by Lauren Johnson |
I was first introduced to video games before I started kindergarten. My mother would play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and my sister and I would sit and watch her battle through dungeon after dungeon. As I got older, I began to play games on my own. I now play a variety of games, and I especially enjoy games that feature a female main character, as it’s easier for me to relate to. I have, however, found it difficult to locate games like these. I currently own only four video games in which the main character is a woman, compared to the hundreds of titles out there that feature a man on the cover art. This is a reality male and female gamers live in today.
The gaming community is about half-and-half when it comes to gender, as is the rest of the world. With so many women present in real life, where are all the virtual ones? Therefore, in this paper I will address the treatment and portrayal of female characters when they are included in games, the issues surrounding the lack of realistic female characters, how women who identify as gamers are treated when they speak their minds against sexism when it is present in video games, and how these have an effect on the real-world gaming community and beyond. I will also discuss how these problems might be solved.
Since the inception of the video game industry, women have been given the short straw. In early development, the possibility that women might enjoy playing video games wasn’t often taken into consideration. As a result, content was engineered to appease presumed heterosexual men and their expected fantasies. Early video games featured male characters, violence, and sexualized women. Over the years, this formula led to the creation of several stereotypes that female characters fall into. While some female video game characters accumulate praise, as they appear to break down barriers, the problem of those women being unnecessarily sexualized remains.
The most well known example of this situation is that of the highly successful franchise Tomb Raider. Lara Croft, the main character, has always been depicted as a sexy, smart, and strong woman, but many never look past her sex appeal. In fact, that was the whole reason Lara Croft became so popular. Tomb Raider’s developer Eidos was walking a tightrope when they decided to make a video game starring a woman, as this was a time when most gamers were male (Brown 108).
However, by giving Lara “an unbelievable figure,” according to game designer Toby Gard (qtd. in Brown 109), men have come running to play through game after game as Lara Croft. While the games are consistently regarded as excellent and Lara is considered a strong female character, the initial appeal of Lara to players was her body, not her abilities. Even today, when a new Tomb Raider game is released, fans compare Lara’s new body to her previous incarnations, sizing up her feminine attributes.
Another instance of the sexualization of women in video games is the Metroid franchise, particularly the original installment. This may be hard to believe as the main character Samus spends the entire game in a full-body mech-suit. But, depending on how quickly the player completes the game, Samus will appear at the end wearing less and less clothing. For most players at the time of its release, the true gender of Samus was unknown, but as a reward for a good completion time, the player would get to see Samus without her helmet, wearing only a leotard, or in nothing but a bikini, if the time was three to five hours, less than three hours, or less than one hour, respectively (Sarkeesian). This use as a female body as a prize for the player has been implemented in many games, as is discussed in Anita Sarkeesian’s “Women as Reward” video.
These and other overly sexualized depictions of women in video games have many real-world impacts. A study done in 2007 showed that people who are highly exposed to violent video game content in games such as Grand Theft Auto (in which players can carjack people and assault prostitutes) are found to be more supportive of rape (Dill et al 1404). As many people, particularly men, spend a great deal of time playing video games that contain violence and objectified women, the reduction in level of content of these things in video games may be a step towards an increase in respect for women.
Two major movements have brought the issue of women in video games to light in recent years: the online Dickwolves incident and the social media tagline GamerGate. I will go into detail for each of these in turn; both of these situations concern the presence of women in the gaming community and their exclusion. That being said, while the people who perpetuated these incidents and made many women feel disrespected and unsafe were indeed male, I in no way blame all men involved in the video game community.
I believe that the vast majority of male gamers are rational and reasonable and would never purposely make another gamer uncomfortable, male or female. However, the actions taken by those who do not feel the same way show that this community still has some work to do concerning the acceptance of women in video games and in the video game community.
