Gender representation in video games

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"Women in video games" redirects here. For women as video game developers and players, see Women and video games.

The portrayal of men and women in video games, as in other media, is a subject of research in gender studies and is discussed in the context of sexism in video gaming. The way men and women are portrayed in games often reflects gender roles or popular stereotypes, such as that of the damsel in distress for women. Women are also significantly underrepresented as characters in mainstream games, particularly as protagonists.

Gamer demographics[edit]

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 48% of all American video game players are women.[1] In the UK and in Spain, women comprise 52% and 48% of video game players respectively.[2]

Men and women have taken to gaming but studies seem to suggest some differences in average platform and game genre preference.[3] The Entertainment Software Rating Board reports that in 2010 80% of female console gamers played on Wii, 11% on Xbox360 and 9% on PS3. By comparison, 38% of Male console gamers played Xbox 360, 41% played Wii and 21% played PS3.[4] A 2013 study by Flurry looked at the different mobile gaming preferences between men and women. Women made up 60-80% of the Solitaire, slots, social turn-based, Match3/Bubble shooter, Mgmt/Sim and Brain Quiz markets. Men on the other hand, made up between 60-80% of the strategy, shooter, card battle, racing and action rpg markets.[5] A 2014 SuperData research study found that men and women enjoy video games, but some genres tend to attract one gender over the other. Women compose 57.8 percent of the mobile market, 53.6 percent of the RPG market and 50.2 percent of the PC market (including social games). The study found that men make up 66 percent of MMO players, 66 percent of FPS players and 63 percent of digital console players.[3]

Portrayal of women[edit]

The portrayal of women in video games is the subject of academic study and controversy. Recurring themes in both include the level of independence of female characters from their male counterparts, as well as their sexual objectification and sexualization.

Studies have shown that women who are exposed to stereotypical media representations of women identify with these stereotypes and base their appearance off of them. When unrealistic appearances shown cannot be achieved, this leads to issues with self-esteem and self-confidence.[6]

Roles of women[edit]


Playable female characters were found to appear less frequently than male characters in reviews for popular games in a 2006 study from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.[7][8] Scholar Elizabeth Behm-morawitz wrote that this suggests a female secondary status in video games. Also when playable female characters do appear in video games, it is more likely they are scantily dressed and over-sexualized in unrealistic ways.[9]

According to data gathered by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR), few video games have exclusively female heroes. This is in part because, according to EEDAR, "there's a sense in the industry that games with female heroes won’t sell", which Penny Arcade attributed in part to these games receiving much smaller marketing budgets than games with male heroes.[10]

In a sample of 669 action, shooter, and role-playing games selected by EEDAR in 2012, only 24 (4%) had an exclusively female protagonist, and 300 (45%) provided the option of selecting one. Examining the sales data and review scores of these games, EEDAR found that the games that included the option of selecting a female hero obtained better scores, but the ones with male-only protagonists sold better than the others. However, games with a female-only protagonist had, on average, only 50% of the marketing budget of female-optional games, and 40% of the marketing budget of games with male-only protagonists.[10]

A study by Burgess found that men are featured much more often than women on the covers of console video games.[11]


Samus Aran, the heroine of Metroid (1986) and its successors, is often cited as "the first playable human female character in a mainstream videogame".[12] However, other earlier games featured female player characters, such as Toby Masuyo ("Kissy") from Baraduke (1985).[13][14]

Lara Croft, the protagonist of Tomb Raider (1996), is among the best-known strong, fictional women in a variety of media.[15] April Ryan from The Longest Journey (1999) has been compared to Lara Croft in that respect, as she shows less prominent physical feminine attributes than Lara but more feminine psychological traits, as contrasted with Lara's masculine connotations like aggressiveness and force.[16] Contrarily, Jade, the protagonist of Beyond Good & Evil (2003), was widely recognized as a strong and confident female character lacking any overt sexualisation.[17][18]

In 2014 the developers' choice to omit playable women in the latest iterations of the top-tier gaming franchises Assassin's Creed and Far Cry became a focus of discussions in gaming media. This indicated, according to game industry professionals cited by Polygon, a shift in the industry's attention towards issues of diversity in gaming, in conjunction with video games as a whole growing beyond their former core audience of younger men.[19]

Female supporting characters[edit]

A number of games feature a female character as an ally or sidekick to the male hero. Some of them, like Ada Wong and Mona Sax, were turned into player characters in later instances of their series. Alyx Vance, a supporting protagonist of Half-Life 2, was praised for her "stinging personality" and intelligence, developing a close bond with the player without simply being "eye candy".[20][21]

However, female characters are often cast in the role of the damsel in distress, with their rescue being the objective of the game.[22][23] Princess Zelda in the early The Legend of Zelda series and Princess Peach through much of the Mario series are paradigmatic examples. Both of them, however, became playable in the later games of their series or had the pattern altered.

