Gaming has long been largely male dominated, be it by the people who play games or the characters they play as. Almost every game released nowadays features a male playable protagonist, but according to a study by LiveScience, only 15% of games feature female playable characters. While certainly not surprising given video games' history as mostly a male pasttime, it is not consistent with a recent study that states that the male-to-female gamer ration is about 60/40, with the gap between genders closing each year. Of course, we could go on and on about the countless studies that have been done to look at gender roles in gaming, but rarely are gamers given a chance to voice their perspectives on this issue. We took to the message boards of various websites and asked users to describe what they thought on the state of gender roles and sexism in gaming. The responses varied, but it was clear that many gamers ahd strong opinions on this issue.
Gender roles in society are usually exemplified by forms of entertainment media, and video games are no different. While men in video games are typically portrayed as "macho", manly-men with big guns, women are portryayed as weak, timid, and unable to take action for themselves.
"They reinforce them by creating the characters and situations in which the gender role can be, and is, present. Men are macho, buff, cold, violent, and chauvinistic," said a disgruntled female gamer, "while women are helpless, defenseless, and disproportionate for the sake of being sexy."
If woman is made as a playable character, then she is typically reduced to sexual appeal, with incredibly unrealistic curves made in an attempt to appeal to the teenage male audience that game publishers usually target. While there is certainly nothing wrong with appealing to your target audience, this pretty much alienates a whole audience to the game, and further demeans women. As one GameFAQ's member put it:
"These female characters, although being capable and bad ass characters, are presented as visual candy and are sometimes totally void of personality, so they are like a generic human with a female skin."
Pictured: Female empowerment
If a women is lucky enough to both be in a game and not be overly sexualized, then she is instead given masculine traits, as if having feminine qualities is inherently weak. This phenomenon is more recent, as if game developers are trying to reach out more to female gamers. However, instead of reaching out to women's femininity, game companies are instead saying the only way for women to feel included is to be men.
"A woman that acts like a man isn't an empowered woman, it's a male character with boobs. Empowered women are independent but still female" says VGChartz Editor-in-Chief Chris Arnone.
Just one of the guys
So, where are women gamers to look for positive role models? Are they merely relegated to playing as male protagonists and suffering from negative stereotypes? Fortunately, no. Plenty of gamers questioned were able to come up with multiple female game protagonists that are positive role models to women and not overtly sexual. Characters like Lightning (Final Fantasy XIII), Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2), Kerrigan (StarCraft), Trip (Enslaved), and Jade (Beyond Good and Evil). Users from The Escapist Magazine described some of their favorite female gaming characters:
"Lightning, Fang, and Vanille from Final Fantasy 13 come to mind. So do Aerith and Tifa from Final Fantasy 7. There are also a lot of well rounded female characters in most everything Bioware makes."
"Aya Brea from the Parasite Eve series, the female MC in Persona 3 Portable, Shion from Xenosaga, Heather from Silent Hill 3, Jeanne d'Arc in the game of that name..... Female Shepard from the Mass Effect series is pretty good too, but she's technically a customizable character, so I'm not sure that counts."
Gamers seemed divided over their opinions of certain Nintendo characters. While they were unanimous in saying Princess Peach from the Super Mario series, who is kidnapped in almost every game, is a pretty bad stereotype, gamers were more divided over Samus Aran from Metroid and Princess Zelda from The Legend of Zelda. Many felt that Samus and Zelda provided clear examples of strong, yet feminine, women in gaming.
"Samus Aran, definitely. Back in the 8-bit days, people were absolutely shocked that Samus turned out to be a woman...Nintendo turned people on their heads with that, and even afterwards Samus has remained a very strong character who just happens to be female" says gamrFeed writer Nicholas Taylor.
"Princess Zelda!" exclaimed an enthusiastic GameFAQ's member. "The only fictional princess I can think of worth saving because of how useful she actually is to Link, the main character. In Wind Waker, Tetra was a great character who took charge and was fearless."
However, there were also those who thought that Nintendo's most prominent female characters weren't all that they're cracked up to be.
"She makes it clear that she can escape when she disguises herself as Sheik." said a gamer in regards to Zelda. "Then she still goes back just to be saved by Link."
A GameFAQ's user on Samus: "You know, I think Samus gets a lot of credit where it is undue....her reveal as a female was meant to be a special surprise (because players were supposed to assume that the main character was always male, it seems). And so she was revealed as a female... which was basically "blond lady in a bikini. That was what was female about Samus, having boobies strapped under a bikini."
It is clear at this point that amongst the gaming community, this issue is very visible and prevalent. So the question is: Why is it an issue? It can't simply be because of the apparent disparity between male and female gamers, can it? If that were true then the study linked above would have shown a greater gap between the ratio of male to female gamers. However, one Escapist user seemed to sum it up pretty well:
"The numbers may be different, but I suspect this is due to the content of games not the medium itself failing to appeal to women. To steal an analogy, it's akin to disliking a particular dish while having full capacity to enjoy eating."
The amount of discussion on this topic could fill up an entire book (Whether or not Bayonetta should be considered sexist towards or empowering to women could be its own article), but the fact remains, there is a whole audience out there that the "hardcore" department is failing to reach. While there are many casual experiences out there that have a large women audience, game developers are further perpetuating negative female stereotypes with the titles that they release yearly. Negative depictions like the Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball girls, or the depiction of women in Duke Nukem Forever. As tongue-in-cheek as these might be, they are also surely part of the reason that games receive such harsh backlash from the media and the government.
As games start to mature and gain mainstream acceptance, it's negative stereotypes like these that continue to perpuate games as an activity exclusively for adolescent boys. Developers and publishers need to wake up, stop relying on the same old tropes, and start delivering interactive experiences that can resonate with everybody, regardless of gender.
Honestly, Bayonetta exists beyond categorization