Analyzing Sexism in Video Games

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From niche counter-culture to a multi-billion supergiant, the video game industry has been launched to the forefront of entertainment. With mainstream attention comes public scrutiny and video games have been at the epicenter of many debates. Previous debates have embroiled the industry, enduring the claims of games causing violence and attempted legislation; the rise of playing video games professionally has brought into question its legitimacy as a sport.

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When the GamerGate movement gained traction yet another slew of discussions began. The movement’s goal was to bring ethics to game journalism after rumours surfaced of a video games receiving overly positive reviews because of a relationship between the journalist and developer. Opponents attacked GamerGate for being a sexist movement that was targeting women within the hobby, attempting to force them out. Out of this hysteria came arguments about the sexist nature of video games, its players, and the industry. Within the scope of my argument, which acts in parallel to other discussions, is the representation of women in video games and perceived sexist portrayals.

Video games fairly represent women within the medium, and while sexist portrayals exist they are neither harmful nor the full picture. Fifteen years ago, I started playing video games and have not stopped since.

Watching the industry grow as I grew up with it, playing the original Xbox, playstation 2, Xbox 360, Wii, DS, PC, and Xbox One and a whole host of games that accompany these systems. My interest also expanded out into board games and tabletop RPGs, allowing me to meet and connect with more who share the same interests. In recent years, I have moved away from single-player games, holding out for ones that absolutely grab my attention and have transitioned to multiplayer games, competitive or co-op. Online play allows for a vast amount of player interaction and a unique experience separate from single-player games.

I have enjoyed a great deal of time online within clans or climbing a competitive ranked leaderboard. A great tool of modern gaming is video streaming, which has allowed a great deal of people, myself included, to enjoy a wider array of games by watching content creators play them. My love for the hobby is not blind, as many a scandal has come from the industry and current business practices and weak releases have left me perturbed,however these motivate me, as I hope they motivates others, to change my purchase habits and to go further and join the industry. My hope is to leave an impression on the next generation, a love for games, and to lead change in the industry as a developer. Fair representation is a matter of proportions.

The percentage of representation should mirror the percentage of participating members. According to the ESA’s 2017 report, the video game market is near 50/50 as 41% of US gamers are women (7). These numbers show that it would be fair to expect half of characters to be female in order to represent the playerbase. The report is misleading as the ESA made no distinction between genre or platform and did not clarify what counted as being a gamer, or video game player.

Mixing player bases removes the nuance associated with genres. PC/Console gaming is vastly different from mobile gaming and blurs the lines of how they are made, the way they play, player motivations behind play, and even the reputations they hold within the community, mobile gaming very often being looked down upon. It is as unreasonable to compare League of Legends to Call of Duty, a difference of genre, as it is to compare an Xbox player and their games to an iPhone user and their games, a difference in platform. The report is further disingenuous when it claims, woman age 18 and over [31%] represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population than boys under 18 [18%]. The breakdown of demographics is being unequally compared.

Woman only represent such a large portion because three age breakdowns were combined into a single bracket, it only stands to reason that the larger sample size would beat out the smaller, isolated one. Looked at on a one-to-one basis males under 18 make up the single largest demographic at 18% while females under 18 come in at a low 11% (7).

The largest female demographic, woman over fifty, comes in third, at 13%, and even then is still tied with men over fifty (7). Games, and their players, can become so vastly different over minutia with individuals standing out amongst a crowd of clones that leaving out the macro of genres, platforms, and demographics is dishonest to the conversation. Looking into the nuance of the situation, while potentially overwhelming, paints a clearer picture. Nick Yee, co-founder and analytic lead at Quantic Foundry, painted such a picture in a survey that vetted gamers by their core-motivations, this survey was also one most likely to be found by people who identified as gamers and are invested in video games, and then had participants list their favorite games, breaking the information down by gender.

Compared to the ESA’s 4,000 participants, the Quantic survey took in 270,000, of which 18.5% was female, a staggering 49,050 respondents. In the methodology Yee explains that the gamers were asked to list up to nine of their favorite games and acknowledges that responses are limited to the favorite games listed by a gamer“they are likely playing more games than they are able to list. This means that the percentages of the survey compare the genders of the people who mentioned a game in that genre, not that the numbers are compared to the entire population of the survey. The big takeaway from the article is that the gender gap across twenty-three genres, for female players, … averages range from 2% to almost 70%. This is a 35-fold difference, and illustrates why an overall statistic for all gamers (ignoring genre) can be misleading and confusing(Yee).

