Sorry Mario, but our princess is in another castle- Video games, gender and identity.
The role of a character, whether played in movies, music video, books or video games, is one, which has a power to shape and affect the personality of the receiver. A video game takes human to character interaction a step further by having the player live through the character being shown on screen. Video games, more than any other media has had its share of criticism, being labelled as dangerous and addictive. This essay will not explore the ‘video game is harmful’ debate, but will look at a more social problem occurring in the gaming world- gender stereotyping and how video games affect the way we look and treat female gamers. Many studies have been conducted to see how female characters are portrayed in gaming what percentage of female gamers play video games. The studies show that most female characters are stereotypical shown as damsels in distress or sexual objects and those female gamers are underrepresented. It is socially accepted that gaming is a ‘man thing’ and female gamers are rare. The gaming industry has not done much to solve this problem; in fact they seem to have enhanced it by creating stereotypical female characters, which create social and cognitive issues. This essay will, therefore, explore the relationship between gaming and gender identity and asking: How do game affect gender and promote gender stereotyping?
Gender stereotyping begins with this question: How have you been socially taught to view the world. Women, historically, have always been seen as the weaker sex, this ideology was reflected in how women were treated socially: not allowed to work, no vote, less educated. This transformed after the women retaliated and demanded their rights. If one looks at women now, they are still seen as the weaker sex and in media especially, as sex symbols. Women are portrayed as sexual objects, but this is not to say that the media does not have strong, independent women, it just so happens that a sexually attractive women is socially accepted and any woman not falling in that category is not seen favorably. This norm is reflected in the gaming world- female characters are portrayed as sexual objects. In an essay entitled: ‘ Shirts vs. Skins’ by Beasley and Standley This essay looks at the ways in which a certain character is shown, to be more specific, how they are dressed and how much skin they show. They used the games from Play station console gaming systems and Nintendo 64. Their research showed that out of the total number of characters in these games ( 597) only 82 were women (13.74%). The research also shows that female characters showed more skin than male characters. One might look at this and say its unimportant, since adult men and women play these games, which is actually not true. In a Ted Talk given by Stirling Little ‘ Excuse me Princess,’ states that video games sell more than movie or music. This means that there is a huge market and audience for games. This being said, the authors of the essay ‘Shirts vs. Skins state: “Children form schemata of what behaviors, attitudes, and clothing are appropriately masculine or feminine through accumulated experiences (Wroblewski & Huston, 1987). Video games are just one source of many for information about what is masculine or feminine.” They also state that this theory is unknown at the time but I suggest that like any other media, video games do project and reflect what society thinks men and women should be like. Of course this applies to how female characters behave but also how they look. I know that there are female characters, which are portrayed as strong and brave, but most are either portrayed as sex objects or meek damsels in distress.
Talking about damsels in distress, children’s games generally have female characters in need of rescuing. The Mario series are one such popular game where the princess needs rescuing by the male protagonists. An essay exploring this idea ‘ level up – A case for female gamers’ by Kuljit Brar uses the game Mario to explore the point that females are either portrayed as sexual objects or meek submissives. He states that the gaming world has changed since the 80s and the 90s, with more female characters in games, yet the characters are shown as either to “placate the male gaze or are seen as fairy tale characters” (the more traditional approach). Lara Croft serves as an example of sexualized female character, whose main audience are young teenage boys. In another essay written by Sharon R. Sherman- ‘Perils of the Princess’ explores a similar issue where games such as Mario show women as damsels in need of rescuing. She states “The games are captivating to males primarily because players compete with each other and with the machine to “save the princess.” This essay is interestingly different as Sherman argues that we look at Mario through a Jungian viewpoint, there are fixed archetypes, which fall into place, and the story line is similar to an epic. In any epic story, the hero goes through many risks and adventures to rescue something- along the way he does rescue a princess or two. This traditional approach can be seen in adventure videogames such as in Mario. The interesting thing is players tend to choose the character of their own gender. This phenomenon can be seen in Bonnie Nardi’s ‘ My life as a night elf priest,’ where she states that most female player would choose female characters. This is an important issue to address because gaming seems to enforce gender rules. Male players will not choose to be the princess because she is the damsel and social norms state that men should be the stronger sex. In Sherman’s survey, male players stated that choosing to be the female character would be “weird.”
