Doctor Alex Reid
28 June 2013
Video Games: Worlds of Limitless Environments and Limited Humans
Video games exist in the realm of the impossible: from the immense world of the Halo games, to the undead attacks of zombies in Call of Duty, to the God-stance of Spore. Players are immersed in heavily designed worlds that emphasize the boundaries of reality, such as the limited interaction one can have with one’s environment – we are barred from entering “Authorized Only” areas or intruding into other people’s homes. Within the diverse worlds of video games a major limitation of the dominant cultural ideology is emphasized through the depiction of hypersexual and passive females and hypermasculine, dominant males. It is troubling that while video games challenge the limitations of reality through playful and imaginative environments, they rigidly repeat traditional gender stereotypes and roles. More largely this suggests mass cultural ideology is inescapable because even when creating unlimited and fantastic environments, video games are limited to singular types of gender representation.
The reinforcement of the traditional ideals of female beauty occurs regularly in mass media and video games are no exception. Many studies of such portrayals of women in video games re-iterate the point that video games have “disproportionately thin characters with exaggerated female characteristics” (Jansz and Martis 147). Another article states that “Females were more often supplemental characters, more attractive, sexy, and innocent, and also wore more revealing clothing” (Miller and Summers 733). Finally, in “Big Breasts and Bad Guys: Depictions of Gender and Race in Video Games” the authors more explicitly state that “The physical representation of gender in the vast majority of video games is a close adherent to societal expectations of beauty. Women are most commonly depicted as having very large breasts, tiny waists, and full, pouting lips” (Dickerman, Christensen, and Kerl-McClain 23). If female characters are present and important in a game they are regularly shown as the ‘ideal’ woman – large breasts and little clothing. Jansz and Martis found when studying the portrayal of race and gender in video games that “Most female characters had large breasts (seven of nine; 77%) […] Buttocks also were difficult to ignore. They were particularly emphasized among female characters (seven of nine; 77%)” (Jansz and Martis 146). With all studies finding these depictions of women common, it seems that video games adhere to a single standard of beauty.
The repeated exposures to particular ideals of feminine beauty are internalized by players and are then manifested through increased negative feelings about oneself. Monica K. Miller and Alicia Summers write:
Video game characters have the potential to shape players’ perceptions of gender roles. Through social comparison processes, players learn societal expectations of appearances, behaviors and roles. […] other forms of media have been shown to influence self-esteem and body perception (Miller and Summers 733).
Unlike other forms of media however, video games are inherently more interactive. Players not only see female beauty as created by the media but play at it. Jeroen Jansz and Raynel G. Martis state that “Many video games enable their players to enact identities in the most literal sense of the word. Gamers can actually ‘be’ their characters in a playful virtual reality” (Jansz and Martis 142). Video games compound the problem of limiting depictions of female beauty as players both interact with and visualize ideals of beauty. When one views ideals of beauty in media, they internalize such representations and these become naturalized as the ideal body. Such naturalization creates, in the player, a specific set of standards by which one can judge oneself and others. Christopher P. Bartlett and Richard J. Harris conducted a study to determine how video games which “emphasized the body would increase negative body image” (Bartlett and Harris 586). They define negative body image as “a way of thinking and feeling about one’s body that negatively influences the person’s self-esteem, body esteem, and body satisfaction” (Bartlett and Harris 587). As ideology is internalized and manifested in negative body image, negative body image is then manifested in “psychological disorders, such as feelings of depression […] and anxiety […] excessively exercising […] dieting […] and having a higher probability of using steroids” (Bartlett and Harris 587). It may seem that simply playing a game cannot have such a negative impact, but because of the repeated exposure to cultural ideals, one cannot avoid internalizing them. Very few people fit the ideal, hypersexual female body insisted upon in video games and more largely in all of mass media, but nearly all desire it – albeit unknowingly. Indicative of this, Bartlett and Harris found, rather simply put, “that women participants, after playing a video game that emphasized the female body, felt significantly worse about their bodies” (Bartlett and Harris 597). Such pervasive and consistent representation negatively influences the gaming population by reinforcing rigid traditional gender stereotypes, rather than embracing the incredible diversity of human beings that exist and play video games.
