The List: #2 – Girls in Games

This post forms part of The List. The List is where the worst parts of gaming belong: those errors that designers and publishers repeat, over and over again; those aspects of the hobby, and of the culture surrounding it, which embarrass and shame us.

Compiling the whole List would be impossible – no one person could ever hope to detail all that is rotten in the kingdom of board. But we can point to its lowest, most worrying points – a Worst Of Gaming compilation. Read on, dear gamer, and despair.

Girls in games suck.

I really hope that statement riled you up. Not because I like to stir people up (though I will admit that I do) – but because I intentionally wrote it in an easy-to-misinterpret way, in order to elicit a reaction. Assuming you read the statement and thought me a wanker for saying it, then congratulations: you’re not a colossal dick. If you found yourself nodding in agreement because, hey, girl gamers really do suck – then please feel free to fuck off now.

No, really.


In actuality, what I mean is this: women, as represented in games, suck. Not always, fortunately: there are plenty of games which include strong, balanced female characters appropriate to their settings – games like Arkham Horror or Fortune and Glory. Similarly, a lot of games – most, in fact – don’t include characters of any sex whatsoever – I’m okay with the trains in Ticket to Ride being gender-neutral, strangely enough. Then there are games which only include male characters, most often because of the theme they’re attached to (if you’re creating a Napoleonic wargame, or a game which casts the players as Knights of the Round Table, your options are somewhat limited).

And then there are those games which include female characters but, er, don’t do such a good job of representing them. Perhaps the most insidious are those which make, um, interesting assumptions about how a character’s gender defines their characteristics. You know, the charming sort of logic which dictates that the female character sacrifice strength and toughness for dexterity and charisma – sorry ladies, you just don’t have what it takes to be mighty warriors. Just go off and learn to be a thief or a mage instead, why don’t you? That short of shit is irritating, but fortunately seems to be dropping off, at least a little: rare are the RPGs with hard-coded stat-changes based on gender these days. Games with pre-baked characters still fall into the Warriors = Men, Rogues = Women trap more often than I’d like, but things seem to be improving, little by little.

What isn’t improving, however, is the visual representation of women. This goes across all genres, but it’s particularly evident in miniature gaming. Now, before I go any further I want to make one thing clear: I have no problem with cheesecake. Take JoeK Minis as an example: this scantily-female warrior is perfectly reasonable in a range which also includes this ripped barbarian: these are characters tuning into the highly eroticised imagery of heroic fantasy, where male and female characters alike show off their perfect bodies as they engage in bloody violence. Not really my cup of tea, I must admit, but I can appreciate its equal-opportunities approach to sexualisation.

Do you ever get the feeling that a gender is being typecast?

No, the problem is one of context. When sexualised poses and outfits are par for the course across the range, then it’s one thing. When you have a range consisting of male characters in militaristic gear and poses, accompanied by female characters suffering from an acute case of the male gaze – adorned with inexplicably impractical and revealing clothing while contorted into poses more common amongst pin-up models – then you have a problem.

Singling out any one range for this issue would be unfair, simply because it is so prevalent – quite simply, this is something very few companies get right. So I’m going to focus on a range which bemuses me by both getting things very right in some cases, and getting them very wrong in others.

Infinity is by far my favourite skirmish battle game. The rules are elegant, clever, deal well with randomisation and downtime, and it’s generally a joy to play. The models are also wonderfully sculpted: at true 28mm scale, they manage to pack more detail into each figure than the average Games Workshop model, and that’s saying something.

Unfortunately, it’s also a system which seems completely conflicted in its representation of women.

Female (left) or male (right), Yu Jing's Daofei mean business.

On the one hand, it has entire armies which portray an even spread of male and female soldiers, all equipped and posed in a manner which suggests they are just as capable and professional as one another: Yu Jing and Panoceania come to mind. It also has some characters who are sexualised in a manner justified by the fluff – so it is with Haqqislam and its Odalisques.

And then it has shit like this (3 links). An army of aggressive, dangerous-looking male soldiers… and women who barely seem able to keep their clothes on, never mind wield a rifle. Men whose poses speak of combat; women whose poses suggest they’re taking part in some sort of raunchy photo-shoot. That these characters are in the same range, never mind the same army, is bewildering.

Now, there’s an argument I know is coming, and it’s an argument which holds little weight. The argument is this: companies like Corvus Belli make these models because people buy them – it’s not their fault that they’re popular! And indeed, at face value this seems reasonable: after all, the much-maligned Daktari figure is reputedly one of their top-selling models. Why wouldn’t they keep churning them out?

Two reasons. First, the bottom line isn’t everything. Hard to believe though it may be, companies don’t have to make decisions based solely on financial grounds. There are clear and present ethical issues with choosing to objectify women in your model ranges to an extent far in excess of the treatment afforded your male models, issues to do with how you want to influence the perspectives of your players towards women. These are issues which a company can choose to act on.

If you want to know more about what I'm talking about, a quick search for "Ubisoft" and "DRM" will see you right.

