Gender representation in video games
Although women make up about half of video game players, they are significantly underrepresented as characters in mainstream games, despite the prominence of iconic heroines such as Samus Aran or Lara Croft. The portrayal of women in games often reflects traditional gender roles, sexual objectification or negative stereotypes, such as that of the "damsel in distress". Male characters are often stereotypically depicted as big and muscular, and LGBT characters have been slow to appear in video games as a result of the heteronormativity of the medium.
Research indicates that how genders are portrayed in games can influence players' perception of gender roles, and that young girls prefer to play a character of their own gender much more than boys do. On average, female-led games sell fewer copies than male-led ones, but also have lower marketing budgets.
- 1 Gamer demographics
- 2 Portrayal of women
- 3 Portrayal of men
- 4 Portrayal of LGBT characters
- 5 Effect of gender representation in games
- 6 Players' preferences
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
A 2008 Gallup poll indicated that half of all American video game players were women. In 2014 in the UK and in Spain, women comprised 52% and 48% of video game players respectively. According to a 2008 study by Pew Research Center, "Fully 99% of boys and 94% of girls play videogames."
Both men and women play video games, but studies suggest differences in platform and game genre preference. 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 in the year 2014 played Xbox 360, 41% played Wii and 21% played PS3.
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, match-three / bubble-shooter, management / simulation and quiz game markets. Men on the other hand, made up between 60–80% of the strategy, shooter, card battle, racing and action RPG markets.
A 2014 SuperData Research study found that men and women enjoy video games, but some genres are attracting one gender more than 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.
Portrayal of women
As player characters
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. A 2007 study by Melinda C. R. Burgess et al. found that men are featured much more often than women on the covers of console video games.
In a sample of 669 action, shooter, and role-playing games selected by EEDAR in 2012, 300 (45%) provided the option of playing as a female, but only 24 (4%) had an exclusively female protagonist. EEDAR found in 2010 that 10% of games did not have a protagonist with a discernible gender.
According to Madeline Messer writing in the Washington Post in 2015, among the top 50 endless running games for mobile devices, 98% of those with gender-identifiable characters featured male protagonists, of which 90% were free to play. Only 46% of these games offered female characters, and only 15% offered them for free. Playing as a girl required, on average, an additional purchase of $7.53, much more than the games themselves cost.
Samus Aran, the heroine of Metroid (1986) and its successors, is often cited as "the first playable human female character in a mainstream video game". However, other earlier games featured female player characters, such as Toby Masuyo ("Kissy") from Baraduke (1985).
Studies of the prevalence of female characters in video games began to be conducted in sociological, educational, and cultural journals as early as the late 1970s and early 1980s. In 1979, researchers publishing in Psychological Record (Vol.29, No.1. Pp. 43–48) concluded from the results of a 201-person survey that 90% of male subjects and 85% of female subjects perceived the computer as masculine (in gameplay versus the computer). In 1983, professor Sara Kiesler et al. published a study in Psychology Today (Vol.17, No.3. Pp. 40–48.) finding that female characters appeared in video games at a frequency of 1 game in 7. Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz suggested that the reduced presence of female characters implies a secondary status for women in video games. When playable female characters do appear in video games, they are more often scantily dressed and oversexualized than men.
Lara Croft, the protagonist of Tomb Raider (1996), is among the best-known strong, fictional women in a variety of media. Since her introduction in 1996, the character of Croft has been criticized for her "unrealistic" breast size; Lara was claimed to personify "an ongoing culture clash over gender, sexuality, empowerment, and objectification." In a 2008 Tomb Raider title, Croft was depicted in "hot pants" and "middriffs" and was said to look like she "was dressed by a male". 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. In Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara underwent a radical redesign, ostensibly to make her less sexualized.
April Ryan from The Longest Journey (1999) has been compared to Lara Croft, 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. Contrarily, Jade, the protagonist of Beyond Good & Evil (2003), was widely recognized as a strong and confident female character lacking any overt sexualisation.
The year 2013 featured women in leading roles in a number of award-winning games such as The Last of Us (2013), Bioshock Infinite (2013), the rebooted Tomb Raider (2013), and Beyond: Two Souls (2013). A study of these games found that although the leading female characters in these games were able to subvert predominant gender stereotypes, women were still limited by men in the narratives, in particular through benevolent sexism.
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.
Women of color or people of color as a whole are less likely to be represented by the popular games and more likely to be represented as a stereotype. There is also a higher chance of people of color, especially women, to be portrayed as villains.