In 2010, the online comic Penny Arcade, the founders of which host the video game convention Penny Arcade Expo, uploaded a comic strip poking fun at a commonly used gameplay mechanic. This routine act began the controversy known as “The Dickwolves Incident.” During the conversation between the two characters in the comic, a rape joke is made. Many people expressed displeasure at the joke and were met with dismissal by the authors of the comic with the release of a statement that “reframed the argument, suggesting that the only possible protest to the joke was the idea that it encouraged rape, rather than any underlying message of sexual violence or hostility” (Salter and Blodgett 406).
The joke highlighted the common practice of gamers using the word “rape” in inappropriate context. For example, after defeating an opponent in battle, the player may say, “I totally raped you!” This was the problem people were trying to start a discussion about, as the overuse of the word wears down its meaning and can create a hostile environment for women and rape victims. Unfortunately, it only escalated from there.
As the online argument continued, Penny Arcade announced that Dickwolves t-shirts would be available for purchase in their store. These shirts were designed to look like sports fans attire; the words “Penny Expo” and “Dickwolves” flanked a growling blue wolf’s head. They were removed, citing complaints that the shirts would make people uncomfortable, but many fans spoke out saying they would wear the shirts to the Expo anyway (Salter and Blodgett 409). These fans, through anonymous Twitter accounts, stated that their reason for wanting to wear the t-shirts was the right of free speech. While everyone has the right to say what they want, this situation was less about freedom of speech and more about intimidation.
For those who disapproved of the Dickwolves joke, being surrounded by people wearing a rape joke would have made their environment feel hostile. I’m sure a majority of those who thought the joke was funny don’t condone rape at all, but by supporting the joke, they send the message that they don’t find the issue serious. As a result, many women feel unwelcome in a community so diverse that everyone should feel included regardless of gender.
In response to this controversy, the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab looked into online gaming forums in 2011 during a social experiment. One forum writer made a point when discussing the oversexualization of female characters: “Female alien: how do you know it’s a girl? Slap big boobs on it. Female robot: how do you know it’s a girl? Make it pink, put a bow on its head and make it say lines like ‘floppy disk’ and ‘hard drive’” (GAMBIT).
This illustrates one issue with sexualized female characters; it seems that the only way to ensure players recognize a female when they see one is to sexualize it, whether or not it’s human. That same writer went on to state that the issue is not an issue at all but rather a reality we need because “Women in general aren’t that interesting” (GAMBIT). The oversexualization of female video game characters is obvious to most, but clearly some believe it’s not a problem that needs fixing, and by extension, neither is the issue of excluding women from the community.
Another aspect of this social experiment was to create fake gamer tags that suggested certain views held by the players who used them online. These included names like “Proud_2B_Muslim” and “GayPride90,” and the players who used these names while playing online received many hateful comments. I decided to utilize this form of social experimentation to see how male video game players would respond to a “female” present among them.
I enlisted the help of a male relative with access to online gaming, and asked if he would play online with a fake gamer tag that would suggest he is female. With the gamer tag “LadyJaJa101” he played Star Wars Battlefront online using an Xbox 1. On November 28, 2015, he joined a group and played for an hour. Upon joining, one player said, “Oh no, here we go again,” most likely lamenting over a girl joining the game. Despite this comment, no other overtly negative comments were directed at him because of his gamer tag for the remainder of the game. In fact, the players seemed rather acceptant of LadyJaJa, with one even saying, “Nice shot, girl!” (Johnson).
On December 2, 2015, he played again as LadyJaJa in Star Wars. As he joined a team again, someone said, “Hope you game better than you drive,” referring to the stereotype that women are bad drivers. Someone else called LadyJaJa a bitch later in the game, but pronounced it as “bee-yatch,” which, while used in this situation in a humorous tone and as a joke, could offend someone, the same way the use of “rape” is offensive. My relative commented to me that there was “an initial hesitation by some of the onliners when they see the female gamer tag,” but found that once LadyJaJa had proven “she” could hold her own, other players not only were receptive but even supportive of LadyJaJa as she “kicked ass” (Johnson).
This simple social experiment demonstrated to me that not every male gamer holds the same view as those involved in the Dickwolves incident, as I had expected. They may say things that could come off as offensive, but most seem to not purposefully make hurtful comments and are in fact supportive and accepting of the female gamer presence.
