Feminist Video Games?

This is disappointing.

I’ve seen Beyond Good & Evil and The Longest Journey cited as exemplars of “feminist video games”, but not much beyond that.

Of course, there’s the larger question of what would make a game good from a feminist perspective. In addition to being good from a gameplay perspective, I’d say such a game would include female characters who are full agents in the game world, and who are treated as subjects rather than objects. I think a variation of the Mo Movie Measure applies as well, in that female characters should interact with other female characters in ways that aren’t centered around men.

So do other games fit the bill? I think a lot of them do to an extent, but have aspects that undo their positive messages. Final Fantasy X, for example, has several active female characters, but their stories each have problems. Lulu isn’t given nearly as much character development as the other characters, and the main element to her backstory is a romantic relationship. Yuna’s got a great story, but it cedes precedence to Tidus’ perception of Yuna. (Incidentally, how much cooler would FFX have been if Yuna rather than Tidus were the primary character we followed?) Rikku doesn’t get the pairing-off treatment, but does get the “fanservice” treatment, most notably during her reintroduction when the camera pans along her body.

It’s been a while since I played Suikoden III, but I remember Chris Lightfellow being a fairly complex and foreground character; the only drawback there was that she was the only female in an otherwise all-male group of knights (albeit the leader of the group). Xenosaga I contains the characters of Shion, a female scientist, and KOS-MOS, a feminine android, which both appeared promising, though I never progressed far enough in the game to find out how the characters were handled.

In other genres, the Metroid series gets cited as a feminist game, since Samus Aran is a hyper-capable woman who avoids (mostly) being objectified. While Metroid doesn’t quite fit the standards I put forth above, I think that speaks to my own bias toward adventure games and RPGs, which may be unfair.

What games do you all think meet the standard for good video games from a feminist perspective?

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23 thoughts on “Feminist Video Games?

  1. I’m not sure how much better Final Fantasy 10 would have been from Yuna’s viewpoint (she’s often so passive or melencholy), but I think a Rikku centered view would have been a riot. As far as feminist games go, I think most of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion would qualify as a step in the right direction. Female characters inhabit a wide variety of professions (blacksmith, pirate captain, researcher, government official, vintner, wealthy layabout) and ocupy many positions of authority (countesses, head of the fighters guild, mages guild chapter heads, authority in the dark brotherhood, etc.). Most women in the game are valued for what they do or who they are as opposed to they’re gender or physical appearance. There are still plenty of rough edges, unfortunately, but in general I’d say the game might qualify.

    Beyond that Silent Hill 3 might well be something to look at…

  2. I haven’t played Oblivion yet (though I remember hearing about issues with gender-biased stats).

    I totally forgot about the Silent Hill games, though. While it’s a little troubling to me that female protagonists are so much more common in survival horror games than other genres, SH3 did have both a great female protagonist and a great female villain.

  3. Have you played Tales of Symphonia? I’m about halfway through it right now, and there’s an even split of male and female characters. It definitely fits the Mo Movie Measure, because only two of the four women, Colette and Sheena, are romantically interested in the main male character (the other two, Raine and Presea, are older, and while men flirt with them, they are so far uninterested). Each character has a decently fleshed out backstory, which thankfully doesn’t revolve around romance.

    It isn’t perfect; Colette, the main female character is in the usual savior/nurturer role, and Raine is a maternal teacher figure. There’s also a shameless playboy character – you can equip a skill that allows him to get items from women he talks to – who comments on Sheena’s breasts. On the other hand, the women get to be physical fighters rather than just magic-users, and leadership is not limited to the male characters. So it may not be an exemplar of feminism, but I would definitely call it feminist-compatible.

  4. That is pretty depressing. I can’t think of any games (aside from maybe those first two) that I’d classify as entirely feminist– there’s always something annoying that’s thrown in to undermine the positive aspects, and usually it isn’t something that the game would’ve particularly suffered without.

