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Analyzing Female Roles in Japanese Gaming

There has been a lot of controversy among gamers about the representation of women in gaming. In a lot of titles women are often in the background, rarely playing a lead role. There’s a myriad of reasons why, but interestingly enough, there are plenty of Japanese-developed games who do feature female protagonists. Plenty of Nintendo, Square Enix, Konami, Sega and Capcom games have routinely featured women in leading roles rivalling their male counterparts. This could largely have to do with Japan’s large female gamer population, which is a huge selling point in Japan compared to Western culture which routinely finds the female demographic a risky investment. But exactly how are women represented in Japanese games?

Protagonists in the Party

Japan is well known for its high quality role-playing games. Classics like Final Fantasy, Persona, Fire Emblem, Phantasy Star, Chrono Trigger; every one of these titles features female protagonists who fight alongside their male team members. Their presence is important and not one where they are ‘damseled’ as has been coined by female characters who serve to act as motivation for a male protagonist. Rather than saving a damseled character these heroines fight alongside their comrades to save a nation, or even the world. Their presence in the quest is just as important as any other team member, and their personalities are fully fleshed out in lieu with their male comrades. Sometimes women are even the main lead in these titles, or if not, you can customize your own character and pick between the two genders. An atmosphere of both men and women in role-playing games has opened up the genre to both men and women gamers alike. They’re story driven adventures that appeal to everyone and don’t have exclusionary elements such as an all male cast. And they’re not always just including a female out of obligation, there’s usually more than one woman on the team so the ‘token female’ trope doesn’t stick here. These games exemplify how you can appeal to both genders by offering a unisex experience, whether it be character customization or a diverse cast, Japanese RPGs almost always feature equality in their characters.

Heroines in Lead Roles

Now women in a big cast is a great thing, but what women who are at the forefront as the only playable character? There are some great North American titles that feature female leads, such as Portal, Mirror’s Edge and Tomb Raider, but for Japanese games this can sometimes by a mixed bag. There are great titles like Gravity Rush, Metroid and copious Resident Evil titles with female leads, but there are also titles that have received some controversy. Games like Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw feature less-admirable protagonists who have upset many gamers over their lack of integrity with their female characters’ representation. Even though these games feature a female lead, they’ve been targeted at young men as they feature curvy, good-looking women. They’ve been challenged for their misrepresentation because they choose to focus on the character’s sexuality over their more admirable characteristics. This is due mostly to the assumption that real women just wouldn’t be interesting or attractive leads for male gamers (although this is constantly being proven wrong).  Female leads have probably been the most controversial topic in video games and continues to be an uphill battle as there are positive titles mixed in with the negative.

All-Women Casts

We’ve tackled females in parties, females in lead roles, and finally we tackle all female casts: These games are probably the least common of the three, but there are titles out there. This feature is easiest to find in fighting games like Dead or Alive, and Arcana Hearts which are best remembered for this feature. DOA in particular has *ahem* particular representations of their women, whereas games like Arcana Hearts go for over-the-top antics. And although these titles are typically Japanese, there are a few smaller titles like Skull Girls from North American developers which recognize the popularity of this niche genre. Beyond these fighting games I can’t think of many other titles beyond some Shoot ‘Em Ups like Otomedius or particular role-playing games like Hyperdimension Neptunia. Both of these gaming titles feature all female casts in a sci-fi setting. Although this might be a refreshing change, these games suffer from the same problem that females in lead roles face, where their characters are featured in revealing outfits, and an overall tone to the game that appeals to the sexuality of the characters rather than their other characteristics.

Final Thoughts

So we’ve answered the question about female representation in Japanese video games, but where does it leave us? As I mentioned earlier, the Japanese video game industry does address its female demographic more prominently than in Western culture. Despite this though, there is still the idea to draw importance to the sexuality of their female characters rather than focus on characteristics that focus on their strong character. There will always be games that address the male audience, much like there is a growing market for addressing the female audience. But there is a growing popularity to those who welcome both. Like I mentioned earlier, games that allow for character customization, games like Pokemon series for example, have made it accessible to both genders, and all ages. They’ve seen a lot of success by making the game so accessible which has allowed for gamers to grow up enjoying the series. The representation of women in both Japanese and worldwide developed games is an important aspect to analyze, as it can be a window into the success of a franchise. Perhaps Japan is ahead of the curve by recognizing their female audience, but there is still a lot to be learned about this evolving market.


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