model for her. They have different experiences, different skin colours, come from different countries, are fit or slender but they are both confident and good at what they do.

“Ana, in particular, remains so confident and strong even though you can know her age from her appearance,” said she. “I want to be that kind of woman too.”

Talking about why it’s important for minority groups to be in the game, Zeke Stokes, the VP programs at GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) told The Hollywood Reporter that a lot of young people tend toward gaming as a primary or preferred source of entertainment. And under this situation, the lower figure of it is a matter.

While the number of female characters has increased, the inherent gender discrimination against female characters still exists.

One of the most obvious problems is the male gaze. It means depicting women from a masculine perspective representing women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male view.

The adventure game Tomb Raider can be considered a masterpiece with a woman as the main character. Lara Croft is an “archaeological genius” and a “treasure hunter”, with her athleticism, wit, and bravery.

At the same time, another thing that can not be overlooked is the revealing outfits and hot to unrealistic body of Lara, which is used as a major selling point for male gamers.

Jessie Ma is a 26-year-old huge fan of video games who used to work for NetEase, a famous game company in China. Once independent and intelligent Lara was the person she always wanted to be as a teenager. But there was something she could never accept.

“Wearing only a work vest and super-shorts, she just walks through the dangerous scenes with her thighs and arms bared,” said Jessie. “She must be really lucky that she didn’t die from various infections caused by mosquito bites and scratches.”

“And thank goodness the game designers remembered to give her a pair of boots instead of a pair of high heels!” said she.

The advent of the digital age has given rise to more forms of communication, and avatars are one of them.

Linying Li, professor from Beijing University of Technology Marxist Theory Teaching and Research Department said: “In the new media environment, avatars exist all the time around contemporary students. The avatars can convey the culture of the nation and permeate the outlook on their life and values.”

Commenting on the possible impact of the male and female characters in the production on the audience, assistant professor of Sociology at the Floride State University, Alice McCabe said that supporting the belief that male characters are more important than female characters may contribute to a sense of unimportance among women and special among men.

Animal crossing: New Horizons did a good example in building avatars.

In this life simulation game, the roles people play are just human. Gender is simply an identifier. Men can also choose to have ponytails and dresses, just as women can have short dirty hair and baggy tank tops.

Freedom, that was the point I felt most strongly when I am playing it. Even though I still wear a halter dress with double ponytails in it, it is important that this is my choice and not forced upon me by the game makers.

The game has an even gender distribution of players, according to its producer Hisashi Nogami said at the Computer Entertainment Developers Conference in Japan.

What’s more, it sells more than 32 million copies worldwide which achieve a major success in commercial sector and won the Best Family Game at The Game Awards 2020.

If the game company want people to play their games for a long time, the character should be easy to identify and very likeable, according to Steve Meretzky, an American video game developer who once work as the consultant on Blizzard’s game Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans.

“The more a player can get into the skin of the character or characters they’re controlling, the more the experience becomes something that’s happening to you, rather than something you’re doing,” said Steve.

The increase in the number of female consumers has made men no longer the majority of the main consumers of the gaming sector. According to the data from Fnatic, over 1.2 billion players worldwide are female which is 46% of the total.

Thus, it’s important for game developers to have a female character that meets the preferences of women.