    Shadow Hearts: Covenant may be a bad example, since it’s a little too sophomoric and borderline-offensive in places to be considered particularly feminist anyway; still, Karin and Anastasia were relatively well-developed, strong and intelligent female characters with important roles to play. So why’d they have to throw in Lucia, who’s stereotypically giggly and vapid, highly objectified, and utterly inconsequential to the plot? She’s purely fanservice, and not only does it hurt the game ideologically, it hurts its quality to include such an underdeveloped, shallow character when all the other characters are given tons of depth, specific sidequests and subplots, etc.

    (Another example: Lulu as pregnant housewife in Final Fantasy X-2. It’s not even just the fact that the developers cast her in that stereotypical role, it’s that they did it in such a way as to make the character unrecognizable– she’d lost everything that made her interesting and unique. Certainly they could’ve come up with a way to explain her absence as a main character that wasn’t so wildly OOC.)

  5. How about Parasite Eve? It’s been ages sine I played it and my alarms have been more finely tuned since then, but, from what I recall, the game focused on a competent female police officer, though I think everyone who helped her was male.

  6. Lyle: Parasite Eve‘s main protagonist and main antagonist are female; every other character is male. I can’t remember any exceptions.

    The only video game I can think of with a totally feminist main female character is Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan); Terra never does have a love interest, and even after deciding to run an orphanage, she gets up and joins everyone to save the world. But that’s going way back.

    It’s a pity I can’t think of any more recent feminist video games.

  7. I’m not much of a gamer, but I think the Sims franchise has a lot of feminist potential (I also fully admit to being a Sims addict). I remember that I first read about the Sims in Bust magazine, and they were talking about it as the first game that illustrated the enormity of women’s (traditional) labor – cooking, cleaning, raising children, and so on. The possibility of having same-sex couples is also a bonus.

  8. I’d suggest both the Persona and Suikoden series of games as having feminist elements, though they both have their problems, too. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment has a friendship between two women as one of its main plot elements, and seemed to touch on what was expected of them as women in Japanese society. Suikoden has a lot of well-rounded female characters in positions where they hold real power, and only rarely are they presented as sex objects for the ogling.

  9. How about “Fallout”? It had the possibility of having a female main charcter, a number of female secondary characters (some of whom were the most dangerous people you could run into), and meets the MMM easily. My main complaint about it from the feminist point of view is that all the female characters looked the same…more or less like barbie dolls. But one can’t have everything. At least not yet.

  10. Well, in Fallout all the characters pretty much looked the same.

    Most of the problems I had with Fallout were actually with Fallout 2, which used your stats to calculate how good you were in bed, added the ridiculous “Kama Sutra Master” feat, and actually used the fact that you could get married and then pimp out your spouse as a selling point.

  11. Shion is handled terribly. I love the Shion they tell you about, but the Shion they show you has no will of her own when there’s a man around. KOS-MOS is fun, though. Badass, listens to nobody–the only problem is that she only seems to exist to railroad the plot along.

  12. JFP: Fallout2 had its points, but in general it was annoying and I ultimately decided to pretend that it had never happened and that the series ended with the original. It sort of resembled Star Wars in that way…

    I’m not sure I’d consider The Longest Journey as a feminist video game either. While it did qualify by the MMM, the main character was too much of a stereotype for my taste. Plus I thought the rule that the character would not die no matter what you did was kind of silly. Why make a big production about how dangerous things were if she was actually perfectly safe? I’ve never played Beyond Good and Evil. Is it any good?

  13. Dianne: I have to disagree with you about TLJ. While I’m not sure it qualifies as overtly feminist (I’d have to play it again, which I intend to do as soon as I return home to grab the discs), I wouldn’t disqualify it because of April’s personality. Partially because I heavily identified with it, and partially because she was made that way to set her up for the ending.

    Indeed, her personality in Dreamfall is entirely different (to the point that I didn’t like her as much, nor did most people, but I’m hoping that in TLJ 3 she’ll grow into her true personality).

    And speaking of that, if you like action and danger, Dreamfall has it — not only are your characters in peril of dying on numerous occassions, but there are even fight sequences (I found the controls very clunky, though). Dreamfall also has a very high quotient of female characters, although I’m not sure if I should count the fembots (who had this Asian Dragonlady thing going on, to boot).

    Again, I’m not entirely sure that I’d call either of the games consciously feminist, but they’re games that feminists can enjoy without having to deal with common pitfalls like the hypersexualization of all the women in the game and without the “knight in shining armor” cliches. Not to mention it’s nice to play as obviously intelligent, go-getting women.

