Little Girls on Female Characters: Essie’s Turn

The original, grown up version of the Females on Female Characters panel at PAX East(from which I pulled most of the questions I asked my girls, thanks Susan for sending me the original questions) has been posted in video form here (may be NSFW)– Essie’s responses to the questions wil be below the videos:


Again, let me remind you that both girls have been exposed to a wide variety of games. They have played mostly Wii/Gamecube games with some PS2 games as well as those on games on Shamus’ Steam account thrown in. That said they have watched Shamus play a much wider variety of games (practically everything he has ever written about aside from a few that he only played while they were sleeping) including but not limited to all of the  GTA, Mass Effect, Fallout, FFX,games out there. This means they likely have had a much broader exposure to females in games than the typical 11 and 13 year old girl. I interviewed them separately and at different times and neither knew what the other would answer. I also want to note that we have never really discussed female characters in games and neither girl has seen the video of the panel, which made it especially interesting to see how much their answers lined up with what the panel had to say.

Rach and Essie playing Dance, Dance Revolution as twins.

Rach and Essie playing Dance, Dance Revolution as twins.

The following is my interview of Esther, age 11 who spend a great deal of her time creating stories in Garry’s Mod and Minecraft, spends all her spare change on DS and Wii games, and has beat all the Harvest Moon games we own in record time.


Question: In general, what do you think of girl characters in video games?

Essie: Well, I think there are some good ones but usually they are flat, kind of 2 dimensional, like Princess Peach. I mean, she only exists so she can be rescued, which is boring and not at all like a real person.  Meanwhile Zelda is more detailed and has that Sheik, the other side of her personality.  She is very introverted as Sheik but is a nice outward person as Zelda.

Sometimes they can be kind of blank, kind of like Princess Peach.  I think they just try to make women attractive and just plain old whiny jerks.   For instance in GTA San Andreas, they are always calling up and whining about how they want more attention.  They are always wearing teeny tiny skirts and little tops with no covering– partially naked.  It makes me feel insulted, because in reality women are not like that.

Question: When is it okay for a character to be attractive, and when is it over the line? (How much is too much)

Essie: If they are in a game and going out to a really fancy restaurant then it is okay but it is over the line when they wear those clothes all the time.  The really short skirts and really tiny tops, like sports bras all the time– that is too much.  Most main characters it is okay if they wear a crop top or shorts but dressing skimpy all the time is just skanky.  If it is part of their personality and there is a really good reason for it but they would have to have the perfect personality for that to make sense and for it to be all right.

Question: What makes a good female character?
Essie: I feel that a good female character, she has an even balance.  Alex from Halflife is a good female character.  She has a good personality but her little flaw is that she hates being bossed and pushed around and she doesn’t follow orders very well.  It is kind of a flaw but that makes her more realistic, and she is a tomboy and she is just the perfect character. I just get mad because I can’t play her. All the best female characters are just sidekicks like Yuna and Alex.

Question: Why default to male? – Some characters clearly need to be male, based on context, but for those that don’t, why does it always default to male?

Essie:  Some call for that in the storyline, some stories just don’t make sense.  It would just be strange in some games to be a girl, but in Minecraft it wouldn’t hurt if you could play a girl.   I don’t really mind playing boys but I tend to like playing a girl because that is my gender.


Question: What about games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon?

Essie: It is a good idea to have the option of boy or girl and it is sad that Harvest Moon: It’s a Wonderful Life you can’t choose gender.  I also feel that games like that should have different goals, like Harvest Moon Magical Melody because after a while you get sick of collecting notes and feel like you have accomplished everything after you get married and have a kid.

Question: What are your ideal female characters?  You already mentioned Alex.

Essie:  Yuna, from Final Fantasy X.  She is a likable character, she’s not perfect but she is likable.  There is also the first girl from Mass Affect 2, Miranda.  When you first meet her I really like her.  I like her even though she gets bossy and weird later.  I liked how, in the first part she is straight forward and shoots the bad guy.  She is no nonsense.

