Lentis/Portrayal of Women in Video Games

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The portrayal of women in video games often reflects traditional gender roles, expectations for the female body, and stereotypes such as “the damsel in distress.” Although women currently make up about half of the gaming audience, they are rarely featured as prominent characters in games. The rise of LGBTQ+ characters and other minorities has been slow due to the heteronormative nature of the video game industry. The portrayal of women through this medium is a source of concern for the psychological health of players, as it shapes gender norms, ideals for the body, and self-concept.

Evolution of Women in Video Games[edit | edit source]

Throughout video game history, the portrayal of female characters has followed a non-linear path. Sometimes the progression is positive, with the emergence of independent characters such as Nancy Drew. In other instances, positive progress is offset by sexualization or stereotypical depictions, as is the case with Lara Croft or “damsels” like Princess Peach.

The Damsel in Distress[edit | edit source]

In the 1980s and 1990s, rudimentary console graphics displayed block-like characters, so female character designs were identifiable by stereotypical gender roles and design motifs.[1] Oxford Languages defines a damsel in distress as "a young woman in trouble (with the implication that the woman needs to be rescued, as by a prince in a fairy tale)." Characters that fall into the damsels in distress archetype often portray characteristics of dependence, weakness, and foolishness. Countless examples of damsels in distress characters exist in modern video games such as Ashley in Resident Evil 4, Princess Peach in the Mario, and Elaine Marley in certain Monkey Island games.

Contemporary game critic, Anita Sarkeesian says, "The damsel in distress trope disempowers female characters and robs them of the chance to be heroes in their own right."[2]

Nintendo[edit | edit source]

Nintendo, one of the most influential video game and console producers, began many of its most successful video game franchises in the 1980s and 1990s. Two of these franchises, Mario and The Legend of Zelda depict heroines, Princess Peach and Princess Zelda, that, in their original concept and unplayability, reinforce the archetype of a damsel in distress. In an interview with Kotaku, Shigeru Miyamoto talks about the development of playable female characters in Nintendo games in relation with small female audiences in the early days of Nintendo in the 1980s and 1990s:

Well, yeah, back in the days when we made the first Donkey Kong, that was a game we first made for the arcades, the arcades were not places girls went into often. And so we didn't even consider making a character that would be playable for girls. But typically with the DS era, what we found is, you know, gradually, more and more women began playing games—both young girls and adult women, playing games like Professor Layton and Animal Crossing, so more and more ... and even as far back as Mario Kart, we had females who wanted to be able to play as female characters and we obviously saw the addition of Princess Peach early on in that series. And gradually, over time, we started to see the desire for other-balanced female characters.[2]

Princess Peach and Princess Zelda evolve into more active and sometimes playable roles in their later games and reappear in other Nintendo franchises like the platform fighting game, Super Smash Bros.

Princess Peach (Mario)[edit | edit source]

Nintendo's original concept of Princess Peach in Mario demonstrates many characteristics of a damsel in distress. Sometimes she appears as a playable character, yet in most games, she acts as a damsel who needs rescuing. In early games, Peach shows little sense of initiative or power and waits patiently for Mario to save her. GameDaily describes her as an "ideal woman that is sweet as can be."[3] In the later games, Nintendo places Peach into independent roles: a fighter in Smash Brothers Melee and an athletic player in Mario Strikers.

Princess Zelda (The Legend of Zelda)[edit | edit source]

Princess Zelda first appears in Legend of Zelda on the Famicom Disk System in the 1986 Japan and 1987 worldwide releases. Her regal and feminine appearance and her role in earlier Legend of Zelda releases fit the archetype of a damsel in distress.

She appears often as "a beautiful and elegant princess" with blond hair, blue eyes, and wearing a long dress with different colors.[4] Zelda's early concept art shows color motifs of pink, and her original sprite can wear various primary colors.