Female antagonists[edit]

The Dark Queen in Battletoads (1991) and its successors is one of the first major female villains in video games.[24] SHODAN, an artificial intelligence with a female voice and a female face, was the main villain of the game System Shock (1994), praised as one of the most recognizable female characters in gaming.[25] Another prominent female villain is Ultimecia, the main antagonist in Final Fantasy VIII (1999). At PAX Prime 2013, she was voted among the best female antagonists in video gaming history.[26] Similarly, GLaDOS from Portal (2007), an insane computer with a female voice, was praised by critics as one of the best new characters of the 2000s.[27]

Depiction of women[edit]

Objectification and sexualization[edit]

Many recent games have increased the sexualized portrayal of women so as to appeal to a male audience.[22] In 2012, for instance, Dead or Alive director, Yohei Shimbori, admitted the developers received complaints from fans who had played the Dead or Alive 5 demo packaged with Ninja Gaiden 3. According to Shimbori, "We actually got a lot of feedback from people who were playing it, saying, 'We want bigger breasts. Make the characters more like that.' That was kind of surprising."[28]

Female video game characters have been criticized as having a tendency to be subjects of the male gaze.[29] A print ad for the fighting game Soul Calibur V received some controversy for simply being a close up of a female character's breasts with a tagline.[30]

Since her introduction in 1996, the character of Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series in particular has been criticized for her unrealistic breast size; Lara was claimed to personify "an ongoing culture clash over gender, sexuality, empowerment, and objectification."[31] However, the game's creators maintain that she was not designed with marketing in mind, and have claimed to be rather surprised at her pinup-style adoration.[32] In Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara underwent a radical redesign, ostensibly to make her less sexualized.[33]

In two sequels of fighting games Soul Calibur and Tekken that take place several years after the original issue, recurring male characters were allowed to age but all female characters were kept the same age or replaced by their daughters.[34]

In their 2005 study, Dill and Thill distinguish three major stereotypical depictions of women in gaming: (1) sexualized, (2) scantily clad, and (3) a vision of beauty.[35] The study revealed that over 80% of women in video games represented one of these depictions. More than one quarter of female characters embodied all of the three stereotypical categories at once. Dill and Thill also note that another prevalent theme with which women were depicted was a combination of aggression and sex, referred to as eroticized aggression.

According to Dietz, women are often depicted in stereotypical roles that typically pertain to sexuality in which the woman focuses upon beauty/physical attractiveness.[36]

Women in scanty armor[edit]

A recurrent representation of women in fantasy settings, originating in the 1960s, is the woman warrior dressed in unrealistically scanty armor.[37] They feature armor designs which have been described by such terms as chainmail bikinis, largely consisting of small decorative plaques that reveal large portions of the body skin to the weather and that expose vital organs, thus being completely noneffective as protection.[38] The prevalence of this portrayal is an instance of the common sexualization of women in the geek culture including video games, comic and movies.[29] In reaction to this, the art blog "Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor"[39] compiles depictions of women fighters wearing realistic armor.[40]

In comparison to male characters[edit]

According to Anita Sarkeesian, many early female video game characters (such as Ms. Pac-Man) are identical to an existing male character, except for a visual marker of their femininity, such as pink bows, lipstick and long eyelashes.[41][42]

In a study done in Southwestern Oklahoma State University comparing the appearances of male and female characters on video game covers, a few things were discovered. On covers, male characters were five times more likely to be represented as the main character in the game, and women were merely portrayed as side kicks or accessories. Also, both male and female character's physiques were over-exaggerated on video game covers, however females were more physically altered (especially in the bust) than their male counterparts, and even more so if the female was the main character of the game.[43]

Violence against women[edit]

Sexual violence[edit]

The 1982 game Custer's Revenge was first noted for containing elements of rape and some Native American groups and the National Organization for Women have criticised this as well as alleged racism.[44]

The 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider series drew controversy when Kotaku claimed executive producer Ron Rosenberg said rape was utilized as a means for the eponymous character's development.[45] Crystal Dynamics denied that the scene depicted an attempted rape.[46][47]

Non-sexual violence[edit]

Violence in video games is a hotly debated topic; some sources condemned video games for promoting violence against women.[48] For example, the 2013 game Dead Island: Riptide generated controversy when the special "zombie bait" edition of the game included a statue of a torso of a busty, dismembered woman in a skimpy bikini.[49]

Portrayal of men[edit]

Men are also often portrayed stereotypically in games. They tend to be shown as muscular and big. For instance, men in video games have chests that are about 2 inches (6%) larger, heads that are about 13 inches bigger, waists that are 5 inches wider, and hips that are 7 inches wider, than in reality.[50] They are often characterized as overtly aggressive and violent.[36]

GamesRadar writer David Houghton, writing in an article on sexism in video games, was highly critical of many stereotypes that came with male protagonists, outlining them as "the primeval hunter/gatherer type [with] arm-cripplingly ripped biceps, necks too muscley to turn, emotion dials stuck on “aggressive grimace” and a 50% lack of chest coverings."[51]

Jamin Warren on PBS Game/Show highlighted that video games could promote "unreasonable body expectations, or an inability to express emotion, or the pressure to 'man up' and be a leader." He also highlighted that the vast majority of characters who perform and experience violence in video games are men, while women and children are generally to be protected.[52]

Portrayal of LGBT characters[edit]

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) characters have been depicted in video games since the 1980s. Common depictions include comical gender confusion, transgender characters, gay characters in fighting and action games, and gay romance in role-playing games.

