The representation of women in video games

First of all, before starting off this blog post I would like to make several things clear, to abolish the primary “backlash” arguments against what is, admittedly, a controversial topic amongst the gaming community.

One can be a fan of things and then go on to criticise their problematic elements – enjoying something is not mutually exclusive of realising a media product has issues, and problems. Indeed, I enjoy many television shows that have problematic elements (but seen as this is primarily a video game blog I shall not go into those). I can, and do, consider myself a gamer. However there is no denying that the gaming community, and games themselves, have significant aspects that are problematic. Be it sexism, racism, or other such bigotries, the majority of video games do not, in fact, cater to an equal audience.

Secondly there is a well-worn out stereotype amongst many gamers, who leap to the defence of their favourite games, that there are no female gamers. This is incredibly inaccurate – it is not that there are no female gamers; it is that nobody pays attention to them. In the online world female gamers are chastised and sexually harassed so it is not a case of there being no female gamers, it is more that they are demeaned, and called “fake fans” if they do speak out in favour of games. (See here for more).  Similarly, the demographic of female gamers is on the rise and many women do in fact play video games.

Thirdly, I would pose to you a question: would you, as a gamer, play a game where your gender was constantly at the folly of horny gamers, clad in a bikini whilst also expected to fight off hoards of evil? How about almost always being killed off to forward another character’s plotline? My guess is no. So apply that to female gamers. (I would also add that large, muscle-bound men in video games are part of a male power fantasy, and it is not sexist. After all, you play and enjoy these games as a gamer).

Now, to the bulk of my argument, or rather, maybe, a breaking down of a controversial topic. Sexism in video games. Yes, it exists. Yes I enjoy games. I am, however, tired of the stale stereotypes that abound about women in video games and, what’s more, their outdated representation. Women in video games are generally, as a rule of thumb, killed, raped, abused, or there to be rescued by the male heroes. This is incredibly outdated, especially as the role of women in society is constantly in flux, and changing- they have more standing than they did, say, ten years ago yet the representation stays the same. If media is seen to reflect real life then why the outdated stereotypes? Come on, people!

For as long as anyone can remember there has been a significant neglect for women in video games – just as there is in cinema, and comics, and indeed geek culture as a whole. Women in video games tend to be typecast as pretty, busty and over and above all, sexualised – in other words, women in video games exist rarely as anything but the means to provide “fan service” for what is presumed to be a male audience, and what’s more, they rarely do anything within the games but look pretty. Here, I am going to go into detail about several of the issues implicit within video games.Image[Source]

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One of the major flaws within video games is a lack of equal representation – if you look into promotional images surrounding games you will almost always see a man in a position of power, clutching a weapon or generally looking cool, suave, and in control. Now switch to a woman. She is indeed clutching a weapon, if, er, we can call that clutching. No, my mistaken, she is seductively leaning against a weapon, in a pose that fully shows off her assets, staring directly at the audience (essentially telling them she’s fair game) – whereas Dante is seen in control of both his weapon, and as a hero, she is seen as submissive, passive, and her strength is undermined both by how submissive she looks next to the weapon, and her attire. Furthermore, Dante’s positioning and the positioning of the camera underneath him in a low-angle shot affirms his dominance and strength over both the game and the audience themselves. The female character in this case is Lady and she is not granted equal standing, despite her strength within the video game – she doesn’t even get a name, she is labelled literally as her gender. Lady. Because of this she is dehumanised and thus, easier to objectify and make into an identifiable fantasy for the audience.

Of course this would, perhaps, be considered harmless but unfortunately that isn’t how sexism works. If that were a one-off example. No, therein lies the issue of representation of women in video games, the representation of that character is almost exactly the same as the representation of many other characters within video game franchises. A simple Google  will show you not only that women in video games are sexually available to their audience (as fantasies) but also, that; their role within the game is little but to add a little eye candy. There is a running pattern here: thin, busty, pouty, clad in pseudo-BDSM gear. Now, if you Google the same, but for men, the results are quite different. Bar the BDSM gear. Maybe game designers like leather? Anyway, that’s beside the point- here you see men clutching weapons, with shades and capes and muscles, looking cool, domineering and in control, a stark contrast to the simpering women shown.

And, what’s more this isn’t just a trend amongst adult gamers. One of the most prolific game series’ to come out of the noughties was Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter, a game with the target demographic of younger children – their first game was aimed at those 7 and up. Gamers are exposed to harmful, and damaging, representations of women from a very early age,( through this they are taught that woman are all sexual objects) – all of the women in this game are scantily clad, busty babes. They all have simpering, “come hither” expressions and, bluntly put, are there purely as fantasy for anyone that way inclined. In themselves, the women are incredibly well-written and shirk stereotypes – Keira is a mechanic, and is incredibly good at working with machinery; Ashelin is an accomplished fighter and finally, Tess is another suitably well-written character. Yet, despite this, the general consensus amongst script-writers seems to be that we cannot have strong female characters without the sexualisation. In other words, in order for a woman to be strong in a video game, she must also function as eye candy. This not only means that very few gamers will take her seriously (as detailed below) but it completely demeans what little power she may have held, as she can easily be projected as nothing but a fantasy.