While the media and critics focus mainly on the negative comments made online to female gamers, it’s important to remember that not all male gamers are aggressively misogynistic. Unfortunately, the fact that some gamers hold such hostile opinions shows the video game community that there are still issues to overcome internally, as confirmed by the GamerGate incident.
The hashtag GamerGate was created in 2014 in response to accusations of the female creator of the game Depression Quest buying good reviews from a male game reviewer with sex (Chess and Shaw 210). The accusations were later shown to be false, but the incident led to the formulation of a conspiracy theory “…that there is corruption in video games journalism and that feminists are actively working to undermine the video game industry” (Chess and Shaw 210). The hashtag was used to identify people who believed in this theory, and those involved with GamerGate began aggressively researching people whom they believed to be a part of the conspiracy, specifically the Digital Games Research Association.
The biggest piece of evidence to support this conspiracy theory was suggested by the YouTube personality Sargon of Akkad. In a video in 2014, he named the board members of DiGRA and labeled each member an “academic” or “feminist”. He was trying to make the point that the board had been overtaken by feminists, thus putting them in a position to cause damage to the video game industry (Chess and Shaw 213). Unbeknownst to Sargon, a person can be both educated and supportive of gender equality as well as a gamer, and all other evidence to support this theory has been proven false (Chess and Shaw 212-213).
It can be suggested that the depiction of women in video games and the backlash women receive for voicing their opposition to said depictions is due to gender dynamics. Female players may interpret video game content in ways that differ compared to their male counterparts (Bryce and Rutter 7); thus, a woman may find something in a game offensive while a man would not. And should said woman declare her interpretation, others (namely men) would say she’s wrong because they have their own understanding of the content.
Despite these explanations, there are some cases of oversexualization that cannot be justified by saying women view the world differently. In the game Duke Nukem Forever, the monster Alien Queen is depicted with three enormous breasts. As this creature is not only non-human but also gigantic in size and downright ugly, the addition of breasts is completely pointless and visually ridiculous. Similarly, Cleopatra in Dante’s Inferno is almost entirely naked even when she becomes massive in size. While the lack of clothing may or may not be historically accurate, she is given the title of the Queen of Lust and therefore is blatantly associated with sex. She spawns smaller enemies from her nipples, and is killed in a suggestive manner (stabbed with the camera angling to mimic sexual penetration).
Finally, the 2002 video game BMX XXX is widely known for its in-game opportunities to see needlessly topless women, both digital and real. Examples such as these showcase the rampant use of the female body in a sexualized way in video games. While women in games can be sexy, it shouldn’t be all they are. A woman, like a man, has every right to be as sexy as she wants. The issue in video games is when a woman is seen as nothing but sexy, as if that is all there can be to her personality.
The overuse of sexualized women in video games is a real-world problem because the images people see have an effect on how they think. In a study done in 1995, adolescents were shown degrading and objectifying rap videos. Researchers found that while the males’ acceptance of violence against women was not altered, the females’ acceptance of dating violence increased. In 2000, researchers showed scenes of sexually degraded and objectified women to college students and found that the males were more likely to endorse rape myths (ex. dressing suggestively means she was asking for it) after viewing the images (Dill et al 1403).
Many critics of the current gaming situation, like Anita Sarkeesian, suggest gaming companies take the initiative and begin making games with female versus male heroes. However, it’s not that simple (Carpenter 98). We’ve already seen that, generally, for the gaming population to accept a female main character, she must become the stereotypical “super-sexy but powerful” Lara Croft-type. This is because half the gamers today are still male and respond the most to a sexualized female character. The lack of non-sexualized women in video games may be due to decisions made from an economic standpoint.
This does not mean, however, that there are no non-sexualized female characters at all. In first-person games such as Mirror’s Edge and the Portal series, the physical attractiveness of the female main characters is relatively realistic when compared to actual women. This is mainly due to the perspective given to the players. In third-person games such as the Tomb Raider series, the players see the character they’re controlling. In first-person games, players see their digital surroundings through their characters’ eyes. As a result of how rarely players actually see the person they’re playing, characters like Faith (Mirror’s Edge) and Chell (Portal series) did not have to be beautiful or sexy. In the same way that the true face of Halo’s Master Chief is irrelevant to the game, so is the sex appeal of these characters.
