I’ve been playing the RPG shooter Borderlands lately. I’m a long way behind on this, as the game’s already awaiting its second sequel, but it’s all new to me. And with all the talk lately on representation of women in gaming – after E3, where the people behind the next Assassin’s Creed game claimed the lack of a playable female character was due to it taking too much of their resources to make – I couldn’t help being particularly aware of the representation of women in this game. That is, that there’s almost none of it.
Now, I will make clear that I’m not very far into the game, being in the second major zone at level 20. But so far I can count the female characters on one hand – and other than the one playable woman, Lilith (who I am playing as, for her class ability), none of them has been encountered in person, just through voice, vision, and portraits beside quest text. Meanwhile, I’ve shot my way through an endless stream of male bandit enemies, of several types, ranging from big muscular “Bruisers” to the tiny “Midgets”.
It’s something you see in most games, really. It’s no surprise that games take a few character models and repeat them over and over to create the numerous enemy NPCs – it makes sense, when each new model and skin takes designer hours to make – but all too often these enemies, when not completely anonymous soldiers in full feature-disguising body armour, are universally male. Often if there are female enemies (beyond named characters), they will come in one single area of the game, or belong to a single sub-type distinct from others. This, too, can be explained by the need to make enemies with particular abilities visually distinct, so that players know how to respond, but using “this one is the girl” for that distinction is far from necessary.
What bothers me in particular in Borderlands, given that recent Assassin’s Creed fallout, is that the game’s creators clearly went to the effort of creating a range of different models and skins for the bandit enemies. You have the bruisers, the “midgets”, two sizes of “psycho”, and a few varieties of clothed enemy shooters – which demonstrates that resources for creating models was not at issue here. Instead, I suspect the idea of including a few women among the game’s more generic opponents just didn’t occur to them.
I don’t mean to pick on Borderlands exclusively; this happens everywhere. In World of Warcraft, there were no female Goblins or Worgen until those races were introduced as playable characters. Meanwhile, there are still no female Ogres, Broken Draenei, Tuskarr, Yaungol, Grummles, and so forth; Mogu are all male except for two females in one single raid encounter; and female demons exist only as a few races entirely distinct from the many males (some of the less-humanoid races in WoW, however, are of indeterminate gender).
The problem, I think, is not any kind of conscious decision to avoid placing female NPCs in games; rather, it’s an outcome of male-as-default, where the first, unthinking, decision taken when adding a new enemy is to create it male. Because of the unconscious bias we’re almost all to some extent afflicted with, men are default, while we seek a reason for a character to be female.
Things have been improving for women as protagonists and major characters, but I’m not sure there’s yet been much movement on women appearing among the numerous faceless, nameless enemies we face as we progress through the majority of a game’s content. Maybe as we continue to talk about representation, this will start to be noticed more.