#Gamergate: A Feminist Content Analysis on the Depiction of Women in Video Games

By Russell Barnes

The following article is part of a multi-part series of excerpts from the author’s senior thesis.

Introduction

What is #Gamergate?

#Gamergate is more than a hashtag that went viral on Twitter in fall of 2014; it is a controversy that is rooted in decades of sexism in one of the fastest growing mediums – video games. At first glance, the modern video game market seems vastly different compared to 1977, when the Atari 2600 became the first multi-game home console to be released to the consumer market[1]. Video game graphics are much improved, there are more competitors in the video game market, and games are more accessible than ever, thanks to smartphones, tablets and other advances in mobile technology. However, some aspects of the video game industry are still the same. Some of the most well-known video game characters of the modern era got their start on Atari’s console, such as Pac-Man and Mario of the Super Mario Bros. franchise. Alongside these characters, much of the complaints of sexism within the video games and inside the industry have continued to be upheld, or in some cases, escalate in severity and frequency.

#Gamergate began to receive increased media attention after feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian canceled a speech at Utah State University on the portrayal of women in video games in October 2014[2]. Several staffers at the university received a mass shooting threat due to her scheduled appearance, stating that “the deadliest school shooting in American history” would occur if Sarkeesian’s appearance wasn’t canceled[3]. Hours after the school announced they had received the threats, Sarkeesian canceled her speech. The school said, in accordance with Utah state law, that guests could carry firearms with a permit at the venue. Sarkeesian said this made her feel unsafe.

Despite this, Sarkeesian went on to resume speeches on women’s depiction in video games the following month. Yet it isn’t just death threats she has received. After speaking out against the various forms of misogyny in gaming, she has received rape threats and had her address and social security number published[4]. A similar scenario happened with video game developer Brianna Wu, who published a series of tweets that stated that those arguing with Sarkeesian were “fighting an apocalyptic future where women are 8 percent of programmers and not 3 percent.[5]” Brianna would receive over 40 death threats over the course of five months, have threats made towards her husband, and have her home address published.

Primary Criticisms of #Gamergate

The concerns of sexism regarding the depiction of women and their roles within the industry, which are at the center of #Gamergate, parallel various feminist theories. Women have less of a presence than men in video games, and a smaller presence in leading, playable roles. The degree they are sexualized has also received a vast amount of criticism. Inside the industry, while the amount of women working in the business is growing, it is nowhere near the rates of men. This leads to a variety of questions regarding who video games are made for, and how this influences the development of female characters within them. While progress has been made in some of these areas, critics are saying that the current progress isn’t enough, and needs to continue in order to truly promote equality throughout the video game industry.

Feminism, to many, is often defined as the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. Over the past few years (and arguably since the 1990’s), third-wave feminism continues to diffuse throughout various aspects of society, popular culture and media in the Western world. In contrast to first- and second-wave feminism, whose focuses respectively centralize around women’s suffrage and women’s reproductive rights, third-wave feminism centralizes around the idea that feminism is not meant to benefit just the white women, but also women of color, queer women, older women and non-able bodied women, among others.  This shift has been apparent in video games, yet to simply say progress has been made is not a thorough analysis of how sexism has interacted with racism, ageism and homophobia, and in some ways, still does.

Female characters in video games are often times a hot commodity based on their physical appearance, much like female-associated personalities in other mediums, such as television and advertising. In video games, this has led to female characters being dressed up and overtly sexualized, older female characters not having as much prominence in storylines, and/or white female characters getting more audience. The investment put into a female character can be heavy, oftentimes leading them depicted as a mere object that symbolizes their oppression. Often times, a lack of investment can also symbolize their oppression when the processes used to create and promote a female character involve less originality, visibility and/or financial resources. Some female characters originated as mere clones from male originals, or are modified with masculine-associated signifiers to make themselves more heroic, as if feminine traits cannot be heroic themselves. The most prominent female video game protagonists – the likes of Lara Croft, Princess Peach and Jill Valentine, to name a few – are all white-appearing, young, heteronormative women, theorized to be designed in order to please an audience stereotypically dominated by men. However, as you’ll still find out, that may no longer be the case.