Popular video games not only represent women as hypersexual beings but perpetuate traditional gender roles by the significant imbalance of male and female characters. Video games suggest that women are less important and less powerful than men simply by not showing an equal amount of characters of each sex. Williams et al. argue that “groups who appear more often in the media are more ‘vital’ and enjoy more status and power in daily life […] Therefore, measuring the imbalances that exist on the screen can tell us what imbalances exist in social identity formation, social power and policy formation in daily life” (Williams et al. 819). Williams et al. reference social identity theory, and although they do so regarding the underrepresentation of Latinos in video games, the theory applies directly to the underrepresentation of women: “According to social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978), this lack of appearance is a direct signal to Latinos that they are relatively unimportant and powerless compared to more heavily present groups” (Williams et al. 828). By not giving female characters an equal amount of appearance as male characters, video games are directly signaling to players that females are not equal to or as important as men – a stereotypical gender role. So, just how extreme are these imbalances? A study by Braun and Giroux in 1989 found that male characters were featured in 60% of arcade games, compared to only 2% for female characters. In 1991 Provenzo studied Nintendo games and found that 97% of the characters on the covers of 47 games were male, with only 8% being female. Dietz found in 1998 that out of 33 Nintendo and Genesis games, 30% did not have a female in a lead or secondary role, and if the game did have a female character, 21% of the time she was “in a submissive, stereotypical position”. Furthermore, Dietz found that “The other female characters were princesses or wise old women, typically in a position to be released by the leading male character” (Jansz and Martis 143). 67% of females identify themselves as game users but out of 49 games analyzed by Miller and Summers there were 282 male human characters and only 53 female human characters (Miller and Summers 737). Through both underrepresentation and submissiveness, female characters are outweighed by their male counterparts thereby perpetuating traditional gender stereotypes of the woman as weak and unimportant.
However, there are female characters with power. Jansz and Martis found that “Women and men were distributed equally in the class of leading characters (six women and six men) and women occupied a dominant position as often as men did” (Jansz and Martis 147). This is a much more optimistic finding than most research which confirms the trends of older studies. Although Jansz and Martis were able to find equality in video games it is not all positive. They state that “quite a few women became leaders in the games, but they continue to be presented in a sexualized way. As a result, these powerful women are depicted as sex objects as much as their powerless predecessors were” (Jansz and Martis 147). This push and pull between sexiness and power seems to replicate the modern confusion about women, following the feminist movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. There is a tension between the traditional views of women as sex objects and the modern notion of the working woman. Video games seem unable to surrender to the state of the modern woman as a powerful bread winner. Certainly powerful women should not be denied their sexuality because of their power, but by portraying all powerful women as hypersexualized, video games suggest that all women and all powerful women are hypersexual.
Perhaps one of the most surprising and disturbing effects of the prevalence of female stereotypes in video games is the increased negative views of women male gamers have. It has already been shown that body emphasizing video games negatively impact women’s body image, just as other forms of media do, but such games also affect how male players view women in the real world. The first troubling finding of Stermer and Burkley was that video games often use sexualized content as a reward, such as Metroid which rewards players with a chance to see the female character (recall Jansz and Martis’ findings) in a bikini or Resident Evil 5 in which players can earn points to unlock a special, sexy outfit for a female character (Stermer and Burkley 527). Basically, this sexualized reward structure tells players that the male gaze is a reward for work done well. The objectified woman is given to any player who ‘earns’ it. Secondly, Stermer and Burkley found that when men played sexualized games, they reacted more quickly to sexual words and “were more likely to perceive women as sex objects” (Stermer and Burkley 528). They also found that men who played sexist games were more likely to believe that women are weaker, “were more likely to judge a woman’s cognitive abilities […] as inferior, and were more likely to evaluate a “rape victim more harshly” (Stermer and Burkley 528-530). Interestingly, like men, women who played a sexualized female character were more likely to judge a woman’s cognitive abilities as inferior (Stermer and Burkley 529). Finally, Beck et al. found that “sexual objectification of women and violence against women in video games do increase rape myths in male participants” (Beck et al. 3025). Rape myths are “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, or rapists” (Beck et al. 3018). All of these findings epitomize what it means to perpetuate gender stereotypes – men see women as sex objects, as inferior, and as less sympathetic victims. Women are also inundated with these ideas, manifested in their beliefs about women and increased negative body image. The combination of the sexualization and underrepresentation of female characters perpetuate gender stereotypes as shown through the negative influence video games have on both male and female players.
