As an avid gamer myself, I have sometimes found myself searching the male-dominated world of videogames for a positive representation of a strong, capable woman. And often, when I feel like I might have found one, something will come along to scupper the revelation. Now, I know the Daily Mail teaches us that computer games are Bad - playing Grand Theft Auto will inevitably lead to a life of drug abuse and crime, and playing Mario Kart will cause children to throw banana skins out of moving vehicles, causing a surge of road accidents. But putting those cautionary tales aside for a moment, let's look at some of the leading ladies of videogames, and their relative femihero merits.
1) Lara Croft. The First Lady of gaming, Ms Croft has amassed a loyal following among gamers - Tomb Raider was one of the first major titles on the original Playstation. And there's not much Croft can't do - she runs! She jumps! She shoots things! She grabs ledges and shimmies over abysses. She's a strong, independant woman, self-motivating and determined. And she certaintly doesn't need a man to help her. Gamers may notice that, in the later games, a male team were assembled at Croft Manor - they talk Lara through some of the trickier missions, although she's always quick to put them in their place if they give her a hard time.
So far, so good. But there's one little problem with Lara, and that's the small matter of her blow up doll appearance. Lara habitually dresses in tiny hotpants and a tight tank top. While Sam Fisher, Solid Snake and Master Chief are dressed appropriately for their physical, violent outings, Lara is very exposed. And with boobs like those, it figures she'd need a little more support. Alternative costumes include a skin tight catsuit and a slashed-to-the-thigh ballgown. So ultimately, to make Lara acceptable to (mostly male) gamers, the strong female angle has been watered down by her sex object appearance - it's almost as if gamers would be unable to accept such a strong woman if she were wearing, say, combat trousers and a sweatshirt.
2) Tifa Lockhart - Final Fantasy 7's leading lady, Tifa is an ass-kickin', bar-ownin' martial arts expert. Part of an underground rebellion against The Man, Tifa is strong, smart and capable of leading, as she proves when main man Cloud is rendered useless through illness. The problem with Tifa, however, is Lara Croft syndrome once again - her strength is diluted by her overtly sexual appearance. Tifa fights in a miniskirt and tank top, with proportions not dissimilar to UK 'glamour model'/freakshow Jordan. Once again, she is made hyper feminine in order to make her strength acceptable - she becomes a caricature of sexuality. The other issue with Tifa is her seeming weakness without Cloud - it's almost as if she's powerless without his support.
3) Jill Valentine, one of the main characters in the Resident Evil series. And in her first outing, she appears to have avoided Lara Croft syndrome: she isn't characterised by her 'hotness', kicks an appropriate amount of ass and gets out alive. By the time Resident Evil 3 came out, however, the designers must have decided there wasn't enough non-zombie flesh on display and promptly redesigned Jill's costume. This coincided with her reappearance as a main character.
I'm just scratching the surface of gaming heroines here, and I may well examine some more key characters in future posts, but today's conclusion is this - all three women abovementioned are strong, capable and (mostly) independent. They can fight as well as any man, and are capable of besting men in combat. They do what they have to do without complaint. For all these reasons, they are excellent role models, true femiheroes. But I can't shake off the nagging anger at the need to portray them so sexually. Can a woman not be strong and attractive without dressing impractically and skimpily? And can we not portray 'attractive' without resorting to the tired old formula of 'big tits, skinny waist, flesh on display'? And, perhaps the biggest question of all - why does a female character have to be conventionally attractive at all? Of course there is nothing wrong with being good looking, but where's our female Gordon Freeman?
I can't help but wonder who game manufacturers are trying to please by dressing their female characters in tiny hotpants and tank tops, and by inflating their proportions - is this really the only way we can make our videogaming heroines acceptable to the mainstream gamer?