Margaret Robertson

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I spent this weekend playing Super Metroid, start to finish. I thought the ending was a bit weak, but I loved the puzzles with foam and the grenades.

Psyche! Metroid doesn’t have foam and grenades. But you knew that. What does have foam and grenades is Shadow Complex, which is basically Metroid in 2.5D with some nice water effects, courtesy of the Unreal Engine. But you knew that too, probably cos you spent the past weekends playing it as well.

I should stress that I’m not saying Shadow Complex is just 2.5D Metroid to belittle it. Metroid is a member of that very small cadre of games which are damn near perfect, and finding a smart, innovative way to update it is a substantial game design accomplishment. I may not quite have bought into Shadow Complex‘s fiction, and I may have had issues with some of its platforming, but shooting people was bloody satisfying, the sense of exploration and mastery was well conveyed and the bosses were sensibly designed. First game this year I’ve dedicated a weekend to, start to finish.


Finishing it – or rather, ‘finishing’ it (I’m a long way off finding all the keycards, let alone tracking all the bullion and every upgrade) – made me want to go back to Metroid. To talk about how emotional just a corner of the map makes me. To rave about the brilliance of the sound design. To preach about the strength of games whose environments form one interlinked whole, rather than a random scattering of different zones. To my enormous surprise, however, I’m not going to talk about any of those things.


That’s because I’m writing this fresh from being a panelist at a Girl Geek dinner – the kind of thing I never usually go to, because I’m profoundly uncomfortable being a spokesperson for 51% of the world’s population. I feel like a know a fair bit about being a geek, but much less about being female. How can I be sure that my experiences are remotely reflective of the experiences of a gazillion other women with different lives and different priorities and different interests?

Tonight, though – having met a bunch of smart ladies whose work as database programmers or game designers or technology PRs was often inspired by an early love of games – I’m acutely conscious of the fact that a component of my love for Metroid is the fact that it stars a woman. Samus maybe suited and fetishised, divorced from any of the sociological or biological trappings of womanhood, but at least she’s actually a lady.

The more time I spend around gaming, the more appreciative I get of Samus. I think of her when I remember the time we got back from E3 and, after comparing notes, realised that between the three of us we’d seen a total of two games which starred women, one of which was Okami, whose star Amaterasu is technically a wolf, which kind of spoils the point.

I think of her when I notice that the story for one of my current projects has come back out of rewrites with every single female character inadvertently written out.

I think of her when I’m playing Shadow Complex, whose supposedly badass love interest does nothing more dynamic than get kidnapped over and over and then allude to sexual favours at the end.


I don’t need games to have more female characters because I need to see myself reflected in them to enjoy them. One of the reasons I love games is because I get to be someone else. I feel very strongly that the ten-foot cow-man I get to be in World of Warcraft is as accurate an extension of my inner personality as any realistic avatar I’ve ever fretted over. And I don’t need games to have more female characters because it’s unjust or unfair if they don’t. Games ought to be defining their own realities and making their own rules.

Ultimately, though, I need games to have a few more girls in them because it’s just downright *weird* that they don’t. Girls are pretty much an epidemic. We get everywhere. We do all kinds of stuff. There really are an awful lot of us around. That we still run out of entries for the Great Gaming Leading Lady Pantheon before we run out of fingers – Samus, Lara, Jade, Faith, Nariko, April, Yuna, the chick from Urban Chaos… – is just plain odd.


I don’t want positive discrimination in games. I don’t even really want the Deus Ex 2/Mass Effect/Fable 2 cop-out, where you can play in a boy-skin or a girl-skin without it really having any meaningful effect. I would like – along with more games with map-dependent, unified levels with awesome sound design – more games starring ladies just for the sheer thrill of variety.

A bit of a change from a stubbly, muscly, probably Nolan-Northily voiced every-hero who is currently everywhere I turn. It might attract more women into game dev. It might increase the sales of AAA titles and hardware. It even might help games get taken more seriously by mainstream media and cultural commentators. Much more importantly, though, it might help make sure I don’t get invited to anymore ‘Geek Girl’ dinners, a splendid evening though it was.