Although the ‘real world’ seems left behind as one turns on their Xbox console, upon beginning a game, one is thrust into stereotypical depictions of men and women. Even in games in which cultural expectations are abandoned or perverted through situational violence or fully-developed imaginative environments, players are instructed that there are particular ways men and women are through character appearance and actions. Like female gamers are to female characters, male gamers are affected by the exposure to the depiction of males in video games. Just as all studies found female characters to be hypersexualized in appearance, male characters were depicted as hypermasculine. Similarly to the findings which showed women to have increased negative body image after watching body emphasizing video games, “male players may feel inferior after comparing themselves to unrealistically muscular and powerful male characters” (Miller and Summers 740). Barlett and Harris state that “Research has shown that media which emphasizes large muscles negatively affects males […] males and females of all ages are impacted by body-emphasizing mass media” (Barlett and Harris 586). Furthermore, “positive attitudes toward muscularity and drive for muscularity are both related to pressure from the mass media to change one’s body” (Barlett and Harris 587). Women are not isolated in the stereotypical depictions of gender in video games as males are just as stereotyped. Video games regularly depict males as violent, muscular heroes. Male players then internalize this ideal and if they do not fit that in the real world, they feel worse about themselves – just as women do about their own gender stereotype. Perpetuating gender stereotypes may not seem to be a ‘real world’ problem but because of the number of affects such stereotypes have on players, video games are quite literally pushing players into psychological disorders.
Whereas female gender roles are reinforced by non-action, male gender roles are reinforced through narrative structure. Sharon Sherman argues that “The games are captivating to males primarily because players compete with each other and with the machine to ‘save the princess’. They know this narrative well from multiple sources and are eager to actually become the hero in the tale” (Sherman 245). When video games call on players to save a female character, “traditional attitudes are reinforced” (Sherman 255). Sherman argues that the narrative structure of a journey to save a princess, kingdom, etc. recalls ‘narrating sessions’ which, through “traditional content elements and structures”, reinforce the idea that this perilous journey leads one into adulthood (Sherman 256). This recalls the sexual reward structure Stermer and Burkley described since upon ‘getting’ the woman, by saving her, the male character is rewarded with becoming an adult. In either case, such reward is disturbing. In the sexuality reward structure, the woman is his reward and in the latter, the woman is more of a stepping stone to a large reward. Either way, such narrative reward structures indicate to male players that their ‘journey’ is one of reward and female subjugation.
Interestingly, World of Warcraft seems to depart the most significantly from traditional gender roles and representations through the variety of humanlike avatars to choose from and the flexibility of gendered actions one can undertake while playing. What differentiates World of Warcraft from other video games may be the reason for this flexibility of gender: WoW is an enormous, seemingly infinite, world. No other game, whether it is a first-person shooter game, a PC game, or a puzzle game, allows players such freedom of action and identity. WoW is a massively multi-player online role playing game, or MMORPG, allowing players to immerse themselves in this literal world of war craft as any gender, appearance, or job they choose. Bonnie A. Nardi writes that:
Through the design of certain of the female characteristics, WoW provided a resource to reproduce a standard gender dynamic, the male gaze […] However, visually things were pretty tame. While the male gaze was sustained in WoW, in particular through the design of the Human, Night Elf, and Blood Elf racials, as well as some of the NPCs, and a few items of “kombat lingerie” […] for the most part, female characters were relatively modest. Other video games contain far more egregious body and costume designs […] And though males tended to like Blood Elves and Night Elves, WoW offered a range of female character types of varying attractiveness, again unlike many games (Nardi 159).
