Gender in gaming: Tomb Raider #1

There’s a gender problem in gaming. Although figures about the genders of gamers create a reassuring sense of equality (the actual numbers change a little depending on which articles you read, but this story, saying that 47% of gamers are female, is pretty typical), this does not appear to be supported at an institutional level.

Games with exclusively female heroes don’t sell (because publishers don’t support them.)

Ben Kuchera has written about this, pointing out that ‘male developers create games with male only heroes for an often overwhelmingly male audience.’ (Attentive students might be reminded of Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory, which suggests exactly this type of structural bias in the film industry.) He goes on to reference Patrick Kolan’s point  that pretty much every protagonist of every game is a white guy with some facial hair. Kolan has a point – after a few games, all these chaps basically become the same person:


So, we have male-orientated games dominating the market hugely. Why is this? Although gaming as a whole is approaching equal take-up, console gaming is still male-dominated, as Sara Perez points out:


Michael Pachter goes further, suggsting that the ‘core’ and ‘hardcore’ audiences are much more dominated by males, saying that “Core is probably average age 30 and 60-40 male. Hardcore is average age 25, and 85-15 male.” So, perhaps it’s the case that the console audience is predominantly male and thus male-orientated games get created for them. However, there is also the possibility that this male-dominated marketing is what keeps the audience predominantly male; until female protagonists are as common as male, the theory goes, the audience is always going to be mostly male because there isn’t enough to attract a similarly sized female audience. And it would appear from our parade of identical tough-guy characters up above that the gaming audience is deeply conservative and mainstream; they like more of the same, over and over, and that means more macho male protagonists. So, there is a problem. Kuchera points out that the industry assumes that audiences will be less interested in games about women, and that marketing budgets reflect this: ‘Games with only female heroes are given half the marketing budget as games with male heroes.’

As a result, those few games with female protagonists tend to attract different sorts of attention; they often get analysed as possible turning points in terms of female representation. (Here, for example, is a comparison of the possible feminist readings of Portal and Mirror’s Edge.) Possibly the most discussed series of games ever, largely because of gender issues, is Tomb Raider, now published by Square Enix. The game has been around since 1996, when the first title was released; since then, there have been fourteen games (including spin-offs), two movies (with a third in pre-production) as well as various comic books, animations and so on. Lara Croft, the protagonist of the series, is clearly big business; more than this, she is an absolutely iconic video game and popular culture figure. (She even holds six world records, including ‘Most successful female video game character.’) So, if we’re looking at female protagonists, she’s the obvious candidate.

She’s had a few different iterations, but in most people’s minds, she looks like this:


The semiotics are a bit tangled here; there are indices of femininity as part of a clear dominant representation of youthful sexuality and ‘beauty’; the long hair, the huge breasts and tiny waist (with hip cocked to emphasise the curves), the short shorts and tight top. At one level, she is being represented as a conventional female gaming protagonist, albeit more realistically than the more fantastical examples – here, for example, from Soul Calibur:


So to some extent Lara is sexualised, which is very typical in gaming. (Note, for example, how more sexualised Halo’s Cortana became as the series developed, as noted here by Carol Pinchefsky; she writes that Cortana ‘went from a sarcastic artificial intelligence to the ultimate damsel in distress.’) Presumably, this blatant sex appeal is designed to appeal to a male audience. Certainly, the marketing materials have always emphasised Lara’s physicality, although not necessarily in an obviously sexual way:

lara_croft_tomb_raider_legend_wallpaper_3-1024x768 (1)

However, Lara Croft is also constructed in part from some semiotic markers associated more typically with masculinity, as seen in the first shot of her above; her clothes are basically functional and in dull colours (compare the Soul Calibur palette), she bears pistols and directly addresses the camera in a low-angle mid shot, connoting confidence. Again, if we look at the marketing image above, she is not only conventionally beautiful but active; typically, and in line with Propp’s narrative theories, the women in games are passive ‘damsels in distress’ who need a masculine ‘hero’ to rescue them. This is a long established narrative convention of games, going back at least as far as Nintendo’s Donkey Kong released in 1981; one male seeks to rescue a passive woman who is being held by another male:

donley king

Lara, clearly, is different; she is the protagonist, the centre of the narrative, and the active character, the one who motivates the narrative. She is also completely independent, very cool, adventurous and practical. As such, we can perhaps see her as a feminist figure, but that sexualised representation, obviously appealing in part to the male gaze, is a bit of a problem in this regard. It’s hard, perhaps, to be a feminist icon when you are dressed in a way designed to appeal to men. Postfeminist theory might offer a more accurate theoretical framework. ‘Postfeminism’ is notoriously impossible to define, but for our purposes it is a modern feminist ideology which allows for a combination of (stereotypically feminine) sexuality and (stereotypically masculine) activity and toughness. It says that women can be sexual and independently active. As blogger Fido points out, Lara offers ‘the ‘best of both worlds’: she is warm, charming, good-looking, eloquent, intelligent, nurturing, cool and successful.’ (He disapproves of seeing this as in any way ‘feminist’, though, suggesting that Lara is basically just another male fantasy figure.) Regardless, that seems the best way for us to understand how Lara Croft appears to appeal to both genders; in terms of Uses and Gratifications, she offers personal identity to females and diversion to males.

Generally, with regard to gaming’s gender issues, things might have to change; as we saw above, women are starting to dominate the mobile platforms and, as Sarah Perez points out, the market for mobile gaming is now bigger than that for console gaming (in 2011, when she was writing, it was about 200 million as compared to 180 million. That gap is a lot bigger now.) As such, we can perhaps expect to see more female-friendly games and representations.

Back to Lara Croft – the most recent game in the series, 2013’s Tomb Raider, has been trailed as a reboot of the entire series, and the marketing of that game will be the subject of the next post.


One thought on “Gender in gaming: Tomb Raider #1

  1. Pingback: Tomb Raider #2: The Reboot | reflections

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