Second, there are sound financial reasons to avoid including such models in your range. These reasons aren’t immediately obvious, but bear some resemblance to the problems facing computer game publishers over piracy. In brief: computer games, particularly PC games, are swiftly and widely distributed for free, illegally. In an attempt to curb this problem, many publishers have opted to implement DRM – Digital Rights Management.

Some of the most effective DRM dictates how players use their game: limiting the number of times they can install it, even forcing them to be connected to the publisher’s servers at all time, denying access to those without internet connections. This behaviour leads to a significant delay in the release of pirate copies of the games, allowing a wider window when interested players have to buy the game to play it, and so the publishers consider it a success. And yet, such draconian DRM has had a massively negative impact on public perception of the publishers in question and their games – something which has an unquantifiable affect on their sales. Fewer people may be pirating their games, but how many players are lost due to antipathy towards the publisher’s tactics? It is the inability to accurately estimate the number of lost sales which means publishers haven’t changed their tactics, but it seems reasonable to assume that it is significant.

But this behaviour only influences the purchasing decisions of those in the know. The design of models in a miniatures game influences every potential purchaser. The fact is that there are a lot of players who do not want to buy a game which sexualises its female characters – and these are a subset of players with a significant presence amongst those who seek out wargames with ‘realistic’ looking figures. It doesn’t even have to have anything to do with issues of female objectification: quite simply, somebody who wants to collect and paint an array of figures who look to form a professional fighting force is unlikely to want a model like this messing up their ranks.

I don't know about you, but I feel as though one of these figures - ostensibly all part of the same unit - was designed with a slightly different aim than the others.

The fact is that even as a ‘sexy’ female model might be one of the most popular in a range, attracting buyers who otherwise have no interest in the game or its models, it can be having an untold negative effect on the potential player base in the first place. Anecdotally, I was looking for a new miniatures game when I first came across Infinity. The Caledonian Volunteers to the right were amongst the first models I saw for the range, and put me off it completely. It took me a year and a half before I considered the range a second time, and discovered how little of it fell prey to such design decisions – a year and a half when I was spending hundreds of pounds on other companies’ products. How many other potential collectors have been put off this way?

It’s particularly daft when you consider the core audiences for the range: while wargames are a male-dominated genre, the ratio of male to female miniature collectors and painters is actually surprisingly balanced. Perhaps therefore having a range of miniatures which visually suggest that male soldiers are uniformly combat-ready and professional, while female soldiers are likely to be distracted, flightly and ill-equipped for battle, isn’t the best way to attract that audience.

I’ve not even talked about the more marginal, more disturbing miniatures available from various companies. I won’t give any links, but there are an awful lot of naked, chained up female miniatures on sale. There are models of women being abused by monsters in horrifying ways. How many such models are there of men? Take a wild guess.

Much like the game shops I derided before, it seems that game companies are determined to keep their audiences narrow by focussing on a small, known audience rather than making products which are appealing to all. Out of fear of losing the hearts and minds of the adolescent male, they completely fail to engage with those who like to be able to buy and collect items which don’t make them feel like they’re contributing to the development of offensive caricatures of women.

I suppose they have a good reason, that can’t be much of a potential audience, can it? After all, female gamers are relatively rare. That must be an innate feature amongst women, nothing to do with the way games are designed, the way they choose to represent women. Just like computer games – we know that the only real audience for computer games is the young male. That’s why Nintendo’s attempts to appeal to a wider audience with the DS and the Wii were such massive failures.


Author: Yann Best

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  1. In Flash Point: Fire Rescue (no, I will never tire of referencing it) the fire fighter cards have a couple of lady-women in there. Shockingly, they are sensibly dressed and look just as professional as their male colleagues. No useless low-cut fire-proof uniforms here.

    I just remember noticing it and it making me smile. As much as I enjoy looking at an attractive women with little on, there is a time and a place for it and that time isn’t during playing tabletop games (unless it’s a particularly sexy game, of course …ooh, cardboard).

    This kind of overly-sexualising female characters just makes the hobby embarrassing. Were the fire-fighter’s bits and pieces on show I wouldn’t have bought it for the missus and I.

  2. Aye, that’s my point exactly. Context is important with these things – if you’re making Lego: The Joy of Sex* then sure – go all out with the sexy figures. Violent Wargame #3, not so much. And even then, there’s no good theme to justify a game in which all the male figures are dressed modestly and all the female ones are falling out of their clothes, and so doing makes your game, quite frankly, an embarrassment. Even if I didn’t prefer to buy games which I can play with my partner without feeling the need to apologise for them, those are the sorts of games I avoid buying. And it’s clear that I’m not alone.

    *shut up, it’d be amazing

  3. Its this kind of thing that gives gamer’s a bad name. We are seen by the main stream as loners who cant get girlfriends and spend our days in dark rooms watching porn and rolling dice.
    Its hard enough trying to change this narrow minded view without these kinds of figures being held up as evidence they are right.
    Context is the key, but its all to often forgotten about in the bid for quick cash

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