Developers and video artists are beginning to break down cliche and sexist gender stereotypes to explore new ideas and storylines
When Nicole Stark set about writing a new video game, she took inspiration from an unusual subject: her autistic teenage daughter who was battling bullies.
“I was fed up with power fantasies for male teenagers,” says Stark, one half of Noosa-based family studio Disparity Games. “We wanted something different.”
Sick of seeing female protagonists who behaved “exactly like the male character but with large boobs”, Stark, with help from her daughter, created Gemma, a 16-year-old ninja pizza delivery girl who must navigate a dystopian world of sky-high slums, exploitative mega-corporations and the cruelest of adversaries: her own peers.
“It was important to make Gemma look like a 16-year old,” says Stark, recalling her career as an artist when she would routinely make the breasts smaller on female characters – only for male colleagues to routinely make them bigger.
Launched in 2015, Ninja Pizza Girl received favourable reviews. Then came the hate mail. In online forums, Disparity was accused of being a “cancer” that would destroy gaming; having a teenage female protagonist who talks about her feelings was declared “SWJ [social warrior justice] nonsense”.
“There’s a vocal sector in the gaming community that reacts very angrily when you challenge the status quo,” sighs Stark. “They’re the toddler in the sandpit who doesn’t want to share.”
In an industry worth just under $3bn in Australia alone, more than 70% of Australians play video games and just under half of players are women. Yet games remain – in narrative terms at least – very much a man’s world. With men traditionally dominating industry positions as writers, artists and creators, female lead characters have been few and far between. As late as 2014, Alex Amancio, the creative director at French game publisher Ubisoft, explained in an interview that there was not one playable female assassin in the blockbuster Assassin’s Creed Unity because generating them “was really a lot of extra production work”.