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Are Video Games Sexist?

Georgina Young / November 28, 2014 at 12:00 PM / Archive

Updated Editor’s Note 11/7/2017 – In an effort to further commit to our editorial vision of quality content about nothing but games or the industry, we are leaving this note here to let you know that this article does not meet the standards of that vision as it exists today. This article may be poorly written, or it may be well-written but with charged political content, which we have stepped away from. It’s not the ideas we have a problem with, as we do not discourage any viewpoint, we are just moving away from this sort of content. This article no longer represents TechRaptor’s editorial vision today and into the future. You can read more about why we are doing this here.

 

Following the recent interest in my video “Are Video Games Sexist?” I have decided to repost the video here complete with full transcript, so people can digest the material at their own pace.

Ever since Anita Sarkeesian announced her idea for a new YouTube series, Tropes Vs Women in video games, there has been a loud discussion amongst fans. It seems that the series itself has come under more scrutiny for cherry picking, patronising eye rolls and in the case of Dixie Kong and Hitman, being simply untruthful about the characters, than the video games the series critiqued in the first place. While I personally didn’t agree with many of Sarkeesian’s points she did get me thinking. Only just over half of games in 2012 offered a playable female protagonist, and the damsel in distress trope, as well as violence against women in video games are an undeniable part of the medium. But is this necessarily sexist? Some female players such as Youtuber Kitetales don’t think so.

“I don’t think that video games are sexist, and I think that we really ought try to avoid the practice of isolating a certain aspect of a work, whether it’s from a video game, a book, a movie, a television show, and then using that aspect to define it as a whole, or, define it as nothing but that aspect. That and I have never played a sexist video game in my entire gaming existence and I’ve played a lot of games. If a video game features A, B, C and D, you can’t make the statement, that this game causes you to A and D, if you will completely disregard B and C. Personal accountability: you and I are each responsible for our own actions. In the end, Banjo Kazooie didn’t make you be a jerk to your restaurant hostess, you did that yourself.”

But if it is, why should we care?

There are a variety of differing opinions as to what is considered sexist in video games. When people are crying out for more strong, female protagonists I wondered why Bayonetta, an empowering, feminine hero in my eyes, came under the firing line, when this cut scene of Cia from Hyrule Warriors went largely untouched. However, there are some clear statistics which demonstrate ideas thought of as sexist. A 1998 study found that 30% of games contained no female characters, human or otherwise, a 2005 study found that men outweigh women characters 5 to 1, and of female characters with low-cut tops, 41% of these had disproportionately large breasts.

However, we should also note when we talk about sexism in video games this does not only mean “bad for women” but also “bad for men”.

Mytheos Holt, Thinktank associate policy fellow at R St Institute argues that the exaggerated sexual depiction of women in video games is also mirrored in the depiction of men. Further, that these depictions are a result of escapism for both female and male players.

The idea that, games that show women with unrealistic bust sizes, or unrealistic butts or what have you, are necessarily degrading women is ridiculous. Plenty of women, I think, probably would find it escapist to pretend, to be that attractive, in some ways. Certainly, that is what the voice actress for the sorceress in Dragon’s Crown said, that she enjoyed playing this character, because the character had a large bust, and as a woman who has a large bust, she likes seeing herself represented in gaming. Look, the fact that, not everyone is born with equally sized breasts does not mean that video games have to pretend that large breasts don’t exist, and the fact that people enjoy large breasts in video games is just a sign that sex sells for the same reason that a lot of people enjoy really well muscled, obscenely strong men, who couldn’t possibly exist. And in fact, you could say the same thing about comic books, where you look at say Rob Lythall’s drawings, and you see that men in those don’t really have hips, they just have legs that jut out from their waist, and the same thing goes for women, who are just their breasts and their hips, so really, when you look at it, many art forms, will reduce the human form, to simply the elements that most people find most attractive and that is a necessary function of what people do. If you have a problem with that, then I await the people who complain that Michealangelo’s David’s dick is too large.”