Zelda's original character delineates a damsel in distress; she plays the victim in the original Legend of Zelda. In the story's prologue, Zelda fails to save her kingdom, Hyrule, and, before Ganon captures her, she sends out her handmaiden to "look for a hero;" the plea for help prompts the adventure of the player as the game's male hero, Link. Zelda reappears at the game's conclusion when Link rescues her after he defeats the villain.[4] Zelda offers the player no additional game mechanics and only acts as a damsel for the player's persona, Link, to rescue.

As The Legend of Zelda series continues, Zelda's incarnations appear as a central and sometimes playable character; her characterization variates in new Legend of Zelda releases. She most recently appears in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017) as "not only the princess of Hyrule" but also as "an aspiring scholar," "the leader of the Champions of Hyrule," and "the mysterious voice that guides Link throughout his journey while she contains [the villain, Calamity Ganon]."[4]

The Sex Icon[edit | edit source]

The technological advances of the mid-1990s made hypersexualization of female bodies possible with new flat-shaped polygons and textures that enabled more options for character design and clothing. Studies show that introductions of sexualized female characters in video games peaked in the 1990s and early 2000s after the 1996 release of Tomb Raider on the Sega Saturn and the popularity of its heroine Lara Croft. In the study, Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years, Lynch notes: “A positive relationship emerged between the sexualization of female characters and their physical capability.” The direct relationship between feminine sexuality and power characterizes the emergence of the sex icon in the late 1990s.[1]

Many female video game characters, notwithstanding the significance of their role, have a hypersexualized body and/or seductive personality and can represent sex icons. Other icons include the Mortal Kombat girls, the Dead or Alive players, the Final Fantasy girls, the Tekken girls, Ada Wong from the Resident Evil games and the prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto.

The sexualization of video games, however, does not significantly influence their critical success.[1] The hypersexualization of female characters decreased after 2006 in a "decline to an increasing female interest in gaming coupled with the heightened criticism levied at the industry's arguably male hegemony."[1] Reviewers criticize some sexualized depictions of characters; one review of Bayonetta 2 states, "...[Bayonetta will] even do a sexy pose as [her clothing] flies off, with the absolute barest minimum covered.… It's sexist, gross pandering, and it's totally unnecessary."[5]

Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) and the Lara Phenomenon[edit | edit source]

Lara Croft represents both a "prototypical example" of a video game heroine.[6] and a prominent sex icon.[7][8] Lara Croft first appears in in the original 1996 Tomb Raider on the Sega Gensis, and the study, Dedicated to the Croft, describes the original concept of Lara Croft as "Lady Croft," a "effortlessly hip, clever British aristocrat with a penchant for exploration" born out of a "desire to buck the gaming industry's tendency to portray women as damsels in distress, much like Princess Peach or Zelda." The emergence of Lara Croft as a leading female character who defies the gender-stereotyped roles both incited critical praise for innovation and created an "unprecedented mainstream celebrity."[7]

Lara Croft's in-game character shows strength, intellect, and resourcefulness, yet Eidos's "made Croft a cheap male fantasy" and "marketed [Lara] as a cyberbimbo, largely against [the original] vision of her as a dastardly James Bondette." After her release, she appeared as a pixelated image on magazine covers, in sexy commercials for sodas, and even on a tour with the band U2.[7] IGN game reviewers described Lara Croft as a "virtual blow-up doll,"[9] Playboy featured a Lara Croft-themed shoot (Playboy omitted Croft's name due to copyright),[10] and models, like gymnast Alison Carrol, have portrayed Croft.[11] A Core Design developer describes Croft's impact on gaming audiences and celebrification:

"There was always a disconnect between the marketing and the games....Games had pretty much been ignored by anyone but teenage boys. Suddenly we had this character that people saw as a woman. It wasn't a fat Italian plumber jumping around a magic land. She was real, like a movie star."[7]

The 1996 introduction of Lara Croft as the heroine of Tomb Raider changed the gaming industry's direction with female characters. She incited the 'Lara phenomenon,' an insurgence of competent female characters in a dominant position and "may have served as a catalyzed for video game developers to feature more sexualized females as a sales tactic to entice male players."[1] Guinness World Record titles Lara Croft as the "Most Recognized Female Video Game Character."[12]

