Women dressed in cosplay walking
Video games have long been dominated by male leads, but it's time for a change. Credit: INhouse images and Tomb Raider: The LIVE Experience

Ms Pac-Man was one of the gaming industry’s first serious attempts to reach a female audience. However, ahead of the 43rd anniversary of Pac-Man’s first reveal, there is almost no mention of the “first lady of video games”, Ms Pacman.

Adored by many, Namco’s Pac-Man stood out among the limited options of non-war or sports games available at the time of its release in 1980. 

His female counterpart was created two years later by a group of seven MIT developers calling themselves General Computer Corporation, who not only altered the gender of the main characters but also introduced the concept of acts and other features that are still closely associated with the franchise to this day. 

As one of the most successful and enduring video games of all time, Ms Pac-Man sold 117,000 units and still holds the all-time sales record for a standalone arcade video game in America – ahead of Pac-Man itself. 

‘6 per cent of video games feature women as lead characters’

In the early days of gaming, women were often portrayed as plot devices, such as princesses that needed rescuing. And while there is a wider variety of well-crafted female characters that we can showcase today, it still feels like the industry is male-dominated.

A recent survey conducted by Tomb Raider: The LIVE Experience has revealed a high demand for female representation on screen. 94 per cent of people said they would watch an action film with a female lead role, and 42 per cent want to see women in lead roles instead of sidekicks. 

Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft was voted the most iconic female hero in the gaming industry with 63 per cent of the votes, followed by Princess Peach at 34 per cent and Princess Zelda at 31 per cent. But only 6 per cent of popular video games currently feature women as lead characters.

To directly tackle this lack of representation in the gaming industry, Kulpreet Virdi formed ACSisterhood, a community-led movement with the goal of supporting women and minorities in the Assassin’s Creed universe.

“A significant goal for ACSisterhood is to push for stronger, more authentic representation for women and minorities in games and better treatment of women who work in the industry,” she says. 

Ubisoft, the developer of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, has publicly supported the movement by making the campaign logo available as a tattoo in its most recent title, Valhalla. The campaign has also raised over £2000 for women’s causes through community initiatives such as streaming events.

“Representation in video games is more important now than ever,” Virdi adds. “The player base nowadays is incredibly diverse. The consumer base is no longer male-dominated, and more women and minorities are also developing games that we play.”

Virdi’s own experience of seeing a man wearing a turban in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: The Last Maharaja made her feel that her culture was being represented in the gaming industry, and she wants other people to feel represented in the same way.

‘Having strong women and minority leads sets a precedent that they belong’

“Developers have an amazing opportunity to create experiences that are aimed at a more diverse set of consumers in mind,” she says. “Video games are a form of escapism, and being able to see people similar to you in the games that you play is incredibly affirming.”

She has noticed a common misconception within the industry that women don’t sell, but she believes the success of recent games such as Horizon Zero Dawn, which follows the journey of a young female hunter named Aloy, proves this wrong. 

“It sends a strong message to help combat the deeper cultural issues associated with the gaming industry, such as toxic behaviour towards women in online gaming spaces,” she says. “Having strong women and minority leads sets a precedent that they belong in the industry and are here to stay.”