Why Portrayals of Moms in Video Games Are So Messed Up

In video games like "Red Dead Redemption," "Heavy Rain," and "The Last of Us," multidimensional father figures are abundant. But where are the playable mothers?

by Lisa Ludwig
May 14 2017, 11:10am

Screenshot from GTA V. Image courtesy of Rockstar Games

This article originally appeared on Broadly Germany.

I'm in a dark shaft and I'm crawling through shards of broken glass. I bleed heavily with every excruciating inch forward, and if I make another wrong turn I'll completely collapse—but then who will save my son?

Heavy Rain, released in 2010, puts the player in the skin of the desperate Ethan Mars, whose child has been abducted. Even as the action in this 'what would you do to save your loved ones?', Saw-style scenario becomes increasingly cruel and gloomy, the game provides a remarkable opportunity: the chance to play a realistic father figure. A real dad, one who frolics about in the backyard with his kids, or takes part in a depressing dinner at the kitchen table after his previously happy marriage has tragically ended.

Father figures—regardless if they're actual fathers or father-like friends—are celebrating a precipitous upsurge in video games. They embody perseverance, physical and mental strength, and have just enough family love, rooted in "human frailty," to tap into the player's emotions. They can be action-driving side characters like Sully from the Uncharted series, or morally-suspect protagonists like Booker DeWitt from Bioshock Infinite. Whatever they do, they're never accused of promoting tired or overused stereotypes.

I cried with Joel from The Last of Us when his daughter died in his arms and when John Marston taught his son how to hunt in Red Dead Redemption. But I asked myself: Where are all the mothers, and why can't we play them?

The representative of a matriarchal alien race has a complex (and tragic) family history, but the neckline of her outfit is open down to her belly button.

It almost seems like video game developers are creatively constrained in their narratives by the concept of a mother. It seems natural for a father to go out into the big, wide world fighting evil; women, on the other hand, appear mostly stuck in their traditional roles as childbearing caregivers. "Mothers are the ones you leave behind," wrote Carly Smith in a 2014 article for the gaming site Polygon. Not only is that boring from a technical standpoint, but it's also just sad.

Read more: Video Games Could Be Making Kids Smarter

According to Nina Kiel, a journalist and game designer from Düsseldorf, Germany, there are three basic archetypes of the mother character, and they always appear in variations. The first is the "kind angel in the household who lovingly awaits the child's return and represents hearth and home." A well-known example of this particular archetype is the mother from Pokémon, who tells her son before he leaves that he should become the greatest coach of all time. "Mom" doesn't set foot outside her domestic environment once during the entirety of the first game. She seems generally irrelevant—so much so that she doesn't even get a name.

The second version of the mother figure is the young, attractive woman, who—much like female characters in action films—is therefore more active and involved in any plot involving herself and her beloved. Samara, the hyper-sexualized character from the sci-fi game Mass Effect 2, falls into this category. The large-breasted representative of a highly evolved, matriarchal alien race has a very complex (and tragic) family history, but the neckline of her outfit is open all the way down to her belly button. Her sexuality is so over exaggerated that you almost get the impression that a horny teenager sketched her design in his notebook during a particularly dull class in high school.

The third and nominally most interesting archetype is the "raven or monster mother," who Kiel describes as, once again, "a hyper-sexualized and sinister character, [who is] sometimes hideous and characterized above all by her unscrupulous [nature]." This is evident in characters like Mad Moxxi from Borderlands 2, or Mrs. Phillips, mother to the terrible kid Trevor Phillips, in GTA V.

'Mrs. Phillips' in GTA V is a good example of the "raven mother" archetype, in that she represents the psychological woes and difficult background of the protagonist.

The majority of these maternal characters have one thing in common: we can't play without them. The last playable mother that I can remember is the protagonist in Fallout 4. The gamer can choose playable characters' sex at the beginning of the game, and whether you decide to go conquer the post-apocalyptic wilderness as a man or woman has no effect on the outcome of the story. But specific anxieties, wishes, problems, and so forth—none of the characteristics unique to motherhood are present or addressed.

For Dominik Schott, the editor of GamePro, the exclusion of mothers has a lot to do with the way women in general are represented in games. "The role of the mother hardly fits with the most common stereotype associated with female characters [in gaming], which is [that they possess] a youthful, untouched, impeccable beauty." Because they don't match that role, they're often marginalized characters, used more as narrative cues than actual elements that drive the action beyond the hero's original motivation.

"There continues to be an almost total lack of innovative [ideas for fostering] a wider representation of [maternal] roles in [video games]; while on the other hand, the virtual father figure has made quantum leaps," says Schott. Evidence of this is bountiful. "Ethan Mars (Heavy Rain), Joel (The Last of Us), and Lee (The Walking Dead) all embody the values of strength and caring associated with a father figure —values that can be more easily transferred to the assumed target audience."

As more committed mothers get involved in the development of games, the number and variety of their digital representatives will hopefully increase.

Creating exciting, complex virtual mother figures is difficult for those who view the concept of motherhood, and childbearing as a whole, as the sum of the playable character's potential in the game's action storyline. Does the lack of playable mothers also have something to do with the fact that the alleged average gamer—a heterosexual man, even if official statistics vehemently contradict that stereotype—has little interest in empathizing with a mother?

According to Kiel, an undeniable factor is that the gaming industry itself is dominated by men.

"The number of playable fathers has risen exponentially over the last few years as more and more developers have become fathers themselves, and it's understandably tempting for them to incorporate their now wider horizons of experience into their projects," she says. "As more committed mothers work on games, the number and variety of their digital representatives will hopefully increase."

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There's real momentum in this direction. In Germany, there are increasingly more employment opportunities with the deliberate goal of bringing more women into the gaming industry. The International Gaming Week in Berlin, for example, included an encoding workshop geared towards girls from 10- to 17-years old, where they were given the opportunity to create their own video game. In the United States, USC reported that, as of 2015, the number of women interested in the field of gaming design had eclipsed that of men.

While there's potential for women to revolutionize the industry, major changes within an industrial sector don't happen overnight, especially when that industry is still dominated by men.

"We can only hope to see female counterparts to characters like Joel from The Last of Us or Ethan from Heavy Rain in the future," says Kiel. "People who love, suffer, and struggle, running the gamut of human emotions and experience, who always seem credible."