Blog Post

Damsels In Distress: Female Representation in Video Games

Damsels In Distress: Female Representation in Video Games



The first time my brother allowed me to play Mario Kart with him on his Nintendo 64, I immediately selected Princess Peach as my player character. Peach’s shiny hair, princess gloves, and pink dress made me feel as though there was a character just for me in what my brother had made seem was a game just for boys. But as I played the game more I stopped selecting Princess Peach- or any female character. Through strings of losses I learned that my brothers masculine characters, just as they appeared, were in fact faster and more powerful than the feminine characters I was choosing.


Choosing Princess Peach based on her appearance was not an uneducated decision on my part; in versus games in which the operator selects a character based solely on the images presented on the character selection screen, it makes sense for the appearance of each character to represent their personality and skillset and therefore video game designers costume their characters with an appearance or accessories that reflect their unique abilities.

Character Selection Screen from Mortal Kombat 1 (Source)


One of Mortal Kombat’s more popular characters, Scorpion is costumed with a ninja mask and a jagged sword that communicates his skill in armed combat. Sonic the Hedgehog from the Sonic Shuffle party game wears red sneakers and an aerodynamic mohawk to suggest his speed and swiftness.

Sonic The Hedgehog (Source)               Scorpion (Source)



Princess Peach? She wears a gown, dainty gloves, and a clueless expression, which imply nothing as far as skill and ability, unless you consider her special attack: a dimpled, smiling heart that protects her cart.










Princess Peach (Source)



This is a very basic example of the over-feminized female characters in video games that are patented by features and abilities that are, in the context of the game, disadvantages to those of male characters. (Even the Baby Mario character of Mario Kart releases a ball and chain as his special attack). New or old-school, hero or side-kick, female video game characters like Princess Peach are too often designed as stereotypically feminine. We most often see female video game characters featured in dresses, skirts or skimpy clothing, wearing bows and make-up, and maintaining dainty, delicate, or over-sexualized dispositions. These features make any character disadvantaged in race or combat. Such stereotypical signifiers, which were specifically drawn into the design of the characters, are then mechanized as disadvantages. These characters not only stereotype women, but also send the message that qualities specific to females are limitations to a character’s ability.



We see this in detail in games that include more complex backgrounds and stories behind each character. Tina Armstrong, a player character in the Dead or Alive fighting game, is described to have joined the fighting tournament in hopes of becoming discovered as an actress or supermodel. Not only does this description make for an over sexualized and unfavorable player character for a combat game, but Tina’s character is a legitimate disadvantage in the second round of the game, where her father joins the tournament to defeat her and put an end to her dream.

Tina Armstrong (Source)


Ayane’s backstory in DOA includes little more than her having been raped by male character Raidou, and her jealousy and hatred toward her more attractive older sister. Meanwhile, male players such as Jann Lee and Bayman are depicted as brave and skilled fighters with backstories that praise their years of discipline and success in mastering specific fighting styles. Again, we see absurd stereotypes designed into female characters as disadvantages, crafting them to hardly be playable and reverting them into side stories that exist only to ‘spice up’ the DOA backstory with sex and farce.



According to Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, the lack of strong female characters present in video games is due to the fact that "there's a sense in the industry that games with female heroes won’t sell". However, it seems that this is only true because of the manner in which female video game characters are designed. It is less the female character that wouldn't sell, but what is currently designed as the female character. The predominantly male (88.5%) and heterosexual (92%) community of game developers designs their female characters as weak, distracted, and as having vices. Male or female, it is obvious that such a hero would never sell. By lifting the 'damsel in distress' heuristic from female video game characters and designing female characters that are as capable and badass as are present in real life, women could easily take the role of the hero- and could absolutely sell video games. 






As you stated, female are seen in the eyes of those who play the game as a side character that add nothing but a nice side story. We see that the gaming world has learned that to have a female lead they must be seen as “sexy” and hurt.

In TOMB RAIDER Lora Craft was seen as the “sexy” for the 90’s video game world. Though she in her own right was able to do what she did though hard work, it was only helped by the fact she looked good.  From the Final Fantasy we have characters like Yuna and Tifa  Lockheart that lean heavily on the male lead of the game. Only when there special attack could come about where they any help to the battle.  In Starcraft  there is a female lead Sarah Kerrigan were she only gains power after being left for dead and is looking for revenge. Though Alice in Wonderland Madness Returns Alice is placed where mass hysteria where her fantasy world is turned in to a nightmare. Along with that fact that her family was killed in a fire she was force to believe that it was her doing, allowing everyone that is meant to help her take extreme action that make life harder for her.

If there is a female lead and it not meant for the sex appeal of the character we find that it was a game meant for young children. Though no game in less dealing with Bribe or a Disney princess states that we are for young girls.

Tough according to a study done in 2009 by University of Southern Californiawe find that only 10% of the top 150 game title were female playable though at the time 40 % of gamers were women. Where in video games those of minorities are not being shown or are based off of stereotypes.

As of 2010 there are 67% of households in America that have a video game console.Though we must ask, what is this teaching younger generation that come to look to this as a form ofentertainment. Are we saying that to be a hero of a story that you must be white, and male? That there can’t be a female that is as strong as you without being “eye candy”  or have something horrific happen to in their past.

 We have to look beyond the story and see what we could be teaching without knowing it.


Eugenia, great post!


I enjoyed how you suggest that video game culture over-feminizes the female characters in order to market them as simpy appealing but not actually beneficial to the game itself.

I think the next step in thinking about gender discrimination in games is to suggest, what can we do to change the game creator’s and gamer’s perception on the subject.  You finish your post by suggesting that, if we create games that reinforce strong female characters we can change the public’s perception.  Perhaps a complete rebranding of classic games such as Mario cart, in which the male and female character's abilities are not attached to their genders. is a similar rebranding scheme that I am thinking of.  

Should these classic games that clearly downplay the female gender, have player customization like games such as World of Warcraft?  These games that have player customization are good representations of the public opinion about gender roles.  However the public’s representation of gender is typically a lot worse than market standards.  What do you think people, artists, gamer's should do? is a female artist who does a lot of work about female gender roles.  You might enjoy some of her work!


Adding a couple of examples to this a bit - a vast majority (if not all) of representation of female characters in anything Sonic the Hedgehog-related definitely plays into the damsel in distress trope. The main crew in the Sonic series consists of three males and one female, and the female is very often unabashedly portrayed as one whose only interests are shopping and shiny things, along with chasing after Sonic's love. (Examples of this are Sonic Adventure DX and the more recent Sonic Boom.) 

One of Amy's lines in Sonic Adventure DX.

Even the more recent games portray her as an air-headed character with little contribution to the content overall. Further, any other female character that Sonic includes fit perfectly into the damsel in distress archetype. A perfect example of this is Sonic '06's Princess Elise, whom Sonic spends the entire game trying to rescue, as well as saving her kingdom for her.

Sonic saving Princess Elise in Sonic '06.

Don't ask me why I know so much about Sonic. The point is, there's a serious problem with gender representation throughout gaming.

There are loads of other games I could list off as examples of the issue, but we already know the problem exists. I may come back to this article later to reveal some games that got gender representation right, and what game developers can learn from those characters in the future!