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Gender Roles in Video Games: The Importance of Characterization and its Impact on Society

This is a research paper for my Introduction to Interactive Media class at USC studying stereotypes in video games and its affect on society, comparing Resident Evil 4 and 5 to the Last of Us.

Although a relatively new medium, video games are becoming increasingly popular and influential in modern society. No longer just a pastime for children, video games are being played by millions of people, ranging from little kids to full-grown adults. In fact, research from the Entertainment Software Association reveals that “58% of Americans play video games” and “48% of gamers are females” (ESA).

With this knowledge, it is imperative to consider the impact of video games on its players and society as a whole. Presently, most video games target young male audiences through muscular male protagonists and hyper sexualized female characters in subordinate roles, resulting in gender stereotyping and weak characterization. For example, many characters in the Resident Evil series, including Ashley Graham, Excella Gionne, and Chris Redfield, fall in this category of implementing gender roles in video games, even if the series comprises of many independent, powerful female characters. In contrast, The Last of Us, similarly an action-adventure survival horror video game, boasts fully developed, non-stereotypical characters, such as Joel and Ellie, while being a best-selling video game and winning multiple awards.

Characterization, such as how the character acts, thinks, and dresses, is an essential aspect of any video game that includes a narrative and should not be ignored or done sloppily by game developers. Strong characterization leads an overall better experience for the player, allowing them to relate to the characters or the events taking place.

Nonetheless, the notion that sexism sells in video games is apparent in Resident Evil 4 and 5 through the depictions of male characters as masculine and aggressive and female characters as sexual and/or submissive, which leads to flat characters and the socialization of gender roles. However, the critically acclaimed The Last of Us proves this narrow-minded belief is false as it illustrates its characters in a more dynamic and realistic way, resulting in a more compelling, socially responsible video game.

In Resident Evil 4, Ashley Graham represents the damsel in distress stereotype in video games, portraying a powerless female character that requires a strong male protagonist to save her. Additionally, saving and protecting the damsel is the main objective, and upon rescue, the damsel rewards the hero with a kiss. Ewan Kirkland (2005), a professor and a leading authority in horror video games, identifies and criticizes “the recurring narrative of male heroes rescuing helpless female, the sexualised representation of female characters, and the overwhelming masculinity of the implied game player” (p. 2). Similarly in this game, Ashley is the U.S. President’s daughter who is kidnapped by a mysterious organization, and the goal of the game is for Leon to find and rescue her.

An epitome of the damsel in distress, she literally cannot go anywhere without Leon’s help. Upon leaving her alone or walking too far away, she cries out, “LEON! Help me!” which is basically her catchphrase. Furthering the stereotype of not being able to get anywhere without a man’s help, she is unable to climb down ladders herself and instead jumps into Leon’s arms, who has to climb down first. Kidnapped a countless number of times, Ashley is reduced to an object that needs to be saved, being unable to escape herself or fight back. Instead of feeling shocked or sad that she’s captured, the player mainly view her as annoying or a hassle, only saving and helping her to continue on in the game. This results from a lack of character development as she represents the stereotypical helpless girl that needs rescuing and acts accordingly basically throughout the entire game, causing the player to be emotionally disconnected from her character.

However, Ashley is depicted not only as an incapable person but also as a sexual object through her outfits and dialogue. Although she is a twenty year old adult, her costume is a typical school girl outfit with a plaid skirt, reducing her image to a sexy but innocent school girl and reinforcing how she needs protection. According to the video game researcher, Karen Dill (2007), “the story video game characters tell about femininity is that women should be extreme physical specimens, visions of beauty, objects of men’s heterosexual fantasies, and less important than men” (p. 861).

Because Ashley is wearing a skirt, the player is able look up her skirt when she is standing nearby by manipulating the camera, or when she is on a higher platform, the player can zoom in with a scoped weapon to see her underwear. This mechanic is known by the developers as she sometimes responds with, “Hey what are you looking at?” as she tries to cover herself. Even then, her butt and underwear are still clearly visible if you look behind her.

Additionally, the player can unlock a special outfit for Ashley that is both tight and revealing. Lastly during the final cut scene, she suggestively asks Leon to take her back to her place and “do some overtime,” indicating her sexual desire for him since he rescued her. This applies that it is acceptable to show appreciation through sexual favors or rewards. Ultimately, Ashley is depicted as both powerless and voluptuous, furthering the socialization of gender roles.

In Resident Evil 5, Excella Gionne reflects the evil seductress archetype, usually trying to hinder the main character from reaching his objective and wearing scantily-clad clothing to highlight her hyper sexualized body. While being an antagonist, the seductress is infrequently the main adversary. With little to no character development, she is essentially acts as a sexy henchman with erotic attributes:  large breasts, a small waist, and curvy hips. Studying the portrayal of gender in video games, Jeroen Jansz (2007), from the Erasmus Research Centre for Media, Communication, and Culture, analyzed a sample of games and found out that “most female characters (77%) had large breasts and eye catching behinds” (p. 146).

