The year is 1998. You wake up on an early Christmas morning, run down the stairs in your pajamas, and excitedly wait for your parents to figure out how to use their new video camera so that they can film you while you open the presents underneath the tree. You open all of the usual gifts: Legos, Hot Wheels, and action figures for the boys, and Barbie’s, baby dolls, and an assortment of stuffed animals for the girls.
And then your dad pulls out the secret gift from the closet. In years past, this would be the part where you get a new bike, but this is 1998. You eagerly open the present that, unbeknownst to you, will consume the next decade of your life: Pokémon. Pokémon Red for you, and Pokémon Blue for your sister.
You jam that thing into your Game Boy Color with a fresh pair of environment-killing AA batteries, and start up the game with your sister. After the professor talks to you for a bit, you are able to choose your character’s name.
There is just one problem: There is no female Pokémon trainer for your sister to play as.
This was a common issue with video games of the 90’s and early 2000’s, as well as retro games from the 70’s and 80’s. Video games became popular primarily with boys, and primarily because of boys. This was not an inherent issue at the time, as the fact of the matter is that girls did not really play video games much back then. However, things are much different now. Women are playing video games more than ever before. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 48% of gamers are female, the highest it has ever been. In fact, it is basically a 50/50 split, but female representation within the games themselves seems to be either alarmingly misogynist, or completely non-existent.
Many people are discussing women and their involvement in the video game industry these days, so I will not reiterate what has already been said a million times before. Unfortunately, I feel like there is a lot of negativity surrounding this discussion. I want to bring up something positive. What I would like to discuss here is the growth of female video game characters over the past several years. There are countless examples of this growth, but I would like to focus specifically on Nintendo games for this article.
Firstly, consider these Club Nintendo posters from 2011:
The poster in the center has no female characters present at all, and the posters on either side of it predominantly feature Link, along with the character Fi, an incompetent female character with no personality who only serves to assist the player by offering relatively useless advice. Princess Zelda, whom the game itself is named after, is tucked into the corner, easily missed.
Compare these posters with Club Nintendo’s most recent offerings:
Interestingly, the female characters are front and center. Rosalina makes up most of the Super Mario Galaxy poster, despite the fact that Mario is the star of the game! On the Kid Icarus poster, the protagonist Pit is pushed off to the side like he is an NPC in favor of Palutena.
It is difficult not to notice this increased presence of female characters, at least in regards to Club Nintendo merchandise. But what about the games? Let us take a look at Pokémon.
In the original Red and Blue versions of Pokémon (Red and Green for you purists out there), there was only one playable character. This guy:
There were a few female Gym Leaders in Red and Blue, which was appreciated, but the only other main female character is the random woman in the Pokémon Center who incessantly heals your Pokémon for you.
In the year 2000, Nintendo and Game Freak released the hotly anticipated sequels to these games, Gold and Silver versions. Once again, however, there was no female trainer. You could only play as a dude.
Jump forward to 2001 and the release of Pokémon Crystal, and the first female Pokemon trainer is introduced, Kris:
This is rather significant. Multiple Pokémon games had been released dating back to 1996 (for the Japanese release), but it was not until Crystal version that a female playable character was available. It took five years. Nowadays, all major Pokémon releases made since Pokémon Crystal have both a male and female trainer to choose from.
The issue is not resolved, however. Simply slapping a nameless, silent, female protagonist into the game does not really create a video game with proper female representation. There is still an issue with the Gym Leaders and Elite Four. Intriguingly, Nintendo rectified this problem rather quickly in Gold and Silver, where the eighth and final Gym Leader is a woman, Clair:
Clair just so happens to be one of my favorite Gym Leaders of the series, but then Nintendo turned right back around and did not have another female eighth Gym Leader for eleven years. Finally, in the release of Pokémon Black and White in 2010, the eighth Gym Leader was once again a woman, well, sort of:
She was only the eighth Gym Leader in Pokémon White, though, so she kind of got the short end of the stick.
Concerning the Elite Four, there has always been at least one female member of the Elite Four, but it was not until the 2006 release of Diamond and Pearl that we finally got a female Champion, Cynthia:
This is where things start to get interesting. After ten years of only male Champions, out of the next three main Pokémon games, two of them had female Champions, and they were one right after the other, too. Pokémon Black and White 2 had Iris, and Pokémon X & Y had Diantha.
My main point is this: First we had no female characters in Pokémon at all for the most part, and now we are getting women as the Elite Four Champion two games in a row. I think we can call this progress, right? Not to mention the plethora of female characters introduced in the latest iterations of Super Smash Bros. and Mario Kart.
We also have a wide array of women represented in other recent Nintendo titles. Midna is feisty and independent, Samus Aran continues to be a badass like usual, and Rosalina is a motherly figure, a beautiful personality trait of women that is often overlooked, maybe even scorned in today’s society, and most certainly not well represented in video games.
And let us not forget the greatly admired Princess Zelda. Over the years, she has turned the “damsel-in-distress” trope on its head, as she has been everything from a feminine princess, the leader of Hyrule, and even a pirate. Moving forward, diversity is key for strong, memorable female characters.
We will probably always have sexist games such as Bayonetta, Tomb Raider, and the like, and we will probably continue to have “damsel-in-distress” characters as well. But Nintendo at least is definitely making a concerted effort to try and change that.
Be it Princess Zelda defending her castle in Twilight Princess, Princess Peach kicking butt in Smash, or a female Pokémon Champion, we are definitely making progress. So let’s all be nice and stop making a huge deal about this. Things are getting better, right? It is a process, and it cannot and should not be rushed. Let it happen naturally.
In the meantime, between the new Smash Bros. and Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire remakes, we have plenty of girls to choose from.