Sexism in Games And Its History Throughout the Gaming Industry
The frustrations of a female gamer are a hard thing to match. With full days of classes and long nights of working, it’s tough to find time to keep up with the latest games. Being a female gamer myself, it is almost impossible to ignore the many faults of the past and present marketing strategies and ideas of the gaming industry. Most of the games that have been released in the past three decades are noticeably sexist, complete with objectified women on a Double D-angerous scale. There are little to no strong, independent female lead characters in video games, and if there are, they have breasts and a body shape that makes them look like a caricature of a porn star. The importance of video games and their effects in society are carelessly overlooked, as it seems to most people to be another case of feminists complaining.
While they are not most peoples’ cup of tea, video games demonstrate important social constructs in the world that are difficult to see, which explains the heavy-handed sexism. The majority of social media, especially video games, acts as a mirror to reflect the way the general public reacts in certain situations, especially in relation to women and their purpose in a specific culture. While I feel a good amount of this sexism is due to the lack of women in the gaming industry and also the absence of empathy in the male developers, the majority of it is due to the intense need for a quick and easy marketing strategy.
Sex and violence sell, so those are the two main things that are slipped into our virtual entertainment. The most well-known instance of this is in the Lara Croft Tomb Raider series, when the developers exaggerated Lara’s proportions specifically to use as a hook for the teenage boy demographic. While a good amount of gamers are female, games are usually targeted toward the male audience. This is because the gaming industry is mostly dominated by men. Due to this shift in power, there are very few strong female leads in video games, but numerous objectified women whose only purpose is the damsel in distress or the brawny hero’s eye-candy. This patriarchal standpoint in the gaming community affects how women are viewed in society.
The Science Behind Sexism
Sexism in society today is thought to be horrible by most sane people, but the subject is often swept under the rug to stroke the egos of the male demographic, which is only slightly larger than the female gaming demographic. According to the author of a Critical Gaming Project article under the username changed, “Forty percent of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 18 represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (34 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent).” (changed, 2010) Some could make the argument that sexism in something unimportant, such as video games, makes no effect on the general public or how it views the female minority in society. According to multiple studies, it is the quite the contrary. In studies done in 2009, this information was presented:
“The present study experimentally investigates the short term effects of exposure to sexualized female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept among U.S. college students. Social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation (Bussey and Bandura 1999) is used to explicate the process through which mass media images influence gender-related beliefs and self-concept. Although this study is based in the U.S., the findings are of consequence to scholars, parents, gamers, and the gaming industry not only in the U.S. but also abroad. The gender images under investigation here are mass produced and distributed in many countries across the world. Accordingly, the implications of exposure to the images and themes characterized in video games take on global importance.” (Behm-Morawitz & Mastro, 2009).
This evidence backs the assertion that gender bias and sexism in mass media, including video games, can produce negative effects in the viewer. These negative effects were examined more closely in a study done by the same women previously mentioned. The study is as follows:
“The present study utilized an experimental design to investigate the short term effects of exposure to sexualized female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept in emerging adults. Bussey and Bandura’s (1999) social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation was used to explicate this relationship. Undergraduate students (N=328) at a large U.S. Southwestern university participated in the study. Students were randomly assigned to play a ‘sexualized’ heroine, a ‘non-sexualized’ heroine, or no video game; then completed an online questionnaire. Female self-efficacy was negatively affected by game play with the sexualized female character. Results cautiously suggest that playing a sexualized video game heroine unfavorably influenced people’s beliefs about women in the real world.”
This study shows the very real negative effects sexualized characters have on the player. Even though the study’s sample size was a bit small, the evidence that they collected are demonstrated on a more massive scale, which is blatantly obvious if you have ever gone on an internet forum, as a woman, and tried to speak up in a conversation about your favorite game or point out the ridiculous, back-breaking breasts of any and all female NPCs (non-playable character). Having a body that is not male seems to automatically exclude you from the gaming world, virtually or otherwise. Most demands for equal representation and status in video games seem to fall on the deaf ears of greedy corporations that use our bodies as marketing strategies.
Understanding the Problem
More women are demanding less demeaning characters to play so they can become more immersed in the fantastical realms of their games, which is hard to do with distracting character roles or outfits. The female characters are noticeably less useful and advanced than their male counterparts. These unbalanced choices leave the very large female demographic feeling like they have been placed on the bottom of the priority list of the gaming developers. According to a study done by Miller and Summers,
“Males were more likely to be heroes and main characters, use more weapons, have more abilities, and were more muscular and powerful. Females were more often supplemental characters, more attractive, sexy, and innocent, and also wore more revealing clothing. Understanding these video game messages is an important first step in understanding the effects games and magazines may have on behavior and attitudes.”
Knowing this, it is easy to see our problem when searching for a unique experience, only to be met with flimsy characters with flimsier clothes.
