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Role and analysis of females in modern video games
by Chris Walden
MEng Computer Games Design
Females are often misrepresented when it comes to video games, whether this be their appearance and actions in the video games themselves, or when trying to market tailored 'games for girls'. This essay looks at both of these areas of female representation and analyses them, both to underline the problems that currently exist, as well as to determine whether they are commonplace as many would suggest. It will also touch on feminism and sexist video games, as well as the games involved.
Female representation in video games has, for a long period of time, been a heavily debated issue, with the most common argument being that the portrayal of female video game characters, as well as the treatment of female gamers, is frequently sexist. The Entertainment Software Association (2012) claims that, as of 2012, forty-two percent of all gamers are in fact female. With a video game market that is rife with "dominant male and submissive female characters" (Jansz, 2007) and developers that condone "the enforcement of artificial and oppressive ideals of femininity through pop icons" (Mikula, 2003), is it indeed selling games on a sexist approach? The first issue that will be observed and analysed is that of the female video game protagonist. While it is becoming more and more common to see a female play the lead role in a video game, it can be argued that they are still being tailored towards a predominantly male audience. The second issue to be analysed is that of female representation as gamers, including stereotypes, misconceptions and potential ways forward.
Female representation in video games
While there are a number of examples of female protagonists in video games, Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996) series is perhaps "the prototypical example" (Jansz 2007). Although there is general agreement that Lara "marked a significant departure from the typical role of women within popular computer games", it is still questionable whether or not this was indeed "a positive role model for young girls or just that perfect combination of eye and thumb candy for the boys" (Kennedy, 2002). The problem at the core of Lara Croft is not her personality or actions, but her appearance. Espen Aarseth (2004) dismisses this, claiming that "when I play, I don’t even see her body, but see through it and past it", which brings the game itself into consideration. Does Lara's appearance ultimately make a difference past an advertising viewpoint? It is true that should Lara be replaced with another character model, the gameplay would not change as a result. Even if her appearance isn't to everyone's tastes, her character can be deemed non-offensive. As Mikula (2003) puts it, Lara is "everything a bloke wants and everything a girl wants to be". Characters like Princess Peach from Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) offer an interesting vantage point into the sexism argument. As Newman (2009) puts it, "Princess Peach’s legacy has been an everlasting scar on the world of gender politics and gaming for decades". Based on her character and mannerisms, Drucker (2009) claims that she "sets back women 200 years". The base of the arguments comes from many different parts of her character. She is renowned for being kidnapped continuously, and being rescued by Mario, as well as acting and dressing extremely femininely. The problem with her character was reinforced with the release of Super Princess Peach (TOSE, 2005), where players would see the princess use "her wildly fluctuating emotions to defeat her enemies" (Newman, 2009). Some families saw this as a betrayal of trust, taken from the "family-oriented reputation of Nintendo"(Galbraith, 2011). It can be argued that this is but a simple game mechanic, not intended to cause offense with a sexist appearance, however the game was advertised on television by dressing young girls in clothing similar to the princess, while they were shown to use emotions to overcome obstacles (Super Princess Peach Commercial., 2006). "Women's bodies are constantly used to sell products including video games" claims Sarkeesian (2010), while discussing the game Bayonetta (Platinum Games, 2009). The game in question features the titular character Bayonetta fighting hoards of demons, while, as the ESRB (2009) rating board state, she performs "suggestive taunts and poses". Games such as Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball (Team Ninja, 2003) and Mortal Kombat (NetherRealm Studios, 2011) have also used these "hypersexualised" (Jansz, 2007) depictions of women, and all of them can be deemed sexist. The reasoning behind this is simple; as Kreider (2011) puts it, it is "for maximum sex-appeal for the straight male viewer". The problem is rooted in the display of "objectifying women's bodies" (Sarkeesian, 2010), and worse so that it boils down not to gameplay reasons, but advertisement and therefore monetary gain. While it can be argued that it was never the aim for Bayonetta to
cause such insult, it is widely agreed that her character is largely distasteful. Holmes (2011) states that "she's an empty shell of a character; a shell made from her creators' sexual fantasies, negative stereotypes, and misconceived notions of the female gender". The act of "objectifying" a female in a video game is becoming increasingly common, with several Japanese video games pushing the boundaries further than Western companies have done. RapeLay (Illusion, 2006), a game that features rape and sexual violence towards females as a part of gameplay, was so heavily controversial outside of Japan that Equality Now, a group aiming to end violence and discrimination towards women and girls, launched a public appeal to see the game banned (Anantnarayan, 2009). This type of game is part of a niche genre of Japanese games known as 'galge', literally meaning 'girl games'. While there are certain restrictions to games in this category, these games can be "shockingly violent and perverse" (Galbraith, 2011). However, RapeLay is not an outlier in this genre; there are many other games with similar content. Japanese culture is different to that of the West, and therefore the boundaries on female representation in video games are dissimilar (Taylor, 2002). Galbraith (2011) points out that many women are actively involved in the production of such games, and are "often in the role of character designers" for such projects. These games may seem extremely sexist and vulgar to the Western audience, but this does not mean that Japanese females necessarily feel the same way. Even though there are many examples that can be deemed sexist, there are also many examples of highly-praised female protagonists. One such protagonist is Jade from Beyond Good and Evil (Ubisoft Montpellier, 2003), who is widely received as being a great representation female lead. Fong (2009) states that "Jade was simply a regular girl caught in the middle of a conflict", while Elston (2009) claims that she "leans more towards competence than eye candy". Other highly regarded female protagonists include Chell from Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) and Faith from Mirror's Edge (EA Digital Illusions CE, 2008) (Fong, 2009).
