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Women don’t wear bikinis to battle, and other things the gaming industry is learning

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A girl in a gaming chair with a headset on plays a video game.

Shot of the Beautiful Pro Gamer Girl Playing in FPS Video Game on Her Personal Computer, Casual Cute Geek wearing Glasses and Headset. Neon Room. Online Cyber Games Internet Championship Event. Credit gorodenkoff/Getty Images gorodenkoff/Getty Images

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Grand Theft Auto will be getting a female protagonist, according to a report from Bloomberg. At the time of this writing, Rockstar Games, which makes Grand Theft Auto, has not confirmed this and didn’t respond to Marketplace’s request for comment.

But it would be a notable change — there are far fewer playable female characters than male ones in video games. And for a long time, women have been typecast as damsels in distress, like Princess Peach from Super Mario, or as sex objects depicted with little clothing and exaggerated proportions, like Lara Croft from the 1990s Tomb Raider games. She’s an archaeologist who explores old ruins in teeny, tiny shorts and a tank top.

Lara Croft from the 1996 Tomb Raider video game. (Photo by Dennis Sylvester Hurd via Flickr)
Teresa Lynch (Courtesy Ohio State University)

Teresa Lynch, a communications professor at Ohio State University, researched the portrayal of female characters in video games over 31 years and found that they’re growing in number and that it’s becoming less common to portray women in that hypersexual way.

The stereotypes haven’t completely disappeared but they have receded, making way for female protagonists with deeper stories, motivations and flaws like Aloy, a warrior and hunter who wields a bow and arrow in the 2017 post-apocalyptic game Horizon Zero Dawn.

“There are far fewer damsels in distress, but it’s not just that there are fewer of them,” said Lynch. “It’s also that there are more representations of powerful and capable female characters too.”

One reason for this change? Video game makers have realized that women play games too. Nearly half of all U.S. gamers are female, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

“People really started to wake up to the idea that they didn’t always have to target the same audience,” said Amanda Cote, a professor of media and game studies at the University of Oregon.

Amanda Cote (Courtesy University of Oregon)

According to Cote, game companies started to market their products to what they considered “nontraditional” players and not just young men in the early to mid-2000s. That strategy paid off for Nintendo in 2006 — it marketed its Wii console to girls, moms and seniors, and eventually sold more than 100 million.

Cote said women want their video game avatars to be depicted in a way that makes sense. For example, a lot of female gamers complain about something they call “bikini chainmail.”

“So this is when you’re playing as a character and you get a cool new piece of armor and when you put it on your avatar, it becomes a bikini of armor,” Cote said. “So all your vital organs are exposed, and the armor would not actually do anything to protect you. That really drives a lot of the players I speak to crazy, because it pulls them out of the immersion that they have in the story. It pulls them out of their characters’ role in the game.”

The 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider and its subsequent sequels kept those concerns in mind. The main character, Lara Croft, was given more realistic proportions and less revealing outfits.

Lara Croft in the 2015 reboot entry “Shadow of the Tomb Raider.” Credit: User “eko” via Flickr.

We don’t know yet how the Grand Theft Auto 6 character will be portrayed. And the game has been criticized for controversial content in the past. But it sounds like there’s reason to hope.

The video game industry has developed a reputation for catering games to men, and that could be because traditionally there are far more men than women making the games.

In a 2021 survey, the International Game Developers Association found that only 30% of respondents working in the game industry identified as women, though that number is up a bit from 2019.

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