The other way in which a female character is portrayed in games is as a sexual object. As Brar states in his essay ‘Level – up’ “female characters in gaming are portrayed as either meek submissives or sexual objects.” In many video games female characters reveal a lot of skin or have a very dysmorphic body- with big busts and tiny waists. One such essay which explores this issue: ‘ Gender and racial stereotypes in popular video games’ by Yi Mou and Wei Peng, borrows from another study stating : ““Compared to male characters, females were more likely to be represented in a hypersexual way: being partially nude, featured with an unrealistic body image and shown wearing sexually revealing clothing and inappropriate attire.” ( Downs and Smith) One of my favorite games ‘ Soul Caliber’ has female characters in barely any clothing. Instead of playing female characters, I choose to play male ones. This game is rate Teen, and I know a few teenagers who play this game quite a lot of times. An essay entitled : “ The Effects of the Sexualization of Female VideoGame- Characters on Gender Stereotypingand Female Self-Concept” Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz and
Dana Mastro, states that because of the scarcity of female characters in games and the fact that the few female character present are portrayed in a gender biased manner, gamers may adopt beliefs and standards that are in line with these sexualized portrayals, resulting in the desire to be like the characters (among women) and to judge self and others based upon the character (among both women and men). One might state that not all female are shown as weak or like secondary sexual objects. This is true there are heroines which are not weak and are shown as the main protagonists, in charger and independent, but these heroines are also highly sexualized- for example Lara Croft. The problem with Lara Croft is that the powerful independent role of the female is diminished and reduced to the characters sexual attibutes. The Lara Phenomenon occurs, where ” female characters in a leading role appeared as often as male do. However, these female characters were portrayed in a stereotypical way: female features were exaggerated by sexy attire and thin body.” (Beasley and Standley). Another study states : “Although clearly strong and fit to evade and defeat her enemies, she was most notable for her enormous, balloon-like breasts emphasized under a form fitting tank top and her extremely short shorts. It was her physical representation that made some question whether this game was really designed for female gamers or whether it was simply designed as a male fantasy.” (Kennedy 2002). This is a major problem, as female characters are grossly misrepresented. This is an issue mainly because part of the audience being young boys and girls are learning from video games and other medias that this is how a woman or a man should be like- in other words these gender stereotypes have a great role in building the receptor’s own identity and self. Female characters, as I had earlier stated, are under represented mostly because these games are made to attract the male audience. Another way to see how females are under represented is when they are portrayed as androgynous characters. In the essay by Sharon R. Sherman ‘ Perils of the princess,’ she states “ girl heroines seem to be the mere twins of males in adventure games.” She also describes a situation where she asked her female participants about the heroine in the game ‘Metroid,’ to which they said that they had thought the character was male. The male participants stated that the it was okay to play the character since she is an alien, “Thus, the same game is discerned differently-the female becomes a green-haired monster for boys and a male action figure for girls.” This form of psychology can be seen in young players who tend to choose a character most similar to their own self, but if female characters are so under represented and stereotyped, then it become difficult for female players to find a character which represents them correctly.
Stereotyping goes both ways. One can argue that there is a certain amount of gender bias toward men. Yet this stereotyping is not necessarily seen as harmful to the male gamer, it has an opposite effect. Male players would choose character, which appears stronger and more muscular. Game makers wish to entice the male audience by creating characters, which appear unrealistic, but still fall into the ideal image of masculinity. When looking at video games at a glance, the cover shows more males than female characters. In a study carried out by Melinda C. R. Burgess and Steven Paul Stermer and Stephen R. Burgess: ‘Sex, Lies, and Video Games: The Portrayal of Male and Female Characters on Video Game Covers’ showed that even though women have increased in frequency and appear more in games male characters were almost four times more likely to appear than their female counterparts. Over that, females portrayed in theses games were shown negatively. This ranged from their lack of action, role in games and the way they were dressed. In a blog called ‘Fat, Ugly, or Slutty voices’ gives examples of online threats and lewd comments such as rape threats, sandwich making 101 and X rated comments are put into separate categories to show how females are not welcome in online gaming. The researchers go on to state that most of the females are placed in the ‘ groupie status’ as they are not given any action and are not part of the game at all. As violence in games connotes power, having male characters taking control and fighting adversaries, makes male characters more powerful. In most battle games female characters lose energy and die more quickly than male characters, again making them weaker and less powerful. In a blog called In both cases, male and female characters in games are portrayed in idealistic extremes. The men are either muscular or very muscular and the women are busty or very busty this makes hyper sexuality a common or a must have trait in video games
As explored earlier in this essay, video game creators try to entice male audience into buying their product. As most adventure and shooting games are aimed at males, female players are left behind. The characters portrayed in games serve this very purpose. A quick Google search on female characters in gaming will show one with various sites ranking female game characters and their sex appeal. One such list called ‘ The top 10 sexiest female nude mods,’ ranks Extreme beach volleyball as number 1. This game has female secondary characters or groupies in no clothing showcasing particularly graphic dysmorphic bodies. Sharon R. Sherman mentions that because of the violent tendencies of video games, many female will be left behind. This is not particularly true, as many women like playing the same video games men play. What is true, however, is that men play to finish a goal, whilst female players try to show their worth. In a Ted Talk previously mentioned in the essay, Stirling Little states that many women play video games (almost 50 % of games are women) but 68% change their sex online in order to avoid harassment. He goes on to discuss the kind of harassment female players are facing when they are playing a very male dominated game. Rape threats and sexually lewd comments are commonplace on online gaming chat rooms. Many women therefore change their sex in order to ‘fit in’ and play the game without harassment. Even though there are women playing video games, the dominating audience is male mainly because many video games are presented in a idealistically masculine manner. Character is shown, as extremely masculine doing things which men ‘should’ be doing in real life. When one does not show such masculine traits they are victimized . Kuljit Brar’s essay ‘ Level up’ gives examples of victimization presented in games: “An example of such victimization is seen in the gameHalo and its online play, and the advent of “Halo teabagging.” Players also demonstrate homophobic comments in a derogatory manner.