Sarkeesian and several other feminist critics point out, women in games are often sexualised. A 2007 study of gaming magazines found 60% of female characters were sexualised compared to just 1% of male. Conversely, aggressive characteristics are most commonly attributed to male characters, 83% of whom were portrayed as aggressive, 21% more than their female counterparts.

But, are large breasts, lack of non-sexualised female protagonists, and aggressive male characters necessarily sexist? To understand this question we first have to look at the history of development and the consumer who these developers are marketing to. A study of college-attending Americans found that of people who play more than 20 hours of video games a week 87% were male, in fact only 20% of women played more than an hour a week. While this is a small slice of modern gaming, historically, developers noticed that their games weren’t attracting female players and introduced games like Ms Pacman, targeted primarily at women. When these attempts failed to attract the female consumer, developers focused on developing and advertising for their key market: men.

This large percentage of male consumers could account for the correspondingly large percentage of male protagonists and characters. When playing a game, players often wish to feel empowered and so play an idealised version of themselves.

This is where the question of empowerment vs objectification comes into play. Which characters are empowered through their overtly masculine or feminine traits and which are merely objects of desire? Sadly, there is no simple answer for this, as a character who is one women’s empowered idolisation is another’s “fuck toy for boys”. The important thing is to note how subjective these opinions are. Just because you personally believe that a character is there merely to be portrayed as eye candy for hetrosexual males, does not mean that another will not feel empowered by playing her. In the same way that a male character may seem only present as a tough guy narrative and yet embody a fantasy role for another player.

While consumers consider various characters empowering, it is undeniable that developers with a male audience in mind are more likely to include fan service such as large breasted or attractive female characters for consumption. The feminist scholar, Christina Hoff Sommers has likened the shaming of men for enjoying looking at attractive women in games to that of homophobic and transphobic ideas of the past, and believes that we should focus on the enjoyment of games. However, we have to consider whether sexist tropes in video games do have an impact on real world events, before obviously dismissing them as pure fantasy or entertainment.

Violent video games used to be the go to scape-goat when discussing the cause of real life violence. While some studies found a link between video games and immediate aggression, the idea of playing violent video games leading to aggressive behaviour in general, was debunked long ago, with one critic pointing out that “finding out that a young man who committed a violent crime also played a popular video game such as Call of Duty, Halo or Grand Theft Auto is as pointless as pointing out the criminal also wore socks.”

A 2014 study found that sales of M rated video games were related to a concurrent decrease in aggravated assaults, and homicides tend to decrease in the months following the release of these games. This does not of course mean that violent games decrease aggression but more likely that aggressive individuals may choose to stay at home and work out their anger through a game, rather than, for example, going to a bar where they could become involved in an assault.

So how does this relate to sexism in video games? There are several studies done on the effects of playing video games with sexualised female characters, which suggest that people are more willing to forgive harassment towards women for a short period. While these studies only show effects minutes after playing, it has been suggested that this could relate to real world consequences. I asked Noemi former developer at UCLA’s game lab and lecturer of social identities to weigh in with her thoughts.

“I do believe media effects people, and there has been a lot of studies about this. Obviously, people aren’t going to go out and murder people because they murdered people in a video game, but it is going to change their perspective on things. And there is this great article written by Karen Dill, which just shows that people who are exposed to sexualised violence in video games, as like a first person character, and then they witness sexual harassment in person, they are much less likely to say anything about it, to report it and so on and so forth. So that just shows, you know, obviously, people aren’t going to start, you know, acting violent because of these games, but it might change the way they perceive women, or they perceive the characters. It’s really about like those subtle changes, that occur in your brain. And there’s another recent article, which I forget the title, but it talks about how kind of, no-one is immune. Like even if I’m like “oh I’m a feminist”, I also am effected.”

Research does suggest acceptance of gender stereotyping could result from these representations in the media, not just video games but also film, books and TV. Males in video games are often portrayed as Hyper-Masculine,  where they have hardened sexual attitudes towards romantic partners, a desire for action and danger, and an acceptance of physical violence. In contrast there is Hyper-Femininity, the amplification of female stereotypes with an emphasis on dependence, submissiveness and sexuality defining a woman’s value.