One of the great things about ‘geek’ is that it’s a gender neutral term. The price of entry is knowledge and enthusiasm, and anyone who can pay is welcome – regardless of sex, age, race, sexuality, religion, political affiliation or haircut. It’s one of the things I love most about this industry, and one of the things that frustrates me most about the products that represent it. We’re a diverse, welcoming and non-judgmental bunch, in my experience, but our games make us look like an outreach programme for the Ayran Nation.

Direct distribution and the wide variety of business models now open to us now makes developing commercial games for niche and minority audiences more viable than ever before. Are we really saying that we can’t find a viable way to make games that turn 51% of the world’s population into heroes a goer? Samus wouldn’t stand for that.

[Margaret Robertson is the former editor of Edge magazine and now videogame consultant. One More Go is her regular Offworld column in which she explores the attractions of the games she just can’t stop going back to.]

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  1. So, let’s ignore the point of the article and nitpick.

    Nariko doesn’t get into that list. Faith – okay, even though Mirror’s Edge is still a bit too fresh. Ignoring the Urban Chaos chick, that’s six. Cate Archer and Chell make it eight. Candidates for the last two spots:

    9. Juni (Knytt Stories), Naija (Aquaria) or Iji.
    10. Galatea, or maybe Alley from Photopia. They’re arguably the actual leads of their games. The second-person perspective is nothing more than the verbal equivalent of an over-the-shoulder camera.

    And if we’re going to consider Nariko, we might as well include Silent Hill’s Heather, Lenneth (Valkyrie Profile), Joanna from Perfect Dark, and an old friend of Samus’ – the Guardian Legend herself.

    Please understand that I’m not disagreeing with you – this is just my OCD side manifesting. You’ve inadvertently given me a fixed number and a task to Catch Them All. I can’t help myself.

    Though in my opinion, the indisputable Pantheon are Samus, Lara, Jade, April and Cate – one hand. The rest aren’t in that league. So your point stands. And if it helps, the Big Game I intend to make soon features a female lead; there are reasons for it, but also because an overabundance of male leads means it’s an easy way to be different.

  2. Hear, hear.

    I did love Longest Journey. And I do love Metroid. (Well, the side-scrollers; I suck at basically every first-person-perspective game ever made, including those in the Metroid series, but that’s besides the point.) And it is truly tiring to see visions of hypermasculinity in my games. Women can do things just as well, if not better; let’s see it happen, industry.

  3. Terra/Tina Branford from Final Fantasy VI?

    Also, though she’s not the *lead*, Chrono Trigger would be a non-issue without the SUPER geek gal Lucca to invent/build the teleporter that inadvertently started the time-travel trek to save the world.

  4. I keep going back over and over to games that let me play as women. Part of the pleasure of gaming is that it allows you to be someone else, but in addition to that, gaming often allows you to enter a different reality with different skills and abilities while still maintaining an element of yourself within that space. It might seem silly, but playing as a female character, even if that character is a male fantasy of female empowerment makes me feel more powerful as well for a little while. It’s not the kicking ass as a girl that I enjoy per say, but rather the opportunity to be a force of change. I feel like there’s a narrative trend in gaming that excludes female characters from having the drive of a protagonist. Instead they’re relegated to reactionary roles. Gradually we are seeing contradictions to this trend, but the rate of change is sometimes disheartening. It’s good to hear more and more people addressing the disparity in an open format like this.

  5. Nariko almost deserves her mention on a technicality, which is that at the aforementioned E3 she was the star of the second game. And, depressingly, three years on you can still count the generation’s female protagonists in original titles with one hand and a spare finger or two.

    Maybe we can ease players in gently by pitching for female leads that are still voiced by Nolan North.

  6. It seems like the survival horror genre (Silent Hill 3, Resident Evil 0-3 and veronica, all 3 Fatal Frames…) is, or was, a lot more prone to female protagonists. I wonder what that says about these games, given their tendency to favor a weaker/less superhuman player character for suspense purposes.

    For what its worth, I more or less always play with a female avatar when given the option, although you’re correct in that the difference is usually minimal (though there are some noticeable changes in mass effect, oblivion, and such).

  7. What about Rayne? Bloodrayne 1 was fun.
    What about Sheva Alomar?
    Not to mention that there are M/F differences in KoTOR 1 and 2(the canon character from 2 is actually the female).