A possible solution suggested by YouTube personality Maddox concerning the issue of female portrayal in video games may be for women to become more involved with the development of games. The video game community may be considered to be a man’s world, but that is not entirely the case. Girls are just as interested in video games as boys. However, as of 2008, less than 20% of workers in the video game industry were female, 3% of those being game programmers (qtd. in Terlecki et al 25).
This is hard to believe when multiple sources have claimed that the amount of male and female players is about half-and-half, such as The Guardian article addressing a 2014 UK study that found that 52% of gamers were female. In addition to these discouraging numbers, the current attitude towards women involved in video games has been unwelcoming and in some instances hostile. While inspiring girls to become involved in video game production is a must, it is still too soon to hope for a revolution in the industry given the atmosphere.
The feminist YouTuber Anita Sarkeesian provided a list of possible solutions for this issue during a lecture she gave on February 5, 2015 at the NYU Game Center. If implemented, any one of these ideas could bring the gaming industry closer to the end of exploitation of women in video games. These ideas included more than one important female in a game, actual armor for women versus sexy underwear, and women of color that are not depicted as stereotypes (Dale). These solutions appear to be a bit more realistic than putting the burden of change all on female video game designers. As with rape culture, the conflict will not end until everyone involved does something to stop it. Male designers changing how many women are in their games and how they’re portrayed is a step in the right direction.
Sarkeesian’s suggestions may seem ominous at first from a designer’s standpoint. Sexualized females are a large part of marketing towards men. However, if utilized correctly, ideas such as these would take place gradually and without many issues. Also, if a game’s success rests on how sexy its female characters are, then change must be made in the actual game itself. The female body should not be what sells the game; the story and gameplay should be the determining factors in its success.
Keza MacDonald, writer for the online version of the British newspaper The Guardian, published an article on February 19, 2014, discussing the need for more female video game characters. She quashes one excuse developers hide behind to explain away the lack of important females in their games, this being that they cost more to make. When it comes to budgeting for a video game, a certain amount is set aside for the creation of characters, and those characters usually end up being male. As it does not “magically cost more to make some of the characters female” (MacDonald), why not make half the characters female and the other half male?
While some gameplay elements may change depending on the character’s size, as Byron Atkinson-Jones of the Fable series put it, “If the designer stipulates that the main character can be male or female from the start then the development team would build it [the game] that way” (qtd. in MacDonald).
Building off of this, MacDonald goes on to say how few female characters there are overall in video games. She references a 2009 study done by the University of Southern California concerning the biggest video games across nine gaming platforms, 150 games in all (MacDonald). The games used in the study were released between March 2005 and February 2006. A census of characters was collected, 8572 characters in all. 14% of all characters, primary or secondary, were female; in addition, females made up 10% of all primary characters and 14% of all secondary characters (Williams et al). While these numbers have grown over the past few years, they haven’t grown enough. The end goal for those asking for more women in their games isn’t to have only women in their games. Half the world’s population is female; is it too much to expect this fact to translate into the digital worlds of video games?
The video gaming community is diverse; people of all ages play video games, as well as all races and genders. It is no longer a “boys only” club, and different people bring different needs to the table. It’s only natural that female players would want the option to play as a realistic female character, and those women should never have to feel hostility for voicing their opinions when they feel that the few existing female characters are unnecessarily sexualized.
The community should also be open to discussion when it comes to respecting others’ beliefs and making them feel safe in the video gaming environment. I believe that, with the right amount of funding and effort, a game featuring a female main character could be just as compelling as one with a male, and this could be the push the community needs to make those changes happen. While it may seem like a big leap forward for video games and the gaming community, the active inclusion of both digital and real women in video games will only create an even more welcoming community for newcomers and exciting new games that appeal to everyone who plays them.
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