With the increasing popularity of video games, and their graphics becoming more realistic and interactive, it is important to critically examine what effect video games have on players and how they influence the gendered dynamics in society.
Sexualized and Objectified Female Representation
Video games play a significant role in exposing players to sexualized images and experiences. In their content analysis of images of video game characters, Dill and Thill distinguish three major stereotypical representations of women in video games: (1) sexualized, (2) scantily clad and (3) a vision of beauty. Dill and Thill identify a sexualized female representation when a female character has large breasts and a small waist, if her body’s sexuality is emphasized by showing cleavage, wearing provocative clothes, or displaying provocative poses, postures or facial expressions. The scantily clad type of female representation depicts women wearing clothes that expose their body. The vision of beauty refers to a stereotypical portrayal of women with large lips, seductive, droopy eyelids, large breasts and thin hips.
Screenshot from Soul Caliber VI. (Image Source: IMDb)
Similarly, in their study, Downs and Smith note that female characters in video games tend to have unrealistic “Barbie-like” body proportions with an exaggerated chest-size, extremely long legs or a disproportionately small waist. At the same time, female characters have revealing clothes that emphasize body curves and “by design, will arouse interest of physical intimacy from others.” Downs and Smith also determine that female characters are very likely to be depicted partially or fully nude. Most of the time, female characters don’t have appropriate clothes for completing the task at hand.
Secondary and Unimportant Storylines for Female Characters
Females are vastly underrepresented in video games and have very limited narratives. Female characters are more likely to play secondary roles in games. In their study, Dietz found that, very often, women are depicted in video games as victims or as damsels in distress. These female characters have insignificant roles as secondary characters; they have no ability to actively participate in the game and require a male character to save them. The damsel in distress narrative in video games also objectifies women, positioning them as trophies to be won by the male character.
Screenshot from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. (Image Source: IMDb)
Similarly, Sarkeesian argues that female characters are often presented as background decorations in video games. Sarkeesian defines the women as background decorations to be non-playable female characters, forming a part of the environmental texture. Often, they are oversexualized and portrayed as dancers and strippers, reducing them to the status of sex objects. At the same time, another popular narrative in video games depicts female characters as “evil seductress” who seek to control men through sex or who act as obstacles in the game. Sarkeesian describes such characters as “grotesquely female,” since their femaleness is used to make them evil, dangerous or disgusting. In this way, female sexuality is depicted as inherently deceptive and threatening, and the women’s anatomy becomes demonized. As a result, when male players defeat evil female characters, “the victory is often explicitly gendered, [as it emphasizes] that the male protagonist has [finally] overcome the female threat.”
Some video games have female protagonist characters, but they embody a paradoxical position, as they are simultaneously a source of female empowerment and an objectified sex symbol meant entirely for the male gaze. According to Grimes, female heroines adhere to the Western beauty standards: caucasian, slim, beautiful, with symmetrical facial features. While their clothes may not necessarily be revealing, female protagonists still have a voluptuous and curvaceous body. Even though female protagonists come to occupy a traditionally masculine sphere when they use weapons and engage in violence and aggression, taking on masculinist roles doesn’t decrease the threat of the male gaze.
For example, in the Tomb Raider series, Lara Croft is a powerful female protagonist character. However, her body is still fetishized and posited as an object for the male gaze. In addition to exaggerated femininity and sexual attractiveness, in the newer version of the Tomb Raider, the character of Lara Croft is sexualized through the viewpoint of the game camera. The viewpoint of the camera emphasizes the exposed body parts of Lara Croft, as she performs different actions. Players can observe her body from behind or just survey her figure by manipulating the angle of the camera.
Screenshot from Shadow of the Tomb Raider. (Image Source: IMDb)
Impact on Female Players
Video games can negatively affect women’s self-perception. According to Behm-Morawitz and Mastro, exposure to sexualized video game characters can result in gender stereotyping and influence female self-concept. In their study, participants were asked to play a “sexualized” heroine and a “non-sexualized” heroine, after which the two groups were asked to complete an online questionnaire. The study indicates that the women who had played a video game with a sexualized female character reported lower feelings of self-efficacy compared to the women who did not play a game with a sexualized female character. Moreover, women who had played a game with a sexualized female character reported “less favorable attitudes towards women with regards to women’s physical capabilities” than women who had not played a video game with a sexualized female character. These findings suggest that exposure to sexualized female characters can thus increase feelings of self-doubt among women.
Downs and Smith state that the idealized and sexualized representation of female characters in video games can result in body dissatisfaction among female gamers. Video games can reinforce the unrealistic beauty standards of a “curvaceously thin” body, which can be impossible to achieve without surgical modifications. Since these body ideals are unachievable, they can contribute to low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. This, in turn, can prompt women to adopt unhealthy eating habits in order to attain the “ideal” body.
Normalization of Violence against Women
The oversexualization and objectification of women as well as the violence against women in video games can contribute to attitudes that support violent behavior against women in real life. Beck and their colleagues argue that the proliferation of violence against women in video games can facilitate rape myth acceptance. Rape myth can be defined as “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists.” There are different rape myths out there, such as “only bad girls get raped” or “women ask for it.” Essentially, they shift the blame for the sexual assault from the perpetrators to the victims.
Screenshot from Saints Row: The Third. (Image Source: IMDb)
Some video games allow gamers to participate in violent behavior against women through the imitation of violent and sexual acts, positioning women’s abuse, torture and rape as entertainment. For example, in RapeLay, a gamer takes on the role of a rapist whose goal is to rape women. RapeLay includes sexual attacks performed on women and girls on a train, stripping women naked, groping them with a virtual hand, forcing their submission by using certain objects, such as handcuffs, and choosing the form of rape.
Playing games containing violent acts against women may indirectly increase abusive behavior towards women. Dill, Brown and Collins examine the relationship between sexual harassment, rape myth and sex-stereotyped video game characters. Their findings indicate that people who spend more time playing video games are more likely to exhibit negative attitudes towards women and endorse rape myths. Similarly, in their study, Beck et al. investigate the way sexual exploitation and violence against women in video games influence attitudes towards women. Their findings suggest that playing violent video games increases rape myth acceptance and as a result, makes players more tolerant of sexual harassment and less sympathetic to victims of rape.
Video games play a vital role in reinforcing negative perceptions and behaviors towards women. It is then essential to investigate female representation in video games in order to spread awareness regarding the violence and objectification that many games contain, and to inform the creation of video game sales’ policies and regulations. Simply increasing the number of female characters in video games doesn’t resolve gender representational problems. Developing positive and empowering portrayals of women in video games can cultivate a more egalitarian and diverse game culture and drive a positive change in the game industry.