Representations of Female and Male Figures in Video Games






You may have thought that the objectification of females—regarding them as mere bodies that exist for the pleasure of others—was over and done with. In schools and workplaces all over America, existing legislation is aimed at guarding against sexual misconduct, harassment, and mistreatment of females. Despite the constitutions around the world granting women equal rights, how then could it be that we have created an important new venue where, for all practical purposes, people of all ages can engage in violent and misogynistic behaviors with impunity? But such a place does exist. You can call it the “video game place,” a place where literally thousands of people engage in online and offline gaming, much of which is loaded with pretty offensive sexism.


Who Is in the Video Gaming Community?

Many people believe that video games are primarily played by pale, socially inept, teenage males and, historically, there

was some truth to that—young men did perceive game play more positively than women. A 2009 research reports that the video game market is a $10 billion a year in the United States alone, and while the average devotee is a male who is about 34 years of age, a wide variety of consumers play video games today. Indeed, 40 percent of all game players in the United States are female, and 80 percent of girls grades 4–12 report playing video games. Thus, the image that many hold of the lone adolescent male playing video games is not really accurate, as girls and women are playing too, in ever-growing numbers. For this reason, concern has been raised about the availability of “playable” female characters in video games. The percentage of games with female characters differs widely across the many video games that are available, but more female characters are being offered every day.


Gender Content of Video Games

A study found that video games offer the most blatant sex-role stereotyping of any type of mass media. For example, 83 percent of male video game characters exhibit violent and hyper-masculine attributes, and when female characters do appear in video games, they mostly serve as victims or prizes to be won. That is, they are portrayed as either the “damsel in distress” awaiting male rescue or the alluring sex object. In the gaming world though, such stereotypes of women are generally thought of as harmless fun. The findings reveal that avatars with suggestive dress in the high-gaze condition and avatars in the conservative dress low-gaze condition produced the highest ratings on the rape myth acceptance measure. The high-gaze, suggestive-dress condition also resulted in more hostile sexism, but the low-gaze, conservative-dress condition generated more benevolent sexism. The fact that the avatar with suggestive dress and the come-hither stare is perceived as highly sexualized should come as no surprise, and both male and female participants viewing her showed higher levels of rape myth acceptance. The gaze-avoidant, conservatively dressed avatar apparently projected a submissive nature, which is consistent with a common stereotypic depiction of women as virgins that is prevalent all across the gaming world.



Photograph: Males who were exposed to the objectified female image, similar to the one on the left, later showed increased tolerance when judging a case of sexual harassment compared to males exposed to the non-objectified female image, similar to the one on the right.


As troubling as the above results might be, it is worth inquiring what effect exposure to such gaming content has on subsequent behavior. To find out, another study was conducted to determine changes in behavior that result from exposure to these different images of women. Participants were exposed to one of the two female images shown above—either an objectified female video game character or a female politician. Males who were exposed to the objectified images showed increased tolerance for sexual harassment when judging a real-life case of sexual harassment between a female college student and a male professor. In contrast, female participants who were exposed to the objectified image of women showed decreased tolerance for sexual harassment. This may be because when women see that they are being objectified and demeaned compared to men—they are energized to advocate for the just treatment of women. Despite a lot of progress in terms of laws aimed at protecting girls and women in educational and workplace environments, we are still fighting the same battles in the gaming world. Video game makers continue to place stereotypically drawn avatars in their products. Yet, it is no longer in doubt that exposure to stereotypically drawn characters produces real change in attitudes, which are then transformed into changes in real-life behavior. Unfortunately, so far, the creators of most computer games have simply ignored this fact.



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