In terms of appearance, WoW creates an environment where representations of females depart from stereotypical depictions of women as having tiny waists, large breasts, and very little clothing. Furthermore, WoW allows for flexibility of traditional gendered actions. Nardi writes:
In ordinary life, many of these activities are associated primarily with one gender, such as cooking (female) or blacksmithing (male). In WoW, both genders engaged in them […] WoW offered players the chance to play at these gendered activities, allowing them to move back and forth across boundaries of male and female. Players chose activities because they made sense for the development of their characters […] This motivation obscured and downplayed, but did not remove, gender attributions (Nardi 171).
WoW is not perfect in breaking down the gender wall as there is, according to Nardi, a large presence of sexually degrading comments made between male players to female players and guilds which maintain strict anti-female player rules (Nardi 152-175). What makes WoW interesting is that, while players suggest the dominance of traditional gender roles in chatting, gender flexibility and a variety of human representation is present. Players of WoW are not limited to the rigid definitions of human being other games are invested in but are free, not only to interact with their fantastic environment, but engage in activities and roles not normally accepted. The male gaze may still be present in WoW but far less so than most other popular video games as both players and characters are able to exhibit their abilities in gameplay, almost genderless.
Upon reading such studies, one must ask why these representations of gender are present in video games. One article argues that “Although the majority of both males and females play games […], game manufacturers target a dominantly male audience […] Thus, games often emphasize violence and the attractiveness and sexuality of females” (Miller and Summers 736). Is this player-driven reason the true reason for gender depictions? Williams et al. suggest that “games feature more males and so attract more young males to play. Those males grow up and are more likely to become gamemakers than women, perpetuating the role of males in game creation” (Williams et al. 829). Perhaps these player-driven and developer-driven reasons are the reasons behind gender representation in video games. It is possible that male developers make what they think male players want to see. However, I am more inclined to agree with Christine Ward Gailey’s argument that:
Games played in a society embody the values of the dominant culture; they are ways of reinforcing through play the behaviors and models of order rewarded or punished in the society […] Play may invert the social order, or challenge the rules within a game format without fundamentally endangering the status quo (Gailey 81).
Such inversion of the social order occurs in the play environment of games as they depart from what is possible in the real world, for example through rapid transit, revival after death, extra-human abilities, and fantastic landscapes. However, the narrative structure of ‘hero’ games and gender stereotypes are modeled after the ‘status quo’.
Male and female characters are subjected to traditional gender stereotypes in video games through character appearance and representation. Female characters are regularly depicted as hypersexual beings with little power, especially because of their underrepresentation. Male characters are hypermasculine and often abide by a traditional narrative structure which rewards them with women and adulthood. It is easy to disregard such representations as unimportant in the ‘real world’ but they have real world implications. Both men and women, upon seeing these representations have increased negative body image and troubling views towards women. What is especially perplexing about the prevalence of such depictions in video games is that these depictions take place in other-worldly environments. The worlds in video games are imaginative and real-world-impossible environments. One level of Techno Kitty Adventure is called “Meat Pack” and allows the player to control his kitty through a world of meat while in Castle Crashers, gameplay takes place in a medieval setting. Despite having such a large variety of environments, massively popular video games rely on traditional gender stereotypes. Ultimately these representations of female beauty, male muscularity, feminine weakness, and male dominance affect players and suggest that abandoning cultural ideology of old, once internalized by game developers and players, is impossible.
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