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Now, what, you may say, is so bad about having a little eye candy in my video games? Well, for starters, a quick browse of top-ten characters lists shows a few eye-opening things. First of all, female characters are almost always judged by their physical appeal to gamers, in other words they may well be a well-rounded, well-written character but to gamers that doesn’t matter, as long as they’re hot and available as sexual objects.
Take Yuna, from FFX, for example. She is a well-written character, arguably the hero of the story, and a strong female character – she holds her own in the game, even rescues herself (which is incredibly rare for video games). What did reviewers have to say about her?
“[…] the star heroine whose soft features, kindness, and her unique story makes her one of the better beauties to love.” [Source]
“The graceful demeanour can only mean one thing, inside is a wild, bad girl just waiting to summon some type of beast of horniness on the poor sap of her choosing.” [Source] (This entire article features one man on a mission to demean and turn every female character into a sexual object. Truly inspirational.)
“Fine eye-candy” (The IGN article this quote was featured in has since been taken down. Quote taken from this Wiki)
As you can see despite her standing as a good example of a female character, reviewers don’t care because she’s sexually attractive, and to them, that is all that matters; there are numerous mentions of her beauty, her sex appeal, and how attractive she is and yet very little about her character development, or strength. This is a direct side-effect of objectification within video games, and if you thought relatively “harmless” comments were where that ended, you’d be sorely mistaken. The representation of female characters in video games directly overlaps with sexism in real life, the audiences’ attitudes to female gamers, and gamers themselves are incredibly vitriolic towards female gamers or those seeking to criticise games from a feminist perspective (the author would like to note that anyone acting in such a way shall be blocked).

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This sexualisation isn’t limited to humans, either. Numerous examples of sexualised non-human creatures in video games exist. And, when it comes to it, would it be viable for an alien species such as the Asari to have secondary sexual characteristic of human features? Why do alien women need boobs? Especially when male aliens will be suitably inhuman, such as Garrus who is grotesque and inhuman in every sense of the word. As a side point, would it make sense for females of non-human species to genuinely have the secondary sexual characteristics of human women? Probably not. This isn’t limited to Mass Effect either – Ratchet and Clank has Angela the Lombax, another curvaceous alien and Final Fantasy has numerous dubiously-clad, and non-human summons, such as Shiva and Siren. Similarly, whilst male characters will have entirely viable armour to protect them with, their female counterparts will often be clad in what is commonly called an “iron bikini”, which would offer them no protection in the slightest.

Of course, there are examples of strong women in video games: Ada Wong, Rynn, Heather Mason, Lara Croft and numerous women in Final Fantasy. However, as previously touched upon, these women are not without their flaws. And, nine times out of ten they are nothing but sexualised, despite their strength – we need to be able to write female characters, without objectification.

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Lara Croft was a character specifically designed to be strong, and female, as displayed in the quote “He also claimed a desire to counter stereotypical female characters, which he has characterized as “bimbos” or “dominatrix” types.” Of course she succeeds at being strong, and is a well-written character in her own right- she is independent, rarely a damsel in distress, and can more than hold her own. Having said that, gamers were far too swift to relegate her to sex symbol status, because of her portrayal in video games, and the obvious anatomical issues that come with that. The writer may have intended her to be a counterbalance to the rampant sexualisation, but she was just another dominatrix to many gamers.

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Similarly, Rynn from Drakan is another strong female character – her storyline in the first game subverts traditional “damsel in distress” tropes, and she infact has to rescue her brother. She is another example of a lone female within video games who can hold her own, but she suffers from similar pitfalls to that of Ms Croft. She is curvaceous, sexualised, and her armor is less-than practical, to put it lightly (all those gaps around her navel sure look good, but they’re an adequate target for mortal blows). She also falls prey to the weary trope of having a strong female character who is only strong because of a tortured past – many female characters are only as strong as they are because they are emotionally distant, due to past traumas. There are few strong and emotional female characters.

Those are just two examples of female in video games, who are well-written. As previously mentioned, it seems that script-writers cannot write a strong female character without then making her busty, curvaceous, and clad in little more than a bikini. There are numerous women in video games, such as Trish from the first DMC, and Aerith in FFVII, who are present within the game literally only to be killed off. And, as seen, sexism in games negatively effects perceptions of women in real life, transforming the gaming community into one rife with sexism. 

