Grey Hair, Don’t Care – The Lack of Older Women as Playable Characters

Gasps and Applauds all around. Overwatch has released their new hero, Ana, and she’s a badass, older woman.

Before going any further with this article, take a moment and think: can you name any playable characters that fit into the elderly woman archtype? Frankly, the only example that I could come up with is Wynne from Dragon Age: Origins, and she wasn’t even the player’s main character, just a playable companion hero for your party. Ana’s reveal in Blizzard’s Overwatch has highlighted a void in gaming: there simply aren’t many old women.

There’s a strong argument for the inclusion of elderly females from a storytelling perspective. There are certain themes and stories that lend themselves naturally to these women, some that we simply don’t see at all in the current scope of gaming. Motherhood would be the glaring example;  one which is used heavily in Ana’s story with her daughter, Phara. While not complying to the “everything must cater towards teenage boys” mentally some developers hold, it does have value. It’s a huge underlying component of society, and one that we can all relate to in some form of another. Wisdom gained through experience is another story arch that, while not limited to old women, could also be explored through them; as opposed to the scores of knowledgeable, old, grey-haired wizards.

I did some maths, because Overwatch very handily provides the ages of all their heroes – F.Y.I. I don’t have a vendetta against Overwatch. Before Ana was released, the average age of women in Overwatch was 33, while the average age of men was 42 (if you estimate Solider 76’s unknown age to be a modest 55). There’s about a 10-year gap between the two groups. If you look into this further, the women’s ages ranged between 19 – 34, while the men spread out and range between 25 – 61. The men’s age range wasn’t just due to one outlier either (as will be the case for the women when Ana joins), three of these men were well into their 50’s. The men of Overwatch are allowed to age, while the women, for the most part, must stay young, desirable and perky.

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Overwatch also showcases another issue with portraying women in games. You wouldn’t know it by looking at them, but both Mei and Mercy are both in their 30’s, fitting into a category of woman who look far younger than they actually should. Why? Well, Mei was supposedly kept in cryostasis and Mercy uses technology to stay young. This is even addressed in the game when both of the old friends comment on how the other looks so young. While this isn’t necessarily a problem on its own, when it becomes the norm, as it has with so many characters in a number of franchises, it can start to insinuate that women only have value when they’re easy on the eyes.

It’s not just Overwatch either, this spans way further than just Blizzard’s zany hero shooter. As it stands at the moment, the two big MOBAs on the scene, League of Legends and DOTA 2, have a collective hero pool of 253 different champions. That’s 253 different characters filling all variety of character archtypes and various storylines. Grey haired men, proudly wearing their wrinkled, less youthful face are featured multiple times in each game, yet not one visibly older woman is present in either of these games.

You might think that character creation games would be totally free of this ban on old age, and you’d mostly be right, yet Xenoblade Chronicles is one game that reflects this disparity in the gaming industry. During character creation, male characters get to choose face options varying from ‘young boy; to ‘old man’. As you might have guessed by this point, female characters from the same game get to pick facial options ranging from ‘young girl’ to ‘woman’ – the female equivalent of old man is nowhere to be seen.

“But Overwatch is getting an old woman” – yes, they’re getting one. However, there’s still a strong disparity between old women and old men, and there’s a good chance we won’t get another, at least in the immediate future. While ‘old man’ isn’t as a big a deal for men, ‘old woman’ is still a rare and important occurrence. Making any more elderly woman would likely run the risk of the new character becoming ‘too similar’ to Ana. We often see this with the ‘strong woman’ archetype, where games will only produce one muscly woman i.e. Illaoi from League of Legends or Zarya from Overwatch, yet the idea of not making any more strong male characters because there’s already one guy with muscles is ridiculous. This isn’t as much as problem now as it will be for the future, for the moment we’d just like to see more old ladies in general.

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Despite everything, older woman in gaming do exist in some small corner of the community, you just have to know where to look. Upon asking the same question I asked earlier to the girl gamers of Reddit, out of 50 responses, the collective could only bring up a small hand full of examples. Included in these were Ida Lennox, from Evolve, and Aria, from Crypt of the Necrodancer. The rest of the commenters were left to remark their dismay at being simply unable to recollect a single playable older woman in gaming.

The couple of older women in gaming that Reddit dug up proves that they can be done, and done well, in gaming. All these characters were well-fleshed out female characters with interesting backstories.  There’s a lot to be gained from adding older women into games, and with any luck, Overwatch will set an example for other developers.

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Joey Relton

Science Communication student blogging about all things science and gaming. Creator of my own mini science journalism empire at Sheffield University, and desperately wanting a Gengar.

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