While the negative effects of these stereotypes are widely reported in the media, the most common effect of sexist tropes is positive discrimination such as benevolent sexism. Anecdotal evidence from male World of Warcraft players who choose female characters suggests that they received more items, money and time from other players, as well as being engaged in more conversations and more players are willing to die for your character. While it is commonly assumed that women receive more online harassment, this evidence suggesting more positive than negative sexism is directed towards women in online gaming, is supported by a recent PEW study which found that 10% of men were harassed online compared to just 6% of women. While any amount of harassment is obviously a problem, it is interesting to note the types of negative sexism found in online games. Much like their hyper-stereotypes, women were more likely to receive sexual harassment where as men were more likely to be attacked for their skill and strength.

I would like to note that just because sexism towards women in these cases is often positive, it is still sexism. Women who do not fit in to these submissive stereotypes can often be open to harassment, just as the positive stereotype of a strong, confident man can be damaging to the vast number of males who also don’t conform to this ideal.

Following my research it is clear me, that sexism portrayed in video games mirrors the idealised stereotypes of the society in which we live, and therefore is merely a symptom and not the cause; much like all other media, be it books, TV, movies or magazines. The limited amount of real life discrimination which comes as a result of this hyper-gendered portrayal, is a two-way street which damages both men and women who don’t pander to these usual stereotypes.  If feminist critics are Zant then bad writing and character development are Ganondorf’s evil magic instilled within them.

Sarkeesian herself notes that the damsel in distress trope is one as old as the Greeks. When creating a popular title, there is something to be admired by those who insert originality into their games. However, while meat-head protagonists shooting their way through armies of grunts, in order to rescue their big-titted mistress continue to sell successfully, you can understand why developers get lazy and refuse to take risks, especially, when they can see the negative consequences of these risks in many innovative games financial failures. Why aim for Portal, when you can happily kick back on your samey, unpolished and yet plentiful Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! dollars?

When Platinum released Bayonetta, a game which broke the mould, it was a critical but not commercial success. After years of failed attempts at funding a sequel, Bayonetta 2 finally achieved moderate financial success,  only to be attacked by several critics. Developers have shown they do listen to their audience. Following the outcry of the lack of a female protagonist in Assassins Creed: Unity, Insomniac Games debuted their female character for Sunset Overdrive, complete with Assassins Creed style jacket.

Criticism and campaigning should focus of being inclusive of all kinds of character portrayals and media rather than excluding things we personally find distasteful. If consumers and critics were more accepting of various kinds of portrayals of characters both male and female, then developers would be less afraid to take the risks needed to create more diverse games.

If you want more interesting video game protagonists outside of the stereotypical sexy, kick-ass, ice-queen then you should also be asking for male protagonists that are represented as more than gun-toting , emotionless, roid-ragers. If you want more Tetras as lead protagonists, then you also have to be more accepting of Professor Laytons in mainstream games. And while we’re at it can we have an LGBTQ character who is not evil, a joke or a villain please.

A list of all resources used to research the piece can be found here


Georgina Young

Contributor

British girl, currently in Japan. Surviving on a diet of retro games. Worshiping the god that is the Sega Megadrive. I like Nintendo.



  • ZURATAMA1324

    It’s baffling that Anita (and her puppet master #FullMcintosh) became relevant in the games industry with those flimsy arguments.
    I blame you games journalists.

    Take TotalBiscuits’s advice.
    Rather than blindly promoting these hacks, professionally analyze them and critique them.
    After all, this is why you exist.
    But who am I kidding, of course you are not going to do that.

  • Topgeartony

    Georgina on a fucking roll with her articles recently.

    Personally I don’t care. Give me a good game with well written characters and I’m happy. Regardless of their sex, colour or roll.

  • Operative G

    A couple things. First, it’s Rob Leifeld. He’s a terrible writer and artist, but was very influential to a lot of the 90s aesthetic and, in many ways, represents the sort of extreme excesses and grimdark of the 90s that led to the creation of the alternative Image comics. I’d say he may have been also influential to the creators of TNMT, but I don’t know the timeline, so I will not say that definitively.

