Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Sexism in the Video Game Industry

by Ellie Williams-Brown


There is a common perception that video games are only made by boys, for boys, ignoring and isolating the many women who play games. Anyone who was around at the conception of the gaming industry would know that they were originally advertised for the whole family, and games being for teenage boys is a relatively new idea. If the video game industry wants to increase its revenue and progress further as an art form, not a time waster, major companies need to start being more inclusive in their marketing to all ages and genders,

Back in the early days of video games the characters were unisex - such as in Pong - and they were marketed to the whole family. Whilst there may have been some male characters at the beginning, women played so many video games that, for some, when it was time to create a sequel the main character became a woman. Most notably this happened in Pacman where in the sequel you played as Ms. Pacman (note the Ms not the Mrs), due to the fact that “the game's record-shattering success derived from its overwhelming popularity among female gamers,” (Electronic Gamers Magazine, 1982). Not only were the majority of video game consumers women, so were many of the original developers. Amongst the stars of early game design were Carol Shaw, Donna Bailey and Roberta Williams. Shaw is believed to be the first female video game developer, working at Atari in 1978 and Bailey created the arcade video game Centipede. Williams was an adventure game pioneer who, is not only credited with creating the graphic adventure genre, but was also company co-founder of Sierra-On-Line and created Kingsquest, which was a massive hit amongst all gamers. Sadly, the relatively progressive era of video games was not to last. In 1983 publishers began flooding the gaming market with haphazard, sub-standard games in the hope of making money. This led to many adults withdrawing completely from video games, causing the market to crash. 

The ideas and sexism we see today came in when the original Nintendo entertainment system was introduced in 1983. Nintendo, who were desperate for their product not to fail, planned to sell their system in the toy aisle instead of the electronics, changing their advertising to kids instead of the whole family. At this point the toy aisle was already separated into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ so, for no apparent reason, Nintendo choose ‘boys’ and marketed to them relentlessly, appealing to stereotypes of masculinity (power, violence and hordes of horny women vying for their attention). Due to Nintendo's massive sales success other companies followed suit and continued to relentlessly market exclusively to boys. Following decades of this general society seems to believe that video games are exclusively for men and any women who plays is a fantastical beauty, rarer then a unicorn.


Another stereotype is that it is okay for video games to feature predominantly men as women just don’t play games. Whilst boys do play more games, the split is by 3% with, in 2013, 47% of gamers being female. What was more shocking was that women 18 or older represented a significantly greater portion of the game playing population (30%) than boys aged 17 or younger (18%). This trend has continued and in April 2015 when - according to Entertainment Software Association - more adult women played video games than teenage boys. It is mainly phone games that creates this disparity (instead of console or computer). Nevertheless, it shows that the mainstream consoles like PS4 and X-box are leaving a huge untapped market, losing lots of potential revenue. Women do tend to play mobile game and indie games as they have been seen to be more inclusive with their marketing, as is Nintendo currently, even though it created the original divide. Due to the exclusive, old-fashioned marketing of console and computer games (that publishers are sticking with out of habit), millions of women are pushed away. Then, when a girl decides to game anyway, she will often be ostracised by being called a ‘girl-gamer’. This label is an easy way to make women who game sound separate to the rest of the gamers. There are also the connotations with the world ‘girl’ being softer and weaker, which adds to the negative stereotype. 

The games women are pushed away from tend to be sexist, or only cater towards maleness, which is seen as the norm. For example, Grand Theft Auto V (GTA) is one of the best selling video games, with it earning one billion dollars within the first three days of being released. GTA is a sandbox game which, as Carolyn Petit said, is “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic.” GTA can be seen as catering to the dominant male stereotype with three male leads and no women. Also, when the game was being advertised there was a poster for each of the three male leads, and one of a women in a bikini who never appeared in the game. In fact, in GTA there only seem to be three types of women: the shrill harpies, new age housewives, and prostitutes. There are also quests which actively shame women by rewarding you for chasing down female actresses and shaming them for having sex on their private property. The argument often used to counteract these characterisations of women is that the men are just as bad. Whilst this is somewhat true the men receive something the women don’t: agency. The men will get backstories to explain their personalities and quests to redeem themselves. Women get none of these things.