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3 thoughts on “The representation of women in video games

  1. Interesting critique of your first several images. Your thoughts are probably accurate to what the artist had in mind, to some extent. You said “nothing but fantasy” as if it’s a negative thing, but isn’t that what games are all about? Fantasy? Because the real world is just not as exciting. Absolutely no female on Earth has a body like Lara let alone fights Rock Golems and Bears and such… so you visit the game to indulge your fantasy-mind. You get the same kind of sexualization out of guy characters too – like the main dude from DMC. He’s sexy, to be perfectly honest. And the soldiers in Gears of War are stupidly buff! But if you want realistic character portrayals (especially for females) they do exist in the gaming world – like in Heavy Rain, or Quantic Dream’s other titles.

    • Of course, I was expecting a comment along these lines. It’s just unfortunate that you haven’t clearly read what I’ve put, as both of these points are covered within and I can’t help but feel you maybe missed a point or two.

      1) Having fantasy elements to games are utterly okay. Except when these fantasies do nothing but negatively perpetuate sexist stereotypes or mindsets, to the point where gamers cannot, often, distinguish between fantasy and reality when it comes to women and their bodies. You see this at cons, where men feel entitled to touch women inappropriately for wearing costumes, without their permission.
      Games do nothing but perpetuate negative stereotypes of women. The women in every game are exactly the same. Busty, thin, sexy, and readily available for every gamer, which is where the problem lies. Not only in the representation, but in the lack of diversity. I proved that through the pictures I placed. The problem with fantasy comes when it does nothing but appeal to a certain aspect, and the women themselves do almost nothing productive – why, if it’s a fantasy why don’t we have a bunch of kick-ass heroines, just as we do kick ass heroes? Its just as plausible, if it’s all fictitious. Unfortunately, women exist in games purely to look nice. Like the scenery.

      2) Men in video games may be attractive, but the target demographic at this current point is men – this in itself is a false demographic, 47% of gamers are female, but that’s besides the point. The presumed audience is male, and straight. Ergo these men are not made up as attractive to be attractive to the [male] gamers playing them but rather feed into male power fantasies – as seen through the dominance of men, their power, and their portrayal as strong. It is what a [male] gamer would like to see in themselves, quite often, and it’s why gamers play games; to be strong, domineering, to get the girl. Male power fantasies are separate from the sexist portrayal of women. Because the audience is biased towards men, these women are sexualised FOR MEN. You don’t see fanservice shots of men in hot, steamy shower scenes do you? Men aren’t sexualised FOR MEN, they’re just made to look good because that’s what every man is presumed to want – whether this is true or not is up for debate, but I’m sure they’re plenty distracted by how sexualised the women are.

      3) Admittedly, I didn’t mention this. But, alas, this also misses the point. When the dominant portrayal is one that is outdated, sexist, and rather crass towards women (for instance, Lara Croft makes almost sexual noises if she gets injured, as if she’s enjoying it. Compare this to the grunts/screams, for example, Leon S Kennedy will make in Resi 4. Not nearly as pseudo-orgasmic.) it doesn’t matter if there are one or two exceptions to the rule. Feminism isn’t outdated just because there are women in higher-power jobs. Similarly, sexism in the gaming industry isn’t non-existent just because there are one or two decent portrayals that shirk the trend – it isn’t enough, and to suggest it is and we should make do, is daft. They are the exception to the rule, not the one that disproves it entirely, and my point is that the majority portrayal is both outdated, and sexist then we need not one or two games, but a whole bunch of them, before I would even consider the industry to be anything but sexist.

      • I read your article, I couldn’t in good conscience comment on it if I didn’t understand it, and I wasn’t dismissing anything you said. I was merely expressing a small portion of my opinion (a small portion because I doubt you’d want to be inundated with it). But the problem you are referring to – sexism – is an issue in videogames for one very important reason… It’s an issue with EVERYTHING. Nearly every medium suffers from it (videogames being near the maximum and art near the minimum). The only two points I was trying to make with my previous comment were: 1) just like everything, there are exceptions, and 2) and while there are sexist games, there is a big difference, in my mind, between fantasy idealism and sexism. Take Final Fantasy 13 for example, Oerba, the red head, is very cutesy and childish, and at the same time has a very mature overly sexy body and a skimpy outfit, and at the same time brandishes deadly weaponry. This is a completely ridiculous and impossible, and I know it’s the sort of thing you were referring to with this article. But that doesn’t mean the developers don’t appreciate females. They just used all their rights as fantasy artists to create exciting characters to exist in the exciting world they’ve built, that’s it. Just because sex happens to sell doesn’t make them any less of artists. Along with that, the male character, Snow, I believe to be on the same level of gender exaggeration, power, stature, sophistication, sexiness, and ability as the female character, Lightning. They both look good, and they both kick ass. Is there any problem with that? The only thing I disagree with you about is the very last line of your comment. I hope I’ve made it clear why.

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