Samus (Metroid)[edit | edit source]

Metroid's protagonist Samus Aran characterizes one of the first video game sex icons. The original 1986 Metroid uses the reveal of Samus's gender to incentivize and reward gameplay:

If you finish [Metroid] under an hour, Samus undresses all the way down to a bikini. If you input the famous “JUSTIN BAILEY” password, you can play the entire game with a scantily-clad Samus.[13]

The sexualization of Samus's body underneath the armor continues in Metroid's later releases. In Metroid Prime II, players can see Samus with disheveled hair in her lingerie.[14] Other Metroid games show scanty death animations of Samus breaking out of her suit into revealing clothing. She continues to be a popular video game character and hero of the Metroid franchise, appearing in the platform fighting game, Super Smash Bros, as Samus and Zero Suit Samus.

Nameless (Grand Theft Auto)[edit | edit source]

The video game series Grand Theft Auto, first released in October 1997, has continued to evolve with modern gaming systems with over 10 stand-alone games and expansion packs, selling over 124 million units as of September 2011.[15] Criticism for Grand Theft Auto includes its portrayal of multiple illegal acts, including drug trafficking, murder, and prostitution in the case of the "Hot Coffee" mod controversy.[16] The game offers multiple opportunities to hire prostitutes to engage in intercourse with the player which increases the player's health. Modern game graphics allow greater observation of sexual motions. To reclaim their payment, the player can kill the prostitute.[17]

Games for Girls[edit | edit source]

Barbie and Pink Games[edit | edit source]

Barbie logo from the 1990s

Pink games comprise of games targeted towards girls that fall into certain stereotypes and trends and often show motifs of dresses, pink, and blond hair. The 1998 publication From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games offers the definition: “Pink games center around gender-specific play, such as cooking and clothing. They also tend to feature character-centered plots and narratives about relationships.”[18]

Barbie video games exemplify pink games as, beginning in the 1980s, they released some of the first video games that target a young girl audience by extending an already familiar form of play: Barbie dolls. The first Barbie video game from 1984 allows players to “talk to their boyfriend Ken” and choose between two options for dates: a dinner “out on the town” or a day on the beach. Players can try out various swimming outfits, shoes, and dresses. In the 1991 game, Barbie travels to different worlds to gather accessories for a night at the Fantasy Ball with Ken.

The games succeed "in fulfilling girls’ desire for fantasy, challenge, escapism, and social interaction." Critics, however, fear that Barbie games "risk reinforcing stereotypes and diminishing women of girlhood, including a focus on appearance and emotion" and potentially depict women in lifestyles that diminish diversity and accessibility. Early Barbie game objectives include preparing for dates with Ken. Barbie still produces games that fall into the category of pink games by utilizing stereotypical motifs of girlhood. As one of the first producers of pink games, Barbie creates a larger conversation about gender stereotypes and game audiences.[19]

Nancy Drew[edit | edit source]

During the 1990s, the transition to more powerful 3D graphics and CD-ROMs gave rise to point-and-click-adventure games, allowing video games to be played from the first-person perspective. Her Interactive developed a series of point-and-click games based on the Nancy Drew novels, aimed at engaging girls in narrative-based play instead of competition and violence. Megan Gaiser, the former CEO of Her Interactive, comments that "girls did not like being portrayed as victims" in usability tests.[19] The Nancy Drew games do not reveal the physical appearance of Nancy and offer no opportunity for character sexualization and objectification. Players immerse themselves freely into the character of Nancy Drew without conforming to a specific character design.