State of the Video Game Industry

A 2013 survey by EEDAR, a research firm specializing in video game research, found that out of a list of 669 games where characters had recognizable genders, only 24, or approximately three percent, had exclusively female lead protagonists. You have the option of selecting a female protagonist in slightly less than 300 of these sampled games, or around 45 percent. The rest of the protagonists are exclusively male, while women are often secondary protagonists or tokenized as characters that have to be obtained or interacted with through various side quests[6].

These percentages are only slightly less than of the games presented at the 2015 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) conference, the largest video game conference of the year[7]. Nine percent of games featured an exclusive female protagonist, while 46 percent of games provided the option of choosing your protagonist’s gender. While games that allow you to choose the gender of your character received higher review scores, games with exclusively male protagonists sold around 75 percent more than games with exclusively female protagonists within the first three months of their release.

A report released by the International Game Developers Association in June 2014 found that 22 percent of video game developers are female[8]. While still a minority, that is almost double the percentage from five years prior. We may not be able to say that this will lead to a change in the depiction of women in video games, as well as their virtual relationships with men, but it has the potential be a starting point in creating the necessary conversations in and outside of the industry to spur these changes. Regardless, many video games are still accused of being curated as developed for the “male gaze,” a concept first defined by feminist critic Laura Mulvey in 1975[9]. The “male gaze,” involves characters being developed in a way that is believed to cater to the male eye due to potentially unconscious patriarchal influence. The male gaze is also accused of being incorporated into various video games, where females oftentimes serve as accessories to the male, or lead to the advancement of the male’s storyline, potentially as a “damsel in distress.” Developing games for the male gaze often results in a depiction of women that is weaker than their men counterparts. Traits of masculinity, such as strength and courage found in heroes, are often contrasted to those of femininity, such as weakness or non-self-reliance, which is found in various “damsels.” In essence, a superiority-inferiority dynamic is established, placing women at a disadvantage to men.

That doesn’t mean that female characters cannot be successful as the face of a video game brand. Various women are the faces of their own video game brands, most notably as Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider franchise. However, Lara Croft is a notable example of a character that has been accused of being developed for the male gaze. Lara’s final breast size in the first Tomb Raider game released in 1996 was 150 percent larger than the initial model designed by Toby Gard[10]. Although the size hike was claimed to be an accident – her breasts were initially to be increased by 50 percent – developers at Core, the initial developer of the Tomb Raider franchise, instantly approved of Gard’s design before Gard had the chance to correct it.  Her breasts were unrealistically proportioned to her body and would later become a trademark attribute to her character. She was also dressed in short brown shorts, which became another staple part of Croft’s attire for years. Croft would become a cultural phenomenon, yet the development of her character would face much criticism over the years.

What is a Modern Gamer?

Video games are a growing medium of entertainment that has created a variety of prominent characters and conversations within Western popular culture. Despite a popular stereotype of video gamers being a young teenage male, over half – 52 percent – of video gamers in the United Kingdom were female as of September 2014[11]. Other studies have found that 48 percent of women in America have played a video game[12]. Regardless, the fact remains that an increasing amount of women are playing video games as video game popularity continues to escalate. This is heavily due to the evolving definition of what a gamer is. The growth of smartphones and release of new video game consoles has allowed global video game sales to top $93 billion in 2013, a number expected to increase by over $18 billion by the end of 2015.

With the growth of players and economic capital that circulate within the video game industry, one must ask, “How are women treated the way they are in games?” There are a variety of theories for that, as this thesis will discuss. However, it’s important to note that console games, which have larger budgets, are the segment in the video game industry where the most revenue comes from[13]. It is where video game developers see their largest market potential to garner large profits. It is games that are produced for these consoles that have the strongest presence in pop culture and have led to the creation of various pop culture icons, such as Mario and Lara Croft, while also perpetuating gender inequality in the same arena. With that being said, it is often these games that are consumed by the largest audience and therefore not only have the largest appeal, but have the most potential to have a wide impact on pop culture as a whole.

