Female characters in video games tend to have particular qualities. The majority have overly large breasts, have high speed but low strength, show particular skill with healing magic, and inevitably are kidnapped and in need of rescue. The simple truth is that video games are primarily marketed towards boys and men and the role of women in video games is rarely complimentary.
Most early video games were rather blatant about this. Arcade games like Double Dragon, Dragon’s Lair, and Altered Beast and NES games like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda all featured women that were kidnapped and needed to be rescued by men. The absolute most horrific example of the place of women in early video games shows up in an Atari game called Custer’s Revenge which requires the player to rape American Indian women in order to win.
But, not all early games depicted women as helpless victims. In fact, two early video games both had female protagonists. The earlier of the two was the arcade classic Ms. Pacman. This sequel to Pacman actually proved to be more successful and better loved by fans of the series. In truth, the title character was only differentiated from her male counterpart by a small pink bow, but there was little doubt to her gender.
Despite the success of Ms. Pacman, the most popular of all female video game protagonists belonged to the other early game with a female protagonist. Released in 1986, Metroid was popular due to solid graphics, unique game play, and just the right amount of difficulty. Due to an intentionally vague instruction booklet and introduction, most players assumed that Samus, the main character, was male. But, with an astonishing end-game reveal, Nintendo introduced the most popular female character in the gaming industry.
Samus may not have started a trend, but she clearly opened a door. Female protagonists started to populate more games, especially role playing games. In fact, female characters in role playing games practically became a standard in short order. Nearly every role playing game had one, occasionally two female characters, and nearly all showed similar qualities. They tended to be skilled in magic and weak with just about all armor and weapons. The poster child for this trend would be Final Fantasy IV that included three female playable characters, all of which were magic users. In fact, in the final party, all magic users were female and all warriors were male.
The role of women in video games was quickly becoming set in stone until a new franchise was released that both advanced the role of females in video games and also set back much of the progress made. The Tomb Raider series set a big-breasted, incredibly athletic Lara Croft as basically a female version of Indiana Jones. She used guns to fight enemies and explored dangerous environments. Despite the masculine activities she performed, Lara Croft is one of the most modded characters in the history of video games and basically every mod removes her clothing.
It is something of an irony that at almost exactly the same time that Leisure Suit Larry and similar porno games lost market appeal, games like Tomb Raider and Dead or Alive became popular. Male audiences had found a new lust for action games that depicted scantily clad, large breasted women. And, for the most part, developers were happy to provide. Cammy, wearing even less clothing than Chun Li, joined the Street Fighter series and Tifa from Final Fantasy VII is often noted for being unreasonably well endowed. This trend culminated with the release of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, a game that exists for no other reason than to show the jiggling breasts of Dead or Alive characters.
Despite the fact that female characters were often eye candy for men, they were also much more prominent in video games after the release of Tomb Raider. The ratio of men to women in fighting games moved towards 1:1 and characters like Princess Zelda actually went from kidnapped princess to butt-kicking warrior, as seen in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Some games, like Dark Cloud 2, actually depicted the primary female protagonist as more physically powerful than the male protagonist.
As of the 7th generation, video games are still marketed more to men than women, but women are clearly considered a significant part of the demographic. Massively multiplayer online role playing games have a significant female population and developers have responded to complaints of oversized breasts in those games by modifying character palettes. Possibly the most significant step can be seen in Final Fantasy XIII, the first game in the long series to have a female main character, and she is one of the physically strongest characters in the game.
From kidnapped princess to space mercenary to tomb raider to magically cursed warrior, women have filled a myriad of roles in video games. As games are marketed more equally towards both genders, the size of women’s breasts is decreasing in the video game world and the roles women fill is increasing. While such a game does not yet exist, it probably isn’t a far off day until a man, probably a prince, is kidnapped and a female goes on an epic quest to rescue him.