  14. tekanjii: I have to admit that a glitch in my computer kept me from finishing TLJ. I then got rid of it in favor of a mac, so never did get to see the ending. Maybe on the next computer (if it still runs on whatever OS is in use by then.) So maybe I’m being unfair to April (whom I did like as a character, but thought fell back on stereotypes at times…then again, that’s not inconsistent with her background as presented in the story.) Anway, fight scenes I can do without (I prefer running away, hiding, and cleverly talking your way out of trouble scenes), I just thought the whole “dystopian future” trope didn’t work if the character was never really in danger.

    What I’d really like to see and am not likely to anytime in the near future, is female characters who don’t resemble models at best, barbie dolls at worst. Male characters too, come to think of it. But it’s worse for female characters. The message seems to be that it’s ok for a woman to be smart, independent, etc, but she has to be traditionally beautiful or she’s nothing. Literally.

  15. Dianne: The question of whether the player-character should be able to die has been with adventure gaming at least since LucasArts’ LOOM in 1990, and is easily worth a series of posts on a general game-design blog. On the one hand, killing the player off too often or too arbitrarily is an annoyance for the player who has to restore or undo; on the other hand, if it’s obvious that the player-character won’t be killed, that can break mimesis and situations that should be suspenseful are merely “dangeresque.” (See also the meteor in FF7 that stops falling while you do side quests.)

    You raise a good point in your comments about The Longest Journey: just because a game is “feminist” doesn’t mean that a feminist will necessarily like it. I probably wouldn’t care too much for a feminist first person shooter or real-time strategy game unless it transcended its genre, because those kinds of games don’t appeal to me as much.

  16. The few games that I’ve found to have feminist elements (besides some that have already been mentioned) are Primal (though I don’t know too many people who have played this) and right before I left for vacation I was playing Dark Cloud 2. I’m not too far along in it, but it shows promise to me:I was truly excited that the main female character, Monica, has a sword as her main weapon. I could make an argument for Baten Kaitos (mainly because of the character The Great Mizuti), but the game as a whole could be up for debate.

  17. I am a feminist, and I just bought a Wii system. Immediately, I did a search for feminist video games, and this was actually the most helpful place to answer that question. So thankful for everyone’s comments. Too bad the answer wasn’t a laundry list of games that met the criteria completely. One day… .

  18. I am a psychologist working on an intervention for sexism using video games. Of course, I may have to design my own to fully address the issues of sexism. I understand the view that feminist games should show woman as full human beings, but perhaps you are not aware that female characters who behave in stereotypically male ways, would also qualify as sexist. Violent, dominant, survival, adversarial perspectives are paternalistic viewpoints.
    So what else is there? The result of several years of research presents these alternative perspectives: co-operation, egalitarian, group survival, joint decision making, respect for all members of the group, and individuals as unique and not group representatives. Areas of difficulty in sexist individuals are, insistence on either/or options instead of a wide variety of solutions, grouping people instead of recognizing all people as individuals, judging everything as “superior or inferior” which is a value judgment instead of recognizing that different solutions work in different situations, projecting anger outward as in scapegoating instead of taking personal responsibility, etc. We need to also look at the perspective being promoted, not just the character.

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  20. Suikoden V ist great. The main character may be male, but there’s a great amout of competent and important female characters, strong fighters(Zerase, Lyon, Cathari) as well as wise leaders(Arshtat, Raja), or characters that aren’t fighters, but still very interesting(your strategist Lucretia, tough female doctor Silva). Then there is the fact that the story takes place in a queendom.
    Legend of Mana is also a good example. You can choose the gender of the main charcter and among the other PCs there are three powerful female ones. One of them(Blackpearl)is even the most useful character in battle, except for the main character. Furthermore all of them are wearing very reasonable non-skimpy outfits. The world also has a godess.
    Then there’s Chrono Trigger which offers a good variety of strong female characters. Marle is the more feminie yet competent princess, Lucca is the genius inventor and Ayla is an extremely powerful melee fighter with the highest physical attack value of the group, even though she fights barefisted.

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