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Throughout history, the images of women in just about every form of western media has served to reflect and perpetuate the mainstream culture’s own misogyny and sexism. Sadly, the relatively new medium of video games has been no different.
Video games, compared to older forms of media such as cinema, television and radio, is unique in that its defining quality is its capacity for interactivity. Even now, with the convergence culture of the internet at our fingertips, there is no other medium that has the ability to engage participants in the same way that video games can.
It is this interactivity that is important to consider when discussing and exploring how the images and representations of women in this medium affect those who engage with them as players and consumers.
It is unfortunate that video games have largely been given the reputation for being just another technology-centered boys club. This reputation is damaging for two main reasons: (1) because it justifies the male-catering, misogynistic imagery and attitudes that pervade the medium and its subcultures and (2) it disregards the very fact that there are many women who play video games, and this reputation only serves to discourage more women from joining their ranks.
According to the Entertainment Software Association 2013 sales, demographic and usage data survey, 45% of all people who play video games are women and 46% of all video game purchases are made by women. But while women make up about a half of all game players and consumers, only 16% of video game characters are women. Why is that?
It has been long argued that video games featuring female leads just don’t sell, thereby creating the need for games made primarily by men, for men, and featuring male characters in the lead to become the gaming default. The unquestioned norm of video game titles. So then where do the 16% of female video characters fit in if they’re not protagonists?
As Laura Mulvey discussed in her piece called “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” female characters are often placed in visual media as bystanders, objects for the creator and the viewers to project their fantasies and desires upon. At worst, they’re victims, kidnapped and murdered to drive the male protagonists’ story arc and at best they’re sidekicks and/or love interests, again existing purely in relation to the male lead (who stands as the avatar for the presumably male gamer). These female characters are often presented to embody a handful of feminine stereotypes and tropes. The damsel in distress, the sex object, the prize for beating the bad guy.
Women as only valuable for their bodies and sexuality, women as helpless and needing to be saved, women as foolish, frivolous and vain are commonly recurring stereotypes which female characters are presented in not only video games, but in all western visual media.
But because of the interactivity of games, these representations are experienced in even greater depth than ever before. Males who are constantly exposed to these images begin have twisted views of real women. And what of that 46% of women that play video games, how does engaging with these images effect them?
In recent years, there has been a growth of awareness about these issues of female representation in video games. The gaming industry itself, largely consisting of white and male developers has also become more of aware of this issue with figures like Anita Sarkesian and Anna Lind putting themselves out there, demanding greater and more varied representations, often in the face of a hysterical internet hatemob hellbent on silencing them through threats of violence and harassment.
There is hope that this still-growing media will shake off its awkward teenage years of reckless misogyny and eventually mature into a media taken not only seriously as an entertaining and interactive platform, but also as a progressive story-telling medium filled with fully realized characters with agency and direction, both male and female.
Berg, Chris. “Gamers call for evolution of female representation in video games.” DailyEmerald. 6 Feb 2014. (http://dailyemerald.com/2014/02/06/gamers-call-for-evolution-of-female-representation-in-video-games)
Chambers, Becky. “Why Games With Female Characters Don’t Sell, and What It Says About the Industry.” The Mary Sue. 23 Nov. 2012. (http://www.themarysue.com/why-games-with-female-protagonists-dont-sell-and-what-it-says-about-the-industry)
Eileen Espejo, Christina R. Glaubke, Patti Miller, McCrae A. Parker. “Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Video Games” Children & Media Program. 2001. (http://www.childrennow.org/uploads/documents/fair_play_2001.pdf)
Kuchera, Ken. “Games with exclusively female heroes don’t sell (because publishers don’t support them).” The Penny Arcade Report 21 Nov. 2012. (http://penny-arcade.com/report/article/games-with-female-heroes-dont-sell-because-publishers-dont-support-them)
Tremblay, Kaitlin. “Intro to Gender Criticism for Gamers: From Princess Peach, to Claire Redfield, to FemSheps.” Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Games. 1 June 2012. (http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/KaitlinTremblay/20120601/171613/Intro_to_Gender_Criticism_for_Gamers_From_Princess_Peach_to_Claire_Redfield_to_FemSheps.php?print=1)
Zorrilla, Michele. “Gender Representations in Video Games.” Video Games and Gender: Game Representation, Gender Effects, Differences in Plays, and Player Representation. June 2011. (http://radford.edu/~mzorrilla2/thesis/gamerepresentation.html)
Entertainment Software Association. “Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry.” 2013 Sales, Demographic and Usage Data. (http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/esa_ef_2013.pdf)
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 1999: 835
Music: “Lawson” by cyber.akb (http://cyberakb.bandcamp.com)
Video games used in movie:
God of War Ascension (2013)
The Witcher (2011)
Lollipop Chainsaw (2012)
Dead or Alive 5 (2012)
Duke Nukem Forever (2011)
Soul Caliber IV (2008)
Dante’s Inferno (2010)
Tomb Raider 2 (1997)
Dragon’s Crown (2013)
King of Fighters: Maximum Impact 2 (2006)
Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)
Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (1998)
Mass Effect 3 (2012)
Beyond Good and Evil (2003)
The Last of Us (2013)
The Walking Dead (2012)