    Second, Karen Dill is someone you should do a little bit of study into. Her methods are extremely flawed, to the point that many people there were several massive studies debunking her studies with much better and less biased methods (she had, for example, a study of 60 college kids, mostly women, with no control. The counter study had something like 1000 people with a control group and a fairly even sex distribution). Even the tests themselves were extremely biased and the questions asked extremely leading. Just something I thought bore attention.

  • TheSharpeful

    What we want is more fun to play games with good stories and characters.

    I can enjoy a Walking Dead game in which I play a 10 year old asian girl one day, like I can enjoy playing conan the barbarian the next, and like I can enjoy playing lara croft or femshep.
    And hey, I might even like to see lara croft in a skimpy outfit cuz hell… I’m an heterosexual guy. And I am never… EVER going to apologize for my sexuality.
    Just like I dont expect anyone else that enjoys stuff marketed to their sexuality to apologize for it.

  • Clairity

    I feel you, dude. I’m a bi girl, and it pisses me the fuck off that there are people out there who essentially tell straight guys “No, stop looking at naked women, that makes you sexist”. It’s like they don’t get the irony that they’re doing to straight men what has been done to women and LGBT folks for ages.

    Could we use a little more variety? Totally. I would love more games like Bayonetta to break into the mainstream. That’s why I’m working so hard to learn how to make video games, so I can take a crack at it myself.

  • BottledWater

    Another great piece Georgina.

  • Tanis

    I’d agree with that. I enjoy being the really hot characters because I was never one of them. Also being bisexual, I enjoy the sexual side of it and I get extremely annoyed when I hear about how they are /only/ for hetero men and all women hate that.. just blatantly untrue and erases me from existence.

  • You know, usually, people try to avoid touching shit. However, some want to try and analyze it and when you try to analyze shit, the more methodical you want to get, the more covered in it you become. Trying to argue comprehensively about the obvious in regards to an odious video is the equivalent of a pig wallowing in shit.

    I’d say just don’t get involved with it at all. People with a modicum of common sense can realize the truth. The rest are just going to close their ears, so, essentially, it’s preaching to the choir at this point.

  • Wannabe_Baby

    In two minds about this article. I like the message of inclusiveness at the end but was a bit back-and-forth on it before that.

    For one thing, I’m interested in the “60% of female characters were sexualised compared to just 1% of male [characters]” statistic. What did they class as “sexualised”? Sexualisation is done differently for men and women; in advertising, for example, moody shirtless men with low-hanging jeans and bulging muscles don’t have to adopt the female “boobs-and-butt” pose to be sexualised. There are often “parodies” of sexualised women in advertising that show men doing the same silly poses as women to prove a point about how sexualised women are but completely miss the point that men aren’t sexualised in the same way (and if women did some of the poses that sexualised men do, they’d look just as ridiculous).

    The reason I say all this is because I HAVE had body image issues in the past due to male characters who I felt had an unrealistic standard of beauty. In my case, it was the androgynous bishounen male characters of the Final Fantasy series. Being somewhat average-looking, these characters made me feel self-conscious.

    So one of the reasons I enjoy this article, Georgina, is your line “If you want more interesting video game protagonists outside of the stereotypical sexy, kick-ass, ice-queen then you should also be asking for male protagonists that are represented as more than gun-toting, emotionless, roid-ragers.” In my case, it wasn’t the emotionless ‘roid-ragers but it was something almost as stereotypical.

    My reward for bringing up my own issues with sexualised male characters? “You’re derailing”. “That’s not sexism, that’s a male power fantasy”. “Patriarchy”. Dismissing my issues because they weren’t about sexualised women. But the same crowd crying out for equality wouldn’t dare admit that sexualisation and unrealistic character designs — including muscular male characters with perma-stubble and “badass” attitudes — is not a gender issue.

    “And while we’re at it can we have an LGBTQ character who is not evil, a joke or a villain please.”

    Well there’s Ellie and Bill from The Last Of Us, the Sorceress from Dragon’s Crown was bisexual and I hear there were two LGBT female characters in Clive Barker’s Jericho (one bi, one lesbian). Then there’s the range of gay options in BioWare games, Fable, The Sims and others.

