Representation of Gender Through Video Game Characters Needs To
Change, and it Needs To Change Now
Women play video games. That is a fact. But when it comes to gamer stereotypes and their varying definitions, a constant characteristic seems to be that they are always male. “In the United States, twice as many adult women play video games as do boys, according to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry's top trade group” (Harwell, 2014). And yet, both the gaming industry and video games in general seem to emphasize the preconceived idea that only men really play and enjoy video games. This ideology has led to developing games that only appeal to a male-dominated audience, excluding female gamers. The problem with developing games that appeal to male interests is when the games oversexualize women characters or are misogynistic in nature. The preconceived idea of how games should be made and who is playing them has changed. The reality is that a lot of women are playing video games. But the gaming industry is sending a clear message through its extensive list of games with extremely masculine protagonists and female characters that rarely make an appearance unless it’s to show off their lack of clothing. The template for how games are made needs to transform and expand, so that it recognizes an audience of all cultures, genders, and interests. If the gaming world doesn't want to lose its female players, the ideal next step in the gaming world is to see games that focus more on the personalities, emotions, and backstories of the various characters in the game, rather than asking what physical aspects of the character need to be changed to appeal to an audience that fits an outdated stereotype.
Many people, specifically women, want to see a change in how games are made. They want to see strong, powerful women take the lead in a video game. But when they open up their laptop or turn on their consoles and are met with an extensive list of games with male protagonists, almost all male characters or female characters with barely any clothing, the message is clear: that games are still targeted towards a male audience. Successful games shouldn’t have to always have the same portrayal of girls that previous video games had. For many gamers in general, they identify with the character they play as. But for the girls and women out there that see an overly sexualized figure on the screen, they struggle to see how they can identify with the character when they only notice how tight the clothing fits or that some physical aspects are more defined than others. An example of the kind of representations of women that female gamers see when they enter the world of gaming is through Juliet Starling from Lollipop Chainsaw (shown below).
Juliet Starling from Lollipop Chainsaw. Female role: a cheerleader zombie hunter fighting zombies in a fictional California high school. Appearance: short skirt, stereotypical schoolgirl outfit, chainsaw resembles fallacy symbol.
Juliet serves as the main character that the player controls, but the progress of representing women accurately starts and ends with the fact that Juliet is female. The rest of the game is evidently meant for the a male group of players. When analyzing her physically, she takes on an extremely feminine stance, which is mainly to show off her tight fitting clothing and large chainsaw. Her stereotypical schoolgirl outfit play into a male’s ideal image of a woman. Even the chainsaw itself is symbol of how the game industry views its audience as male. Juliet holds the chainsaw in a position that it appears to symbolize a phallic symbol, a key part of defining the male identity. Other examples of games that display these inaccurate representations of women include Tony Hawk’s Underground, Halo, and Mortal Kombat.
From Tony Hawk’s Undergound. Location in Tampa: strip club. Female role: strippers preforming in public. Appearance: little to no clothing, high heels, nearly all body parts visible
Cortana from Halo series. Female role: Master Chief’s companion. Appearance: essentially naked except for the circuitry covering her chest and lower areas.
Considering how the quality of video games has greatly improved, gamers should be focusing more on the eyes or even the hair color of the character they play as, and less on how tight their clothing fits. It is up to the gaming community and the gaming industry to push for change in how video game characters are designed. But to see that change actually happen requires recognizing the flaws in how game characters were traditionally made and the unrealistic gender stereotypes that served as template to create those characters.
Lara Croft, the main protagonist of the popular Tomb Raider series, represents the transition from traditional ways of making games to new methods that focused on making a character that helped represent a larger community within the world of gaming. “As one of the only consistent female characters in gaming history, Lara was, and remains, a popular and iconic figure” (MacCallum-Stewart, 2014). But because of her popularity, she is also the center of debate and controversy regarding the “representation of the female protagonist and the gendered body in games” (MacCallum-Stewart, 2014). Despite the negative reactions to her character’s physical appearance, Lara Croft was an exciting new step in the gaming world. Women were finally being represented in games, and more specifically, successful games: "There was something refreshing about looking at the screen and seeing myself as a woman. Even if I was performing tasks that were a bit unrealistic… I still felt like, Hey, this is a representation of me, as myself, as a woman. In a game. How long have we waited for that?" (Kennedy, 2002). In an industry where the hero role was typically male and females were placed in supporting roles, Lara was a change that many had long waited to see.