The majority of entertainment in the media today is directly influenced by the current social constructs of society. When looking back at magazines, propaganda, and films from about a century ago, it is easy to discern the gender roles were between males and females: men were the bread winners and women were the home makers. Gender roles have since changed, along with the type of media being put out on the market. A very accurate representation of perceived or real gender roles in the world is present in video games. Video games are more likely to show sexism than other forms of entertainment because they are specifically made to simulate real life experiences.
While a good amount of gamers are female, games are usually targeted toward the male audience. This is because the gaming industry is mostly dominated by men. Due to this shift in power, there are very few strong female leads in video games, but numerous objectified women whose only purpose is the damsel in distress or eye-candy. This patriarchal standpoint in the gaming community affects how women are viewed in society. Talk about man the hunter, woman the gatherer.
When Did it Start?
Female characters were usually used in old school video games as the hostages that needed saving, or they weren’t portrayed at all. According to USC News, “For example, only 10 percent of playable characters surveyed were female, though women now make up 40 percent of video game players.” (Williams, 2009) This shows how underrepresented the female gaming population is in modern video games.
A great example of this under-representation is the ever popular Mario Bros. series. As Wikipedia described, “Mario is depicted as a short, pudgy, Italian plumber who resides in the Mushroom Kingdom. He repeatedly rescues Princess Peach from the turtle-like villain Bowser and stops his numerous plans to destroy him and take over the kingdom.” This is usually the constant in most older, and some newer, games. The women are used as trophies instead of solid characters with substance.
Several video games are most known for their blatant sexism, even the most popular ones. Tomb Raider’s main character, Lara Croft, is a good example of this. In a world with very few female leads, Eidos released the first Tomb Raider game in 1996 with Lara Croft as the intelligent and crafty protagonist who hunts for treasure in dangerous territory with the help of no one. As empowering as it sounds, the Lara Croft character is still seen as sexist because she has a very disproportional body when it comes to breast size.
Tracy Whitelaw, PR rep for LesbianGamers.com tells Edge,
"…She’s a dichotomy in our opinion. Lara was primarily viewed as an idealized female gaming character with an unattainable body. Her body shape is completely unrealistic and there’s no doubt that her appeal to male gamers and the way this feeds into the male gaze is a dominant factor in her worldwide success and subsequent status as a cultural icon." (Whitelaw, 2008).
Even though Lara’s breast size was initially a mistake on the developer’s part, the team decided to keep it because they felt it would be a great marketing strategy. According to Smallwood and Cantrell, two writers for Cracked, “Artist Toby Gard, one of the people in charge of designing Lara Croft, was toying around with the dimensions of the character. When setting the dimensions of her chest, he slipped with his mouse and increased the boob area by a cartoonish 150 percent. The rest of the (male) crew immediately asked him to keep it that way, solidifying a stereotype about video gamers that we have not been able to shake in the 15 years since and the rest is video game history. To quote the team, ‘Gard's accidental 'one-fifty' design made picking out a marketing strategy remarkably easy.’” (Cantrell & Smallwood, 2011).
As the gaming industry has progressed, so have female roles in video games. Even though sexism is still rampant, they are taking baby steps in the right direction. For example, Square Enix has since put out a new Tomb Raider game that was released on March 5, 2013. It seems that they have fixed the sexism in this game, while keeping the great parts about the Lara Croft character. She is still strong, clever, beautiful, and resourceful, while having a more accurate figure for a woman with her body type and activity level (Wikipedia, 2013).
In an interview with Camilla Luddington, the voice and body actor for the Lara Croft character, she explains the differences between the previous, busty Croft, and the newer, more normal Croft. She states, “She’ll be taken more seriously and that’s what they wanted. I don’t know how well it would have worked if she’s going through these sincere and brutal experiences and she’s in hot pants. She’s just more relatable and I think that’s more interesting for a gamer to play because you want to relate to that person while you’re playing them and get invested.” (Staskiewicz, 2013)
Steps in the Right Direction
A lot of developers have grown lazy with the way they market their new games. If a company isn’t putting out a first-person shooter, they are filling the shelves with RPGs (Role Playing Games) that showcase busty mages and tantalizing thieves that barely compare, in power or personality, to their superior male counterparts. This is a lazy form of marketing that pushes along gender stereotypes without adding any original content to the game, which creates another lackluster game among many.
