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The portrayal of women in video games massively changed over the past four decades. Whereas female characters once were helpless pretty looking objects, a new generation of strong and independent heroines took their place.
Damsel in distress
Female characters made their first appearances in video games in the early 1980s. But at first, there was no trace of the strong female leads we see nowadays. Major game franchises initially offered no playable female characters. The only notable exceptions were Mrs. Pac-Man from the same-named arcade game in 1982, as well as Samus Aran from the famous Metroid saga. However, Samus gender was not revealed until a twist at the end of the game. And a yellow circle cannot exactly be seen as an empowered female character.
Usually, women only appeared as damsels in distress while the male hero of the game had to rescue the stereotypically naïve and weak girl. The most prominent example of this type of character is Princess Peach who has to be rescued by the plumber Mario. From today’s perspective the lack of variety in the portrayal of women is shocking. There was certainly a demand for a strong representation of women in video games.
The strong heroine – with oversexualized appearance
In 1996, Lara Croft from the legendary series Tomb Raider heralded a new era of women in games. For many young girls, the adventurer was the first female protagonist they could ever play in a video game. Lara Croft was an empowerment for women, a feminist icon and a giant step towards gender equality in games. She wasn’t a helpless sidekick, she was and is the powerful protagonist of an entire franchise. The revolution even had effects outside the virtual space: Lara Croft became one of the most popular fictional female characters in the world, especially when Angelina Jolie embodied her in two feature films.
While the archaeologist is widely beloved, she also showcases a giant issue in women’s representation in video games: their oversexualization. Lara Croft is known for her unrealistic trademark body shape with oversized breasts and delicate waist. She might have been a figure of objectification, but nonetheless, she inspired and empowered countless women and opened the path for more female heroines in video games to follow.
Independent lead characters free from stereotypes
Over two decades after bombshell Lara Croft conquered the virtual world, many more female protagonists have been created. The trend went from objectification to writing female heroes that are strong, independent, smart, but most importantly: realistic.
Protagonists such as journalist Elena Fisher from Uncharted or the heroine Ellie from the Last of Us broke predominant gender stereotypes and set an example of good character writing.
Fisher is portrayed as a tough and intelligent woman, capable of solving even the most complicated riddles. But she also is an independent fighter who is not afraid to throw a punch. Teenage girl Ellie however is no flawless power woman, she is strong yet vulnerable. She struggles with survivor’s guilt and feeling worthless, which often results in impulsive decisions. But she also proves astonishing emotional strength as she is willing to sacrifice herself to help finding the cure to save humanity. As opposed to the original damsel in distress, this new generation of female characters in video games are equal to their male counterparts and even outclass them occasionally.
There is a variety of ways to include female characters in video games. Women went from mere objects to heroines with deep and realistic personalities. They have proven to add more to a video game than just the fact that they are attractive and cater to male fantasies. Or in the words of famous explorer Lara Croft: "The extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are.”