Female players are just not playing certain genres in large numbers and the top three they are playing: Match 3 (69%), Family/Farm Sim (69%), and Casual Puzzle (42%), are not character driven or extremely conducive to storytelling. Furthermore, those genres are largely played on the mobile platform. On the flip side there are male dominated genres that also do not leave much room for character driven gameplay or storytelling: Sports (2%), Racing (6%), and Grand Strategy (7%) (Yee). Even within the genres the story is not so clear cut, outliers give interesting insight into how the data is playing out.

Noticeable outliers are Dragon Age: Inquisition and Star Wars: The Old Republic with 48% and 29% compared to their genre averages of 26% and 16%, respectively (Yee). In fact, DA: Inquisition would come in third amongst the rankings of the other genre averages. So despite some genres having a mostly male audience, certain games are still attracting large amounts of female players, comparatively. Alongside this there are games where story or characters, and gender for that matter, are less important that have a low female pick up rate. So what motivates a player’s choice, what drives them to become immersed into a certain experience or story? This is the beauty, the essence, of the medium.

There is something for everyone who wishes to enjoy the hobby and they can pick and choose what fits for them, for video games: their genres, casts, and players, offer a diverse array of choices. With all these choices my opposition still wants to focus on portrayals of women that are treated in a harmfully sexualized and sexist manner.

This is not the first time video games have caught flak for potentially creating an undesirable trait in a consumer, the first was violence. As many studies have long disproven, video games do not cause violence. Even the crime rates of the past thirty years show a downward trend of violent crimes, including forcible rape, across the board that has coincided with the growth of the video game market (Infoplease). While correlation does not equal causation, the argument at hand should have seen said crimes get worse while games became more prevalent.

Outside of this view is sexual assaults as these are hard to accurately pinpoint statistics on, however the pattern likely falls within the framework previously displayed. Lack of social influence continues into societal perceptions and attitudes. Researchers of a longitudinal study for CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, a peer-reviewed journal on the effects of social networks, came to the conclusion that, … there was no cross-sectional association between sexist attitudes and overall video game use for both men and women (Breuer, Johannes, et al 200). The paper does acknowledge that it is in contrast with studies that found sexist attitude links, but disregards those findings for reasons of short-term application and specific analysis. So yes, my opposition is correct that females are often extremely sexualized and have plenty of existing negative and sexist character arcs as Lara Strom and Michelle Zorrilla highlight in their articles.

But with no tangible harm being caused by video games, no measurable negative outcomes, the issue turns into subjective feelings that have no ground to force change upon the industry. Subjectiveness and offense come down to a matter of perspective, as not everyone will view something in the same light. Strom complains in her article, a summary of gender research she read, about a … binary of vixen or victim under which most female characters fall. This is a disingenuous breakdown of narrative storytelling as victim is a vague term; most, if not all, protagonists and antagonists and even secondary characters are victims as that is how conflict in a story is told, and conflict is what drives the plot.

An often criticized stereotype is the Damsel in Distress, the epitome of playing the victim. Using Until Dawn as an example, a game I would describe as an interactive drama which holds a female audience of 37% (Yee), there is a cast of twelve characters of which half are female. All the female characters need rescuing at some point throughout the story, but these also all provide great opportunities for character growth and divergence. The failure of saving Hannah and Beth, Josh’s sisters, leaves Josh emotionally unstable, setting him up to be the puppeteer of the nightmare which the game’s plot revolves around and leaves a grim discovery for the characters to discover later. Chris must choose to save either his crush, Ashley, or his friend Josh in a saw-esque death trap.

A brush with death allows Chris and Ashley to mature as they share their true feelings for each other and sets Ashley up to later offer herself as a self-sacrifice to save Chris. Emily will constantly present herself as the smartest and most capable person around, but the weak facade quickly cracks when she is placed under extreme pressure and duress, demanding that others come to her aid.

This can create an interesting and dynamic strain on the relationship between Emily and Matt leading to future discord within the group as events unfold. Even still are the stories of Sam and Jesse. Further complaints of female misrepresentation extend towards the sexualization of these characters. Michelle Zorilla, who holds a bachelor in Communication Theory and conducts video game research, explains in a compilation of research that [portrayals of] women were more sexy via physical build and attire clothing was more revealing [portion larger than men] were coded as naked often portrayed with large breasts.

