Lentis/Portrayal of Women in Video Games

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While the portrayal of women in popular media (TV, movies, magazines) is often a source of concern for the psychological health of women, the video game industry is a media outlet which is often overlooked in the pop-culture regard. Since some of the first pixilated human representation in games, such as Rogue in 1980, gender stereotypes have played a major role in character development. Whether female characters take on the role of the "damsel in distress", the sexualized female hero, or a subsidiary background role, gender stereotypes are always present.

Evolution of Women in Video Games[edit]

While gender roles have become increasingly nondescript in modern society, there will always be stereotypical portrayals of both men and women in the media.

The Damsel in Distress[edit]

A "Damsel in Distress" is a female character that portrays characteristics of dependence, weakness,and foolishness. Usually, this is a a young woman who is captured or placed in a predicament where someone else needs to rescue her. Even in classical art and mythology, women were captured by dragons or other evil forces, and required a knight to rescue them. Examples in modern video games are countless and include include Ashley in Resident Evil 4, Princess Peach in the Mario Bros. games, and Elaine Marley in certain Monkey Island games.

Princess Peach: The Mario Bros. Series[edit]

Princess Peach, the main female character in Nintendo's Mario Bros. Series, is a very popular video game character that embodies the helpless and demure behavior of a woman who needs a man to rescue her. She appears in almost all Super Mario games, and has been a playable character in some. In most games, the plot is developed around the single goal of rescuing her. She is the stereotypical damsel in distress in that she shows little evidence of resisting her captors, and waits patiently for her man, Mario, to overcome all obstacles and save her. However, she is not perceived as a risqué character because her pink dressy outfit covers most of her body, and her personality is well mannered, noble, and generous.[1] She demurely rewards Mario with a kiss on the cheek after her rescue in early games. GameDaily describes her as an "ideal woman that is sweet as can be."[2] With her continual growth in the gaming industry she is slowly incorporating other more independent roles, such as a fighter in Super Smash Brothers Melee and an athletic player in Mario Strikers. Although her role as a dependent woman is decreasing, her sexual image has increased in these games.

Princess Zelda: The Legend of Zelda[edit]

The Sex Icon[edit]

Many female characters in video games are noted for their sex appeal. They might have many different roles in the plots, from protagonist to background, but they all share a physically attractive body and/or seductive personality. Examples include Lara Croft, 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 depicted in Grand Theft Auto.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider[edit]

The female iconic character of Lara Croft is the star of Square Enix's Tomb Raider series of video games created for Sega Gensis, Playstation, and PC consoles. The Tomb Raider series is one of the best selling video game franchises of all time [3] In the original 1996 game, Lara was portrayed as strong, intelligent, resourceful character. The game was praised for its innovation and introduction of a leading female character-- however, the character has since become much more of a sexual icon, and IGN game reviewers described Lara Croft as devolving into a "virtual blow up doll." [4] While she holds the Guinness World Record for the "Most Recognized Female Video Game Character," [5], Lara Croft is thought to have become, rather than the first respected female protagonist, the first female video game sex symbol. [6] Lara croft was also one of the first video game characters to be portrayed live by multiple models-- including gymnast Alison Carrol. [7] She has been portrayed in a Playboy shoot, although the magazine was legally obligated to omit the Lara Croft copyrighted name. [8]

Nameless: Grand Theft Auto[edit]

Grand Theft Auto is a video game series first released in October of 1997. It has continued to evolve with modern gaming systems, with its last release in 2009. It has over 10 stand alone games and expansion packs, and is reported to have sold over 124 million units as of September 2011 [9]. The game has been widely criticized for its portrayal of multiple illegal acts, including drug trafficking, murder, and prostitution. One of the most notable elements of the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas game that was criticized was the normally inaccessible, but encoded sexual fantasy game, known as the "Hot Coffee" mod in which you could control the character as he has intercourse with his in-game girlfriend. [10] Regardless of the deletion of user friendly access to the minigame, a patch can be downloaded to give the user access. In addition to the flagrant sexual minigame, there are multiple opportunities to hire a prostitute, who enters the player's car, engages in intercourse with the player, and takes money in return. In modern games, the graphics and detail have allowed players to zoom in and observe the prostitute climbing onto the players lap in the drivers seat, and engage in clear sexual motions. Following the act, the player's health increases. Commonly, the player will then kill the prostitute in order to reclaim the payment previously given. [11]. Numerous Youtube video's are available depicting various players finding different ways of killing the prostitutes, as well as the actions preceding the kill. [12]

