Games & Feminism

I’ve always been a gamer. Ever since Pokemon Red was plugged into my Game Boy I applied that label to myself. I spent hours playing a variety of games from The Oregon Trail to The Sims both by myself and with a friend. We helped Hugo rescue Penelope (Hugo’s House of Horrors), attempted to find the hidden passages in Wolfenstein 3D, and tried to work our way through Project Zero – we were way too young to play that game and it scared me to death every time; we’ve never managed to finished it – but some of the most fun I had was playing Final Fantasy VIII.

I can’t remember exactly how I got onto that game, whether my friend got her copy first or I got mine, but that was the beginning of my RPG obsession; there’s just something about RPGs that I adore. I don’t mind the grind that’s typically associated with these games – in fact that might be part of why I enjoy them – and the stories are generally enjoyable to experience. I can easily spend 100 hours plus to “trophy hunt” on my favourite games.

I’ve not always labelled myself a feminist. I always believed I was equal and it wasn’t until I realised that as a gaming girl I was seen as “different” I discovered this wasn’t the case. When I got older and found out things like the gender pay gap and the proportion of women in STEM I also opened my eyes to other aspects of female equality. I focused especially on gaming, as I studied game development, and I began to view the games I played differently. Instead of just “going with the flow”, I started to question the decisions made in the development of the games I loved and finally came across the realisation that the depiction of women in video games is vastly different to that of men.

Feminism – A sociopolitical movement with the central goal of ending sexism and dismantling gender-based oppression.

A lot of published research has been done into the representation of women in video games. T. L. Dietz – Sex Roles (1998) – found that in a sample of 33 Nintendo and Sega games popular in 1995, 30% of the games didn’t represent women at all; 21% of those games depicted women as a “Damsel in Distress”. 21% of the games analysed showed violence towards women, with this violence typically providing the start of the game and giving the (usually) male character his motivation for the game. This isn’t a new trend either, you may have heard of the trope “fridging” or “women in refrigerators” which came originally from comic books but can be applied across media. If you want more information on this trope, I recommend you check out Feminist Frequency’s video on the matter.

10 years after the Dietz research, Dill & Thill – Sex Roles (2007) – found both male and female characters were portrayed in game magazines in stereotypical ways. For men this involved posing with weapons or portraying aggression, for women “the norm is for characters to be depicted as sex objects who wear skimpy clothing, conform to an idealized body type, and are visions of beauty”. They also interviewed teenagers and found that these stereotypes were upheld by gamers and non-gamers alike. Interestingly, Dill & Thill found 62.2% of the women featured in games were portrayed as aggressive as well as sexualised and glamorised, which was different from Dietz’s research where women were barely represented. Dill & Thill noted in their study that they agree with other research that says although more female protagonists exist those characters that are  “objectified, sexualized and trivialized . . . are not true figures of liberation.”, something that I also agree with.

When I look at the games I love to play I find myself mainly playing as a male character; if I have the option to play as a female character it’s often a shared role. The two notable exceptions are Final Fantasy XIII and Tomb Raider, both of which have strong female leads and don’t feel sexualised. I’m interested in examining the games I love to play more thoroughly to identify the roles women play in those games in comparison to the male characters.

I want to investigate the portrayal of both men and women in the games and keep some tally amounts, inspired by Dill & Thill’s research on game magazine advertisements. I plan to keep track of the following:

  1. The number of female named characters vs the number of male named characters.
  2. The number of named characters are portrayed aggressively.
  3. The number of named characters sexually dressed; low cut tops that show cleavage or chest muscles, no tops, short skirts, short shorts etc.
  4. The number of named characters conforming to the sexualised ideal body type found by Dill & Thill. For women – the idealised body image; large breasts, thin waist, and wearing provocative dress or poses. For men – hypermasculine features; large muscles, chiselled jaw and other masculine facial features, and displaying power and dominance.

While doing my research on gender representation I came across “tests” that have been coined for seeing with whether women characters are misused and I plan to see whether the games I play pass or fail these tests.

  1. The Bechdel-Wallace Test – Do two named women characters have a conversation about something other than men?
  2. Mako Mori Test – Does at least one prominent female character have a narrative arc that not about supporting a man’s story?
  3. The Sexy Lamp Test – If you replace a female character with a sexy lamp would the story still work?

I also have some questions myself from my own personal experience that I aim to answer too.

  1. Who are the protagonist/antagonist and what are their motives?
  2. Would the story have to change if the protagonist/antagonist was the opposite gender?
  3. Are women provided the same level of backstory as the men in the game?
  4. If a character dies, or is injured, what was the reasoning?
  5. Does the camera follow the “male gaze”? For example, lingering body or up-skirt shots.

A note on this “research” as such; I won’t be replaying games explicitly to gather this data. I will cover games that I’ve played most recently, and I might start keeping a note on games I play from this day forth, but some of it will be done by memory as I still want to play games because I enjoy them; with a full-time job and other commitments I don’t have the time for 40-80 hour games just to gather data. For clarity’s sake I will note the last time I played the game and detail whether it’s all from memory, notes, or internet searches.

I hope to do one discussion piece on this subject a month on a variety of games that I play (RPGs, Action, Visual Novels, or others) and semi-regularly compare and contrast the games to see how they stand up to one another. I hope you enjoy reading this series and if you’ve any suggestions on other things to keep a look out for, or games to play, let me know!

Article Updates

17/02/17 – Updated the definition of sexually dressed to be more specific.

1 thought on “Games & Feminism”

  1. This sounds quite ambitious. I’m intrigued by the approach you’re taking. Previous Feminist commentary on games tend to have had a narrow focus, starting with a trope and then building a case around it, but just playing a game and breaking it down from multiple different perspectives is rather unique by comparison. I look forward to seeing what you find!

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