As this industry continues to grow, video game developers are increasingly scrutinized over how the content of their games has the potential to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. One of the largest discussions revolves around sexism, which came to a head near the end of 2014. #Gamergate began receiving mainstream media attention and, in part, ignited a cultural conversation regarding the depiction of women throughout the medium.

Literature Review

Games journalism is nothing new; video games have been critically analyzed for decades. Many of the characters and video games mentioned throughout this thesis have been critiqued before. While post-Gamergate critique remains minuscule, the status of female video game icons was subject to debate long before the scandal was more frequently covered in mainstream media. Feminist critiques of video games have various resulting opinions, and as a subjective matter, do not necessarily have a unanimous, solidified conclusion. Many of these critiques discuss Lara Croft, the protagonist of the Tomb Raider series.

Lara Croft has been considered to be both a feminist icon and a sex symbol in the world of video games[14]. Feminist approaches to Lara’s character are wide. Some feminists praise the character due to her prominence in a male-dominated field of action-adventure games. To see a woman being centrally highlighted and in control of her surroundings can be seen as empowering. Some criticism also ties in with feminist film critic Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze. Criticism alluding to Mulvey’s male gaze theory – whether specifically mentioned or not – often cites Lara’s character design, which has been known to have larger than average breasts, as well as her short shorts, which are occasionally seen as impractical due to the nature of her job as an archeologist. The physical character of design is, by some, fetishizing of women and capable of providing scopophilic benefits to a man. This pleasure is the end result of the male gaze, which simply states that visual arts, including video games, are curated to the desires of the male viewer.

Concern over the depiction of women in video games is also not a new topic of conversation. A 1998 analysis of 33 games released for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles found that 21 percent of the games depicted violence against women and 28 percent of video games featured women portrayed as sex objects[15]. The games in this study were chosen based off of their retail and rental popularity from six businesses during the spring of 1995. While women were cited as being sexualized and or depicted in stereotypically feminine ways, the most common occurrence was the lack of women in video games. More than 40 percent of video games didn’t feature female characters at all, and only 15 percent of video games featured a female as protagonists. One of the games analyzed, Mortal Kombat II, is featured in this analysis. Super Mario II and III are also featured on the list, although this analysis looks at the Super Mario series holistically.

The Super Mario series is known for utilizing the damsel in distress trope in its games, which was found to be apparent in 21 percent of the analyzed games. These types of games often depict a female character as a friend or romantic interest to the central protagonist, only for the female to be kidnapped by an antagonist figure and/or the primary antagonist. The kidnapped character, such as Princess Peach in various Super Mario Bros. titles, becomes the object that the story revolves around in regards that you must save her from the antagonist. A repetitive trope in the series, as well as in many video games, allegations of normalizing violence as a way to solve problems and victimization of women have also arisen. Combined with the less frequent presence of women in video games, critics often state the roles of women in video games are “limited.”

Another capacity where women are limited is when their character design is derived from a male counterpart character[16]. Yet, while research on this trope is limited, female video game characters have received similar designs to their male counterparts with stereotypically feminine gender signifiers added to their models, such as the color pink, makeup and revealing clothing. In many of these cases, including in all cases Dietz’s (1998) study, there were more male characters in the game than women, oftentimes constructing a clear gender binary between the two primary sexes.

While the title of this analysis implies this is an analysis about women, this analysis isn’t just about women, but arguably about the relationship between men and women in video games. What oftentimes is centric to a video game’s story and/or character development is hegemonic masculinity. The concept, developed by sociologist R.W. Connell, forms around the idea that various variables in society are developed around dominant male positions and the oppression of women. Female video game characters have relationships with other characters, male and female, as well as the player through how they are perceived. The concern with many scholars is that the nature of video games encourages this type of masculinity that promotes “hegemonic Western masculine traits of competition, strength, speed, aggression, and domination,[17]” and therefore promotes injustice and other behaviors associated with the oppression of various sociological minorities.

