My fingers fly over my keyboard as I punch out the motions of virtual battle. Stab to the left, the right, fireball, heal, crack them over the head with my staff. My character is a whirlwind, a fighting machine, a true warrior. But as I always do when I play video games, I wonder how it is that her skimpy armor, tiny chain link bra and underwear combination serves to protect her at all. I am in fifth grade. Even as an eleven year old, I understand how unrealistic this is. Why give an apparently vicious fighter an embarrassingly tiny armor set that clearly does not cover any of her skin? My character stares back at me from inside my screen, her voluptuous curves and evidently burdensome big breasts popping from her outfit. I wanted to make my character look like me, but she still ended up resembling a sex goddess.
It’s not just my character either. While I saunter around completing quests and killing beasts, narrow-waisted, bodacious female characters populate the lands, creating a stark contrast against the muscular and realistically armored male characters. As my childhood evolved into my teenage years, my love of gaming persevered, but so did the over-the-top “sexiness” of female characters in video games. As a girl and a gamer, that trend was disappointing and demeaning, and it was always on my mind as I played my games: “Will I ever feel truly myself when gaming?” While some video games portray gender in an equal and balanced way, many mainstream games still portray women in marginalized, hyper-sexualized and objectified manners due to many different aspects of society and culture.
Why is this sexualization of females so prominent in video games? To move further into this question, one has to look at technology as a whole from a historical sense. Technology in the past has been culturally and socially linked to masculinity, and women have been discouraged from becoming more efficient with technology due to the social and cultural expectations forced on them rather than biological differences. When computers and game consoles became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, they were male-dominated areas, so when computer games gained more popularity in the 2000s, they were less likely to be accessed by women. Even though sports have done a good job with evening the gender playing field in society, computer gaming is still male-dominated. Most “hardcore” games, those being non-analog mental rotation games like Halo or Call of Duty, were designed and produced by males for males. In the past, females have more often played non-mental rotation games such as Solitaire and Bejeweled over the hardcore, mainstream games that are perceived as being masculine.
But that’s not to say that the population of hardcore female gamers is not growing and competing just as efficiently as its male counterpart. There is a stereotype that females are not as good at males in the technological fields that has been in place since gaming first came to be. It is true that more men populate the computer science field than women, but it is also true that “it is not lack of talent, but unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women” (Bertozzi, Lee). As found in the study by Margolis and Fisher in 2002, women have been disinclined to take jobs in technologically demanding professions because of this preconception that technology is “for males,” and “the cultural and social perception of technology as a male domain are a significant factor in dissuading women” from becoming more involved in technology and gaming (Bertozzi, Lee). But the reality that society as a whole seems to ignore is that “video games have surpassed the young male market, with growing evidence that around one third of console-game players and 40 percent of computer-game players are female” (Soukup).
Women are still excluded today from mainstream games because current gameplay limits their options to customize their female character in non-gendered, non-demeaning ways. In many popular hardcore games, there is only one choice of a player character. In most of these games, that main character is a male. Again, this is because video games are seen as male-dominant. When there is a choice between playing a male or female character, the customization options are very few for the female characters. Some women gamers have attempted to surpass this problem by creating their own “skins” to go over the male meshes. In other words, they make their own female graphics to go over the basic male body frame for the character. To do this is a complicated skill that requires the creator to know a good amount about the art of 3D graphics and the respective construction sets of the games they are making the skins for, or the tools used to modify and add new content into the games. Even after all the work of trying to “gender-balance” the game character-wise, the newly created female characters still looked bulky and masculine because of the male mesh underneath. In games that do offer female characters to play, women feel alienated by how the characters portray females as “damsels in distress” or “bikini babes,” while the male characters in the game still dominate the central positions. The “proliferation of action games which have been ‘spiced up’ by the addition of impossibly proportioned, barely-dressed female bodies, some as active characters, others as titillating decoration” serves only as a big turnoff for many female players (Murray et al). For example, characters in the MMORPG (or Mass Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), World of Warcraft, clearly show how gaming is certainly not gender-neutral. The choices for making a character are extremely limited. For one to create a female character, she only has around five choices for what her face, hair, and accessories such as piercings etc. look like, and only one choice for body type. When it comes to choices for her wardrobe there is more flexibility, but there’s a catch. The higher up you level your female character, the skimpier the armor becomes. A starter female character gets one set of body-covering, generic-looking armor. But as the character ranks up, the armor available and the armor best-suited for staying alive gets smaller and “sexier,” giving the player no choice but to don the look of a sex goddess or die in combat. The male characters wear substantial armor that covers their entire bodies, and looks both impressive and protective. Not only are the female characters forced to wear “girlified and sexified” versions of this armor that show off clearly more skin than their male counterparts, but they also all have hyper-sexualized and unrealistic body types that cannot be altered by the female player, while the male characters are simply muscular, and not seen as sexual objects by the players. This lack of respectable representation of women in video games makes it hard for female gamers to make their presence known online and in the gaming world.