As supporting characters
Female characters are often cast in the role of the damsel in distress, with their rescue being the objective of the game. Princess Zelda in the early The Legend of Zelda series, the Sultan's daughter in Prince of Persia, and Princess Peach through much of the Mario series are paradigmatic examples. According to Salzburge Academy on Media and Global Change, in 1981 Nintendo offered game designer Shigeru Miyamoto to create a new video game for the American market. In the game the hero was Mario, and the objective of the game was to rescue a young princess named Peach. Peach was depicted as having a pink dress and blonde hair. The princess was kidnapped and trapped in a castle by the evil villain character Bowser, who is depicted as a turtle. Princess Peach appears in 15 of the main Super Mario games and is kidnapped in 13 of them. The only main games that Peach was not kidnapped in were in the North America release of Super Mario 2 and Super Mario 3D World, but she was a character that can be played. Zelda became playable in some later games of the Legend of Zelda series or had the pattern altered.
"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."
A number of games feature a female character as an ally or sidekick to the male hero. Some of them, like Ada Wong of Resident Evil and Mona Sax of Max Payne, 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".
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One of the first major female villains in video games was the Dark Queen in Battletoads (1991) and its sequels. 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. 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. 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.
The portrayal of women in video games has been the subject of academic study and controversy since the early 1980s. Recurring themes in articles and discussions on the topic include the sexual objectification and sexualization of female characters, done to appeal to a presumed male audience, as well as the degree to which female characters are independent from their male counterparts within the same game. Research on exposure to sexualized media representations of women in television and magazines has asked whether it reduces male compassion toward women, and reduces women's perceptions of their desire and suitability for various vocations.
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. 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 sociology professor and researcher Tracy Dietz, women are often depicted in stereotypical roles that typically pertain to sexuality in which the woman focuses upon beauty/physical attractiveness. According to an analysis conducted by Downs and Smith, playable and plot relevant characters in the 60 best selling video games of 2003 were predominantly male. Females who were depicted were frequently sexualized. The female characters analyzed were depicted partially naked or with unrealistic proportions more often than the male characters were. A study of 225 video game covers found that both male and female character's physiques were over-exaggerated, but women 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.
A 2016 study of 571 games released between 1984 and 2014 found that the sexualization of female characters was at its height between 1990 and 2005, and then began to significantly decline. It also determined that there was no significant difference in sexualization between games rated as "Teen" (for ages 13 and up) and "Mature" (17 and up) by the ESRB, indicating that sexualized women in games are so prevalent that they are not thought of as objectionable to children. Less sexualization was found in RPGs, which are played more often by women, than in action and fighting games.
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.
Female video game characters have been criticized as having a tendency to be subjects of the "male gaze". A print ad for the fighting game Soulcalibur V received some controversy for simply being a close up of female character Ivy Valentine's breasts with a tagline. In two sequels of fighting games Soulcalibur and Tekken that take place several years after the original issue, recurring male characters were all aged but all female characters were kept the same age or were replaced by their daughters. Many games, particularly fighting games, also feature pronounced "breast physics", which make the breasts of female characters bounce or jiggle in an exaggerated manner.
A recurrent representation of women in fantasy settings, originating in the 1960s, is the female warrior dressed in scanty armor. 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 to the weather and expose vital organs, making them ineffective as protection. The prevalence of this portrayal is presented as an instance of the common sexualization of women in the geek culture including video games, comic and movies. In reaction to this, the art blog "Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor" compiles depictions of women fighters wearing "realistic" armor.
Violence against women
Video games have been criticized for depicting violence against women. 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. While much of the Grand Theft Auto franchise has had issues with claims of violence against women, Rockstar North's Grand Theft Auto V was also surrounded in much criticism; so much so that the sale of it was banned by certain retailers in Australia.
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.
The 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider drew controversy when Kotaku described it as using rape for Lara Croft's character development. The developers denied that the scene depicted an attempted rape.
Portrayal of men
Men are also often portrayed stereotypically in games. A recurring depiction of male sexuality is the power fantasy, where an apparent sexualization as an object of desire and hypermasculinity are overruled by the character's agency as the protagonist and avatar for the player’s power within the game world.
Men in games 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. They are often characterized as overtly aggressive and violent. Following the releases of Grand Theft Auto V, the developers were met with criticism regarding both the portrayal of women and torture, but also that of men. Two of the main characters, Trevor Philips and Michael De Santa, have since been interpreted by some as portraying men as "liars, cheats, bad husbands and fathers, and psychopaths".
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".
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.
The "male protagonist bingo", a 2014 thought experiment by game designer Anna Kreider, is intended to show that many prominent male game protagonists match the same sort of stereotypes because it is possible to fill out a bingo card for them that contains the following attributes:
- Military rank
- Title or designation instead of name
- Killing spree (humans)
- Hardened veteran
- Blasé about killing
- Cold and aloof
- Dark humor in the face of danger
- Biceps as big as your thigh
- Makes a living being violent
- No patience for politics
- Guns. Lots of guns.
- Psychological problems
- Lots of armor
- "Gritty" reboot
- Bald / crew cut
- Scowls a lot
- Supernatural powers
- Killing spree (aliens / other)
- "They killed my wife / child / family! I'll make them pay!"