Minority representation – in particular, the lack thereof – has also been recognized in video games. A majority of protagonists and video game characters are white men. While there have been concerns pointed out regarding the normalcy of women being inferior, it’s more than just gender that is beginning to be increasingly discussed. Feminism began to arguably move into its third-wave in the early to mid-1990s, and as it has evolved over time, so have discussions surrounding it. Unlike first- and second-wave feminism, which are often accused of trying to exclusively push for equality between men and women, third-wave feminism pushes for equity amongst various groups of women, such as women of color, older women and women with disabilities. Modern video game feminist critics, such as Anita Sarkeesian, have been critical of the low amount of women of color[18] in video games and have pushed for an increase in women of color characters. She has also called out hypersexualization of women of color in the video game industry, and crowdsourced a miniseries, Tropes vs. Women, to discuss the depiction of women in video games. Her critiques led to her becoming one of #Gamergate’s central figures.

This analysis aims to answer how various tropes within video games – brought to an increased amount of debate as a result of the #Gamergate scandal – are reflective of hegemonic masculinity. It’s important to note that while there has been research on the depiction of female video game characters in the past, it has seldom been done in the context of their relationship with their male counterparts. Previous academic discussion has often discussed the sexualization of women based on their physical appearance, the violence they received or their lack of prominence within games itself. Yet, their social status within these games is often determined by the patriarchal power system implemented by their male counterparts, whether it be in the game as characters or outside of the game as developers. This paper aims to fill that gap by generating a discussion about this narrative.

Research Methods

Despite the #Gamergate hashtag becoming viral in 2014, the inferior depiction of women – in terms of the number of roles and their lack of prominence within storylines – have been present for decades. The definition of a gamer, as well as the state of the video game industry, has also evolved over time, as has popular culture. This ever changing world has led to an increased amount of vocal criticism of the video game medium and its associated content by feminist critics – as well as members of the general public – for the exploitation of the female gender and its associated traits. As years have passed, the video game industry has changed: there is a larger audience of gamers, more advanced technology to create more realistic graphics and an increasing amount of female and transgender video game developers, to name a few aspects.

The research and evidence used in this thesis consisted of hundreds of hours of me playing video games, while analyzing the content within the game, as well as looking into advertising campaigns for said games. Advertising has the potential to influence consumer behavior, both pre- and post-purchasing. I also analyzed the content of various studies related to the video game industry in connection with various forms of feminist theory. There are a variety of case studies that are analyzed through a feminist lens throughout the analysis that includes over 20 different video games released from 1980 to 2015.

The video games included in this analysis were chosen for many reasons. Previous studies that have analyzed the content of video games have looked at games that were popular during a certain timeframe. However, with the goals of looking at various series and the growth of the video game industry over time, focusing on a specific timeframe would limit the ability to analyze the evolution of the video game industry. Some of the analyzed games are a part of a series, providing opportunities to analyze the evolution of various phenomena over a period of time. Other games have been previously cited in other games studies due to their societal contributions. Multiple games in the piece have been subject to previous critical and academic analysis, including Mortal Kombat II, Tomb Raider and the Super Smash Bros. series.

A majority of the games featured within the analysis have been subject to critical acclaim and/or criticism for their depiction of women, as well as their incorporation of hegemonic masculinity. While a primary focus of this analysis is the depiction of female characters in the video game medium; their depiction’s intersections with their male character counterparts is essential to understanding the implications of these relationships. The critical acclaim that many of these video games have received, along with many of these games’ commercial success, provides increased chances that they have been exposed to a larger audience, thus having a larger cultural appeal. There are also some cases where games were curated within the same genre, and serve as antitheses to one another, such as Resident Evil 4 and The Last of Us. The contrast that such examples provide allows for an analysis of how games similar to one another evolve and/or devolve over a period of time.

