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Gender Representation in Video Games

Video games have long been known as a male-dominated media, including in the terms of market audience, player base, and character representation in game. Research concerning gender representation in video games often focuses on a few key points of how men and women are depicted differently: frequency and playability (ability to play a male character versus a female character), physical abilities, role in the game, and physical representation (in terms of body, attire, etc) (Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory, 2009; Robinson, Callister, Clark, & Phillips, 2008; Miller, & Summers, 2007; Jansz, & Martis, 2007; Burgess, Stermer, & Burgess, 2007; Ivory, 2006). Content analysis concerning video games and gender is performed based on a variety of aspects, including magazine reviews (Miller & Summers, 2007), video game covers (Burgess, et al., 2007), online reviews and official game websites (Ivory, 2006; Robinson et al., 2008), introductory films in video games (Jansz & Martis, 2007), and video game play itself (Williams et al., 2009). Some studies focused on games solely for console platforms (Playstation, Xbox, etc.) (Miller & Summers, 2007; Burgess et al., 2007; Jansz & Martis, 2007), while others included both console and PC games (Williams et. al., 2009; Ivory, 2006). A common system used to determine sampling is to find the most popular games on the market, either through market research, game store offerings, or through well-known game review websites such as Gamespot.com (Williams et. al, 2009; Robinson et. al, 2008; Burgess et al., 2007; Ivory, 2006). Miller and Summers’ (2007) study chose their sample of magazines (Xbox, Playstation, and Nintendo Power) because they were actually published by console companies and may generally be considered as “authorities”, while Jansz and Martis (2007) excluded sports games, racing games, and fighting games due to their lack of character development and developed selection criteria based on character representation (male, female, minority) and story line.

Findings for gender representation in video games generally support past findings in that males are significantly more represented than females (Williams et al., 2009; Robinson et al., 2008; Miller & Summers, 2007; Burgess et al., 2007; Ivory, 2006). Ivory’s (2006) research on video game reviews found that, while “75%...of the reviews mentioned male characters, only 42%...mentioned female characters in any capacity” (p. 109). Miller and Summers (2007) found that, “Of the 49 games included in the analysis, 282 male humans and 53 female human characters appeared, indicating 1 female for every 5.3 male characters” (p. 737). Along the same lines, Burgess et al. (2007) found that “[m]ales were twice as likely to appear on covers as females were” (p. 423); following that, their sample examined 381 male characters compared to only 104 female characters. Robinson et al.’s (2008) study on video game websites also supported this trend, finding that “male characters outnumbered female characters 3 to 1 (577 male characters to 196 female characters).” More recently, Williams et al. (2009) found that “male characters are vastly more likely to appear than female character [sic] in general. The overall difference of 85.23/14.77 percent is also a large contrast with the 50.9/49.1 percent distribution in the actual population” (p. 824). While the trend seems that men are continuing to outnumber women in character representation in game, Jansz and Martis’ (2007) results “seem to indicate that the number of female characters in recent games is far larger than it was in earlier games” (p. 146). Their results may have been biased “toward a higher prevalence of female characters”, however, “because [they] did not draw a random sample but deliberately selected popular games with a diverse cast of characters” (p. 146).

Studies also found that males were often more playable than female characters, with research focusing on “[a]gency…as a function of character role: was the character considered the primary character and central to the game or simply an ancillary character without a clear cut contribution to the game? ” (Burgess et al., 2007, p. 424) or another similar form. Ivory (2006) found that “65%...of the reviews indicated male playable characters, whereas only 22%...mentioned female playable characters” (p. 110). Burgess et al. (2007) found that “[m]ales were almost five times more likely to be portrayed as the primary character…than females” (p. 424-425). Miller and Summers (2007) found that “males were heroes 58.1% of the time, significantly more than females (34.6%)” (p. 738). In addition, of games where the gender of characters was known, “in 51% of the games, men were playable, in 26.5% of the games females were playable and 10.2% of the games allowed the player to choose to play as either the male or female” (Miller & Summers, 2007, p. 738). Robinson et al. (2008) make an important note about games that provide the ability to choose character gender representation, “[e]ven for games where players could pick the character's gender (e.g., The Sims 2 and Guild Wars), there were still more male characters (60%) than female characters (40%) on the Web site.” Recently, Williams et al. (2009) also support the higher frequency of male playability,

This difference is heightened among the primary ‘doer’ characters, where males are even more likely to appear. As a general rule then, males appear more frequently in games than females, and even more so as drivers of the action. When females do appear, they are more likely to be in secondary roles than primary ones. (p. 824)

Concerning men and women in passive roles, conclusions are mixed. Studies have found little difference in men and women as passive characters (8% versus 9%, respectively) (Ivory, 2006), males being “four times more likely to be portrayed as ancillary characters” (Burgess et al., 2007, p. 425), and that “14.5% of males were supplemental characters, a significantly lower amount than females (30.8%)” (Miller & Summers, 2007, p. 738).

