Women character representation and diversity in Finnish games: a qualitative analysis

Introduction to the Blog Post Series on Representation of Women Characters and Character Diversity in Finnish Games

As the Gender in Play project continues, after our large-scale analysis of Finnish games released from 2018 to 2020, the next step was to take a closer look at several selected games from the previous sample. The games were selected for standing out as positive examples of gender and diverse character representations. The objective of this analysis was to look for what those games did well in terms of gender and diversity representation, as well as possibly identify spaces for improvement in that regard. Those insights were summarized in this blog post as a useful reference for developers interested in good practices for the representation of their own women and other minority characters. 

Unlike the previous large-scale analysis, which consisted of 117 Finnish games, this one focused on a smaller sample of selected games (6), thus providing space for a more detailed approach in the analysis. Each game was played through at least once (with one exception explained below), with a second playthrough being also done when possible and deemed necessary. By playing the games we were able to gain deeper insights and a more holistic understanding of the games, which was not possible during the previous analysis, considering that with a large sample of 117 games we were not able to play all the games and our complete data was gathered from gameplay videos, wiki pages and other marketing materials available for each of the games. Moreover, differently from the large-scale analysis, this time around we did not look for the same things in every game, instead we chose to focus on what was most interesting in each one in regards to our topics.

The games chosen for this analysis  were the following: Your Royal Gayness (Lizard Hazard Games 2018), Small Town Murders: Match 3 Crime Mystery Stories (Rovio Entertainment 2019), Raanaa – The Shaman Girl (Miksapix Interactive 2019), Ignis Universia: Eternal Sisters Saga DX (Random Potion Oy, Hologram Monster Oy 2020), Control (Remedy Entertainment 2020) and Returnal (Housemarque 2021). Most of the games were published by Finnish game companies in 2018–2020, and they were selected based on our previous quantitative analysis. The selected games stood out as distinctive examples relevant for our analysis due to their addressing of positive representation of women characters, inclusion of underrepresented features (in terms of characters’ gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity and disability) or showing a perspective on how gender-based violence against women can be addressed or found in games. The game Returnal, however, stands out for having been released in 2021 and therefore not being present in our previous analysis. Nevertheless, as an internationally acclaimed title which had just been released and features an interesting woman lead, it had been agreed to include it in the analysis. In the case of Small Town Murders, an online mobile game with an ever increasing number of levels, a limitation on the sample was needed, so for the scope of this analysis we decided to examine only the first two murder cases in the story.

This blog post series is divided in three parts; the first part focuses on the representation of women characters, the second on the representation of diverse casts and other minorities, and the last one on aspects of gender based violence against women in the selected games.

Representation of Women Characters

This qualitative analysis follows the principles of the framework to examine and analyze women characters in games by Usva Friman (2015), which suggests the following five character construction themes: 1. presence, 2. background and role, 3. participation and goals, 4. speech and 5. gendering. More specifically, we analyzed the way women characters are represented in Finnish games by answering a number of pre-created open questions focused on how the representation of women characters is being carried out and can be seen in the selected Finnish games. 

Presence

Before proceeding to examining how women characters are represented, it is important to determine whether there is any representation at all. Therefore, the first category in the analysis questions was whether women characters are present in the games at all and if yes, to which scope. The features examined in this part of the analysis were the existence of women characters (including women main protagonists, allies, opponents and main antagonists), existence of named as well as playable women characters.

Considering that the games were selected due to their incorporation of women characters, in this part of the analysis we will provide a list of all named women protagonists in the examined games. Five out of six games included at least one named playable women main protagonist (including Small Town Murder’s Nora Mistry, a character indirectly controlled by players through solving match-3 puzzles). To define a character as a woman, we looked beyond physical appearance or names, taking into consideration their own expression and the pronouns used. 

Table 1. The list of women main protagonists in the examined games.

ControlJesse Faden
Ignis UniversiaEleanna, Mordina, Silvanna, Zena (The Chosen Sisters)
Raanaa – The Shaman GirlRaanaa
ReturnalSelene Vassos
Small Town MurdersNora Mistry

Women allies and antagonists were also present in the named games. For example, in order to save the world, the four Chosen Sisters of Ignis Universia need to fight the wizardess Galgatax and one of the first suspects in Small Town Murders is the first case victim’s daughter. On the other hand, women allies, like Mrs. Mangroove in Small Town Murders or Emily Pope in Control, are also there to support the main protagonists, mostly by providing important information relevant to the story and player’s progress in the game. 