Women are even excluded from the box art on video games, which in most cases for mainstream video games shows a centralized male and a marginalized and sexualized female. This is because this portrayal is what sells the most games due, again, to the expectations in the gaming world. Despite the female characters being able to fight like male characters, they are hyper-sexualized and seen as sex objects in many cases. In-game, most central characters that are either playable or NPC (non-playable characters) are male, and that is reflected on the box art as well. Both playable and NPC female characters are underrepresented in video games, holding the roles of the girls for the male characters to save, or the hyper-sexualized bad girls. Even dominant female characters are sexualized. In a study done by Christopher Near in 2012 on box art for video games, he found that 42 percent of game boxes showed only male characters and only 7 percent of game boxes showed only female characters. Out of all of the game boxes included in the study, females were only shown in one third of them. Out of the game boxes that did show women, 61 percent of them were sexualized. The question to ask is, “why are these depictions so prevalent?” The people to ask are the publishers of the video game industry. They decide what will most likely be well received by the audience, and if the sexualization and marginalization of women on box art improves sales, they will emphasize these portrayals. Near found that sales increased by a factor of .52 when female characters were shown as sexualized and non-central, and decreased by a factor of .3 when shown as central no matter what the sexualization. Because of this fact, they persist, as “they are all signals that code a game as masculine, something that this audience expects and values in games” (Near). Because video games are seen as the male domain, and it is conventional to hold that view of games, the absence of female characters helps preserve this view and deter “the invasion” of the space by girl players. Ergo, the producers are pressured to keep these portrayals up to appease the audience that holds this view. In the same study done by Christopher Near, it was also found that the marginalization alone of females affects sales, showing that not only does sex sell, but gender expectations and gender coding as well. Box art showing central females decreased sales to a factor of .53, while art showing central males increased sales by a factor of .31. Again, this shows how strong the cultural and social norms and expectations are when it comes to video games.
The lack of respectable and humanized representations that female gamers are looking for seems like it has a simple fix. Add more gender-equal girl characters to games, make more options for female gamers to customize their characters without those options being based on the traditional male view that females in games must be sexualized. But that is the problem: the traditional male view. It still “seems to be the case that the identity of the ‘gamer’ is so firmly entrenched as male, that the options are to identify either as a female or as a gamer” (Murray et al). In other words, social expectations hold that there are two things that are not arguable: one, that gamers are male, and two, that females cannot be gamers. There always has to be some sort of convincing done by females to get others, both females and males, to believe that they play games. The “girls can’t do that” statement that everyone accepted back when our parents were kids should not have a place in modern day culture and society. And it doesn’t in other fields, as shown by the female brain surgeons and rocket scientists. But when it comes to video games, there is an obvious exclusion of women. There is a Western cultural assumption that girls do not play games because games are not a female pursuit. It’s not this way everywhere, for in the East (Japan specifically) women and men are equally seen as gamers, but here, “based on established social norms, video games are perceived to belong in the male domain, and female players and male players alike experience greater social acceptance by staying within sex-role expectations” (Soukup). This means that girls who do play games are already straining against the social and cultural norms. Ergo, coming back to the sexualization of female characters in games, there is a view that if a girl is going to play video games, she might as well make herself presentable and visually pleasing to the male base.
Not only are women excluded from video games through character customization, they are often harassed by the male base for being female gamers due to the expectation that females are not gamers. Despite previous high to low guy-to-girl ratios on multiplayer online games, the population of girls who play more hardcore games, as mentioned before, is increasing, and that is becoming known to the male base online. Unfortunately, instead of accepting these female players as “comrades” in gaming, many male gamers will maliciously harass the female players based solely on their gender. Misogyny is easy to breed in the gaming environment. The only way to communicate with other players is through anonymous voice-to-voice contact, and the competitive atmosphere can easily spur heated feelings that spread quickly. This is not an excuse for sexual harassment. “The three most common paths of insults directed from men to women over gaming services, both console and PC [are] fat, ugly, and slutty” (Tassi). Not only are female gamers verbally assaulted when gaming, many will get gender-based harassment such as being kicked off the server because the males don’t want females playing, and even getting hunted down by their own teammates so they are unable to score any points. Many will receive demands for “net sex or descriptions of [her] physical attributes” (Murray et. al.). This targeting of women and only women is despicable, and it is not surprising that many of the perpetrators are young boys, socialized to hold the same traditional and sexist ideals in regards to technology and gaming. Many will join in on harassing a female gamer because of the pressure of a peer group acting together. Unfortunately, not all of the perpetrators are young boys. Many are adult men, and it is sickening to think that they are playing along with this malicious theme as well. There is a backwards viewpoint that girls are “asking for it” if they choose to wear a revealing outfit in game or out, or if their avatar picture is deemed sexy. One term used often in hardcore gaming by the male base is “white knight,” or “anyone who defends women, or treats them respectfully in a public setting be it on a forum or in a game” (Tassi). Although this term seems kind and respectful, it is actually used as an insult, as it is seen by male gamers as someone who is being disingenuous and only kind in hopes of getting the girl to like him. When being a proper human being is seen as inauthentic, it is clear that something is deeply wrong with the video game industry and culture. Something that should be a creatively liberating source of entertainment is one of the biggest cages for females in technological media today, and that’s scary.