This does not meant that there are no games with female leads, or strong female characters. Ellie (The Last of Us), Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2), Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), and Princess Zelda (The Legend of Zelda video game series) are the most high-profile examples. While many may believe Zelda can not be seen as the archetype of a strong female character, throughout The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time she can be seen to sit back and manipulate the, quite frankly, useless hero. She also dresses up as Sheik, who helps Link (the hero) and acts as a teacher to him. Despite these examples, there is a lack of representation of women. Studies have consistently shown that at least since the 1990s, the percentage of female characters in video games has remained steady at around 15% and only 4% of the main characters in the top 25 selling video games of 2013 were female. On top of that, nearly all women who feature in video games end up being a damsel in distress or someone the creators tried so hard to make unarguably perfect, that she is infinitely flawed. Edward Downs, a professor of communications at the University of Minnesota argued: "The research is pretty consistent that there are two types of female characters: the 'damsel in distress' or the 'ultimate warrior'," and noted that most 'ultimate warrior" characters are depicted as hyper-sexualised. As a trope the damsel in distress is a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own. This means she must be rescued by a male character, usually providing an incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest. Often this is accomplished via kidnapping but it can also take the form of petrification, a curse or demonic possession. Traditionally the woman in distress is a love interest or family member of the hero; princesses, wives, girlfriends and sisters are all commonly used to fill the role. There is also the trope of the 'damsel in the refrigerator'. Normally this happens when a female character is killed near the beginning of a story but her soul is then stolen or trapped and must be rescued or freed by the male hero. Or there is the 'woman in the refrigerator', when a women is killed solely as a plot device for the main women. There is the 'disposable damsel' where the hero fails to save the woman in peril either because he arrives too late or because she had been dead the whole time. Lastly, the 'euthanised damsel', the worst and most violent trope where the player must murder the woman in peril for 'her own good'. Usually, the damsel has been mutilated or deformed so the 'only option' is to kill her. This on top of the near-constant sexualisation of women that often occurs, can not help but exclude women even further from the gaming world.

Most dangerously, there is a running theme in video games where the men must use violence against women to bring them back to their senses, where it is presented as an altruistic act done for her own good. Whilst this plot device may make sense inbetween the internal narrative of some games, when put in larger cultural context games should not be using these devices, as they end up trivialising the violence against women. It is troubling to see games do this when, on average, in the US alone, every nine seconds a women is assaulted or beaten, and three women are murdered by their boyfriends, husbands, or ex-partners everyday. It cannot help but be seen that games are contributing to the narrative that abusers often use that the women 'deserved it for their own good' or were 'asking for it'. Even though these games do not explicitly condone violence against women, they appear to trivialise and almost condone it. This can be seen to have adverse real-life effects when 154 male and female high school pupils were randomly assigned to play one of three types of games: video games that contained both violence and sexism, games with violence but without sexism, and games without violence or sexism. After playing the game, the researchers asked them how much they identified with the character they were controlling. They were also shown a photo of an young girl whom they were told had been physically beaten by a young boy, and were then asked how compassionate they felt toward her. The boys who played the games containing sexism and violence were more likely to identify with the character they were playing, as well as reporting less empathy toward the images of female victims. That did not hold true for girls who played those games, suggesting that whilst the games may impact boys and girls differently, they still hold dangerous effects.

The ideas of women being lesser in games is so frequent and common that one cannot help but feel that people must be supporting this idea. However, in a study of about 1,400 US adolescents, 47% of middle-school boys and 61% of high school boys agreed that women are treated as sex objects too often in games.
Whilst only a small sample, the findings counter familiar assumptions that boys will voraciously consume media images of scantily-clad women without a second thought. As the study's lead Rosalind Wiseman said: “The video game industry seems to base much of its game and character design on a few assumptions, among them that girls don’t play big action games, boys won’t play games with strong female characters, and male players like the sexual objectification of female characters.” According to Wiseman's findings, 70% of girls and 78% of boys said it did not matter what gender the lead character is. But, when Nintendo, Ubisoft, EA, Sony, Square Enix, Microsoft, Bandai, Namco Games, Activision, and Blizzard all have men in their highest leadership positions, however deserving, it seems that not much will change. It seems as if there is an apparent assumption that the only demographic that matters is the straight male teen. So, until this assumption changes it appears that the video game industry will be dominated by beefy male protagonists (to identify with or aspire to) and sexualised women (to rescue, gaze at, or shame).


Overall, the sexism in the gaming industry can have detrimental real-life effects, for they do not exist in a little video-game bubble. It seems ridiculous that the new art form of the century, which longs to be taken seriously, is limiting itself to one gender, preventing progress and losing money. Not including women in the video game and nerd culture, which was, after all, founded on being an outcast, makes it as elitist as what it was created to avoid. If games want to be recognised as an art form they should have fictional characters for many different people to identify with, and remember that it will be seen through a lens of race, politics, and gender to become an art form. If the gaming industry wants to remain popular it should just remember that today the average gamer is 31 years old, 48% of gamers are female, 71% of gamers are 18 or older, 53% of gamers play games on their smartphone and to remain relevant those who shape and control the video games industry need to change their perspective.


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