Table 2.Women allies and other prominent women characters in the examined games.

ControlEmily Pope, Helen Marshall, Raya Underhill
Small Town MurdersMrs. Mungroove, Bonnie Pirello
Your Royal GaynessDrakemaster Magda, Princess Roxanne

Table 3. Women antagonists in the examined games.

Ignis UniversiaWitch Galgatax
Small Town MurdersChelsea Higgnis

Background and role

The background of women characters varied from game to game. Looking at the mentioned protagonists as well as the allies and antagonists we saw that their backgrounds were defined based on their professions, statuses or relationships they had with other characters. Depending on the game genre and complexity, the women characters (be it protagonists, allies or antagonists) were developed to a larger or a smaller extent and the information about them was shared in a larger or a smaller amount. In that context, in Control we got to meet several prominent (and accomplished) women characters in high positions or in positions of power: director, head of research, head of operations, threshold specialist. Nora Mistry (Small Town Murders) is a crime novelist who helps the police solve crimes and we meet Selene Vassos (Returnal) at the beginning of the game as a space scout. The four Chosen Sisters of Ignis Universia are destined to save the world while Raanaa uses her magic to save the Goddesses of the Sámi mythology. Finally, the Drakemaster Magda of Your Royal Gayness is Prince Amir’s trusted advisor and an expert on war and battle.

The actions of women protagonists in these games also represented their backgrounds. For example, the Chosen Sisters (Ignis Universia) are fierce fighters destined to save the world. They are an opposite of “being silent, being subdued”, as the game introduction told us. Their mission is to fight the evil witch and save the world from destruction. Their actions are following this goal, they go on adventures, engage in combat and slay dragons and other fantastic creatures. Jesse (Control) as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Control uses her powers to defeat enemies and cleanse the Bureau taken over by a hostile force referred to as “the hiss”. Nora (Small Town Murders) is asked to give professional inputs in murder case investigations; she inspects the crime scenes, searches for the evidence, connects the clues and solves murder mysteries. Her actions often overpower her background – as “only” a crime novelist she takes on the role of the investigator in the cases and even throws herself in dangerous acts, such as posing as Bonnie Pirello, the target of a what is believed to be a hitman sent directly to take out the wife of an Italian mobster. Magda (Your Royal Gayness) carries her sword all the time and is always ready for action. On Amir’s command she attends different matters to keep the situation in the kingdom calm. She controls the guards and leads the army. 

Participation and goals

As it could be seen from the examined representative sample of Finnish games, women characters are no longer merely following from the sidelines, they are equally participating and are as important for the narrative and gameplay as are the men characters. They are influencing the story and the events in the game and their actions have consequences. This positive development is noticeable in video games since the past decades, both in games creation and games research which calls for more diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups (which we also noted in our literature review of character representation and diversity in games). To illustrate this on a few examples; faced with his first dead body on the job, Deputy Shanahan of Small Town Murders might not have been able to solve the cases without Nora’s inputs; in Ignis Universia, the world was destined for doom without the Chosen sisters; Magda’s actions in Your Royal Gayness directly influenced the story and the course of the game.

Women characters in the examined games mostly followed their own goals, such as Nora who self-willingly offered her help to solve crimes as a means to gather inspiration and fight off her writer’s block, or Selene (Returnal) who defied orders and was determined to follow her own path (be it in real life in terms of following her career, or in the never-ending space mission she kept waking up to). However, there were examples when the action of women characters was dictated by the choice or upon a request of another character – who was often a man. In Ignis Universia, the Chosen Sisters were gathered and led by a man; in Control, Jesse’s objective was directed by the search of and finding answers about her missing brother; Small Town Murders’ Nora decided to join hands in solving crimes as a helping hand to an incompetent deputy whereas Drakemaster Magda of Your Royal Gayness served her liege Amir to keep the kingdom safe and protected. This does not, however, mean that women characters did not have autonomy while pursuing these goals and actions. For example, during her journey to find her missing brother, Jesse  realizes that she was also searching for information about herself, and when asked to train prince Amir with the sword, Magda refused stating that she had a different, personal priority at that moment. 