In the game, she is the villainess and the partner of the main antagonist, Albert Wesker. She is often seen wearing a revealing white dress that emphasizes her sexual features. However, near the end of the game, she is essentially useless and gets betrayed by Albert, who uses her as his pawn. Her death results in her becoming part of the “Women in Refrigerators” trope coined by writer Gail Simone when she read a comic, where the Green Lantern finds his girlfriend killed and stuffed in a refrigerator. This trope trades a female characters life for the benefit of a male character story arc. Through Excella’s death, Wesker is characterized as being even more evil, and Excella later becomes a boss that the main protagonist has to kill in order to chase Wesker. Ultimately, she is reduced to a sexual object and eventually just another monster the player has to beat to advance through the game. These tropes perpetuate the offensive stereotypes of women and should not be used in the majority of video games.

Constantly having hyper sexualized, submissive women in video games is detrimental to society, negatively impacting both men and women. Mike Yao (2009), a scholar in the Department of Media and Communication, points out that playing “video game with the theme of female ‘objectification’ may prime thoughts related to sex, encourage men to view women as sex objects, and lead to self-reported tendencies to behave inappropriately towards women in social situations” (p. 77). Having female characters wear scantily clad or revealing outfits adds nothing to the plot or gameplay aspect of the game, yet they are still sexualized in a majority of video games. This stereotype teaches that women are compliant and vulnerable, needing a man to save them in bad situations. Young boys who play these games will view these characters and perceive that this is how real women should look and act. Furthermore, girls are adversely affected as they have to live up to these expectations. Since many of these female characters have unrealistic body proportions, girls are likely to feel disappointed with how they look and develop low self-esteem.

There is no need to include these types of characters in the game that appeal to men’s sexual desire, especially since it socializes gender roles in society and the amount of female gamers is steadily increasing every year. Instead, Tracy Fullerton (2004), the Associate Professor and Chair of the USC Interactive Media & Games Division, encourages “designers to think in terms of ‘androgynous space’ that engages all aspects of all persons: a space into which women and girls are invited and welcomed, but in which men and boys can also enjoy more diverse and nuanced forms of play than are typically available to them” (p. 1). Video games should be developed to attract to both men and women through realistic and deep characters, not stereotypical ones. However, sexism in video games comprises not only of designing female characters as sexy and submissive but also of male characters as strong and powerful.

Also in Resident Evil 5, Chris Redfield illustrates the stereotype that men are masculine and violent, which adversely affects how boys perceive what men are like. Karen Dill (2007) explains in her article, "Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles," that “the vision of masculinity video game characters project is that men should be powerful, dominant, and aggressive” (p. 861). Having a short temper, Chris sometimes let his emotions get the best of him, and often times, he shoots his way through problems. In the beginning of the Resident Evil series, he looks like an average person, but ever since Resident Evil 5, the designers decided to make his character unbelievable buff with huge muscles. With biceps as large as his head, it seems as if he is on steroids. In one ridiculous scene in the game, he uses his entire body weight to try to push a gigantic boulder in the lava. Since that didn’t work, he starts punching the boulder, does an uppercut, and then successfully moving it by giving it one last kick.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This hilarious yet unbelievable part of the game emphasizes how unrealistically powerful male characters are depicted in video games, which is destructive to a boy’s sense of self-image. Since video games are an interactive medium that allows players to become immersed in the virtual world, “research has shown that media which emphasizes large muscles negatively affects male” through a “significantly lower body esteem after video game play,” according to Christopher P. Barlett (2008), a professor at Iowa State University (p. 1). By being immersed within video game, young children with malleable minds are more likely for to be persuaded that men are supposed to be muscular by these constant images of beefy, hulking males showing throughout the game -- reinforcing the idea that these body structures are normal. Consequently, video game developers should focus on portraying males realistically by having a variety of traits and characteristics instead of using the overdone masculinity trope of what a real man should be.

In contrast, Joel, from The Last of Us, breaks the vicious cycle of male stereotypes by being an average and flawed father that is willing to do anything to survive in the post-apocalyptic world. From the beginning of the game, it is obvious that Joel is definitely not a hero, ordering his brother to drive past a family who cry for help before they get attacked by mutated and aggressive humans called the Infected. However, unlike Chris, he is an ordinary person players can relate, a hardworking, single father wearing T-shirt and jeans who tries to spend time with his daughter, Sarah. Once he watches a soldier violently kill Sarah, he becomes emotionally detached and learns not to trust anyone.

The realistic characterization of Joel allows players to understand his violent and immoral actions throughout the game and also become emotionally attached to him, making the game more aesthetically pleasing and enjoyable. Instead of a being a superhuman killing machine, Joel utilizes stealthy tactics to sneak past or kill his enemies, especially since it is incredibly easy to die. Charging into battle or getting caught by a Clicker, a more dangerous type of the Infected, is almost always instant death, and the game is over. Often times, he asks others to help him with the heavy lifting, being unable to push big objects himself.