The gaming industry wants to continue marketing to this adolescent male heterosexual audience because that is where the main group of players sits. Despite the increasing number of female gamers, developers continue to ignore these women, which creates a vicious cycle. Desire to sell more isn’t the only reason this cycle exists; it’s also spurred on by the fact that only 11 percent of game designers and 3 percent of programmers are women and, to make matters worse, women video game programmers earn an average of $10,000 less than their male counterpartsannually , and women designers make $12,000 less. The blatant sexism isn’t just shown in the statistics, it’s shown in the workplace. Cofounder of and game developer at the Cambridge-based Green Door Labs (a “game design on demand” company), Marleigh Norton says, “If you are a woman in the industry, there are all these little signals that you are not part of the club, that this is not your tribe” (Burrows). The male domain view of gaming is shown blatantly in some industry conventions; for example, at last year’s industry convention for Green Door Labs topless models were hired for a professional networking event. The sexualization and objectification of women in gaming clearly does not stop at the screen. Female workers are frequently subjected to unequal treatment, harassment, and hostile atmospheres, and people wonder why there aren’t as many females in the industry and playing more hardcore games. Experienced women gamers aren’t asking for the industry to “girlify” video games and gender code them to the extreme of the female side instead of the male side. They are simply of the attitude that “we just want a good game, and preferably one that’s not insulting to women” (Murray et. al.).
As many adolescents play video games, and sexualization affects adolescents strongest, the sexualization of women in video games can have significantly negative effects on these adolescents, both boys and girls. Every form of media has involved sexualization of women, and it is clear that women are, more often than men, shown in a sexual manner and used as decoration. Sexualization is defined by the APA as when a person’s value comes only from his or her sex appeal, when a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness to sexiness, and when a person is sexually objectified and when sexuality is inappropriately imposed on someone. Video game girls’ bodies serve as models for femininity that young girls study and copy, and many video games will dress up adult women as young girls and sexualize them. This molding of the sexuality of children into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality by the media is called “The Lolita Effect.” It is the idea that childishness is sexy, and little girls in particular are sexy. Our culture has normalized the image of “a baby faced nymphet” with “voluptuous curves and a scantily clad body” (R & Gail), and this image is filtering down with the marketing of sex to younger and younger audiences. Adolescents are influenced by the characters in games and may mimic said characters’ inappropriate behavior or “build their gender identities, roles and schemas in part on their observation of characters in video games and through their symbolic interaction with these roles” (Zurbriggen). They may feel low self-esteem when comparing their bodies to the perfect bodies of the characters. Box art is a big factor in the spreading of these images of sexuality, as it is what every adolescent sees first before they choose to buy a game, and what helps them internalize the messages the game is sending out about gender before they even play it. There is also the issue of self-objectification. “In self-objectification, girls internalize an observer’s perspective on their physical selves and learn to treat themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance” (Zurbriggen). Video games’ hyper-sexualization of females can cause this problem as well as eating disorders and low confidence from the “thin ideal,” unhealthy sexuality or shame regarding sex, and misconceptions of femininity and sexuality due to stereotyping.
This rampant sexualization of women in video games is clearly more dangerous than most people might think, but thankfully, there are games stepping out of the box and breaking out of gender norms and the traditional male dominance that has survived in the realm of video games for far too long. There is an emerging theme in newer video games of ruin linked with the liberation from male-dominated and oppressive societies. The ruin of the structures in game that were once controlled by the patriarchy can parallel the ruin of the social structures oppressive to women. In this way, many games such as Bioshock, Fallout 3, Mass Effect, and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories break down traditional male dominance shown in video games and return gender closer to its meant to be liquid form. In Silent Hill, the main character Harry is sent through an abandoned village in search of his daughter and, when confronted with an enemy, is forced to either run or be killed, instead of given a weapon as in traditional games. Not only that, but the character that actually has power over the entire town is the player character’s daughter Cheryl, meaning that the game evolves because of female dominance rather than male dominance. “The ruin thus serves to constantly strip away Harry’s masculine dominance, while at the same time implicating Cheryl’s ultimate empowerment over both Harry and the player” (Watts). Another important evolution in video games regarding gender is the way the ruin aesthetics interact with gender representations and power, creating a mutual construction between the player and the game, meaning the choices the player makes in-game decide how gendered the gameplay is. For example, in Fallout 3 you can make your character flirt with other characters to get certain gameplay options, but you don’t have to, and in Silent Hill, the monsters will become more voluptuous and lustful the longer your character spends time looking at sexual posters in the town, and giving sexual dialogue responses. The main point for the gaming industry to take away from these gender-balanced games is the importance of choice. If a gamer wants to make his or her gameplay more sexualized, then they should be able to do so, but it should not be forced on the player. This forceful sexualiation and objectification of females in games is what is turning so many girls away from gaming.
