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Found Feminism: Portal 2 and Saints Row 2 (but not Brink)

2011 June 13

It’s been a mixed bag for representations of women in the world of computer games releases. In the woot! corner, we have the much-anticipated arrival of Portal 2. The original Portal garnered a lot of press, not only because it was a lot of fun to play, but because it challenged a lot of notions about the FPS (first person shooter) genre. There’s a nice, if rather Freudian analysis of the first game here.

A white, dark-haired female character, in an orange jumpsuit and vest top, runs forwards

Chell, the character you play in Portal 2

Whether or not you agree in full with that critique, Portal is different, even down to the attitudes its game designers have towards designing the female avatar.

We can certainly look at this new arrival as a continuation of gaming house Valve Corporation‘s pleasing two feminist fingers up to traditional notions of male-centric gaming.

Speaking of traditional notions, in the Epic Fail corner we have Brink, which was also hailed as being a revolutionary, life-will-never-be-the-same-again game. Which it might well be, on some fronts, and as far as I can tell, it is a pretty cool shooty-killy game. But then, I like guns and explosions. However, woe unto those who cry “awesome”, because one of the main selling points of Brink is that the dollmaker (the widget that lets you select how your character looks) has literally millions of variants, so many that the internet has spawned tons of webpages and YouTube vids helping you through this process. And yet, none of these options are female. Cue a variety of opinions on the Internet as to whether this is actually important.

Naturally, I think it is, and if we want to chuck hard facts into the argument, let’s remember that under-representation of women is rife in almost all walks of life and serves as a discouragement to other women from participating, thus continuing the gendered ghetto. The gaming world is an interesting one because whilst men do outnumber women in terms of time spent playing computer games, around a third of game players are female.  Which is quite a lot, really. I often wonder how many more women would enjoy them if there were more games that had a more inclusive idea of gender. And, as if in answer to my musings, along comes a good example from 2006 sent in by our own Rob, Saints Row 2.

Now, a game franchise based on gangster culture is not the most likely source of this Found Feminism, and the website does not scream “we’ve totally got our gender issues sorted!” at me, but hold onto your controllers kids, because Rob has pinged me over some screen grabs from the dollmaker which make for interesting viewing.

Character creation screen for Saints Row 2 showing a muscled female body

Character creation for Saints Row 2 showing a range of body type options

The sliders shown to the left of the character (the second image enlarges if you click) allow you to toggle a  number of variables, including muscle, fat, age and skin tone, which effectively lets you make characters who look far from the basic stereotype hypermasculine and hyperfeminine models so common in games. Of course, you can still be Mr Abs and Ms Double G should you so wish, but the important thing is that the option to NOT do this is there.

And that’s rather the point of this Found Feminism, and one of the reasons I am a feminist. I am not up in arms because the representations of women in computer games are of beautiful sexy assassins, it’s because there is so rarely an option to be anything else. Which means that when a few games come along that push against those barriers, we should applaud the makers and encourage them to do more. And perhaps one day the promised cake of gaming gender equality will no longer be a lie.

  • Found Feminism: an ongoing series of images, videos, photos, comics, posters or excerpts – anything really, which shows feminist ideas at work in the everyday world. What’s brightened your day? Share it here – send your finds to [email protected]!
2 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    June 13, 2011

    I think it’s worth noting that in Saint’s Row 2, while you choose your sex right at the beginning of the creation process, the actual appearance of your character as a man or woman is dictated by those sliders. Which probably makes it one of the few trans*-inclusive games around.

  2. wererogue permalink
    June 13, 2011

    Ah, 3 games close to my heart.

    I loved Saint’s Row 2 – I especially liked how they recorded different VO/cutscenes depending on your gender, without ever making the female avatar less hardcore (as far as I could tell.) I changed genders toward the end of a game, and I loved that the other characters noticed. I also liked the little nod to character customization at the beginning; you meet Johnny Gat, your #2, and his reaction is “You look different… did you get a haircut?”

    Saints Row 3 is coming out soon, and I’m just hoping that it deals with gender half as well.

    I was bought Brink before I knew that it wouldn’t be including female characters, and I was bitterly disappointed when the news broke. The game is really quite good, but the failure to include women makes me disappointed the entire time that I play. It ties in with my constant disappointment in Team Fortress 2’s lack of gender diversity – which bothered me less before they started doubling down with the “Mann Co” store, further reinforcing the “men only” messages that the game is full of. There’s a great article by ChemicalAlia on making women for TF2 here:
    And her female TF2 skins are available here:

    I hope we eventually get a solution for Brink. If you want a very clever shooter/murder game that does have excellent gender representation, I heartily recommend The Ship – it’s a little dated, but I still hop on to a server from time to time:

    And Portal 2, is Portal 2, and is generally excellent :V

    Oh, and a recent study tips the numbers on gender proportion even further to the female:

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