Apparently, this is trickier than it sounds.
A new video from feminist culture critic Anita Sarkeesian released Tuesday highlights various ways female characters can be portrayed positively in video games. It's part of Sarkeesian's "Feminist Frequency" series, which explores how women are represented in the media.
The video focuses on The Scythian, the protagonist from "Sword & Sworcery," an acclaimed mobile game. The Scythian is interesting, Sarkeesian asserts, because she subverts expectations for how lead characters -- and especially lead female characters -- are portrayed in video games.
An excerpt from the latest "Feminist Frequency" video shows The Scythian in "Sword & Sworcery."
First, the game employs familiar tropes.
"By drawing on familiar gaming icons and conventions that many of us already associate with legendary quests and timeless adventures, Sword & Sworcery quietly asserts that women can fill the role of the mythic hero as effectively as men can," Sarkeesian says in the video.
Next, the Scythian isn't defined by her gender.
"The game doesn't resort to clear gendered signifiers like a pink outfit or a pretty bow in her hair, nor does it present her gender as some kind of surprise twist like we see in the original 'Metroid'," Sarkeesian says.
She's completely independent.
"She didn't just exist in relation to another character -- she wasn't just somebody's wife or sister or daughter -- but rather, she existed as an individual and as a hero," Sarkeesian says.
The Scythian lets players identify with her.
"Like many video game heroes, the Scythian is essentially a silent protagonist, a figure defined primarily by her actions, which makes her a blank slate for all players to project themselves onto," Sarkeesian says.
There are many obvious problems with how women are portrayed in video games. The massively successful "Grand Theft Auto V" features an unending parade of stupid, offensive characters of all genders, but the women are moaning sex objects. There's a female, holographic artificial intelligence in "Halo" that has alluring curves for no real reason.
Even some of the "good" portrayals of women in video games come with caveats. In her video, Sarkeesian referenced "Metroid," a popular Nintendo franchise with a female lead named Samus Aran who often draws comparisons to Ellen Ripley, the main character of the "Alien" films. Video game fans often cite Samus as an example of a positive female character in gaming, but there are problems.
For starters, the reveal of Samus' gender at the ending of the first game is treated as a surprise. Her body was tucked away in power armor for the entire game, and then it vanishes, exposing a bikini-clad woman underneath:
One possible ending to "Metroid" (1986) (Source)
Whenever Samus dies in 1994's "Super Metroid," her armor explodes, once again revealing skin, breasts, and long hair:
What happens when you "lose" in "Super Metroid" (Source)
While Samus is a good character in many ways -- strong, independent, agile, intelligent -- the emphasis placed on her gender as a defining trait or "surprise" has sometimes raised eyebrows. Take the recent addition of high heels to her "Zero-Suit" costume for example. You might think the topic of "female video game characters" shouldn't be so controversial, but you'd be wrong. Certain opponents unleashed a torrent of vitriol and death threats at critics like Sarkeesian last year following the rise of #GamerGate. Those who disagree with Sarkeesian often accuse her of cherry-picking arguments to make her points, but her perspective has found sympathetic ears in the national press.