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Little Girls on Female Characters: Rachel’s Take

On Tuesday I was driving with my youngest daughter (Essie, age 11).  The conversation turned to PAX and I asked her opinion about some of the things that were discussed at the Females on Female Characters panel. Upon hearing her answers I decided to ask her older sister (Rach, age 13) the same questions, expecting very different answers.  Despite them both being very much girl gamer geeks they have very different personalities and, usually, very different opinions about games.  Their answers surprised me so much that I wished I had recorded them.  I reinterviewed them so I could record their answers properly but they gave nearly identical answers to what they said the first time I asked.  And this time, Rachel went first.

Silly girls

Our geeklings.

It all started because I still had the panel on the brain and was thinking about this new website and what I planned to write in this space. I had an hour drive with my girlie and so I started asking her questions about female characters in games. I desperately wish I could have recorded her answers. Please keep in mind: both girls have been exposed to a wide variety of games. They have played mostly Wii/Gamecube games with some PS2 games as well as Steam games thrown in. That said they have watched Shamus play a much wider variety of games (practically everything he has ever written about aside from a few that he only played while they were sleeping) including but not limited to all of the  GTA, Mass Effect, Fallout, FFX games that he has played and reviewed. This means they likely have had a much broader exposure to females in games than the typical 11 and 13 year old girl. I interviewed them separately at different times and neither knew what the other would answer.  Each girl also read through the interview after and made sure she was saying exactly what she wanted the way she wanted it said– I did not change their wording at all.

The following is my interview of Rachel, age 13.  Rachel loves pink and is, in all ways, a girly girl except that most of her friends are gamer guys because, as she likes to point out,  girls her age prefer to gossip and talk about makeup, boys, and music and she really just wants to play games.  The questions I used for the interview are mostly those they planned to use for the panel with some slight adjustments to suit their ages or to remind them of things they specifically spoke about the day before when I asked.

Question: In general, what do you think of girl characters in video games?

Rachel: I like them a lot but I wish they would act more like normal girls. A lot of them are either really bossy or incredibly shy. They are always extremes never in between and that always irritates me. I don’t like that a lot of them (Princess Peach, Zelda, Princess Daisy), first thing is that video game designers seem to think that girls only like pink and pastel colors and that they giggle and they always act like teenagers no matter what age they actually are. I wish video games would make their proportions better– they always are either toddlers (like in Harvest Moon Magical Melody the characters, boy and girl, are shaped like toddlers and dressed like toddlers but the girls are the worst) or teenagers, not proportioned like anything older. Either they dress really skimpy or incredibly cutesy.

In grown up games (like Mass Effect, GTA, Prince of Persia) they are always dressed skimpy and they are always perfect, they never have any flaws, and they walk around the game for no reason most of the time, so they are there just to have someone in skimpy clothes.

Question: Sexy vs Sexist – when is it okay for a character to be attractive, and when is it over the line? (How much is too much)

Rachel: If you have a game and every single girl is walking around in a bikini, you have a problem. I guess if you are trying to give the idea that it is part of her personality then it is fine, and if that is so then give her a lot of dialogue so you know it is part of her personality.

Question: What makes a good female character?
Rachel: I like it when they are heroic. All girls aren’t just shy, they aren’t all just giggly teenagers. Heroic is good. Selfless is good. Too often they don’t have good qualities. I don’t like it when a character is totally flawless, they should have at least one main good quality and one bad quality– not all bad character and not all good. In a lot of games, if the girl is the bad guy she has no good qualities. And I always thought it was dumb, they always seem to dress up a bad guy in skimpy clothes: a bad attitude, a bikini, and a gun does not make a bad guy.

Question: Why default to male? – Some characters clearly need to be male, based on context, but for those that don’t, why does it always default to male?