The games are globally and thematically nuanced, often set in different countries with challenges appropriate to the location. Shadow at the Water's Edge, set in Japan, challenges players to fold origami, while Phantom of Venice, set in Italy, teaches players characters in L'academia to decipher Italian writings. Many players cite the games as positive learning resources, often helping them complete schoolwork, engage in a new field, and develop problem-solving skills.[20] One player wrote to Her Interactive: "[The games] teach me about different subjects, like tornadoes, Morse code, Braille, the Mayans, Marie Antoinette," and teach it in a way that makes her "want to learn more about it."[21]

Nancy possesses "independent, courageous, confrontational, and ambitious" traits, defying typical characteristics of other 20th-century female characters. She makes decisions and guides the story, giving players a chance to "practice agency and try on an empowered identity."[20] Kathryn Cooperman of The Female Gaze commented that these games were the most eclectic of her collection since they were "fun and educational" and featured "a smart and resourceful young woman as the main character."[22] Another player shares, "Nancy taught me to never be ashamed of my wit," further demonstrating how a positive female role model can instill agency and self-efficacy within a player.[23]

Diversified Gaming in the Post Wii World[edit | edit source]

As gaming became more popular in the 2000s, companies started reaching out to an increasingly diverse audience. After the success of the Wii and other portable consoles, Nintendo began to reconsider who was a "gamer" as a large part of the casual mobile gaming audience was made up of women.[24] The success of Nintendo's portable consoles fundamentally changed the gaming industry.[24]

Though the portrayal of women has increased in variety, there are still several trends that arise in modern games produced in the late 2000s and 2010s. Women are seen in non-speaking and speaking roles though feature heavily as support characters rather than as protagonists. An example of a non-speaking character is Chell from the Portal video game. Since Portal is a first-person puzzle-solving game, Chell's character design lacks stereotypical sexualization. In contrast, women in fighting games such as Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter are very sexualized. Quiet, a supporting character in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, though physically strong, is nearly naked as a result of parasitical infection which forces her to absorb water and oxygen through her skin to stay alive.[25] The portrayal of women still suffers from unnecessary sexualization, especially in connection with their agency and power. Inclusion becomes a greater focus for the gaming industry as more women join the developer space and movements such as #MeToo and Gamergate arise.

Abby from The Last of Us Part II recently defied female stereotypes in her design. Her character, modeled after a CrossFit athlete using motion capture, depicts a realistic muscular woman.[26] This was a radically different portrayal of a woman's body from other games that previously utilized motion capture and, before the game's launch, many misogynists wrongly assumed she was transgender to explain her muscular build.[27] The voice actress for Abby, Laura Bailey, even received death threats.[28] Women game developers and advocates lead efforts to include diverse portrayals of women yet still receive vitriol and hate from an established base of white cisgender men.

LGBTQ+ Representation[edit | edit source]

Though there have always been LGBTQ+ characters in smaller titles, the "mainstream" gaming industry has pushed in recent years to include diverse and positive visibility of LGBTQ+ characters. In the past, both implicit and explicit LGBTQ+ characters were often written as antagonists. As digital games proliferated, the representation of LGBTQ+ women and members of the LGBTQ+ community has increased, but not uniformly.[29] In a sample of games from 1985 to 2005, gay men appear twice as much or more than lesbian women, and a majority of these characters were white.[29]

Clementine (The Walking Dead)[edit | edit source]

Clementine, a character first introduced as a little girl in 2012's Season One, "A New Day" grows into the main teenage protagonist in later seasons until her final appearance in "Take Us Back" in 2019. Following the established father-daughter dynamic in popular culture where fathers are protective of their daughters, The Walking Dead utilized this dynamic as a central part of its plot development and relationships between Clementine and other characters such as her father figure, Lee[30] She serves as a moral compass to the main character Lee but has the agency to make her own decisions and form her own opinions.[30] Studies showed that players exhibited parental care and emotions when playing the game.[30]

In the final season of The Walking Dead video game, players decide who Clementine romances. As a result, Clementine was revealed to be a bisexual African-American teenager who could be in a relationship with a boy or a girl based on the player's actions.

