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Study: Sexualized female characters in games down over last decade

A study from researchers at Indiana University says that the number of sexualized female characters in video games has declined over the last decade.

It’s a study that needs to be read with some caveats, but a report from researchers at Indiana University indicates that the number of sexualized female characters in games has decreased over the last 10 years. 

According to science news site Phys.org, Ph.D candidate Teresa Lynch and her colleagues Niki Fritz, Jessica E. Tompkins and Irene I. van Driel of Indiana University were interested in gathering data on the games industry’s sexualization of female characters in video games to see if there were any changes in response to criticism of these depictions. 

After analyzing 571 games released between 1983 and 2014, Lynch says there’s been a significant decrease in the number of games that depict women in this fashion in the last few years. 

Lynch and her colleagues observed an overall downward trend beginning in 2005, that only briefly spiked upward in 2012. However, Lynch notes that in games where women are featured as secondary characters to male protagonists, they’re still sexualized to a much greater degree. 

The study’s data only covers a small segment of the gaming industry, but some of the raw numbers present interesting feedback for developers working on including female characters in their games. For instance, the researchers found no difference in sexualization of female characters between games rated Teen and Mature by the ESRB, suggesting there's no statistically significant difference between the sexualization of women characters in Teen- and Mature-rated games.

And role-playing games, a genre historically known to be popular with female players, were found to have less depictions of sexualized women than action or fighting games. 

Lynch suggests that that the sharp drop in recent years is a direct response to widespread criticism of how women were being portrayed in games in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, indicating the industry has been (somewhat) receptive to feedback on this subject. 

However, Lynch clarifies that none of this reflects how women are featured in game advertising, which frequently does dramatically differ from how they’re depicted in the advertised game. “In the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of the graphical integrity just didn't allow for the characters to be sexualized," Lynch tells Phys.org. 

“When we fast-forward to the next generation of consoles, which happened in the early to mid-1990s, we see the transition to 3-D graphics, and that's when we saw a big spike in the sexualization of female characters.”

Lynch’s data may need to be taken with some caveats, as it doesn’t seem to cover the recent rise of mobile games that frequently feature women in sexualized costumes, and means of rating which characters are sexualized may differ depending on context or varying standards. It also doesn't account for what roles women still play in game narratives even when portrayed in a non-sexualized fashion. 

But overall, it’s interesting that there’s now data showing that game developers have been responding to this feedback for some time, and that the  context in which developers create sexualized women varies based on genre and role in gameplay. 

You can read the full report from Lynch and her colleagues here.

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