Rachel: I think people assume that males are the ones going to be playing the game. Most guys don’t want play a girl so it defaults to guys. But girls play games too. I personally don’t like playing a guy. Sure I play one when I have to but I like playing a girl, be able to dress her appropriately, and be able to not automatically have to flirt in the dialogue. I think its a big problem that when games give you a dialogue tree as a girl they assume you want to flirt or be a jerk. In a lot of games they just give you those two options. The really bad one here is Mass Effect 2, it only gives you the be kind or selfless option on occasion and when it does, when you click on it, you realize that it doesn’t necessarily come out the way you want it to.

Question: Is this specifically a problem for girls or for characters in general?

Rachel: Yes, it is. I notice that the boy characters get more kindness options. I don’t know why. The guys get to be kinder which ticks me off. What if I want to play a nice girl. They always assume that because I am a girl playing I must want to be a jerk or flirty.

Question: What about games like Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon?

Rachel: Those are my favorite games, not because they are cute and girly in some cases, but it is because they give you the choice between boy or girl right off, and in the dialogue tree they give you three options. They give you kind, intermediate, and mean. There is no flirting or big consequences because you click the wrong button or this character dies because you click the wrong button. In a lot of games being a jerk means you shoot the guy, which isn’t jerky, that’s just evil.

Question: What are your ideal female characters?

Rachel: Yuna, from Final Fantasy X. She is my favorite but what ticks me off is you can’t play as her. The best characters are always side romances. They are never the main character and when they are the main character you don’t get much dialogue, you pick boy or girl and that affects nothing. The other thing is, the one thing that changes when you are a girl. Say you’re a boy, you change to a girl, it just changes the romance, not much dialogue change. I like Alex (from Half-life) a lot and I wish they came out with a game that you could play as her. I personally don’t care about Chel from Portal because she has no dialogue and you only see her once or twice when you are jumping through portals, and you can hardly get the angle right so you can’t see her face. Princess Peach drives me crazy. Her only uses are getting captured over and over and sending you lives every once in a while. She giggles too much and my eyes hurt because she wears too much pink. Don’t get me wrong, I love pink, but even I have my limits. Princess Daisy, while I am talking about Mario, I have played a ton of Mario games and she has only turned up once or twice, and even then it if for a couple seconds with like three words of dialogue, even Luigi get s more. And they just changed Princess Peach’s clothes and hair color to make her and who the heck is she anyway.

Two Dimensional Characters in Three Dimensional Games

FoFP, PAX East 2011

Left to right: Graham Stark (front), Susan Arendt, Tracey John, Kathleen DeVere, Trina Schwimmer, and AJ Glasser

On Saturday, we managed to get into the “Females on Female Characters” panel, which was packed and for good reason. Before you read my take on it you may want to hop over to The Escapist and read the notes Greg Tito took during the panel— he didn’t catch everything but he gives a pretty good feel of what happened and how it went– next year we are taking something with which to record. We found it interesting and not surprising that half the crowd was female while only a small portion of the population of PAX East was female. There was quite a bit of good back and forth about sexy being okay as long as the characters weren’t there for that reason alone and whether certain characters were good female characters and it suited the game but what the discussion really boiled down to was that female gamers want to have the option of playing well rounded, interesting, witty  female characters in games and good character design is key for both male and female characters.  The real question is what IS good character design and what needs to change to make that happen?  Making characters solid people that make sense not just a reason for something to happen.     I have plenty to say about the other issues that came up (just like everybody else and a lot of it has already been said)  but for the moment I want to focus on the character design issue. I think the biggest problem with the “good character design” question is that games aren’t written by writers. Yes, they hire writers– especially big game companies, but they hire writers who write games.  They aren’t out there hiring “real” writers, they are hiring people who love games and have set out to write for games.  First off it is true, these people tend to be male, because gaming is still male dominated.  As an aside, I think a lot of that is that gamers have shot themselves in the foot by poopooing the games girls often prefer, but that is a whole other topic and not what I want to address right now.  For now I want to focus on the problem of two dimensional characters in three dimensional gaming and my theory as to why the problem is so prevalent.

