Inspirefest: Role of female protagonists in gaming

Developer Brenda Romero addresses some of myths

Did you know that you couldn’t play a videogame as a female character before 1986? Or that female characters haven’t been created because developers couldn’t render women’s breasts properly? “Jiggle physics” is a real thing, apparently, and it can be difficult.

It might come as news to people that think the main audience for games are men between the age of 18 and 35, but women make up a sizeable proportion of the gaming audience out there, and games developer Brenda Romero took to the stage at Inspirefest 2016 to address some of myths that are out there.

Women are responsible for about 93 per cent of games purchases, Ms Romero said. “We spend more money than anyone on games.”

Ms Romero gave a brief history of her involvement with gaming, from her early introduction to Dungeons and Dragons to her eventual career within the industry, something she never intended to happen.


“I got a job in the games industry in a bathroom in 1981,” she said, relating a story about sharing a cigarette leading to a job with Sir-Tech. “I fell in love with code. If I had to do it twice, I’d code it. If I had to do it three times I would code it better.”

At that time, she noted, there were very few women in the games industry. The perception of the industry is that it is male dominated, both in the people who are producing the games and those who are playing them, leading to a domination of a particular type of protagonist.

She laid out a number of examples where women characters in games are essentially reduced to props or bit parts.

“Princess Peach will just sit there in a castle and wait for this guy - for a plumber of all things. What if she rescued herself? Or what if she rescued somebody?” Ms Romero said. “If you Google ‘game protagonist’ this is the first screen you get - basically we can tell, if you’re a hero in a game world, you need to have at least a little bit of a beard, you clearly need to be a white guy, and you need to be kind of unhappy.”

Women characters, on the other hand, are sexualised, with revealing outfits and physical characteristics to match.

“It’s ridiculous, especially if you’re going into dungeon, to just leave all your clothes off,” she said.

That is gradually starting to change, with more realistic female avatars making their way into mainstream games. Mass Effect, for example, allows you to play Commander Shepard as a female character, complete with proper armour. Gears of War’s Anya Stroud became a playable character in the third installment of the game. And there are others.

The popularity of social games such as Farmville has also opened the door to people who wouldn’t consider themselves gamers.

The improvement in the diversity ratio - both for creators and consumers - produces better games, Ms Romero said.

“The best games that happen you make for yourself,” she told the audience. “We all want to be some kind of hero.”

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien

Ciara O'Brien is an Irish Times business and technology journalist