Multiple critics point out the "male gaze" as the reason why male characters are not overtly sexualized in the same way as female characters are, mentioning the assumption in the video game industry that a majority of gamers are heterosexual men, to whom companies cater.
- In the interpretation as gender performance under an heteronormative perspective, a male being sexy is seen as an opposite of masculinity. In this view, depictions of males as objects of desire are coded by including feminine traits, vanity and attention to personal attires, or queer codes, often depicted as humorous. The Bishōnen archetype is an example of this portrayal, as well as characters like Vega from Street Fighter, Mettaton from Undertale, Maxi and Raphael from Soul Calibur, and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII.
- A different way of sexualizing male characters is that performed by players and fans communities, in particular for characters open to their own emotions. Douglas identifies as traits of these characters the space dedicated in the game to show their personality, shown through their interactions with other characters, and their agency through those interactions rather than pure displays of strength and power. Because of these traits, this category of characters occurs most often with non-player characters.
Portrayal of LGBT characters
LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender) characters have been included in video games as early as the 1980s and 1990s. While there has been a trend towards greater representation of LGBT people in video games, they are frequently identified as LGBT in secondary material, such as comics, rather than in the games themselves.
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. Some games, for instance, originally included trans characters, such as Birdo from Super Mario Bros, Poison from the Final Fight series, and Flea from Chrono Trigger. Due to adherence to Nintendo's quality standards and translations based on preserving gameplay rather than literal meaning, these characters' identities were altered or erased in translation.
The video game industry is regarded as having heteronormative bias by numerous analysts. According to industry professionals interviewed by Shaw, reasons for this heteronormativity include the demographic of those who play games, the views of those who create games, the risk of backlash in the industry, and the storytelling limitations of the medium.
Choice based LGBT content, such as optional same sex romance in Bioware games, is a low- risk form of representation that occurs only in video games. When representation is included, it is often through these in-game choices, which place the responsibility for representation on players instead of developers. Because they afford the most opportunity for player choice and in game romance, genres such as RPGs and MMOs are the most LGBT representative. Another low risk method of LGBT representation is "Gay window gaming," which is LGBT representation that is either subtle or avoidable in games that serves to appeal to LGBT players without alienating straight or homophobic players. This can occur in sandbox games such as The Sims.
In games with LGBT characters or the option of an LGBT avatar, some aspects of marginalization that occur in contemporary culture are depicted despite the game's overall adherence to reality. These real social constraints are imposed on a virtual world due to the way games are constructed and the community that inhabits them. Games are made on contemporary culture's heteronormative basis, and this shapes narrative and characters. In the popular MMO World of Warcraft, for example, this has "created an oppressive atmosphere for individuals who do not adhere to a heteronormative lifestyle", according to a 2013 assessment of the game's community.
Both members of the industry and LGBT players prefer LGBT representation to be normalized in game narratives rather than made to seem abnormal or special. There are no games produced specifically to appeal to an LGBT audience. LGBT players prefer this so they can avoid marginalization in the gaming community.
LGBT gamers use queer readings of media to compensate for their lack of representation in it. As concluded in a study by Moravec, this "imaginative play" is the most common method LGBT gamers use to relate to in game avatars that are typically created for a presumed straight male player to relate to.
Sexual orientation and gender identity have served a significant role in some video games, with the trend being toward greater visibility of LGBT identities. 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. The character of Dorian in Dragon Age: Inquisition was regarded as a significant development for the portrayal of gay characters in games, in that his homosexuality informs plot elements that occur regardless of whether the player decides to interact with him romantically.
Effect of gender representation in games
Effect on attitudes towards gender
A 2008 study found that males reported playing more violent video games than females. This exposure was negatively correlated with men's certainty in their judgements when presented with a scenario of possible sexual harassment selected for its ambiguity. The exposure to violent video games was also correlated with attitudes supportive of rape.
Effect on children
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."
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. 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. 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.
Although games that included the option of selecting a female hero obtained better review scores, they sold fewer copies than games with exclusively male protagonists. Penny Arcade Report attributed the difference to larger marketing budgets for games with male heroes. 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. Male-only games included popular sports and war franchises such as Madden and Call of Duty, and EEDAR's Jesse Divnich stated in 2010, "The factors that drive sales are based more on brand licensing, marketing budgets, development budget and a thousand other factors that have little to do with the gender of playable avatars."
Polling in 2015 by Pew Research Center showed 16% of adults who play video games believe most games portray women poorly, compared to 26% who disagree, and 34% who say it depends on the game. Among those who do not play, 55% are unsure if games portray women poorly. Minimal differences were seen between male and female responses.
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.
In a 2017 survey of 1,266 gamers by Quantic Foundry, 89% of female gamers considered the inclusion of female protagonist option in games somewhat, very or extremely important; 64% of male gamers expressed the same views. Self-identified "hardcore" gamers of both genders, on average, considered a female protagonist less important than "core" or "casual" gamers did.
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