There is a huge disconnect between  writers, artists, and game designers.  Yes, there is a small group of people who love gaming and go into the field because they love gaming.  Meanwhile, in general it looks more like this:

Note: I specified programmers but gamers works just as well– in fact I would say that the programmers should be an even smaller percentage of each than gamers– significantly smaller– so my ven diagram sucks but I spent way too long making it to begin with and refuse to go back and change it. Even writers who game is a very small percentage, which as Shamus pointed out in a recent conversation, is not surprising given the poor writing and story telling in games. I find this especially  interesting as I have many writer friends– partly because I am married to a writer, partly because I read obsessively and find it to my benefit to be friends with the people who write the type of books I love to read,  and partly because of my experience as an artist and book cover designer.  The point is I know a slew of writers who write well and very few of those game let alone program.  Meanwhile all of these writers are trying to get published, either traditionally or independently. Because these writers are not gamers it doesn’t occur to them to send their writing out to game publishers or try to get hired by a game developer.  In fact, when I mentioned this to a writer friend she said, “I know I wouldn’t have a clue where to start in seeking storying opportunities in gaming.”  However why aren’t game developers approaching these writers?  Here is a huge pool of amazing writers who are working hard to polish their art and attempting to become the best writers they can be and they are completely overlooked by a field that NEEDS good writers. It surprises me that game designers have not even attempted to tap this fount of good writing.  When someone recommends a book to me quite often the comment is, “This book was so good it should be made into a movie.”  No one ever says, “This book was so good it should be made into a game,” which saddens me because I often think that.  Tons of the books I have read would make interesting games, with well developed characters and plenty to do and explore.  For example Patricia C. Wrede‘s “Enchanted Forest” series would make fun games with a great female lead as would Patrick Carman‘s two recent series (granted the most recent would be a male lead but both have fascinating worlds to explore with well developed, interesting characters.)  The best games I have played lately (i.e. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future) felt like they started with a good story and worked the game mechanics around that whereas most games seem to work backwards– starting with a game idea then finding writers to write the story around it.  Movies and other story based media don’t work that way so why do games? Aside from that particular “getting things backwards” issue, there is the whole pool of writers issue.  Instead of pulling writers from the crowd of writers trying to shove  their way into the publishing industry, game designers (and publishers) tend to draw from the much smaller pool of  gamers clamoring to get into the gaming industry. It goes something like this:

  • Young man spends his spare time gaming and and immerses himself in game culture(not down on this, this describes some of my favorite people. :))
  • Gamer decides that the best way to find work he loves is to get into the gaming industry.
  • Gamer looks at pile of fan fiction (or fan art) based on favorite games and decides THIS is his key into the gaming industry.

*This is obviously oversimplified and stereotypical and  leaves out all those who get in because a friend is designing a game and needs a writer/artist but I am trying to make  a point.

The problem is that like the majority of writers trying to get published, they are so-so writers.  A publisher friend suggested that 99% of the writers attempting to get published are mediocre so what percentage of the much smaller group of writers focused on the gaming field are average at best?  They are missing the editing, understanding of character and world development, and just plain old experience and polish that those who have been working in the writing field have developed.  In fact, I would guess that compared to the writers going the traditional write, send out, get rejected cycle, writers in the gamer circuit tend to have much less experience or understanding of writing as an art and trade than their published (or actively attempting to get published) counterparts. Compared to the other writers in their particular pool they are excellent, but compared to the ocean of writers out there they are guppies. This means that they tend to suffer from the same mistakes that so many of their unpublished writer counterparts suffer from.  They just plain don’t know how to tell a good story.  They don’t have the experience and have not learned how to develop story arch and well rounded characters and it doesn’t occur to them to try and learn. Writing good stories and characterizations, and doing it well, is just not a priority for them.  They already know that their story is going to be published because it is an integral part of the game, so why work at being a better writer? And what does all this have to do with the Females on Female Characters Panel at PAX East?   The reason we don’t have a lot more well developed female characters is we don’t have good writers who can write female characters (and for that matter artists who know the difference between male and female aside from hips and breasts).  Games don’t start with good stories, they start with a game idea and then the story is built around that idea.  So we end up with stereotypical characters in a regurgitated plot line instead of interesting, three dimensional characters in a new and interesting story.  And because so many of the gamer writers are male and have less experience with females outside of the games they play the female characters they create tend to be caricatures even in a game where the males are not.

