Gender inequality is as much of an issue in video games as it is in real life. However, the new video game "The Last Of Us" is helping to change that with its powerful and complex female protagonist, Ellie.
The treatment of female characters in video games and of women gamers has been a much-discussed topic over the past few years. Alexandria Neonakis, a user interface designer for Sony Computer Entertainment's Naughty Dog and part of the team that created "The Last Of Us," wrote a New York Times op-ed arguing that the video game is a big step for gender equality because of its leading lady, Ellie.
In a post-apocalyptic U.S., Ellie is a wise and self-sufficient 14-year-old orphan growing up alone in a quarantine zone. In the op-ed piece, Neonakis explains why Ellie is such a departure from the female characters one usually sees in video games:
She’s powerful the whole time, and it had nothing to do with wielding a gun or physical ability. In an industry that more often than not represents women as either a damsel in distress or a male character in a female body, this was a triumph in storytelling and representation. Ellie is an entirely playable character. It was not by coincidence that the moments you play as her are the most impactful in the game.
While the Times' review of the game named the male lead, Joel, as the story's protagonist, Neonakis described the real star of the game as Ellie. "[Ellie's] journey from a damsel in distress to a fully capable and complex character is made clear through the relationship she develops with Joel," wrote Neonakis. "Likewise, Joel’s growth could not have happened without Ellie. This was not a game 'about men.' It was about a mutual relationship and about how people need one another."
Neonakis also took issue with the New York Times' initial review of the game. Writer Chris Suellentrop asserted that "The Last Of Us" was a poor representation of women and just "another video game made by men, for men and about men." While many video games' target audiences are men, Neonakis explains how statements like Suellentrop's further discourage women from entering the world of gaming:
It perpetuates the idea that this is not a world for women. Young women reading this review who are considering entering games as a career could feel justified in their fears that this industry is not for them. If this thinking is to stop, we need to promote partnership and not continue the cycle of men versus women.
Women need to see themselves represented, both in gaming industry professions and in the characters that the industry creates. Having a young woman like Ellie featured so prominently in a well-reviewed, action-filled game seems like a step in the right direction.