Burgess et al. (2007) made an interesting hypothesis, that

females would be more likely to share their primary status with a primary male. Even with a primary female character, the presence of a primary male implied that the female was only allowed to be an important part of the game because the male was there with her. The male could serve as protector, guide, or actually perform most of the action while the female serves as a sidekick. (p. 425)

Their research supported this, finding that the amount of primary female characters paired with a male primary character was significantly higher than the proportion of primary males paired with primary females. Concerning characters sharing the primary spotlight, “20 games had more than one primary male while only one game had more than one primary female” (p. 425). Furthermore, “while only one primary male was portrayed sharing the spotlight with two primary females, 20%...of the primary females were portrayed with two primary males” (p. 425).

Differing from typical results, Jansz and Martis (2007) found that “[w]omen 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” (p. 147). Their results also found “no submissive female characters at all. Women in [their] set of 12 games were equal to men, or they dominated them. This contrasts with the presence of submissive female characters in all other studies” (p. 147). A prime example in their research of this strong, competent, dominant female (they term it the ‘Lara phenomenon’), is “Jennifer in Primal, who must embark on a journey to rescue her boyfriend Lewis, [who] illustrates that men in contemporary video games can be victims who must be saved by a female character” (p. 146).

Regardless of primary or supporting role, research continues to support previous findings that women are portrayed in a sexualized manner more often than men. Ivory (2006) notes that, “Though female characters were underrepresented overall, their attractiveness and sexuality were mentioned in proportionally more reviews than that of males” (p. 110). Further support was found in males being represented as more muscular, while women were more sexy (Miller & Summers, 2007; Jansz & Martis, 2007). Sexiness was generally illustrated via physical build and attire. Females’ clothing was more revealing (either by less or tighter clothing) overall (Miller & Summers, 2007; Jansz & Martis, 2007; Robinson et al., 2008). Burgess et al. (2008) make an interesting observation in that, when character bodies were portrayed as pieces, “84% of female characters…were fragmented using artificial means (e.g., just drawing the legs and buttocks) as opposed to environmental factors (e.g., legs being unobservable when riding in a car) compared to 55% of male characters” (p. 425). Robinson et al. (2008) noted that, “Fifteen percent of (M)ature games also included characters that were coded as being naked or having exposed breasts, buttocks, or genitals. Of the characters coded as ‘naked,’ 88% were female.” Females are also often portrayed with large breasts (Jansz & Martis, 2007; Burgess et al., 2008). Jansz and Martis (2007) noted that, “Buttocks also were difficult to ignore. They were particularly emphasized among female characters…(77%), but about 25% of the male characters also appeared with eye catching behinds” (p. 146). Another observation in Jansz and Martis’ (2007) study was that there are exceptions to the feminine standard of sexy attire: “The male figure Dante (Devil May Cry 2), for example, was presented in an explicit, sexy, and seductive outfit” (p. 146).

A content analysis of female bodies by Martins, Williams, Harrison, & Ratan, (2009) revealed that video game depictions in general all feature larger heads than in reality. Their results suggest that the more realistic the imagery in a game, the smaller the female characters’ chest, waist, and hips, and the more they conform to the “thin-ideal seen in other media” (p. 830).