Ellie (The Last of Us II)[edit | edit source]

Ellie from The Last of Us is a major character in an action-adventure title released by the "mainstream" game company Naughty Dog. Ellie was first revealed to be a lesbian in The Last of Us: Left Behind, and the DLC received many awards in 2014 and critical acclaim for the depiction of LGBTQ+ youth. In The Last of Us II, Ellie is the main protagonist and in a relationship with another woman named Dina. Ellie and Dina share several on-screen acts of romance and travel throughout the game.

Women in Game Development[edit | edit source]

Game developer Zoë Quinn
Feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian

Although women make up nearly 48% of the gaming audience, the number working in game development is low. As of 2019, women comprise 24% of game developers worldwide. Several advocacy groups, such as Women in Games International and Girls Make Games, have been working to address the lack of women in the video game industry. These efforts include workshops, projects, and camps aimed at engaging women in the art and technology of game development.[19][31]

About 73% of women in the industry work outside of main game development roles. By having little to no influence during the creative process, they are left out of discussions involving character designs, game styles, and reward systems.[32] This creates less inclusive game experiences and unrealistic, over-sexualized, and stereotypical depictions of women. Research has consistently proven how diverse teams are more innovative, as people from different backgrounds bring in new perspectives, approaches, and solutions. In an industry where innovation and creation are prized, diverse creatives are invaluable. Not only do they reflect the changing demographic of the gaming audience, but also invest in the future of games.[33]

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) states that "occupational segregation based on gender or race" is the strongest influence on a young person's choice of career as many people "choose jobs that represent their own gender."[32] The male-dominated video game industry creates a negative loop where women do not see themselves represented in games, advertising, or game development, which discourages them from applying to those roles. As a result, most games are created and targeted towards men. Toxic workplace culture, sexual harassment, and pay gaps are commonplace and lessen the appeal of working in the industry.[34]

Gamergate[edit | edit source]

Gamergate was a harassment campaign that initially targeted Zoë Quinn in 2013. There were claims that she had slept with a Kotaku reporter for a favorable review on her independently-produced game Depression Quest. Gamergate evolved into an unorganized movement with no central goal other than to harass those who opposed it and professionals wanting to increase diversity and inclusion in games. On several occasions, Gamergate doxed and threatened physical violence against female critics such as Anita Sarkeesian, who created Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and Brianna Wu, another independent video game developer.

Gamergate was a reactionary movement that rippled out into a massive campaign against inclusion in gaming spaces, and the effects are still felt today. Gamergate prompts more formal research in the masculinization of games and gaming culture and how it hurts women and other minorities within that culture.[35] With movements lead by women to improve inclusion in gaming, there is social pushback from the established white male gaming audience.

Psychological Effects of Gender Representation in Gaming[edit | edit source]

The cultivation theory states that people who are regularly exposed to certain media will begin to accept those messages and beliefs as true.[36] Since video games involve active and prolonged engagement, they are a powerful means of shaping gender expectations and self-concept within players.

Stereotype Development[edit | edit source]

A strong relationship exists between media exposure to gender stereotypes and an individual’s gender role beliefs.[37] Weak and sexualized portrayals of women in video games result in less favorable attitudes towards their cognitive and physical capabilities. Many Western societies believe that women should behave in nurturing ways by supporting their families and taking care of their homes. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be leaders and make decisions on behalf of the family.[38] They are often the protagonist and emblem of power in the game. Games such as Barbie, which emphasize gender-specific play, reiterate the sentiment that women are best left in the domestic sphere.[18] Sexual objectification causes girls to believe that they are dependent victims and should maintain sexual appeal.[39]

Gender roles can be internalized at a young age. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, children become aware of race, ethnicity, gender, and disabilities between the ages of 2 and 5.[40] MediaSmarts writes, "video games have the potential to influence how children perceive themselves and others."[41] The gender beliefs children adopt at a young age form part of their identity and the basis for actions later in life.[39]

Body Image[edit | edit source]