The following video games are included in the analysis , with an emphasis on three tropes within the video game medium, as specified in the below table:

Game Year released Tropes present within video game that are analyzed in thesis
1 – Male Gaze
2 – Damsel in Distress
3 – Female Clone
Tomb Raider 1996 1
Super Mario Bros. (series) First game released in
1985
2
Mortal Kombat 1992 1
Mortal Kombat II 1993 1, 3
Mortal Kombat 3 1995 1
Mortal Kombat (reboot) 2011 1, 3
Mortal Kombat X 2015 1, 3
Tekken 2 1995 1
Tekken 3 1997 1
Tomb Raider (reboot) 2013 1
Rise of the Tomb Raider 2015 1
Super Princess Peach 2005 2
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood 2010 2
Pac-Man 1980 3
Ms. Pac-Man 1982 3
Mass Effect 2007 3
Mass Effect 3 2012 3
Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff 2014 3
Final Fantasy X 2001 3
Final Fantasy X-2 2003 3
Metroid 1986 3
The Last of Us 2013 2
Resident Evil 4 2005 2
The Last of Us: Left Behind 2014 2

 

Continue reading Part 2 here.

 

[1] PBS. “History of Gaming: Interactive Timeline of Game History.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 20 Aug. 2015.

[2] “UPDATE: Sarkeesian Event Canceled.” Utah State Today. Utah State University, 14 Oct. 2014. Web. 25 Aug. 2015.

[3]Ahmed, Saeed, and Tony Marco. “Anita Sarkeesian Forced to Cancel Utah State Speech after Mass Shooting Threat.” CNN. Cable News Network, 2014. Web. 25 Aug. 2015.

[4] Chang, Juju. “What It Feels Like to Be a Gamergate Target.” YouTube. ABC News, 14 Jan. 2015. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

[5] Teitell, Beth, and Callum Borchers. “GamerGate Anger at Women All Too Real for Gamemaker – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. Boston Globe Media Partners, Llc., 30 Oct. 2014. Web. 1 Sept. 2015.

[6] Van Name, Sarah. “Guess How Many Video Games Feature Female Protagonists?” Mic.  Mic, 19 June 2013. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

[7]“Gender Breakdown of Games Showcased at E3 2015.” Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency, 22 June 2015. Web. 4 Sept. 2015.

[8] International Game Developers Association. IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey Results Are Released. IGDA. N.p., 24 June 2014. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

[9] Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative CinemaVisual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Google Scholar. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.

[10]McLaughlin, Rus. “IGN Presents: The History of Tomb Raider.” IGN.com. Ziff Davis, Llc., 29 Feb. 2008. Web. 2 Sept. 2015.

[11] Jaynath, Meg. “52% of Gamers Are Women – but the Industry Doesn’t Know It.” The Guardian. Guardian News, 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.

[12]  Duggan, Maeve. “Gaming and Gamers”. 15 Dec. 2015. 2. Pew Research Center.

[13] Gartner. “Gartner Says Worldwide Video Game Market to Total $93 Billion in 2013.” Gartner Says Worldwide Video Game Market to Total $93 Billion in 2013. Gartner, Inc., 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 Aug. 2015.

[14] Kennedy, Helen W. “Lara Croft: Feminist icon or cyberbimbo? On the limits of textual analysis.” Game Studies: International Journal of Computer Games Research 2.2 (2002).

[15] Dietz, Tracy L. “An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization and aggressive behavior.”Sex roles 38.5-6 (1998): 425-442.

[16] “Ms. Male Character – Tropes vs. Women.” Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency, 18 Nov.2015. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

[17] Sanford, Kathy, and Leanna Madill. “Understanding the Power of New Literacies Through Video Game Play and Design”. Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’éducation 30.2 (2007): 432–455. Web…

[18] http://kotaku.com/how-anita-sarkeesian-wants-video-games-to-change-1688231729

Russell Barnes is a recovering news reporter, chronic video game lover and donut addict. You’ll likely find him walking around one of Minneapolis’ lakes playing Pokemon Go.

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