Her physical appearance, however, does not represent a positive image of women her physical appearance still failed to accurately represent women. Her physical representation in early versions of the game reflected the traditional methods of game making, where the target audience was predominantly male. Which means that Lara was made only taking into account male desires, without any real acknowledgement of the women who might feel empowered by finally seeing a main character that was female.
Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider series. Original character of first game. Female role: main character, that defeats bad guys and explores tombs. Appearance: unrealistic proportions (i.e. large chest, extremely small waist, wide hips)
As a result, those who had been waiting for a new hero like Lara were given a “false hope” of the possibility of change in the gaming industry: “The video game industry continues to create content that panders towards the presumed preferences of a young, male, heterosexual audience. These preferences are reflected in both a lack of female video game characters and hyper-sexualization of the female characters that do exist” (Paaßen, 2016). What this ultimately means for Tomb Raider is that even with a female character as the lead, there is still a long way to go before there are actual, significant changes in how video games are made. As Helen Kennedy stated, “ If we are going to encourage more girls into the gaming culture then we need to encourage the production of a broader range of representations of femininity than those currently being offered” (Kennedy, 2002). The fact that Lara’s representation of femininity is still similar to traditional video game characters shows that game developers are still excluding women when they take into account who they are making the game for.
It isn’t until 2013 that a new version of Tomb Raider reinvented Lara’s image, making a statement that video game characters needed to . Compared to her first appearance in 1996, her appearance and personality have changed significantly: “She is introduced to the player as a more complex, emotive character, rather than a gun-toting action heroine” (MacCallum-Stewart, 2014). The character that was described as “pneumatic and unrealistic” becomes a distant memory as “new Lara” takes center stage and brings hope to women who finally get to play as as a character that accurately represents them.
Lara Croft from Tomb Raider. Representation of the evolution of Lara’s character (From left to right, starting with the original game)
New Lara doesn’t come out unscathed after defeating her enemies or avoiding traps; she gets hurt and cut up to portray more realistic circumstances. Another significant change is seeing her with more facial expressions, which is really showing how the game developers have attempted to change how players should view Lara. When people play as a character, they tend to feel as if they are that character in the game. For those playing the games in the Tomb Raider series, it was difficult, especially for women, to connect with a female figure that was so unrealistic and had little to no emotions. The new Lara helps with the feeling of misrepresentation of women in video games: “Her face is emotive and often distressed, frequently accompanied by dialogue where she expresses self-doubt, encourages herself through short monologues...The arrogant action-heroine with biologically impossible proportions has been replaced by a young, fit twenty-something with a lot of money and grand aspirations” (MacCallum-Stewart, 2014). These changes to Lara show her transformation from a female character used to appeal to the male gaze, to an expressive and strong hero that represents a larger group of gamers that “old Lara” could never reach.
The mindset behind making games still uses old ideologies that argue games meant to be played by men, which is why characters in games are made to appeal to a male audience and therefore exclude women from the definition of a “gamer”; this means that the need for a new method of designing character’s doesn’t stop with Lara’s transformation and that the mindset of the population that plays video games needs to change to incorporate all types of gamers. This mindset lies within the community of gamers, a community that unfortunately harbors a great amount of tension and controversy. Among the issues that cause so much conflict is a topic that has been discussed throughout this essay: the unrealistic representation of characters of different genders in video games, specifically in female characters. When developers fail to create characters that accurately represent the women playing as females in the game, they feel even more excluded from the gaming community: “[T]he continued presence of sexism in the video game industry is disturbing. Though we have advanced somewhat in the issue, it has not gone away” (aliciabear77, 2013).
The ideal representation of gamer: one without exclusion of a gender.