The image of the ideal woman has changed throughout the past century. Studies from the last two decades indicate that the concept of an "ideally slim female body" has emerged as the new norm in the Western world.[42] The thin-ideal is often reflected in video games. A 2009 study analyzed female representations in the 150 top-selling video games in the United States, comparing their body proportions to actual anthropometric data from 3,000 American women. The findings indicate that characters at the highest level of photorealism are thinner and that children's games tended to feature thinner characters.[43] Constant exposure to thin-ideal images lowers a woman's satisfaction with her own body and can lead to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Developmental research suggests that the appearance and competence of the female body becomes an important part of a woman's identity, making idealized images a source of comparison for women and girls. If they feel that they cannot meet these standards, their body esteem, and level of self-worth decrease.[44] Several countries have led efforts to improve body image diversity in media, such as regulating minimum body size of models and developing codes of practice for body image.[45] However, there is little evidence to suggest they have impacted media content. If efforts prove successful in the future, further studies may examine if more diverse body types are reflected in female game character design.

The sexualization of female characters has similar effects on players' perceptions of themselves and others. Often, players assume beliefs that are in line with sexualized portrayals, either feeling the need to conform to those images or judging others based on them. Sexualization overshadows the positive effects of a strong female character, such as Lara Croft or Samus Aran, by making their bodies the main focus.[37] Similar to the thin-ideal, it sends a message that women's bodies are for others' viewing pleasure and that they should be made attractive for the male gaze. One study points out that the "frequent sexualization" of female characters is concerning, especially since it "normalizes objectification and provides a limited perspective on women's humanity."[44] Male players learn to see women as prizes and sex objects, instead of people with emotional and intellectual capacity.

Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy[edit | edit source]

Self-esteem describes one's value and liking of themselves, while self-efficacy reflects how well an individual believes they can accomplish something.[46] In several studies, a significant relationship was found between female portrayal and self-efficacy. After surveying 206 female undergraduate students, those playing a sexualized heroine experienced lower self-efficacy than those playing less sexualized heroines or no video game at all. Many players reported reduced confidence in their ability to succeed in the real world, most likely affecting future career and personal choices. Perhaps surprisingly, female portrayals in video games did not have a significant negative impact on self-esteem. Researchers note that players may still feel positive about themselves, even if they are unsure about their ability to perform a task.[37] However, little impact is still significant, as the internalization of these body standards and images can lower self-esteem in the long-run. These results do not offer a full picture of the situation, as there was little power in the studies to discern whether self-esteem levels may change depending on character or game type.

Due to the interactive nature of video games, they possess the unique ability to influence self-esteem and self-efficacy. Greater active participation and immersion into the medium heightens the effects of character portrayals and players' identification with the models. Agency adds to the degree of interactivity, granting players the ability to explore and manipulate the environment.[37] In games such as Nancy Drew, where the main character heavily drives the direction of the game, players feel more confident about their ability to solve problems and help the community. Characters in a subordinate role, such as Peach and Zelda, make players feel secondary and unimportant to the main mission, which can lower self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Conclusions[edit | edit source]

Progress in diversifying the role of women in games has not always been positive. Sexualization of seemingly strong and independent women and lack of diversity in personality, body, and identity are still issues. Video games reinforce the power of stereotypes and their effects on how people treat and perceive one another. Gender stereotypes affect career decisions. A toxic culture and lack of female role models prompt young women to avoid not only the gaming industry but other STEM industries and higher education. Racial stereotypes instigate discrimination and prejudice, often seen in academics, the workplace, and law enforcement. Video games also enforce the power of identity and role models. In addition to fictional characters, people project themselves into musicians, actors, and political figures that look and act like them. Seeing people like them succeed in their endeavors has a positive effect on their self-esteem and confidence.

Further work may benefit by looking at the impact of minority women in video games, as many characters are predominantly white. As the gaming industry continues to change, the demographics of developers, professionals, and audiences continue to be key factors in the portrayal of women in video games, especially the current “dadification” of games. Many examples do not extend beyond the Western world, so it could be useful to examine games and femininity in different countries. Further investigation could be done in the normalization of women in e-sports, cosplaying, game companies, creative industries, and streamers, which contribute to an inclusive environment for women in the gaming culture.

References[edit | edit source]

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