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Strong Female Characters: Playable Women in Gaming

Written by Stakester
7 May, 2021

From damsels in distress to kick-ass characters that smashed glass ceilings and expectations, we look at how playable female protagonists became normal.

In 2020, women accounted for nearly 41% of all gamers in the United States; and that number is rising. Not only that, but we’ve seen great characters that are more than just a pretty face on your screen. 

How exactly did we come from Princess Peach being stuck in another castle, to Selene from Returnal absolutely demolishing aliens that stand in her path? Instead of gushing over our favourite characters, let’s take a dive into history to see how we got to this point.

Who was the first playable female character?

It’s a little-known fact, but the first playable female character in any game featured in 1982’s Wabbit. She was made up of little more than twitching pixels on a small television screen, but farm girl Billie Sue deserves this honour. Don’t get too excited though, all she could do was pick carrots and throw eggs at rabbits in Atari’s simple farming simulator. 

Despite making this little slice of history for female protagonists, Billie Sue was easily forgotten after some time (ouch!) but she was an important stepping stone to what came next. In a way, Billie Sue lives on, as Wabbit paved the way for the generation of women in gaming.

An Atari game depicting a carrot patch and a girl standing below it.
credit: Apollo Inc.

You want kick-ass characters?

Look no further than Samus Aran of the Metroid series, a character who set a new bar for playable female characters. Samus burst onto the scene and easily overshadowed her predecessor (sorry, Billie), in a role typically occupied by male characters. Sporting her kick-ass Power Suit and trusty arm cannon, Samus subverted expectations when she was revealed to be a woman at the end of the game in 1986.

It was a surprise to everyone when Samus stepped out of her suit, revealing her to be a muscular woman that stands at 6 foot 3: that’s some real girl power! She continues to make herself known in Metroid titles, as well as making an appearance in the Super Smash Brothers series. 

Indisputably, Samus is an icon and an absolute badass that is still loved to this day. The future looked bright with her at the helm, that’s for damn sure.

Samus Aran and Zero Suit Samus side profiles.
credit: Nintendo

The Tomb Raider with polygon proportions

Lara Croft needs no introduction; she walked so that the future women of gaming could run. Tomb Raider debuted in 1996 starring Lara Croft as a woman made of polygons in “hot pants and midriffs”. This design became so well-known that it became a wearable skin in Shadow of the Tomb Raider back in 2019.

At first, the designers were criticised for sexualising Lara (fair point), and she underwent a redesign in 2006 to make her “less curvy”. Either way, Lara Croft went on to become possibly the most iconic female character in gaming. She pushed boundaries, as well as raiding tombs and finding treasure.

Lara Croft from Tomb Raider 1996.
credit: Eidos Interactive

Less curves, more personality!

Silent Hill made its mark on gaming in 1999, launching a series of some of the best horror games ever made. We’re focused on Heather Mason, a playable female character from Silent Hill 3. One of the first balanced, well-drawn female characters in video game history – she was a normal girl that any female gamer could relate to. 

A carefree girl, but rough around the edges with a sharp tongue and – most importantly – the strength to survive the insane horrors of Silent Hill. Players had to really overcome the odds to make it out alive, and Heather’s journey of self-discovery was well-handled and relatable. 

Heather (or Cheryl) was a fresh representation of a woman in gaming in 2003. Instead of a damsel in distress or a hero in shorts with a low-cut shirt, she took care of herself and kicked ass while doing it. Heather had such an impact, she was included in a DLC for Dead by Daylight 17 years later.

Heather Mason holding a torch.
credit: Konami

The future of gaming is female?

After these kick-ass ladies made their way into gaming culture, female protagonists became commonplace. With characters like Faith from Mirror’s Edge, Chell from Portal and Jesse from Control, we’re seeing female representation like never before in gaming. 

Returnal, the Groundhog Day and Alien mashup is getting stellar reviews – and with a female protagonist at the helm. And, we can expect more – Forspoken and Kena: Bridge of Spirits are on the way.

If we’ve got you in the mood for gaming, then download the Stakester app today and play your favourites – like FIFA 21 and Call of Duty – for real money and prizes.

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