Games for Girls[edit]

Barbie and Pink Games[edit]

Nancy Drew[edit]

During the 1990s, the transition to more powerful 3D graphics and CD-ROMs led to the rise of point-and-click adventure games. Her Interactive developed a series of such games based on the Nancy Drew novels, aimed at engaging girls in narrative-based play instead of competition and violence. Megan Gaiser, former CEO of Her Interactive, comments that in usability tests, they found that "girls did not like being portrayed as victims and were bored by violent video games." [13]

Perhaps critical to its success among a young female audience, the games do not reveal the physical appearance of Nancy, instead utilizing first-person perspective. Since players do not project themselves into a specific character design, this enhances their ability to immerse themselves into the game and the character of Nancy Drew.[14] The games are praised for being globally and thematically nuanced, often set in different countries with challenges appropriate to the location. For example, Shadow at the Water's Edge (2010), set in Japan, challenges players to fold origami, while Phantom of Venice (2008), set in Italy, teaches players characters in L'academia to decipher writings in Italian.[14]

Counter Examples[edit]

Not all female characters fit into a certain stereotype and a few have made their mark in the video game industry. Certain characters have, since the reception of the games, taken more of a heroic role in their stories-- Princess Zelda is an example of this rise in independence. Other characters have held androgynous roles since the founding of the game. Samus Aran is an example of this portrayal.

Samus Aran: Metroid[edit]

A strong and resilient character who is the main protagonist in the popular Metroid video game series, Samus Aran portrays little signs of stereotypical female behavior and image. No features of her body can be seen because she wears a suit of armor that covers everything. She does not reveal weak emotions through her lonely adventures and her actions in the game do not strongly portray feminine behavior. Even though Samus counters many stereotypes, there are certain times when she does not, such as, in Metroid Prime II, when she strips down to only a tank top and underwear, and takes her hair down. This was considered one of the raciest depiction of Samus.[15]

The Gaming Industry[edit]

The Gaming Audience[edit]

Women in Game Development[edit]

As of 2019, women comprise 24% of game developers worldwide, a number reflecting their underrepresentation in STEM fields.[13] Several advocacy groups, such as Women in Games International, have been working to address the lack of women in the video game industry. The lack of representation the field has a profound effect on the types of games being produced.

In a 2011 study conducted by the International Game Developers Association, 73% of women in the industry work outside of main game development roles. This indicates that they have little to no influence during the creative process, which often involves discussion about character designs, styles, and reward systems.[16] The lack of female creatives often leads to lack of inclusive experiences in games, generally resulting in unrealistic, over-sexualized, and stereotypical depictions of women. Additionally, larger studios may be focused on making a game that appeals to a wider audience, believing that most of that audience includes men. However, data shows that around 48% of game players are women, meaning that designing inclusive games may be beneficial for their commercial success.


Effects of Gender Representation in Gaming[edit]


The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) states that "occupational segregation based on gender or race is the strongest influence on young people's choice of career, as many people tend to choose jobs that represent their own gender."[16] The video game industry has earned a reputation for being a "boys' club," often fostering an environment in which men thrive and foster relationships, but women feel excluded. The lack of psychological safety within their working environment can prove detrimental to their career, and often results in women leaving or avoiding STEM fields altogether.

Research has shown that playing video games can lead to an increased interest in STEM careers (Hayes, 2008).

Body Image[edit]

Results suggest that exposure to thin-ideal images has lasting negative effects for vulnerable youth [17]. Based on the nature of the formation of stereotypes, human tend to classify people into groups based on similar traits-- and in this case, popular culture has hammered the idea that in order to be an attractive woman, one must attain a certain body. This leads to an extremely critical self image, as a woman not fitting that "ideal" will stereotype herself into the "not attractive" category. Poor body image can lead to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. A Canadian study found 5 and 6 year olds who reported having dieted for the purpose of achieving an ideal body. Between 5-10 million Americans have eating disorders, nearly all girls and women. Another 7 million have plastic or cosmetic surgery every year. [18]

The objectification of women in these video games doesn't only affect women. After men see women in video games wearing highly provocative clothing, their image of women can start to change. According to a study performed by Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton, men tend to view women as objects after seeing them wearing bikinis. [19]. In this study, while men were shown pictures of women in bikinis, researchers viewed images of their brain scans. The results showed that the areas of the brain which usually activate with the expectation of using tools were activated when viewing these images. This study also found that in some of the men's areas of the brain associated with empathizing with others' feelings and desires were inactive. [20] This suggests that some men start to lose the ability to understand that these women wearing bikinis have feelings and desires as well as having beautiful bodies, and these men might start to view women as prizes instead of people with emotions.