Nevertheless, our findings do show that, although we are seeing a positive representation of strong and powerful women leads in Finnish games, their goals are still directly or indirectly often set out by or related to men. This shows that men characters are still very important key figures in games, also in Finland (according to our large-scale analysis of Finnish games, the ratio of games which include playable men characters is approx. 10 % higher than those including women, with 63 games having playable men and 51 games playable women characters from a total of 117 analyzed games). What should be ensured in this case is that the actions of women characters are important gameplay features on their own and not only necessary if they are aimed towards supporting men characters.

Speech

When examining women characters representation in games, it is also important to include the aspect of speech and to examine whether women characters speak, to whom, as well as whether and how they are talked about. All main women characters and protagonists in the analyzed games spoke and were spoken to, more importantly, they were given a voice. They spoke in a curious, witty, often charming and clever way. Some were snappy, direct and sharp (e.g. Silvanna and Zena of Ignis Universia, when speaking with other characters, often in a sarcastic or cynical way) while some were more rational (e.g. Nora Mistry when solving the crimes) or reflective (Jesse Faden of Control in conversations with others and in her thoughts/conversations with the entity Polaris, often accompanied by a zoomed-in shot of Jesse’s face).

Picture 1. Speech examples: Silvanna and Zena (Ignis Universia).
Picture 2. Speech examples: Jesse Faden (Control).

It is important to state that there was a noticeable difference in the language used to speak about women protagonists and women antagonists in the examined games. This trend is not uncommon in contemporary video games and often relates to the gender role of a woman character, as Sarah Stang also points out in her speech about gendered monstrosities in games. Although the following example from our analysis refers to a human being and not a fantastical creature, one finding was the use of  an epithet “old hag” by which the spendthrift son of the first murder victim in Small Town Murders, a wealthy woman Elisabeth Higgins, spoke of his mother when he found out who was the sole beneficiary of her testament. Additionally, in the opening screen of the game Ignis Universia we saw the words of a Null Brother (man main protagonist) that “wizardess Galgatax was rearing her ugly head once more”. Following Sarah Stang’s point, the language to describe women characters in our examined games also depended on things such as their sexuality, gender role or age, so in that context a young and attractive women character was referred to as “sweet” and “nice” while an older one became “ugly” or “a hag”, especially when spoken of by a man.

Gendering

When it comes to gendering, the aspects we looked at were whether women characters were romanticized, sexualized and objectified and how, as well as whether their physical or behavioural femininity level was emphasized and in which way.

Sexualization and objectification of women characters in the examined games was present to a certain extent. The most prominent examples were the Chosen Sisters of Ignis Universia whose physical appearance and other features were an important aspect of the game’s narration. Considering the game’s parodical nature, sexualized scenes and references were used to emphasize and ridicule how women characters are often objectified and sexualized  in Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs). The following images show some examples of objectification and sexualization of women characters in this game. 

Picture 3. Revealing outfits of women characters (Ignis Universia).
Picture 4. Sexual referencing through naming of the character (Ignis Universia).
Picture 5. Sexualized puns (Ignis Universia).
Picture 6. Objectification of women characters (Ignis Universia).

Another example of a character represented as an object of desire could be found in the character of Chelsea Higgins, one of the suspects in the first case of Small Town Murders, the girl of Deputy Shananah’s teenage dreams, with her lustful feminine figure, emphasized breasts, wide thighs and a tiny waist. As an isolated example, such representation is not necessarily negative. Having in mind that the story of Small Town Murders is located in the United States and that Chelsea was said to had been a cheerleader, we can see that the character of Chelsea was designed to follow the same famous trope from the US cinematography: she is shallow and superficial, beautiful, young, focused on her looks and popularity, she is the object of men’s desires and the evil antagonist of the woman non-cheerleader protagonist.

Picture 7. Visual representation of Chelsea Higgins (Small Town Murders).

On the contrary, the figure of the woman protagonist of the same game, Nora Mistry, remains hidden from the eyes of the player, thus showing that women characters can be developed as powerful, accomplished and likeable through emphasizing their backgrounds and actions and not their physical or sexual appearances. The comparison between the representation of Nora and Chelsea goes in line with the conclusion made by Lynch et al. (2016) in their Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years, which stated that women in secondary roles are more likely to be sexualized than primary characters. According to the same authors, nonprimary characters are not as important to the game’s story as the primary characters, and therefore the designers might sexualize them to make them more appealing to the player (or to be able to convey a specific message, as it might be the case in Small Town Murders). 

