In film, there exists a critical test typically used to identify gender bias in fiction. The Bechdel test, created by Alison Bechdel in her 1985 comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, gauges the active presence of female characters and just how well rounded and complete those roles are. There are three pieces of criteria that have to be met to be considered for a film to be seen as fair to the female persuasion: (1) It has to have at least two women in it, (2) who talk to each other, and (3) do so about something besides a man. You’d think that that would be a really easy test to pass, but it is astonishing the number of popular movies that fail. The failure rates are so high that one could argue that the complex and interesting lives of real women are underrepresented in media. To that effect, I've recently been mulling over the scope of female roles in video games. Female characters exist in every genre of video gaming, but how many of those characters can really be described as well-rounded, accurate representations of women? Not many, in my humble opinion. However, of the many genres full of one dimensional and oversexualized women, I would argue that the RPG genre boasts some of the strongest female characters.
Before we can really delve into the natural storytelling and character development advantages innate to the RPG genre, the landscape of gender portrayal in other genres really needs to be examined. Numerous adventure, FPS, racing, and action games are guilty of presenting one dimensional female characters, but no genre tries as hard to sexualize their female roles as the fighting genre. In many fighting games, male characters are designed to be muscular, extremely well-built, and handsome, while female characters are typically petite, well endowed, and unrealistically lacking in any cosmetic flaws. If we examine their outfits, male characters typically wear garb that is appropriate for their fighting style, while female characters wear outfits that flaunt their cleavage, rear, and navel regions. Games like The King of Fighters, Dead or Alive, Tekken, and Rumble Roses even go as far as to implement jiggle physics in the bosoms of their female fighters. This element of their design doesn't have any fundamental effect on gameplay, but it does provide an added aesthetic element. While I'm sure many a sexually frustrated gamer will say that its implementation "does no real harm," its inclusion spells the objectification and sexualization of female fighters for the sole purpose of capturing certain demographics. This phenomenon is reflected in the real world where women are constantly bombarded with media representations of how the female form is expected to look, and is often linked to cases of depression and eating disorders.
Unfortunately, many games in various genres do not leave room for robust characterization of either gender, usually citing playthrough time limiting narrative scope as the reason why or that the characters themselves were "never meant to be tremendously realistic." That claim, I believe, has little merit. If enough effort is exerted by developers, characters of all shapes, sizes, and universes that we see even for short period of time can have decent backstories, legitimate motivations, and realistic personalities. Unfortunately, female characters in particular have a tendency to be portrayed as being unintelligent, victimised, infantilized, sexualized, and at times completely underrepresented. They're usually relegated to playing the part of the damsel in distress, sexy sidekick, or background dressing. In fact, according to data gathered by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research in 2012, only 4% of 669 games surveyed had a female protagonist.
Thankfully, there is one genre that tends to treat its female characters with a bit more care. Role-playing games are typically intended to present a complex and engaging narrative that features numerous characters, each with distinct personalities, and character development arcs over an extended period of time. This is also one of the few genres that I believe would have a fair amount of titles that pass the Bechdel test, considering the number of well defined female roles in most games. One only has to look at the characters of Celes Chere of Final Fantasy VI, Commander Shepard of Mass Effect (or "FemShep" as she's affectionately referred to by fans), Lenneth of Valkyrie Profile, Serana of The Elder Scrolls V: Dawnguard, or Mitsuru Kirijo of Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 to find positive examples of femininity, strength, and compelling character design. These women aren't sexualized or relegated to the background. To the same extent, their femininity isn't taken to the extreme of kicking ass while holding their womanhood in triumph. They are people first, full of aspirations, flaws, personality quirks, and ideals, and women second.
Many games within the RPG genre boast extremely well developed characters because they are required for the players to be engaged for such a long time. To that extent, you would think developers would avoid subjecting gamers to female characters that were inane from beginning to end, but it certainly happens. Yuzu Tanikawa of Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor features both a sexualized character design and a personality that many gamers would describe as ditsy and self absorbed. In some respects she also acts as a damsel in distress, which in itself is a bit distressing as she's intended to be a lead female. Shion Uzuki of Xenosaga was designed to act as an intelligent, highly educated protagonist that was rational enough to lead a gang of misfits, but her actual presentation is that of a clueless, childish, and often petulant heroine with a handful of daddy issues and a clear inability to deal with things not going her way. Triss Merigold, the default love interest of The Witcher 2, is one of the few poor Western RPG female characters that I can think of. Generally, Western RPGs tend to spend a lot more time on the development of their female characters than Japanese RPGs, but Triss' personality is almost lost in a miasma of sex and nudity. Finally, Star Ocean: The Last Hope offers a gaggle of female characters that make you question whether anyone at tri-Ace has ever met a woman. Myuria's design is flagrantly oversexed, Lymle is adorable but acts like a child and not like the teenager she is, Serah is consistently clueless, and everything from Meracle's design to personality was clearly meant to appeal to furries. These characters aren't people so much as they are stereotypical archetypes. I'm sure there are others within the genre that lack dimension, but thankfully there are many more that could be seen as fully formed individuals who happen to be women.
We live in a world full of diverse personalities and motivations. If this were a perfect world, that diversity would be better represented in media. I'm not sure we'll ever reach an age where both genders are accurately portrayed in video game media, but I'd argue that RPGs are making the greatest strides towards that world. Sure, there are strong, intelligent, and motivated characters in other genres (Samus Aran of Metroid and Jade of Beyond Good & Evil come to mind), but If we really want fair representation for both genders it's something we'll have to fight for. That fight is worth it though. Not just because it's the right thing to do from a gender equality perspective, but also because more dynamic and realistic characters would likely make a better overall gaming experience.