    Just adding a few more.

    ” but our games make us look like an outreach programme for the Ayran Nation.”

    Just keep in mind that even Captain America, created by two Jewish boys to combat Hitler, etc. Also has blonde hair and blue eyes.

  8. To be fair, the sea change in perspective Ms. Pacman brought to the dot-eating genre probably deserves its own column.

    The interesting thing with survival horror heroines is that while their vulnerability is definitely played upon, they have a better run than the rest of the cast in that they are actually able to surmount unspeakable obstacles and triumph (unless it’s a Siren game, which is pitiless to male or female characters equally.) Heather is easily the strongest Silent Hill protagonist, and Eternal Darkness’ Alex Roivas does the work of 11.

  9. “We’re a diverse, welcoming and non-judgmental bunch, in my experience, but our games make us look like an outreach programme for the Ayran Nation.”

    Brilliant – thx much for this excellent article Mrs.Robertson!

  10. Thing is, it’s easy to make games for guys. Men are evolved for hunting and combat, and it’s easy to create situations that evoke the hard-wired adrenaline responses men have.

    Women are evolved more for gathering, socializing and nurturing. All of these situations are more challenging to present in a way that triggers women’s reward wiring.

    Also, the reward that comes from these activities is a slower, more sustained pleasure – unlike the adrenaline rush guys get in a fight-or-flight situation. Addiction research shows that the faster the spike in pleasure, the more addictive it is. So even if we succeed in creating a game that triggers women’s natural pleasures, the slow rise of pleasure from these activities means she’s less likely to become addicted.

    Ergo, most games are made by and for guys. This is basic biology, and is unlikely to change. Since guys find it easier to envision a guy in a hunter/combatant role, most leading game characters are guys. And when we choose to play as a female character, (as I usually do in MMORPG games), it is likely because we prefer looking at a sexy female avatar for hundreds of hours.

    It’s a tough nut to crack. Believe me, nobody in the games business likes the idea of leaving half of the money on the table. Many people have thought long and hard about this problem. But I think we’re looking at an insurmountable biological difference here that will always make it easier to write games to hook guys, and it will always be the case that guys will be more comfortable with male hunter/combatant protagonists.

  11. Forget the “oh but you forgot about…!” and the ridiculous evolutionary psychobabble above.

    Thanks for a smart, well written article about the basic logic that the gaming world seems to have forgotten.

    I will be quoting this sentence for a while: “Girls are pretty much an epidemic. We get everywhere. We do all kinds of stuff. There really are an awful lot of us around.”

  12. @13: “…that triggers women’s natural pleasures, the slow rise of pleasure…”

    Ok, I am officially skivved out.

    When I chat about games with other people, I’d appreciate it if they omit the slow rise of my natural pleasures from the conversation.

  13. Eternal darkness! Forgot about that one. Yeah, she certainly does not fit the mold of the semi-helpless survival horror player character. No running away to save ammo in ED. But I feel like that’s the exception more than the rule.

    In any case, I’m going to guess wildly and estimate that 50%-plus of survival horror games have a female lead, compared to 1-2% of other games as a whole (omitting the build-your-own style of rpgs and the like). Its a striking difference, and one that must have some kind of motivation. It could be as simple as RE1 inventing the genre (yeah, I know Alone in the Dark etc, but it was really RE1 that kicked it off) with Jill as a lead and others’ following suit, or it could be something more insidious, like a perception that we feel the horror more strongly when its a helpless girl running away from the giant monsters. Hm.

  14. arkizzle / Moderator


    I was coming in to say that exact thing.. Ms. Pacman 4eva :)

    Also, from the article: “Ultimately, though, I need games to have a few more girls in them because it’s just downright *weird* that they don’t.


  15. I absolutely agree that a greater diversity is needed in the lead roles of games, but this isn’t going to magically happen as the result of anybody’s whingeing. Want female-lead games? Write some already! Geeks – girl or boy – aren’t just consumers.

  16. creatinganaccountbecauseanonymousdoesntwork

    Lara Croft, known to use dinosaurs.

    An honorable mention goes to one of the first female villains of video games.. Carmen Sandiego. She is known to the oldest of the elderly dinosaurs. (Like me.) The game even got a spinoff game show.

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