The Misrepresentation of Women in Video Games

How women are represented in the media has been an ongoing issue for many years. Though improvements have begun over time through the prevalence of the #MeToo Movement and the heightened emphasis of International Women’s Day, women continue to be misrepresented in the media every day.

Some would call out platforms such as news outlets and social media for being the main culprits of this issue, however, they often fail to mention a platform many encounter at a young age: video games. 

Since its introduction in the 1980s, video games have become a popular source of entertainment for many children, men, and women for their storylines, playability, and the overall experience for gamers.

As graphics immensely improved over the past half-century, so has the increase of gender stereotyping and the hyper sexualization of women in video games. This is due to the creators and designers in the video game industry assuming that the majority of the gamer population are (young) males.

At the same time, games are designed to incentivize the player to continue the game, which is why female characters are often viewed as eye candy.

According to a worldwide study by the market research company NPD Group, over 90 per cent of children ages 2-17 play video games - which means over 64 million kids are possibly exposed to video games with stigmatizing portrayals of women.

Often in video games female characters are typically associated with clichés such as the damsel in distress, the sidekick, and beautiful but weak. Other times, they are more akin to the hyper sexualized Lara Croft. This may influence some young gamers to believe all fictional characters are a reflection of how women are in real life and how they should be treated.

Some notable examples of female characters surrounded by forced clichés are Princess Peach from the ‘Super Mario’ franchise, ‘Zelda from the Legend’ of Zelda franchise, and the left arm prop used by Rad Spencer in the Bionic Commando 2009 video game. 

Peach and Zelda expect Mario and Link, respectively, to save them. This implies their weakness and dependency on men are how women should act in real life: as damsels in distress. 

The bionic arm of Rad Spencer, the protagonist of the Bionic Commando video game, was made out of his dead wife to emotionally connect with you as a player, but it comes across as extremely offensive, since it symbolically implies women are props instead of actual beings.

Not only are females in video games presented in a disempowering manner, but they are also often hyper sexualized. There are many games that take advantage of the principle that “sex sells.”

In other words, women are objectified for the sole purpose of the heterosexual male gaze. Throughout gaming history, women are extremely beautiful, with enlarged assets and skimpy clothes. Although they may be equivalent or better than a male character in terms of the skills they possess, that is all ignored because of their sexy appearance. 

For example, Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series is the protagonist, and is mainly adored because of her beauty and sexual appearance. However, had she worn unflattering clothes with reduced asset sizes, the franchise may not have been as successful as it is today.

However, no franchise can compare to the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series. The games usually follow the stories of male characters and largely misrepresents women by reinforcing gender stereotypes and hyper sexuality. 

For example, in GTA V, women are presented as passive, annoying, oblivious, self-destructive, and sex-needy individuals who only work as strippers or prostitutes. The player can shoot as many women as they want, and is even forced to grope a female stripper. 

As a result, GTA normalizes violence against women and suggests that women are likely to be similar to the characters in the game. 

Although gendering and sexualization is still a major issue today, things are looking up for female video game characters. Characters like the young Ellie from ‘The Last of Us’ franchise are a peek at what the future of female game characters can be. While Ellie easily could have been designed as a damsel in distress, she is instead a strong, young woman with a realistic approach to the world around her. 

Video game designers, take note. You’re not just designing for the straight male gaze; female gamers are demanding equality, even when that equality is pixelated.