(As always, when I do a subject like this on characters/plot, spoilers are abound. Be advised)
Recently, a certain individual has been cropping up a lot in discussions about video games. There has been a bit of controversy surrounding her and what she says about female archetypes. Among that controversy, there has also been some legitimate criticism of her and her methods. Regardless of your opinion regarding that matter, it is hard to deny that she has started a discussion: A discussion as to why female characters are the way they are most of the time. Most gamers are all aware of the fact that finding a good female character in a game can be... difficult at times. But what is the real reason behind this? I am going to spend this week proposing a hypothesis as to why that is.
The hypothesis is this: We see many bad female characters all the time simply because many of the characters in mainstream gaming are very poorly characterized period. We see the poor characterization of women more clearly because our culture has become far more attuned to bad female characters than male characters, due to all the baggage we have carried on from the past and the many issues regarding woman's equality we still have to address in the modern day. This sensitivity is bolstered by the fact that the fairer sex tends to not be as represented in video games as men are, so any prominent female character, for better or worse, tends to stand out to the community.
To prove the first point of this hypothesis, I will be looking at games that are praised for characterization and analyze the characters in them, both male and female, and then do the same with games that are notorious for poor characterization to show the difference between the two. I do not feel the need to go into the other points as they have more to do with culture, not video games, and I would hope that most people would who read this already know them well. Also, I admit that I feel painfully unequipped to tackle the subjects of women's rights issues and perception of gaming culture as I do not have any experience studying culture or psychology.
The first game that I want to analyze is one that I never tire of talking about: Mass Effect. One of the few things most of the people who play Mass Effect can all agree on is that Bioware did a really good job with the characters of the series. So much so that most of the characters that the player can ally with have huge fanbases. Whether they are a smooth talking police officer that serves as both a close friend and rival like Garrus, a scientist who committed terrible war crimes but had good, logical reasons for doing so like Mordin, or the ace pilot with a snide sense of humor, a crippling disability, and a huge chip on his shoulder like Joker, all of the male characters are well-developed.
And the exact same thing can be said of the female characters of the game. That is why one of the most endearing characters of the entire series happens to be female. I am, of course, referring to Tali. In the first game, Tali is the one who gives Sheppard evidence that Saren is a terrorist. She is shown to be smart, able to handle herself, and displaying a high degree of technical aptitude. When the player settles down to talk to her on the Normandy, she also shows that she is very relatable individual who has a crush on Sheppard, but is too shy to voice it. As the series goes on, she matures into an Admiral for her races fleet. The same can be said of Liara. Liara starts off as a shy, timid archeologist and evolves into the galaxy's best information broker by the third game. The women in Mass Effect are as much characters as the men because Bioware took the time to write good characters.
Another example of strong characterization is the Uncharted series. While people have mixed reactions to the series as a whole, the main characters are by far the strongest part of the franchise. The protagonist Nathan Drake has, over the course of the series, become much more fleshed out and interesting as a result of Naughty Dog's writing. In the first game, he was just an everyman. By the third game, the audience knew enough to form a real connection with him. He was abandoned as a child and grew changed his name, making up a story about being related to Sir Francis Drake and changing his name to reflect that. He grew to love treasure hunting and danger to the point where he has a pathological need to do it despite the risks. There is also the character of Victor Sullivan, who serves as Nate's mentor and main tie to the criminal world. He is also one of the most popular characters in the series due to his personality, which was why the third game focused so heavily on his relationship with Drake.
The women in Drake's life are also quite interesting. The most notable female from the Uncharted series is Elena Fisher, who serves as the love interest and foil to Nathan Drake. When the audience first meets her in the original game, she is a journalist looking for Sir Francis Drake's coffin with Nathan's aid. She is shown to be quite capable in a fight despite having no experience with weapons. Elena also displays great observational skills when listening paying close attention to what people around her are saying and by actively giving Nathan tips and advice on how to solve puzzles that he encounters. Though tough, she also has a genuine personality. Ms. Fisher is relentless in her pursuit of the truth and in coming to her allies' aid in the first two games. She often puts herself in great danger until a grenade going off close to her puts her in mortal danger towards the end of the second game. Afterward, in the third game, she becomes more subdued and concerned for Nate and Sully, but still willing to help them out. When Sully get's kidnapped and Nate disappears, she draws up detailed plans to stage a rescue. She is Drake's conscience and foil to his optimistic side. To that end, she is similar, yet opposed, to Chloe Frazer, who represents the devil on his shoulder and his inner pessimist. Though Chloe lacked the screen time Elena did, being absent from the first game, her character was very fleshed out and she quickly became another fan favorite.
