In Video Games, Women Are the Voice of Artificial Intelligence

Shodan - a woman's face with wires coming out

Photo: SHODAN, the creepy, creepy female computer from System Shock. 

Pacific Rim hit theaters last month and for a movie about large robots fighting off hulking monsters, it has a surprising amount of story. The blockbuster has a woman of color (Rinko Kikuchi as fighter Mako Mori) as a main character but, sadly, the film still does not pass the Bechdel Test. The only female cast member that Mori talks with is not a real person but her robot-fighting-machine, Gipsy Danger, whose computer is voiced by actress Ellen McLain.

Across media, artificial intelligence (AI) is often given a feminine voice. Actresses portray voices that are mechanized, concise, educated, informative, and helpful. This echoes real life, where intelligent robots from Siri to GPS units are given female voices. A CNN article two couple years dug into the history behind this phenomena, citing the fact that women were once the majority of telephone operators (which made people "accustomed to getting assistance from a disembodied woman's voice") and that women's voices were used in early airplane cockpit controls because they stood out among the all-male crews. This tendency has bled over into video games, where science fiction and computer advancements have always been part of popular game design and the voices of computers are predominantly female. 

With the recent discussion in the video game community about the lack of quality female characters, it is interesting to see that many of the "fake" people and minds in video games are portrayed as female. 

Pacific Rim's McLain is most well known for her voice work in the Portal video game franchise, where her portrayal of GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System) may be one of the best-known AI voices from video games. In Halo—one of the world's most popular video game series—AI Cortana (voiced by Jen Taylor) assists and informs the player while in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, EDI (voiced by Tricia Helfer) is a female-voiced AI that takes physical shape in a provocative robotic female body.  Going farther back, the early 1990's epic cyberpunk series System Shock was built around combating the villainous computer SHODAN (voiced by Terri Brosius). These are just a handful of the most memorable female-voiced AI characters from the world of gaming. 

Artificial intelligence units are not true people, but the prevalence to refer to GLaDOs as 'she' instead of 'it' remains.  These computers contain a mix of stereotypically gendered traits, from feminine gracefulness to the masculine lack of emotion. But these computer programs share a lot of traits with successful women in the workplace; they are effective, hard working, confident, knowledgeable, and self-reliant. Given this there is still, in most cases, no realistic middle ground; these AIs are either helpful—following orders as an artificial assistant—or they are cruel and cunning bosses the player must outsmart.

Full-fledged, complex female characters in video games are still hard to come by, but these exaggerated, objectified feminine computer programs are actually very well known and persistent.  While these AIs may be viewed as intelligent women, some are sexualized. While Halo's AI Cortana started off as blocky graphics back in 2001, her most recent rendition depicts her as a seductive and naked digitized woman. 

Halo's robot begins as a blocky woman and winds up as a sexy robot

Mass Effect's EDI implants her own consciousness into the empty robotic shell of a metal femme fatale.  It is noted throughout the game that EDI has chosen to inhabit an attractive form. With their attractive bodies, they are also mostly void of emotion but brimming with information and assistance. 

It is interesting to note that the helpful female AIs are usually given attractive female forms, while those who are independent and usually malicious are abstract voices issuing from faceless machines. 

Characters such as GLaDOS and SHODAN are loved, but these AI characters are not doing video games any favors towards more realistic interpretations of women. 

Related Reading: Hanna White digs into queer video game characters and check out this great piece on teaching intersectionality through Halo over at Border House.

This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on We Women Gamers.


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