In the history of video games, LGBT content has been subject to changing rules and regulations, which are generally examples of heterosexism, in that heterosexuality is normalized, while homosexuality is subject to additional censorship or ridicule. Companies Nintendo, Sega and Maxis policed the content of games with content codes in which LGBT themes were toned down or erased.[53][54][55][56]

Sexual orientation and gender identity have served a significant role in some video games, with the trend being toward greater visibility of LGBT identities.[57][58][59] Speaking on the Ubisoft blog, Lucien Soulband, who is openly gay and was the writer for Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, said that openly gay or lesbian characters would not appear in video games for a long while as anything other than a one-off or something that was created through user choice as seen in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games.[60]

Effect of gender representation in games[edit]

Effect on attitudes towards gender[edit]

According to Christina Hoff Sommers, there is no evidence that video games make men misogynist: "In fact, all the data we have suggest that millennial males—and these are people born and raised in 'Video Game Nation'—are far less prone to ... prejudices than previous generations."[61]

However, Dill, Brown, and Collins found that males reported playing more violent video games than females, and that this violent video game exposure was negatively correlated with sexual harassment judgments—meaning those who reported long term exposure to violent video games had an increased tolerance towards sexual harassment when judging a real life case of sexual harassment. The exposure to violent video games was also correlated with rape supportive attitudes. Both of these tests resulted in a p-value of less than .001, meaning that it is extremely unlikely that these measured observations would occur without this relationship existing.[62]

Effect on children[edit]

Canadian non-profit MediaSmarts writes that "video games have the potential to influence how children perceive themselves and others", and despite their impact on the youth, "there is not a lot of research available in this area, and few of the existing studies stand up to critical examination. This lack of scrutiny means that we know very little about the effects that video games may have on children's development and socialization."[63]

According to Dietz, video game characters have the potential to shape players’ perceptions of gender roles. Through social comparison processes, players learn societal expectations of appearances, behaviors and roles.[36]

Girls may expect that they be dependent victims and that their responsibilities include maintaining beauty and sexual appeal, while boys may determine that their role is to protect and defend women.[36][verification needed]

Thus, Dietz claims, the roles internalized by the child, including gender, become for the child, and later for the adult, a basis for other roles and for action. The gender roles internalized by young individuals have a significant impact upon their perspectives and the additional roles they assume in later life. Feminine and masculine symbols are supposed to become a part of a child’s identity.[36]

Players' preferences[edit]

A 2015 survey of 1,583 U.S. students aged 11 to 18 by Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch indicated that 60% of girls but only 39% of boys preferred to play a character of their own gender, and 28% of girls as opposed to 20% of boys said that they were more likely to play a game based on the character’s gender. The authors interpreted this as meaning that the gaming industry's focus on male protagonists stifled sales to girls more than it promoted sales to boys.[64]

See also[edit]


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    In video games, the major stereotyped myths of women are typically the damsel in distress, hyper-sexualized villain (Sylvia Christel from No More Heroes) and the sexy/strong best friend (Tifa from Final Fantasy VII). [...] In all of these instances, the female character is, more likely than not, in love with the male protagonist or trying desperately to bang him.

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  • Brown, Jeffrey A. (2011). Dangerous Curves: Action Heroines, Gender, Fetishism, and Popular Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 160473714X. 
  • Dickerman, Charles; Christensen, Jeff; Kerl-Mcclain, Stella Beatríz (2008). "Big Breast and Bad Guys: Depictions of Gender and Race in Video Games". Journal of Creativity in Mental Health 3 (1): 20. doi:10.1080/15401380801995076. 
  • Jansz, Jeroen; Martis, Raynel G. (February 2007). "The Lara Phenomenon: Powerful Female Characters in Video Games". Sex Roles (New York) 56 (3–4): 141. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9158-0. 
  • Martins, Nicole; Williams, Dmitri C.; Ratan, Rabindra A.; Harrison, Kristen (3 May 2012). "Virtual muscularity: a content analysis of male video game characters". Body Image 8 (1): 43–51. doi:10.1016/j.bodyim.2010.10.002. PMID 21093394.  Check date values in: |year= / |date= mismatch (help)

External links[edit]