Another Website?!?!?!

On the way home from PAX East yesterday, Mr. Awesome-pants and I were discussing why I wanted to start a blog specifically about gaming.  I have had an awful lot of blogs over the years (currently have 5 aside from this).  The biggest question was what I would write about, and why.  I have a lot I want to talk about but mostly it comes down to these four reasons:

  1. I want to have a place to rave or rant about games I love or hate.  My current sites are not good places for that– it would completely confuse or even alienate a lot of my current readers who are definitely not gamers.  At best they would smile and nod and then wait for me to get on with blogging about my normal stuff.
  2. I want to add my female voice to what is still a mostly male dominated area so that when my girly geeklings grow up it will be easier for them to have a voice.  This is especially important to me after meeting Susan Arendt (Shamus’ awesome editor at the Escapist) and realizing just how few over 25 female gamers are out there (and me in my mid-30’s).  Most of the girl gamers out there are chicks in the child sense of the word and I want to pave the way for them even if it just means adding my voice to the few.
  3. I want to legitimize myself as a girl gamer.  Way too often the term “gamer” is associated only with those who prefer certain genre of games– say first person shooters or keeping up with the latest from Bethesda, Rockstar, or WoW or whatever an individual feels makes them a hardcore gamer.  I love puzzle games (current obsession: Professor Layton and the Unwound Future) and have wasted entire days on Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon (my daughter picked up an old Gamecube version of Harvest Moon yesterday and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.)  I am done apologizing for considering myself a gamer because I spent an entire weekend trying to beat World of Goo (which I did btw) and am currently obsessed with Walk It Out (willingly walking 3 miles just to fill in an area– yeah, that IS gaming.)
  4. Finally I want to have a place to go on about my specific passion when it comes to non-movie/tv entertainment media which includes but is not limited to games and books–the art and story, but especially the art.

As you may have guessed, the final reason is why the blog is called game-story-art.   I am not great at creative titles and wanted to get the point across quickly.  I am passionate about books and games (video, card, board, pen and paper– you name it) and I am doubly passionate about the need for excellent art and story to make these work.  Sure you can have a game that is driven solely by the mechanics of said game– chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe and on the other end of the spectrum poker, war, and plain old dice but those are not nearly as compelling as D&D, Magic: The Gathering, and The Longest Journey.  A game can have wonderful game mechanics but if the illustration style sucks you lost me.  On the other hand you can have a potentially amazing game, like Starship Titanic , and despite the shockingly horrific, crashing every 5 minutes bugs, deliberately finish the game because the art and story compel you (if someone wants to go ahead and make a patch for that game I would love you forever).  In general I would rather play an adorable game than one than one with the best game mechanics in the world.  I realize my husband Shamus Young disagrees with me slightly– to him game mechanics and intuitive play are quickly followed by story in importance, but he is a programmer and writer and I am an artist who loves to read.  The artist in me looks at a game cover and expects the story and game mechanics to fit the art. I like my games to be playable and have stopped playing games that were boring or just outright stupid (Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles comes to mind) but most important is a visually compelling game with an interesting story to tell.  I will happily play a game using the strategy guide at every step in order to play a good story with great art (like Tales of Symphonia which I never could have gotten through without the strategy guide at my side.)

So here it is.  My own personal “write about games and books” space.  I have no idea how often it will be updated and make you no promises– a lot of that depends on how often I get close to a game or read a book. 🙂

D&D

Now to go convince Shamus that he NEEDS to finish his book so he can DM for us. My assasin is desperate for some action.