Girl gamers are here and they’re here to stay. This is made quite clear from the fact that females make up a growing demographic, especially in online games, that are just as passionate about playing as the typical gamer guy. Then why do females have to deal with “The Lara Croft Syndrome,” going into a game excited to play it but then feeling like you are crossing into a man’s territory where you were never even considered, where you can’t take the women characters seriously because of their ridiculous body shapes and hypersexualized images? It can outright ruin a game for a female player to have to deal with this time and time again. Think about it from the other side: what if men had to wear only a jockstrap and a halter top on their characters in game? Maybe women would find it attractive, but no man would want to play an entire game dressed in underwear. Well neither do we as women. Games don’t have to be completely redone in a fully feminist way to appeal to women: they just need to more accurately represent women in a respectful way and give us a choice of what we want and how we want to play. There needs to be women in the videogame industry producing, designing and writing for new games. We as girl gamers need to be more vocal about what really offends us when we play our games, and we need to stop letting things slide like they aren’t truly harmful. This sexualization and objectification has been allowed for so long in video games, but it doesn’t mean it should continue. It’s a new day and age, and video games are at the forefront of technology entertainment. There should be big changes in the future. As Evan Watts wrote for Women’s Studies Quarterly, “if so much of the literature on gender emphasizes the fluid nature of the concept, why is the gender of digital game gameplay so often forced into essentialist categories of masculinity and femininity?”
R, D. E., & Gail, L. H. (2008). Endangered girls and incendiary objects: Unpacking the discourse on sexualization. Sexuality & Culture, 12(4), 291-311. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12119-008-9036-8
Rudy, Rena M ; Popova, Lucy ; Linz, Daniel G. The Context of Current Content Analysis of Gender Roles: An Introduction to a Special Issue. Sex Roles, 2010, Vol.62(11-12), p.705-720 [Peer Reviewed Journal]. http://link.springer.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/article/10.1007/s11199-010-9807-1/fulltext.html
Tassi, Paul. Fighting Misogyny in Gaming Begins At Home. Forbes. http://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2012/11/30/fighting-misogyny-in-gaming-begins-at-home/
Zurbriggen L., Eileen. Sexualization of Girls. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx?item=1
Why Video Game Designers Are Missing The Mark With Women. Geeks Are Sexy; Tech, Science, & Social News. URL: http://www.geeksaresexy.net/2010/07/28/why-video-game-designers-are-missing-the-mark-with-women/
Watts, E. (2011). Ruin, gender, and digital games. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 39(3), 247-265. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/docview/904641900?accountid=14780
Bertozzi, E., & Lee, S. (2007). Not just fun and games: Digital play, gender and attitudes towards technology. Women’s Studies in Communication, 30(2), 179-204. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/docview/198273723?accountid=14780
Near, Christopher. Selling Gender: Associations of Box Art Representation of Female Characters With Sales for Teen- and Mature-rated Video Games. Sex Roles. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-012-0231-6/fulltext.html.
Murray, S., Roscoe, J., Morris, S., Lumby, C., & Al, E. (2002). Women in/and media today. Hecate, 28(2), 126-144. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/docview/210916601?accountid=14780
Soukup, C. (2007). Mastering the game: Gender and the entelechial motivational system of video games. Women’s Studies in Communication, 30(2), 157-178. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.vcu.edu/docview/198274313?accountid=14780
Here’s a recent Forbes article on why 2013 was a GOOD year for women in gaming (as a change in perspective, or possibly a hint at progress being made).
A list detailing some stats on “today’s gamers” as a whole.
An article that argues that the best way to fight sexism in gaming is to have men play as female characters.
Kayleigh Conner is an English major and a sophomore at VCU. She’s been playing video games since she was five years old, and, thanks to her technologically-inclined father she had her own computer. To her child’s mind, computer games, the internet, and any kind of technology she could explore reigned over playing basketball in the court behind my house, or chasing the other neighborhood kids around her suburban culs de sac. Technology was a world she didn’t quite understand but strived to. She’s always been intrigued by the game design and production industry, and playing a part in the digital realm always held a spot in the back of her mind while growing up. Today, she’s still hoping that at some point she’ll be able to work alongside the people in the game industry to make video games more equal and more fulfilling for every gamer out there.