What developers are now starting to do is creating games with a lot more depth; who would have thought that gamers would have wanted a story with depth? Instead of creating a pair of boobs that knows how to fight, developers are starting to understand how character development works. A woman can still be fierce and witty while being attractive. Luddington stated, in relation to the rebooted Lara Croft, “There were conversations to make her more realistic. She can still be a sex symbol of sorts without having to wear a tiny pair of shorts and these gigantic boobs while running around.” (Staskiewicz, 2013)
Any time I would like to play as a soldier in an RPG, the armor barely covers the character’s nipples, and seems to leave open only the most vital places that I would be able to be stabbed or shot in. Developers seem to prefer sexuality to functionality when it comes to suiting up my character, to the point that I feel like I am playing a classy, interactive porno instead of the fifty-dollar game that I got for Christmas. A writer and gamer at Metro comments on this:
”Games lead us to believe that all women are fast and weak; cannot help getting kidnapped and like to titillate monsters, demons and imps by ensuring that their chest and midriff are as unprotected as possible whether they are a wizard, ninja or soldier. There is definitely a place for crazy, revealing, weird and beautiful costumes in games, particularly in games like Street Fighter and SoulCalibur. There are so many characters in games now that it must be very difficult to make each one seem unique. I believe it can be done without using breast size as the sole differentiator between female characters and in fact, Namco have already managed it. In SoulCalibur IV Hilde, a female character armed with a pike and short sword, had a wonderful set of armour that managed to be feminine without revealing any more than her face. She was tremendously powerful and, I think, more attractive because she wasn’t falling out of her costume. This doesn’t mean there’s no place for Ivy and Sophitia but I wish Namco, Tecmo and Capcom had the confidence to provide some less revealing, yet no less interesting, costumes for their line-up.” (Big Lizafish, 2012)
In my years of playing games, my all-time favorites would have to be Portal 1 and Portal 2. In Portal 1, the only two characters in the game are female. The protagonist, a Hispanic mute named Chell, is a test subject trapped in a testing facility. The facility is controlled by a rogue, but witty, droid named GLaDOS. Decades ago, GLaDOS was made to help with the testing facility, but went mad and filled the facility with a deadly neurotoxin and tragically killed all of the scientists on “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day”. Chell is believed to be a scientist’s daughter that was spared to fulfill GLaDOS’s need for testing. In Portal 2, a minor third character, Wheatley, is introduced. He is a part of GLaDOS’s personality that fell off in a battle in the previous game. His purpose was to counter her immense intelligence. By himself, he is supposed to be the single stupidest being that has ever existed in the universe. I love this game because it isn’t afraid to switch gender roles.
For once, the female character is a strong and intelligent being that has barely any skin showing. Valve, the developer of this game, is well-known for breaking down sexism in video games. In Portal, GLaDOS mocks Chell for supposedly being fat and ugly, yet praises her intelligence. I think the developers were trying to poke fun at the common sexist attitude that is directed at female characters; if the women in games aren’t beautiful and busting out of their clothes, they are seen as worthless and a threat to the men. Chell is a great role model for young girls, and is the direction more developers should be heading in the future.
The tendency towards sexism is not a born trait; it is taught and beaten into us by the media and our peers alike. Video games play a major role in sexist views, because they teach us gender roles and how we should view women. Usually, women are not properly characterized in video games. This is a result of the lack of women in the crucial areas of the game making process. Women are not properly or accurately represented in popular video games, even though women make up 40% of the gaming community. Women are either used as a trophy to be won, or the eye-candy of the main male hero, instead of being portrayed as strong individuals that young girls can look up to and aspire to be. Some developers are listening to their followers’ wishes and are taking the correct steps to improve the gaming experience for the entirety of the community. Purging modern video games of this sexism lends a helping hand to women’s equality, and begins the process of sustaining everyone’s wild imaginations.
Behm-Morawitz , E., & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game
characters on gender stereotyping and female self-concept. Manuscript submitted for publication, Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=45127786&site=ehost-live
Big Lizafish. (2012, November 17). Gaming’s female role models – reader’s feature. Retrieved from http://metro.co.uk/2012/11/17/gamings-female-role-models-readers-feature-498746/
changed. (2010, April 06). Fyi: Video game statistics by the entertainment software association. Retrieved from https://depts.washington.edu/critgame/wordpress/2010/04/fyi-video-game-statistics-by-the-entertainment-software-association/
Miller, M., & Summers, A. (2007). Gender differences in video game characters’ roles, appearances, and attire as portrayed in video game magazines. (Master's thesis)Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=sih&AN=27146911&site=ehost-live
Williams, D. (2009, July 30). Video game minority report. Retrieved from http://news.usc.edu/
Whitelaw, T. (2008, September 01). Is lara croft sexist?. Retrieved from http://www.edge-online.com/features/lara-croft-sexist/
Wikipedia. (2013, March 08). Tomb raider (2013 video game). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tomb_Raider_(2013_video_game)
Smallwood, K., & Cantrell, M. A. (2011, June 07). 6 glitches that accidentally invented modern gaming. Retrieved from http://www.cracked.com/article_19262_6-glitches-that-accidentally-invented-modern-gaming.html
Staskiewicz, K. (2013, February 26). 'tomb raider' actress camilla luddington discusses playing the new lara croft. Retrieved from http://popwatch.ew.com/2013/02/26/tomb-raider-camilla-luddington/