The observations at hand are demonstrably true. The questions I have for this conundrum are: is this inherently bad to do and what can be done about it? Is it wrong for a visual medium to use a visually pleasing aesthetic? What about the portion of female players that enjoy these depictions, even going as far to dress up as these characters for conventions. In western society, women have the agency to dress as they please. However, video game characters are lines of code on a computer that are told how to act, so what happens when developers are expressing this freedom of agency? In the case of the character Bayonetta, a highly sexualized female, who was designed by a female developers, what happens? My opposition has identified a pattern that holds true and deemed it a problem, but how should the problem be fixed? Voting with one’s wallet is the best way to voice an opinion in a consumer market. Battlefield 5 is the most recent release in the Battlefield series; its opening launch week shows how this campaign’s votes are shaping up.

Leading up to the release, the developers and advertisements pushed hard on the fact the game would feature a strong female character on the frontlines, on top of standard marketing strategies. In his article, Tom Phillips, a games journalist for EuroGamer, explains … [Battlefield 5] sold fewer than half the physical copies Battlefield 1, the previous entry in the series, … did upon its launch. He continues on that possible explanations for such a drop could be found in either digital sales picking up the slack or that promised content has not been released yet, leaving buyers to hold out. Speculation can go even further.

Other highly anticipated games were released so close to Battlefield 5’s launch and there was also backlash to the political agenda that some gamers felt EA was pushing. My personal reason for not purchasing is that I try to avoid EA published games as I disagree with their predatory monetization schemes and releasing half-baked games. A game like this is a godsend for my opposition and should be receiving the support and attention that such a victory would generally attract. If … 47 percent of gamers are female [and] aren’t playing games with hypersexualized representations of themselves then where is all the sales for Battlefield 5 (Strum)? Even assuming that half the gaming market is female, perhaps it is unjust to treat an arbitrarily similar group of people as a homogenous entity. Gamers are a diverse cast of individuals even within their own genre.

I, for example, enjoyed Battlefield games in the past while not enjoying most Call of Duty titles despite them being the same genre. I implore my opposition, or anyone who wants change, to find those games they enjoy, the ones that are shining examples of their ideas, and share as much love and passion as they can for those games.

Let everyone know about these games and show developers that that market is there, and no matter how big or small said market is, nurture it. Amongst my own game library, ranking in as some of my personal favorites and most played, are games like Darkest Dungeon, League of Legends, and Rainbow Six: Siege. These games range from indie, created by a small development team usually for a niche audience, all the way to a triple A game, large budget with a large team with the expectation to succeed in a mainstream market, respectively. The games at hand are overly representative for their genres.

Darkest Dungeon is a survival roguelike with a 33% female cast compared to the genre’s 25% female player population (Yee). None of the characters are sexualized and offer a diverse cast of character tropes: Arbalest, the battle-hardened veteran, Hellion, the raging barbarian, Vestal, the divine healer, and a few more. About 35% of League of Legends characters are female, with the female player average for MOBAs, multiplayer online battle arenas, sitting at 10% (Yee). Yes, many of the characters are sexualized in some way or have a cosmetic option that will make them sexier. But for characters like Elise, Evelyn, and Ahri this defines their characters; tapping into age old stories of demons, vampires and sirens that prey upon temptation.

For others that have a sexy appearance there is more to their stories that more deeply define them and others are not sexualized at all, like the stalwart solar knight, Leona. Tactical shooter Rainbow Six: Siege has operators hailing from all over the globe to fight terrorism, comparing the 36% of operators that are female to the female player average of 4% (Yee). Yet another game with no sexualization where each background rich character offers a unique playstyle. Repetition is key: choice matters.

Both consumer and developer choice. An extremely vast array of games across a multitude of genres and all people need to do is find those special few. Whether mainstream, underground, or somewhere inbetween the right game exist, not that the cultural relevance of the game should matter for it is an experience for the individual to enjoy. Who knows, maybe if enough like-minded individuals show change, instead of forcing change, some developers will follow suite. Perhaps all that is needed is a fresh perspective on existing material.

However the situation is handled I hope it is approached with a love of video games for video games sake.

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Analyzing Sexism In Video Games. (2019, Apr 22). Retrieved December 2, 2022 , from

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