By having a fully developed, believable character, game designers are able to incorporate important themes into their games. In his article, “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” the game designer Ian Bogost discusses procedural rhetoric which is how “video games depict real and imagined systems by creating procedural models of those systems, that is, by imposing sets of rules that create particular possibility spaces for play” (p. 122). Through procedural rhetoric, making an argument with rules, players learn about many themes concerning morality and survival in The Last of Us. The question of “Is Joel an evil person?” certainly comes up in the player’s mind as he is willing to do anything to survival, smuggling weapons and killing innocent people. Through the procedures in the game, the players learn more about human nature and how people act in order to survive. Even though Joel is the protagonist, the story is not only about him but also focuses on Ellie, a fourteen year old girl that he is trying to smuggle across the country.

While Ellie may seem weak and in a subordinate role at first, she gradually matures, growing stronger and more confident throughout the game, until she becomes a responsible, strong teenager who can take care of herself. Even though she does what she is told most of the time, especially in the beginning of the game, she is not a completely useless character, merely following the protagonist and hiding behind him for help like Ashley.

After getting caught by guards when sneaking out of the quarantine zone, she uses a knife to stab one in the knee, allowing Joel and Tess, his partner, to escape and kill the guards. Having her own personality and thoughts, she questions Joel’s actions later in the game, saying they should have saved Tess from being killed. Along their journey, she frequently makes sarcastic remarks or cracks a joke, and when she explores the outside world, she is constantly amazed by her surroundings. Although afraid of the Infected, she asks Joel for a weapon in order to help him defend against the zombies, which he initializes refuses. However, he later gives in by lending her a pistol, resulting in Ellie saving him in the future when she disobeys his orders and looks for him.

All of these characteristics contribute to her character development of becoming strong, independent women while still being a curious, stubborn teenager, adding to the realism of the game. Dressed in a normal attire, T-shirt and jeans, she resembles and acts like a typical teenager almost everybody can relate to. Without being sexualized at all, she is still regarded as being beautiful and attractive. During the second half of the game, the player controls Ellie who has to take care of the incapacitated Joel, obtaining food and killing enemies by herself. This demonstrates that Joel is not able to do everything himself but needs the help of Ellie who is fully capable of fending for herself and taking care of both of them. By not being pertaining to the submissive damsel in distress stereotype, Ellie exemplifies how women are supposed to be represented in video games, making the overall playing experience more entertaining and pleasurable.

What do video games say about our culture when many of the top-selling video games perpetuate stereotypes and gender roles by constantly including hyper sexualized women and over masculine men? What has our society become when critics are praising a video game because its female characters do not have ridiculous breast sizes and body proportions? 

French intellectual, Roger Caillois (2006), noted that “the destiny of cultures can be read in their games” (p. 35). While video games may not be the root cause of sexism and violence in society, they definitely do contribute to these real world problems. By constantly repeating these stereotypes, they become normalized and perceived as what reality ought to be. Game designers should be socially responsible on how they create their characters.

Although the main reason for sexism in games is for advertisement purposes, The Last of Us proves that video games do not have to always include sexy, weak women or muscular, powerful men to become a best-selling game. While the Resident Evil series does comprise of amazing characters such as Jill Valentine, certain sloppily made characters like Ashley hinder the series and needs to be addressed. Creating realistic characters, not one-dimensional ones with little to no character development or flaws, allows players to feel more connected and immersed in the game.

Of course, The Last of Us is not a perfect game, but it reveals how great video games can be created without maintaining gender stereotypes or appealing to the sexual desires of male players. Hopefully, video games will continue in this direction of having an equal, realistic representation of male and female characters. Without putting an emphasis on characterization, video games will end up further the socialization of gender roles, which is detrimental how young players view the world.

 

Bibliography

Barlett, C. P., & Harris, R. J. (2008). The Impact of Body Emphasizing Video Games on Body Image Concerns in Men and Women. Sex Roles, 59(7), 586-601.  

Bogost, I. (2008). The Rhetoric of Video Games. The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. 117–140. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.117

Caillois, R. (1961). Man, play, and games. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

2013 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry. (2013). Retrieved December 7, 2014, from https://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_EF_2013.pdf

Dill, K. E., & Thill, K. P. (2007). Video game characters and the socialization of gender roles: Young people's perceptions mirror sexist media depictions. Sex Roles, 57(11-12), 851-864. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-007-9278-1

Fullerton, T. (2008). A Game of One’s Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Digital Space. Retrieved from http://lmc.gatech.edu/~cpearce3/PearcePubs/LudicaD ;;;;AC07.pdf

Jansz, J., & Martis, R. G. (2007). The Lara phenomenon: Powerful female characters in video games. Sex Roles, 56(3-4), 141-148. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9158-0

Kirkland, E. (2005). Restless dreams in Silent Hill: Approaches to video game analysis. Journal of Media Practice, 6(3), 167-178. doi:10/1386/jmpr.6.3.167/1.

Yao, M. Z., Mahood, C., & Linz, D. (2010). Sexual priming, gender stereotyping, and likelihood to sexually harass: Examining the cognitive effects of playing a sexually-explicit video game. Sex Roles, 62(1-2), 77-88. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-009-9695-4

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