I was looking back over some Twitter stuff the other day, and I discovered one of the very first things I actually tweeted, during a panel at PAX East 2010:
Strong and violent are not synonyms. If we keep acting that way, we keep undervaluing womens roles
I'd forgotten, between now and then, that I completely nailed in under 140 characters the fundamental thought that seems to drive so much talk about women in gaming, both as characters and as players.
We say, "It features a strong female character," and we tend to mean, "A female of reasonable sexiness who doesn't ever show girly emotions, and who shoots things." But I don't think "strength" and "violence" should be synonymous.
Admittedly, this points to a much larger problem in gaming: what would we consider a non-violent strong male lead? The best I came up with offhand is the Metal Gear Solid series; you can be a reasonably non-violent Snake much of the time, and he is a character given to serious emotion and lots of it. MGS3 and MGS4 each contain several hours' worth of emotionally driven cut-scenes. (Aside: I wonder how many gamer guys would be convinced to sit through a 3 hour movie with that much convoluted emoting? But put a controller in their hands...) And still his primary objective is generally to blow stuff up and win boss fights.
It's hard enough to think of true 3rd-person games driven by female lead characters (narrative games with a defined arc -- as opposed to games where the player has a hand in creating or defining the character). It's even harder when you start looking for female leads who wear sensible clothes and don't travel heavily armed.
I know perfectly well that the example I need here of a strong female character is The Longest Journey but I've never actually finished that game. I promise it's on the playlist and that I'll revisit this topic by year's end. Meanwhile, the fact that I have to resort to an 11-year-old European adventure game to make the point at all is telling.