Why Are Women in Video Games Over-Sexualized?

With her bright yellow body positioned promiscuously, the first version of Ms. Pac-Man from 1982 accentuates her elongated legs wearing sky blue pumps. Her makeup is also exaggerated, with bright blue eyeshadow and heavy pink blush, topped by an enormous pink bow.

“She’s a classic icon, but this was a start for female characters becoming super sexualized. She’s not even human and she’s sexualized,” said Neely Battle, an employee for Bandai Namco Amusement America Inc., a manufacturer of coin-operated arcade games*.  

Ms. Pac-Man isn’t the only one to be overly sexualized, drawn with big boobs, the tiniest waist, the longest legs and dressed in the most revealing costumes. Almost every video game presents women with these over-sexualized versions of what they think will lure male gamers to play. This hyper-sexualization of women has spawned a deeper sexualization and discrimination against female gamers and game designers. Even as female gamers are increasing while this happens, women, in general, aren’t given the same opportunities as men in the gaming industry. Small strides are being taken to ensure that games can also appeal to female consumers, but it’s not enough, says Battle.

So why is it that games portray women in a way that appeals only to the male gaze?

Male gamer Zack Lagunas believes it’s because “most gamers are male, and as sad as it is, this is what catches male eyes to the game and character.”

It’s either women are overly sexualized with the way they look, or they must wear the mask of a man. Let’s look at Tomb Raider’s 1996 version of Lara Croft: a highly intelligent archeologist, who wears dirt brown short shorts paired with a stained white cropped tank top and gun holsters strapped to her thighs that highlight her long, shapely legs. The most ideal outfit for exploring ancient tombs right? Or look to Super Smash Brothers 4’ (2014) version of Zero Suit Samus, which accentuates her extreme body proportions with a skin-tight bodysuit, with an even more revealing costume choice you can choose. (Pictured below are the choices of colored costumes you can choose from within Super Smash Bros. 4).

Even within Samus’s own game, Metroid, she is forced to mask her femininity by wearing a full-bodied robotic suit. The same goes for The Legend of Zelda character Princess Zelda within Ocarina of Time (1998), where she literally masks her femininity by creating a male alter ego, Sheik, in order to better aid the hero Link on his journey.

The gaming industry doesn’t “know how to portray femininity in any other way because the people who make video games are men,” avid gamer Libby Springer said.

Most women within video games aren’t even given a proper backstory, hardly receiving any character development as the game’s plot progresses.  Even characters like Super Mario’s (1985) Princess Peach and The Legend of Zelda’s (1986) Princess Zelda continuously play the damsels in distress, though their series are about thirty years old. Zelda’s name is in the series’ title and she’s not even the primary character, but Link, a male hero, is. Princess characters, in particular, are only a target in a game, serving the purpose of completing a single mission.

“The women in these games are physically represented as weaker, not as dominant characters [as] opposed to men. Their background stories go in hand with how women were portrayed back in the day,” said Lagunas.

Representation of women is also low in combat-oriented games. With games like popularized Super Smash Brothers Ultimate (2018) that incorporate players from different series, there are only fourteen women out of seventy-two playable character in the roster of the latest version. Looking at another combat game like Mortal Combat X (2015), there are only eight women out of twenty-nine characters in the roster. Even with the limited options, a girl gamer doesn’t want to choose a man to play as, so she chooses a woman because that’s what she wants to win as.

“This would never happen, but I wish there was a game where the female was strong, where you would want to pick her, to be her. A lot of young girls pick the female characters because they’re pretty,” Springer said.

Libby’s desire for an even playing field means not picking a female character since they’re weaker, resulting in her losing the match between her opponent. Her limited choices in strong female characters drives her frustration. She wishes that gaming companies would incorporate women who embrace their femininity, without being weak and overly sexualized, in order to display a powerful leading role.

With past games geared towards a male-orientated consumer market, women became the target of hyper-sexualization in order to lure the male’s gaze to buying a game. With the rise of female gamers, the change of the consumer market created a cultural shift in how people view women within the gaming industry.

In just 12 years, the number of female gamers has increased dramatically. So it should be no surprise that in 2018, it’s no longer just men playing video games. According to The Statistics Portal, in 2006, only 38% of gamers were women. Today, the number has risen to 45%. With more women becoming consumers, the gaming industry’s market is no longer male-oriented and must adapt their games accordingly, says Springer.

As if unleashed from the ‘Me Too’ movement, more people are noticing the discrimination against female gamers. Refinery29’s Brianna Arps writes in “Studies Shows Female Gamers Are on The Rise - But There’s Still A Major Problem” that many female gamers are stigmatized for being a woman, receiving violent threats. Women feel like they must mask their femininity, their identity, in order to appease a man’s fragile ego from losing to them.

Battle says that when she wins a game, her male friends often tell her that she “got lucky.” Women also tend to change their gaming username to a more masculine name so as not to be complained about or harassed online. Personally, I remember when I was in an online gaming group, when guys found out I was a woman, the first thing they asked was what my bra size was.

“All I’ve been able to do so far is tell my male friends to be more open-minded and wary of their word choices. To not be surprised when I’m good,” said Battle.

But the issue doesn’t stop there. The other dilemma concerns the discrimination against hiring women. Bandai Namco employee Neely Battle wonders if this stigma lies in a bias prevalent in the gaming industry, where employers actively decide not to hire women because they may lack knowledge about games.

“A huge problem lies in the lack of women working in the industry. My office is mostly older men, and I don’t sit near any women. I would love to know how many women who worked on character design for Overwatch [a 2016 team-based multiplayer first-person shooter game] - I can’t see a woman saying ‘add more bust!’” said Battle.

With the rise of female gamers, there are few women who are designing games. From the women who are developers, they end up in the indie game realm where they are not recognized as popular enough amongst the consumer market.

“The sad truth is that plenty of male gamers wouldn’t want to play a game if they knew a woman developed it,” said Battle. Though they are present, no one knows about them because they haven’t been able to tap into the mainstream market yet.
“There needs to be a shift to where a woman can be a strong, complex protagonist without her femininity stripped away, it shouldn’t be one or the other. To do that, we need to get women into the gaming industry, who will tap into that female consumer market. We need to level the playing field,” says Springer.

*editor's note: Battle's commentary is not intended to insinuate that Bandai Namco is discriminatory towards women. All stories and experiences shared within this piece are provided to encourage insightful, respectful conversation.