A study I found of particular interest was Ewan Kirkland’s (2005) analysis of the game series Silent Hill (SH). Kirkland’s introduction to the game in regards to gender, sexuality, and race cites a common formula that includes “the sexualized depiction of female characters, the overwhelming masculinity of the implied game player, and the recurring structure of male heroes rescuing helpless females” (p. 173). Following lines I’ve mentioned previously of female characters depicted sexually regardless of type of role, Kirkland provides the example of Princess Toadstool from the popular Super Mario Bros. series. She has the ability to float, which her accompanying characters do not; this “compatibility of Princess’ abilities with traditional constructions of femininity as dainty, ethereal and light/slender deserves acknowledgement” (p. 173). Moving onto the analysis of Silent Hill itself, Kirkland describes how the series “both conforms to and complicates this formula (cited above)” (p. 173). Another example that parallels that of Princess Toadstool is the SH character Eileen. She is paired with a male character, Henry, and, “[w]hile undeniably a rescue-figure, Eileen does join in combat, although her chosen weapons of handbag and riding crop to Henry’s revolver and baseball bat are as markedly feminine as Princess’ graceful gliding” (p. 173-174). Silent Hill’s characters continue to complicate the formula of the sexualized female through “Heather, SH3’s central character, [who] also differs from video games’ predominantly fetishized femininity in her androgynous appearance and narrative centrality” (p. 174); the formula of the masculine male is complicated as well: “Harry’s fatherhood, James’ husband-hood, and Henry’s imprisonment within his apartment, domesticate, feminize and distinguish these male characters from other more hyper-masculine video game heroes” (p.174).

What may be considered another complication, or perhaps extension, of the sexualized female in the formula mentioned by Kirkland is an observation made by Burgess et al. (2007). Not every game portrays characters with an observable gender, nor is every game character human, though they may be humanoid in nature. One example of a game that portrays humanoid characters is Conker: Reloaded, where characters are squirrels playing the role of soldiers (Burgess et al., 2007). On the cover of the game was a “male squirrel straddling a large, smoking cannon and holding additional weapons clearly indicating an active role. The female squirrel is shown stroking the cannon in a suggestive way; although she is holding a bloody weapon, her fighting role was minimized relative to that as a sexy, supportive cheerleader” (Burgess et al., 2007, p. 423). This observation is particularly important, as noted by Burgess et al. (2007): “Perhaps one of the most bizarre aspects of this cover, and others like it, was the notion of sexy squirrels; the blatant hyper sexuality of female characters was so prevalent that it even spread to small rodents” (p. 423).

One question that may arise concerning the portrayals of gender roles in video games is that of ethical responsibility. As mentioned in Williams et al.’s (2009) virtual census, video game character representations do not accurately reflect American society today; instead there is a mix of over- and under- representation in gender, race, and age. An article by Mike Doolittle of GameCritics.com (2009) asks the question, “Are game developers ethically responsible for gender roles in games?” This is quite obviously a heated topic, especially considering the 30 pages of comments. Another question found in Doolittle’s (2009) article and its subsequent comments is: Is the representation of genders in video games artistic expression, or is it driven by company executives and bottom lines?

In my research, I have found that gender representations are simply analyzed and there is little to no mention of game developers’ reasons for their portrayals of gender. Per this, I have sent out an e-mail to Blizzard Entertainment asking why they portray their characters as they do. Their games include a range of gender portrayals, from the female protagonist-turned-antagonist Kerrigan in Starcraft; the male protagonist-turned-antagonist Arthas in the Warcraft series and its massively multiplayer online (MMO) offspring, World of Warcraft (WoW); and the character choice between multiple strong, competent males and females in Diablo. WoW also features a host of other male authority figures, with two female counterparts (one is strong-willed, while the other is shown as powerful but emotional and dainty in comparison). One of the stronger appeals found in WoW, that may also be true of other role-playing games, is the player’s choice regarding their avatar (character); WoW allows players equal choice in gender, race, and physical features. Another popular MMO, Age of Conan, offers similar choices, though all their characters are humans (WoW has multiple humanoid races). While I may receive no response during the time of this writing, or at all, looking at why developers portray characters as they do may be as important as the effects of these representations.

Golden Sun

Golden Sun, RPG
©2010 Nintendo/CAMELOT

FF X-2

Final Fantasy X-2, RPG
©2003 Square Enix Co.

Primal

Jennifer from Primal, Action adventure
©Sony Computer Entertainment

Tifa

Tifa from Final Fantasy VII, RPG
©1997 Square Enix Co.

Devil May Cry

Devil May Cry, Survival horror, Action
©2003 Capcom

Silent Hill 3

Silent Hill 3, Survival horror
Images ©Konami
Wallpaper ©DarkHunter666

Conker

Conker: Live & Reloaded, Platform, third-person shooter
©2010 Microsoft

Kerrigan

Kerrigan from Starcraft, Real-time strategy
©2011 Blizzard Entertainment

Arthas

Arthas from World of Warcraft, MMORPG
©2009 Blizzard Entertainment