Self Esteem[edit]

The self esteem of men can also be affected by the objectification of women in the media. Three studies were conducted by Jennifer Aubrey, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri. The first study measured the body self consciousness of men after reading male magazines (usually having images of objectified women throughout the magazine) for a year. The second study measured the self consciousness of three different groups of men after each group viewed either magazine articles about objectified females, men in fitting suits, or gender neutral topics such as technology or trivia. The third study measured the body self consciousness of two different groups of men after each group viewed either articles of objectified women alone, or articles of objectified women with average looking boyfriends explaining why they liked their boyfriend so much. The results of these studies found that men become very self conscious about their body after viewing articles with images objectifying women unless these articles include average looking guys with these objectified women. These men didn't seem to be affected negatively by articles with attractive men in fitting suits. [21] It appears that men become worried about their appearance not because they aren't as attractive looking as the male models in these magazines, but because they feel they have to be very attractive in order to attract one of the women in these magazines.

Stereotype Development[edit]

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, children between the ages of 2 and 5 years old can begin to become aware of race, ethnicity, gender and disabilities through their surroundings [22]. In this light, we can see the negative affects that children's media as seemingly innocent as Aladdin, the Disney movie, might have on a child-- the protagonist is portrayed speaking nearly perfect English, while the "bad guys" have thick Arab accents. Similarly, the Barbie doll franchise is criticized for their portrayal of a (scaled down) 5 foot 9 inch women, weighing 110 lbs-- a qualifying anorexic, with a highly disproportionate waist to bust size. Children at this age can easily develop a skewed view of the world based on their surroundings.

Raffaello Sanzio's "The Three Graces" depicts the ideal body of the early 15th century

Up until the late 1800s, the Rubenesque women painted by today's icons such as Rafael and Renoir were the female ideal-- extra weight on robust women was seen as a sign of wealth, happiness, and health (especially as an indication of fecundity). [23]. The "ideal" woman strongly depends on societal push. In the early 1920's, corsets gained popularity and thin statures became the new norm. Again in the 1950s, the female image regained the hour-glass like ideal-- the female icon was Marilyn Monroe, a curvy size 14. In the 1960's, with the gaining popularity of fashion model Twiggy, the thin and pre-pubescent androgyny became popularized. Since that turn of culture, fashion magazines such as Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and Elle, aimed at older audiences, and Seventeen, aimed a teenage audiences, thin-ideal images have been the norm in both advertisements and articles. The Media Awareness Network, a Canadian research and advocacy organization, found that women’s magazines are ten times more likely to contain articles and advertisements related to dieting than are men’s magazines, and that three-fourths of women’s magazine covers feature articles about overhauling one’s physical appearance [24].

Evolution of Video Game Graphics[edit]

Pong, one of the early playable home video games

The graphics of the video games that we enjoy today have come a long way from their humble beginnings. The first electronic game was invented by a man named William Higinbotham in 1958. [25] This game, called Tennis for Two, was played on an oscilloscope and was a predecessor to the popular Pong game that most people recognize to be one of the first video games. A few years later in 1961, students at MIT created a game called Spacewar! which centered around two players trying to destroy the other player. These two games jump started the video game industry with many companies starting to form such as Atari creating many games using similar concepts as the original two games. The video games of this era all had very rudimentary graphics. Most featured a white game on top of a black background. It wasn't until 1979 that the first video game with color graphics, the Galaxian, was designed by Namco. [26].

With the introduction of newer technology the graphics of the video games continued to improve. This improvement in graphics allows the early block-like characters gamers used to use to become much more realistic looking. In the past when the graphics weren't advanced enough to allow much more than hair and a dress to distinguish a female character from a male character, the objectification of women in these games was not as much of an issue. However, as the graphics became more realistic, the image of females portrayed in these video games became much more unrealistic and sexual in nature.

The Moral of the Story[edit]

Depiction of humans in art, television, music, and toys have always been subjected to stereotyping. Video games have been added into this category because of modern day technology that has significantly improved visual graphics. The video game industry is still a rapidly developing sector and it may experience criticism in many categories such as racial, sexual, emotional, cultural, and many other controversial issues.


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