Both of the above franchises created strong characters and built relationships with these characters. As a result, the females among them possess strong characterization and became real, believable people. When the writer knows how to build strong characters, the gender will not be something that needs to be written around. It will instead be a logical extension of the person in question, like race, sexuality, or religious affiliations, or other traits. It should inform, but not define a character. Not all games realize this, and we get really some really painful to watch characters, both male and female, in video games as a result.
A very well publicized example of this would be Samus Aran from Metroid. Specifically, the Samus Aran from Metroid: Other M. Most fans of the franchise refuse to talk about this little piece and for good reason. They took one of the few respected female characters in games and made her a stupid, completely subservient slave to the orders of a man who once commanded her, but no longer has the legal power to order her around. While people cried foul at this portrayal of an established icon, the problem ran deeper than that. Almost every facet of the story was poorly conceived. The characters were not interesting. The plot was filled with awkward attempts to shoehorn in the obvious mother motif. (Samus receives a “Baby's Cry” distress signal emanating from a “Bottle Ship”. Also, Other M is an anagram for Mother, if that was not obvious.) And Samus does not use lifesaving and otherwise perfectly fine gear until Officer Moron allows her to. (For example, she receives clearance to use a lava-shield after she crosses a lava pit.) This whole thing was poorly conceived. Every single person in this plot acts like a fool, result in a female character so horrible that some even go as far as to consider it sexist, though your opinion may vary.
Another, quite egregious, example of bad writing being the central cause of horrible female characters is Tomb Raider: Underworld. I am limiting the discussion to just this game in the series not because I do not believe other games in the series have similar problems, but because it is the only game in Lara Croft's more recent incarnations that I have had the displeasure of playing. Ms. Croft, throughout the adventure, demonstrates a “strong” personality. By that, I mean that she continuously acts like a complete jerk. She seems perpetually angry throughout the journey, which is not helped by the fact that revenge is the primary motive for her actions. The two villains in the game are both women who suffer similar fates, although one is more manipulative and able to hide her anger. The few male characters in the game are not much better. They are not angry, but they seem superfluous and have no depth because they are either mooks or Lara's friends who show up in the start of the game and never again. I do not mind an all female cast, but I would prefer the protagonist to have a greater depth than “Grrrrrrrrrrr,” regardless of his/her gender. The main plot is pretty forgettable. All I remember is that it involved Norse mythology and there was a segment that had Lara kill tons of mooks with Thor's Hammer. This game was a huge failure in terms of writing and the portrayal of its feminine lead reflects that.
The problem is not that games portray women poorly, it is that they portray people poorly. It is a symptom of a broader problem than you may have been lead to believe. Fortunately, this issue is not a difficult one to remedy. If the problem with women in games stems from bad writing in general, then the solution is simple: All we need to do is improve the quality of the writing teams in modern gaming. Take a page from the staff at Obsidian, Naughty Dog, and the part of Bioware that writes character and character interaction. Focus on making strong characters and believable relationships and alliances between them. If we can begin to make stronger characters, these issues will start to fade. This can apply equally to all genres and types of stories one could find. Strong characters are free to exist in any story, whether a dark and serious or light-hearted and goofy. To that end, I encourage discussions between gamers, developers, and anyone else who loves games to talk to each other about what works and what we need to change. This is the only way we can better the medium. So I say let the likes of Anita Sarkeesian speak. If they are wrong, let us tell them why and how they are wrong and correct them. We would be capable of much better in terms of storytelling in this medium through this type of discourse.