The #Gamergate scandal embodies the exclusion many women felt, and was an accurate reflection of how the issue of gender misrepresentation starts with people, and video games are a manifestation of a backwards mindset of how to represent gender in games. The amount of rape and death threats aimed towards feminist critiques during the #Gamergate scandal proved just how many people believed in the “notion of an almost exclusively male gaming community” (Paaßen, 2016). The “campaign gone wrong” helped make the world off gaming appear too dangerous for many females that were a part of it, and helped further push them out of the possible listings of what defines a gamer. The community was thus divided “between a White, young, male community of hard-core gamers and the criticism of the gamer community by perceived feminist interlopers” (Paaßen, 2016). Through this scandal came the emphasis that “video games are created by men for men...and this is why developers pander to a male consumer base with strong male characters and sexy female characters” (Paaßen, 2016). This mentality helped form the reason behind the evidently low record of prominent female characters that served a role other than to appeal to a male audience with their physical features. The article titled What is a True Gamer? analyzed the significance of role models and how video game characters impact players: “only role models whom individuals believe they could resemble have this positive effect...The lack of visible female role models in gaming may thus be an additional obstacle which keeps female gamers from visibly performing the role of a gamer” (Paaßen, 2016). Therefore, this exclusion gives further reason for the game industry to not take the “extra” effort necessary to make games that appeal to both genders, because women aren’t considered “real” gamers making men the target audience: “the lack of aspirational female characters compared to male characters in current video games may indicate that the target audience is assumed to consist mostly of young men...it might still limit identification with the gamer label and thus negatively influence women’s willingness to perform their gamer identity visibly” (Paaßen, 2016).
Gender stereotypes explain the continued threats, oversexualization, and disrespect towards women within the world of gamers and their continued exclusion. The ideal male and female are two extremes that are unrealistic and unobtainable, yet desired by so many because of how the media manages to sell these stereotypes to the public. These stereotypes are exploited by the gaming industry and used in games to influence people’s thought about ideal body types and behaviors for gender specific characters. Women that are a part of this gaming world and the world in general suffer from misrepresentation of the female identity by constantly being compared to unrealistic male expectations.
One statistical representation of the ratio of female and male gamers. Women don’t fall far behind, and the game industry needs to recognize that.
Lara Croft is one of many examples of how characters in video games are created to target a male audience because that is the only gender that the gaming industry has managed to recognize over the years despite the amount of women that play games. Because games are not being made with a female audience in mind, male stereotypes of high masculinity are implemented and constantly enforced in the games that people play. This masculine identity, manipulated by the game industry, “is fundamentally opposed [to] femininity” (Paaßen, 2016). The hostility towards women comes from men trying, to the best of their ability, to embody their unrealistic and unobtainable ideal selves. Lara Croft is a representation of the expectations men have for women to emulate. She reflects both old and new ways of making games. After suffering harsh criticisms for her looks and oversexualization, Lara has gone through significant physical changes. Previously a character that provided men and women with unrealistic expectations, her physical changes over the years represent a transformation into a new way of developing games that include a much larger portion of the gaming community. She is an example of a character that can help pave the way for future games. There is still a long way to go before an entire mindset that has held strong for so many years can experience its own necessary changes like Lara Croft did. Hopefully by recognizing that an entire gender is excluded from the gaming community when games continue show too many oversexualized female characters and lack aspirational female role models, the game industry will realize they don’t accurately depict women and make move to change.
Aliciabear77. "Objectification and Lollipop Chainsaw: How Satire Reveals the Fate of Female Video Game Characters." Aliciabear77. WordPress.com, 11 June 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2016. <https://aliciabear77.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/objectification-and-lollipop-chainsaw-how-satire-reveals-the-fate-of-female-video-game-characters/>;.
Harwell, Drew. "More Women Play Video Games than Boys, and Other Surprising Facts Lost in the Mess of Gamergate." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 17 Oct. 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/10/17/more-women-play-video-games-than-boys-and-other-surprising-facts-lost-in-the-mess-of-gamergate/>;.
Kennedy, Helen W. "Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? On the Limits of Textual Analysis.” Game Studies, Dec. 2002. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <http://gamestudies.org/0202/kennedy/>;. (Nikki Douglas in Cassell and Jenkins 1999)
MacCallum-Stewart, Esther. "Take That, Bitches!" Refiguring Lara Croft in Feminist Game Narratives. Game Studies, Dec. 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2016. <http://gamestudies.org/1402/articles/maccallumstewart>;.
Paaßen, Benjamin, Thekla Morgenroth, and Michelle Stratemeyer. "What Is a True Gamer? The Male Gamer Stereotype and the Marginalization of Women in Video Game Culture." SpringerLink. Springer US, 10 Sept. 2016. Web. 21 Nov. 2016. <http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-016-0678-y#enumeration>;.
Images (not in order)