A lot has been made of female representation in video games as of late. There’s a series of videos intended to shame video game developers for transgressing against feminism. There’s a pronounced movement away from sexualized character design, especially among lead female characters. And the threat of feminist backlash has led to censorship of games such as Fatal Frame, Street Fighter V, and Star Ocean V, among others.
Much of this is intended to make gaming “safe” and “welcoming” for women, while “educating” and “confronting” men about their alleged misogyny and so-called privilege. Thus, game developers have opted for more covered-up and asexual depictions to keep in line with feminist demands, since it hammers home to a mostly male player base that something is wrong with them for being attracted to fictional females, and that Shapeless Sackcloth is what they “should” play.
However, there is a game series that actually manages to be pro-woman without any undercurrent of anti-male hatred: the Hyperdimension Neptunia series.
Hyperdimension Neptunia is an RPG series for the PS Vita and PS4 systems that depicts gaming companies’ competition for market share as a friendly rivalry between four goddesses, each in charge of their own territory; however, when evil witches and powerful demons threaten their realm, they put their differences aside and band together.
The games have a lot of gaming-related humor and sex jokes, and many of the enemies look absolutely silly — we’ve got everything from sentient pipes to malevolent photographs to killer weasels and other strange things; it does not take itself seriously at all, so do not look for any exploration of Serious Issues here (though there is one scene in Re;Birth 2 where one girl explains to a villain why digital piracy is wrong.)
On the surface, it looks like just another oversexualized anime game. The main girls look either cutesy or sexy, they transform into a superpowered state with scanty, form-fitting clothes, there are the aforementioned sex jokes, and the camera loves to pan up and down their bodies during victory poses. It belongs to a long pedigree of “bishoujo games” that have majority female casts, but are largely aimed at men.
However, looks can be deceiving.
Once you get past all of the sexiness and video game humor, you see something that feminists claim to want: women with flaws, responsibility, and agency not tied to relationships with men.
The games pass both the Bechdel Test and the Mako Mori test with flying colors (yes, the games make it clear that men exist in significant numbers), but that’s not all. The four goddesses each run their own countries alongside their younger sisters and their closest (female) advisors, and the goddesses are effective leaders except for playful and carefree Neptune.
Romance barely enters into the picture at all, and the few times it does, it’s usually with other females. Virtually every side character is female, and their conversations tend toward life stuff or the plot at hand. The ladies all act as comrades rather than as catty and treacherous. It’s about as positive a portrayal of females as you could get — and even better, much of this is unrelated to sex or romance.
As for men? The few that do pop up in gameplay tend to be either space-filling characters or villains. Even the villains are portrayed more as lovable dorks than as anyone actually threatening to the girls (with CFW Trick being a MAJOR exception.) It never goes into outright male-bashing, either; there is no sense that they regard the male sex as any kind of menace, and no parts of the game feel like they’re impugning men as a group. Just as the girls don’t spend time talking about romances with men, they don’t spend time complaining about men, either.
I can hear the objections already: The designs are made to appeal to men. The games are far too lighthearted. The writing quality is poor. In light of this, they can’t possibly be pro-woman.
First off, why are male-appealing designs even a problem? While one stated feminist goal is to discourage “sexual objectification,” no amount of hectoring and haranguing in the world is going to make sexy designs unattractive to men. On the contrary, the designs draw men into this game, a game that has positive, affirming female characters. In terms of looks, men will like what they like; rather than damning that as immoral, it’s far easier to meet them where they are and get them to empathize with the game’s girls through the story.
Second, yes, the dialogue sections are poorly paced and tend to meander everywhere, but so what? Beyond all the long dialogue segments, you still get a fun game that will give you many hours of enjoyment and challenge.
Finally, a game doesn’t need to be political to be pro-woman. There is little to no political content in any of the games — it’s just about the goddesses and several other women and girls going on adventures and fighting bad guys. Not every pro-woman game has to be some big revolutionary moment; in fact, it’s better if this stuff is treated as utterly banal and ordinary rather than a big political issue because that shows that it is normalized, not something that has to be fought about.
So if you’re disappointed that games don’t seem pro-woman, or that the ones that do are also reflexively anti-male, check out the Neptunia series on Steam and on the PS Vita and PS4. Guys are actually playing a game in which girls are the heroes — and they’re thoroughly enjoying it. Fun and happiness will beat out dour civics lectures and Shapeless Sackcloth characters every time.