The gaming world is constantly changing. More and more games are trying to invite female audiences by incorporating more female characters. Online gaming is changing as well where some games are trying to create safe and gender friendly worlds. Stirling Little gives on such example: League Of Legends. League Of Legends or LOL is one if the few virtual games which have incorporated a system which forcer player to behave in a friendly manner. The tribunal is a system which attacks sexual harassment, allows players to report problems. It also allows chat blocks and reporting and rewarding. If a player complains of a problem such as sexual harassment, the problem is posted on the tribunal so that other players can see it and decide whether it is a problem or not. If it is, players are banned from the game. Players who have good qualities such as leadership or are nice to new players by teaching them are also mentioned. Upon collecting 100 such mentions the players receives a badge making them special players in the community. This system has reduced 40 percent of harassment online and continues to be beneficial and profitable. Female gamers are increasing in numbers and if they are ‘true gamers’ are seen favorably by men. Of course this can be argued- Why should women have to prove their worth as ‘gamers’ to be accepted by the community? But one forgets that men have to prove to be masculine by spewing lewd comments and stating derogatory comments online. As Stirling himself states, male gamers believe that sexual harassment and homophobic comments are a part of the culture that is called gaming. There is however a great deal more to be done so that video games are not gender biased.
In order to be gender friendly, video games should incorporate more female characters. I am not stating that there should be more female characters and less male characters, but that female and male characters should be equal in numbers. Female characters should be equally as powerful as their male counter parts. Some video games have female characters be weaker and less powerful so that they fit the gender stereotype- females are the weaker sex. Everything in gaming is an experience far from reality but gender stereotypes bring real social problems into virtual space. A lot of games go under the radar and are not called out for being not only gender biased and stereotypical, but also homophobic and racist. One of the main problems addressed in this essay was the fact that video game characters are not relatable. Female characters fall under two limited categories, sexual objects or damsels in distress. If a main female character is shown as a hero or is the main protagonist, the extremely sexualized skin over – shadows her abilities.
Gaming like any other media has the power to change the way we look at issues. Gender is one of the issues looked at in this essay and it is an important one. Historically, we have been solving the problem of gender equality and bring women at the front so that they can step hand in had with men. It may seem that this might be a bit of an over use since we are not talking about a social platform, but about video games. But aren’t video games made from the very minds cultured by social norms and stereotypes? Why is it all right to have female characters dressed in scanty clothing or shown as nude, but in reality it would be called upon as morally wrong? This is because many people do not consider video games an important gender-defining platform. Video games are just as important in the formation of self and other as movies and books. As stated earlier in the essay, gaming forces the player to merge two worlds, where the character becomes the self as the characters actions are controlled. In other words it is a reflection of the player’s own identity.
- Brar, Kuljit. “Reconstruction Vol. 12, No. 2.” Reconstruction 12.2 (2012): Playing for Keeps: Games and Cultural Resistance. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 June 2013.
- Sherman, Sharon R. “Perils of the Princess: Gender and Genre in Video Games.” JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 June 2013.
- Beasley, Berrin, and Tracy Collins Standley. “Shirts vs. Skins: Clothing as an Indicator of Gender Role Stereotyping in Video Games.” Mass Communication and Society 5.3 (2002) : 279-293.
- Morawitz, Lissa Behm. “The Effects of the Sexualization of Female Video Game Characters on Gender Stereotyping and Female Self-Concept.” The Effects of the Sexualization of Female Video Game Characters on Gender Stereotyping and Female Self-Concept | Lissa Behm-Morawitz – Academia.edu. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 June 2013.
- Yi, Mou, and Peng Wei. “Gender and Racial Stereotypes in Popular Video Games.” (n.d.): n. pag. – Search MSU. Web. 26 June 2013.
- Excuse Me Princess – Gender in Video Game Culture:. Perf. Stirling Little. YouTube. Ted Talks, 09 Mar. 2013. Web. 26 June 2013.