Picture 8. Visual representation of Nora Mistry (Small Town Murders).

When it comes to the women protagonists, the same article argued that the portrayal of [women] characters had been influenced by an increasing interest of women players in video games as well as the criticism aimed towards the industry which had been, and still is, largely dominated by men. Therefore, over the course of time we may be witnesses of an ever decreasing number of sexualized women protagonists.

“Conversely, a primary character is central to the story and aspects of the narrative give her significance beyond her physical attributes” (Lynch et al., 2016). In triple-A games, such as Control and Returnal, the bodies of women protagonists were not overexaggerated nor put in extremely revealing outfits, which is a positive development and an important finding that shows that the examined world-wide popular titles did not turn to hypersexualization of their women protagonists.

Picture 9. Visual representation of Jesse Faden (Control).

Selene Vassos is equipped with high-tech weapons and wears a strong space suit. The suit is moderately tight and follows Selene’s body shape. Although it could be argued that the suit is seemingly tight and possibly not suited for a space scout, Selene’s outfit is part of the game narrative. Resembling a contemporary sports outfit, the suit allows her to move fast, to avoid enemies’ attacks and other objects, and is as such consistent with the gameplay. This is a very important finding when having in mind that the bigger emphasis in the game is set on dodging and escaping damage and not as much on being protected from it.

Picture 10. Visual representation of Selene Vassos (Returnal).

An intention to objectify and sexualize women protagonists in these games was not found neither in the death scenes nor in the camera work and angles. Overall, this finding shows that there is a positive attitude towards women characters in the Finnish game industry when it comes to the aspect of gendering among big and popular titles. 

The following images represent the camera angles in the mentioned two games; they were taken during the gameplay, in a “safe spot” (e.g. at the beginning of a level or right after a checkpoint), meaning that there was no action happening at that time in the game and that the examiner had enough time to navigate the camera freely and take screenshots. The only angle which shows a tendency towards sexualization is shown in the last segment of Picture 12. This image was taken while positioning the camera to show Selene’s back, moving it to the lowest angle in the screen and facing up. Although this angle clearly puts Selene’s buttocks in the focus, it needs to be stated that this angle is not favored by the game nor is the player ever encouraged to use it (on the contrary, it makes the game unplayable). However, by comparing this image with the same angle of Jesse in Control (Picture 11, segment 2), we can see that Control offers a good practice example on how to program the camera in a way which doesn’t insinuate objectification, i.e. by focusing on the character’s back rather than her buttocks.

Picture 11. Camera angles in Control (eye level front, lower back, upper front and lower front).
Picture 12. Camera angles in Returnal (eye level front, eye level back, upper back, lower front, lower back).

Academic literature:

Friman, U. (2015). From Pixel Babes to Active Agents – How to Fix the Lack of Diversity in Female Digital Game Characters (essay). University of Turku. Open access: https://press.etc.cmu.edu/index.php/product/well-played-vol-4-no-3

Lynch, T., van Driel, I. I., Tompkins,  J. E. and Fritz, N. (2016). Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years: Female Game Characters across 31 Years. In Journal of Communication. Vol.66 (4). p.564-584. DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12237. Full text available here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/304661662_Sexy_Strong_and_Secondary_A_Content_Analysis_of_Female_Characters_in_Video_Games_across_31_Years_Female_Game_Characters_across_31_Years 

Monstrosity 21 Keynote: Sarah Stang. (2021). Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32gYU9kxEj4 

Games:

Housemarque. (2021). Returnal. Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Lizard Hazard Games. (2018). Your Royal Gayness. Published by Lizard Hazard Games.

Miksapix Interactive. (2019). Raanaa – The Shaman Girl. Published by Miksapix Interactive. (Version 1.2., latest update January 21, 2021).

Random Potion Oy, Hologram Monster Oy. (2020). Ignis Universia: Eternal Sisters Saga DX. Published by Random Potion Oy.

Remedy Entertainment. (2019). Control. Published by 505 Games.

Rovio Entertainment. (2019). Small Town Murders: Match 3 Crime Mystery Stories. Published by Rovio Entertainment. (Version 2.0.0., latest update June 7, 2021).

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