Are Video Games Sexist?

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

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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


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