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. Women in particular are significantly underrepresented as characters in mainstream games, and their portrayals often reflect traditional gender roles, sexual objectification or negative stereotypes, such as that of the "damsel in distress."

Gamer demographics[edit]

A young girl playing a video game

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 48% of all American video game players in 2014 were women.[1] In 2014 in the UK and in Spain, women comprised 52% and 48% of video game players respectively.[2]

Both men and women play video games but studies seem to suggest some differences in typical 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 in the year 2014 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, 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.[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]

Two women dressed up as video game characters at Moscow's Igromir trade show in 2011


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.[6][7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]


Samus Aran, the heroine of Metroid (1986) and its successors, is often cited as "the first playable human female character in a mainstream videogame".[11] However, other earlier games featured female player characters, such as Toby Masuyo ("Kissy") from Baraduke (1985).[12][13]

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).[14] 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.[14] 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.[15]

Lara Croft, the protagonist of Tomb Raider (1996), is among the best-known strong, fictional women in a variety of media.[16] 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."[17] 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".[18] 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.[19] In Tomb Raider: Legend, Lara underwent a radical redesign, ostensibly to make her less sexualized.[20]

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.[21] Contrarily, Jade, the protagonist of Beyond Good & Evil (2003), was widely recognized as a strong and confident female character lacking any overt sexualisation.[22][23]

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[who?] 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.[24]

As 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".[25][26]

"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."[27]

However, female characters are often cast in the role of the damsel in distress, with their rescue being the objective of the game.[27][28] Princess Zelda in the early The Legend of Zelda series 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 14 of the main Super Mario games and is kidnapped in 13 of them. The only main game that Peach was not kidnapped in was in the North America release of Super Mario 2, but she was a character that can be played. Her character had the ability to jump the farthest. Zelda became playable in the later games of the Legend of Zelda series or had the pattern altered.[29]

As antagonists[edit]

One of the first major female villains in video games was the Dark Queen in Battletoads (1991) and its sequels.[30] 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.[31] 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.[32] 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.[33]


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 characters as well as the degree to which female characters are independent from their male counterparts within the same game. Exposure to sexualized media representations of women in television and magazines was alleged to reduce male compassion toward women and reduce females' perceptions of their desire and suitability for various vocations.[8] 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".[34] 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.[35]

Both male and female character's physiques were over-exaggerated on video game covers, but 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.[8] A 2007 study from Southwestern Oklahoma State University compared the appearances of male and female characters on video game covers, and found that 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.

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.[36][37]

Many recent games have increased the sexualized portrayal of women so as to appeal to a male audience.[27] Female video game characters have been criticized as having a tendency to be subjects of the "male gaze".[38] 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.[39] [40]In two sequels[which?] 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.[41]

Women in scanty armor[edit]

Women costumed as scantily armored player characters from the video game Diablo III

A recurrent representation of women in fantasy settings, originating in the 1960s, is the female warrior dressed in scanty armor.[42] 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.[43] 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.[38] In reaction to this, the art blog "Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor"[44] compiles depictions of women fighters wearing "realistic" armor.[45]

In Bioware's Dragon Age franchise, while the optional female character dresses as the player wills, many female warrior/assassin class characters, such as Isabela, were remade in later installments to wear less clothing. In the case of Isabela, she appeared in Dragon Age: Origins in full armor but appeared in Dragon Age II wearing thigh high boots and a short, slitted dress. After Dragon Age II IGN went from not mentioning her at all to describing her as "everyone's favorite busty rogue".[46]

Violence against women[edit]

Violence in video games is a hotly debated topic; some sources condemned video games for promoting violence against women.[47] 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.[48] 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.[49]

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.[50]

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.[51] Crystal Dynamics denied that the scene depicted an attempted rape.[52][53]

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.[54] They are often characterized as overtly aggressive and violent.[35] 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."[55]

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."[56]

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.[57]

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.[58][59][60][61]

Sexual orientation and gender identity have served a significant role in some video games, with the trend being toward greater visibility of LGBT identities.[62][63][64] 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.[65] 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.[66] Dragon Age: Inquisition was also noted for its respectful portrayal of a transgender character.

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."[67]

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 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 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.[68]

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."[69]

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.[35] 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.[35] 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.[35]

Players' preferences[edit]

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.[70] 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.[70] 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."[9]

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.[71]

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.[72]

See also[edit]


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