  • Gary

    Probably the reason these hacks (as you put it, and I think that’s being a bit generous honestly), aren’t being professionally analyzed is because the same people that would be critiquing them and countering their arguments in the industry all went to the same cult meetings that FullMacIntosh and Jaqueline Thompson went to. It’s unfortunate.. because there needs to be professional, critical and serious counter arguments presented to Anita’s claims by industry leaders if any one of them wants to be taken seriously.

    The industry needs to be as critical of her as they were of Jack Thompson, since the claims the two make about videogames effects on society are markedly similar. Yet neither of those group of people’s claims have EVER been shown to be true, even on the small scale. Simply put… human beings can tell the difference from fantasy sexism, fantasy violence, fantasy racism, etc. It doesn’t lead to those people exposed to them being desensitized to them in reality or cause a lack empathy to those affected by those issues. Anita’s claims are especially heinous compared to Jack Thompson’s because she outright wants to shame developers into censoring their art to protect her feelings and the feelings of people like her. It’s disgusting, immoral and above all else, arrogant, to ask artists to change their work to suit YOUR preferences.

    Oh well. I’m just glad that in reality, most AAA devs probably look at Anita and FullMacintosh and just laugh their way to the bank. No one with even the smallest iota of critical thinking skills actually believes her ridiculous claims in the industry, especially not the AAA sector.

  • Jake Martinez

    Haha, that’s a good point. The criticism of sexual portrayals in video games is extremely heteronormative, but then again I’m not too surprised by that since it looks like almost all of it comes from the perspective of heterosexual puritans.

    I make h-type games and I’m sure that Anita and her superfriends would love to eradicate them from existence. I put all sorts of taboo content in these games for people to enjoy, even if I personally do not like it, because it’s a *safe place for them to do so*

    Honestly, the goals and aims of some of these people are laughable. It’s like they think they can socially engineer society to repress people’s innate sexuality and desires. GOOD LUCK WITH THAT.

  • DynastyStar

    I’m sorry but what? Are you trying to imply that techraptor is the same as sites like Polygon and Kotaku?

  • ZURATAMA1324

    Yes, I’m very glad that is the reality.

    However, it is also a reality that while Anita’s voice might be uninfluencial, she DOES have a megaphone (Major Game Journalists).
    Smaller devs will be influenced and often damaged by the narrative she creates in this industry.

    Also, unfortunately these Anita Kool-Aid drinkers are the ones who are plastering scores on games.
    While core gamers don’t really give a damn in scores (unless it is unbearably low), people who are new to gaming or novice kool-aid drinkers WILL be swayed by ‘the narrative’ scores create. (#FullMcintosh’s fetish, I assume)

    If this trend continues, the not only the indie scene but also the AAA market will be influenced eventually.
    That scares me.

    Pretentious blabbering about minorities and being educated about how to be an ‘anti-racist’ (i.e. hating white people) will be on Steam.
    AAA games will contain minority characters not because the developers found artistic potential in it but… JUST FOR THE SAKE OF IT.
    I fear…

    [You know that SJ is being indoctrinated to children and students, right? Sooner or later, this will be the norm if we let them have their cake.]

  • ZURATAMA1324

    No, of course not.
    Techraptor is hands down one of my favorite gaming sites.
    (Along with The Escapist and Niche Gamer)

    I was referring to Kotaku, Polygon, and other corrupt websites.

  • DynastyStar

    ahhh okay, sorry, just the way you worded it, it sounded like you were “venting at” techraptor.

  • Erthwjim

    A question, for some of the articles referenced in your sources, they are from journals and require me to pay to see anything beyond the abstract, did you end up buying these or have some other way to access the full article? I also had this issue with some of Anita’s journals that she referenced, and frankly, I’d rather not pay $40 to access a study in a journal.

    Also how did you come across some of these studies? More or less, what led you to them?

  • Tanis

    Oh man my comment didn’t post, augh!
    What games have you made? I’m going to be doing a regular column on VNs (ero and non) so adding more to the list is a must 🙂

  • Jake Martinez

    I’m about half way through the engine development of an h-RPG style game. I’ll hit you up for a play through when we have the working prototype built early next year.