Oct 15

The Girl Ghetto and Getting Tired of Merely Being Seen

I was very excited for Gaige, a female Borderlands 2 character, to come out. I read everything I could about her. But then people on my Facebook began complaining that Gaige was a woman, as they don’t play woman characters.


And, frankly, if that’s what they want: it’s very easy to oblige them.


Michael Hitchens, writing for Game Studies, did some rather thorough research: what is the gender and race of FPS avatars?

His results:

FPS avatars are predominantly male, Caucasian and from the military across all platforms (although not all characteristics in the same game).

For those who care about these things, this isn’t terribly surprising. But it does have something to do with what I’ll call, taking the term from TVTropes, the girl ghetto.

Let’s take Korra, the titular character of the Nickelodean show and Avatar: the Last Airbender follow-up The Legend of Korra. You can see a picture of her directly above. Not only is she a woman, she’s a person of colour.

Of course, making her a woman was not without its risks. To wit:

Some Nickelodeon executives were worried, says Konietzko, about backing an animated action show with a female lead character. Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls.

During test screenings, though, boys said they didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.


“Girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls.” ‘Boy’ is standard, on TV and in video games. For girls to spend most of their time watching male protagonists is so standard that applying the Bechdel test to movies–(1) does the movie have two female characters? (2) who talk to each other? (3) about something other than a man?–reveals a stunning failure at the very first question. We can’t even be bothered to populate our fictional worlds with more than one woman, sometimes.


And while some have suggested tweaking the Bechdel test to better fit videogames, a survey of Bechdel-passing video games of 2011 showed dismal, dismal results.


As a Dmitri Williams study showed, the ratio of female protagonists to female game players is significantly out of whack.

The developer demographic explanation [wherein game developers tend to make characters of the same race and gender as themselves] is made stronger by considering that the number of female characters (15%) comes much closer to the number of female gamemakers (11.5%) than the number of female players (38%). If the process were entirely player-driven, there would be far more female characters, especially among the primary, playable characters (where the proportion is nearly identical to the developers’ ranks). […] Still, the most likely cause for the representation patterns in this study is a combination of developer demographics and perceived ideas about game players among marketers. The stereotype of game players as only young, white males who want to be powerful white adults may be driving the content-creation process, even as the player base becomes older and more diverse. […] Women, at 38 percent of game players but only 15 percent of characters, are the most underserved. Latinos, who play more per day than whites and form 12.5 percent of the population, are only 2 percent of characters.

Women are relatively privileged in video games when compared to people of racial minorities, who are often practically invisible (quick, name a Native American main character, other than in Prey or Assassin’s Creed III). Racial minorities have to fight just to be seen on-screen, while my biggest problem is that merely being seen isn’t enough anymore.


So I feel, increasingly, like I am expected to whoop and cheer for merely seeing 50% of the population represented as anything more complicated than a damsel-in-distress or as a (literal) prostitute. And that is a shockingly low standard to have.


No, instead, I want them to be active. I want depth. I want the minority characters to have motivations, and not merely to be plot devices or the standard “see, I included a woman!” nonsense.


I’m not going to give out plaudits for merely acknowledging I exist anymore. I’m not going to accept marketing excuses, or excuses about the girl ghetto. You know how to make the girl ghetto no longer an issue? Get men as used to seeing women on their screens as women are seeing men on theirs. Make female characters. Make them strong.


I want more Korras.

About the author

Kim S.

A religious studies nerd with a passion for video games, Kim enjoys single-player games, short walks far away from beaches, and failing to get through Infinite Jest.

1 comment

  1. Erik G

    I found this article yesterday that I kind of explains a lot of the problems about female representation in really all mediums.


    It really came as a shock to me when successful movie and game franchises have been built, almost around passing the Bechdel test that producers and the such a work wouldn’t capture the attention of the male audience.

    Also, one reason I am excited for ACIII is because it has a Native American protagonist, since I am a Native American gamer (though, I’m Navajo and Connor isn’t but its still cool). One of my biggest fears is that he’ll be portrayed rather stereotypically and be more just like a Magical Native American instead of you know, a person. There are several stereotypes that I don’t mind, but I barely know fictional Native American characters who don’t spout out philosophical BS like its all they do or shapeshift into animals (which after a while, kind of becomes offensive).

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