Games for females
While the idea of 'games for girls' has been explored for over twenty years, the abundance of games specifically targeting the female gamer demographic is a recent occurrence, spurred on by the popularity of hand held games consoles like the Nintendo DS and smart phones (Ashcraft, 2007). According to Cassell (1998), "the “girls games” movement has emerged from an unusual and highly unstable alliance between feminist activists who want to change the “gendering” of digital technology, and industry leaders who want to create a girl’s market for their games. The Game Group plc advertises such games under the slogan "Games 4 Girls", using imagery from extremely feminine games such as Bratz Forever Diamondz (Blitz Games, 2006) and My Little Pony: Pinkie Pie's Party (ValuSoft, Inc., 2008). The adverts can be interpreted as being particularly broad, so many older females can feel that these games that target younger girls in particular are being associated with them. It's an issue, and unfortunately one that won't be solved quickly. As Mikula (2003) states, "the ‘girl games’ which multiplied on the market since the mid-1990s almost exclusively focused on shopping, fashion, dating and appearance". A potential explanation for the prevalence of such branding can be attributed to the fast pace at which games that fit into this category are released. An example of this can be seen in the 'Imagine' series of games that are published by Ubisoft. In the span of three years, Ubisoft published a total of 43 unique games in the series, 19 of which were released in the year of 2009. On top of this, up to three different iterations of each game were released for differing platforms. The publisher also has a similar 'Petz' series, as well as various other standalone titles that are aimed at young females. This, combined with the competition between rival publishers and dedicated developers "such as HerInteractive, Girl Games, Girltech, and Purple Moon" (Cassell, 1998) means that the market becomes flooded with 'games for girls', so companies like The Game Group plc have to use marketing like the aforementioned in order to sell them. With such frequent releases, the quality of the games themselves is brought into question. Cassell (1998) questions the games "earnest blandness", convinced that the minimum-effort design model attributed with 'games for girls' "ensures the maximum return of investment" but also "seems to ensure the minimum amount of personality and warmth". As a result of a survey held by Nintendo in 2007, it was discovered that 53% of Nintendo DS users were in fact female (Ashcraft, 2007), though a look at the all-time best-selling Nintendo DS games will reveal a surprising collection of gender-neutral games (VGChartz, 2012). None of the games in the top ten are specifically aimed at either girls or boys, featuring games like Nintendogs (Nintendo, 2005) and Pokémon Diamond/Pearl Version (Game Freak, 2006) which all boast '3+' ratings by PEGI. Disregarding the Cooking Mama entries (for reasons which will be discussed below), the first 'game for girls' to feature on the list is Imagine: Babyz (Ubisoft, 2007), a game targeted at primary school children, in 38th place. New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 2006) topped the list, being known for its appeal with males and females alike. It raises the question as to whether it would be better to make such 'gender neutral' games instead of 'games for girls'. As Weil puts it, “what needs to happen is for girls games to get out of the realm of gender and into the realm of design” (Weil, 1997).
With the release of Cooking Mama (Office Create, 2006), many were worried that the game would simulate or even promote existing female stereotypes; namely those based on cooking. However, while there were indeed a few complaints over sexist depictions of women, the game was very well received. As mentioned previously, Cooking Mama features in the all-time best-selling list of Nintendo DS games, in 15th place. It can be argued that this is a 'game for girls', though in reality it has become popular with males and females alike. The female protagonist can even be likened to the aforementioned Lara Croft, in the sense that regardless of the player controlling a woman, they most definitely are not 'girl games'. The sexist remarks about the game were brought up again upon the release of Science Papa (Mad Monkey Studio, 2009), with many complaints being raised as to why 'mama' from the previous games was not the lead character, and if it was indeed a social reflection of males and females. The game was in fact produced by a separate developer and publisher, who were simply using a name similar to that of Cooking Mama, and there was no association between the two games. While Cooking Mama is not a sexist game, the fiasco involving the separate Science Papa franchise confused enough people into believing that it actually was. 'Gender-neutral' games are becoming increasingly popular, and it's another field that developers may find is worth exploring. Popular titles known as 'casual games' are becoming exceedingly more prevalent with the advent of mobile gaming and social media, and demonstrate the effectiveness of 'gender-neutral' gaming. Games such as FarmVille (Zynga, 2009) and Angry Birds (Rovio Mobile, 2009) have found huge success on these platforms, and both of them lack the necessary features that would tie them down to a specific gender or age.
It can be seen that there are indeed extreme examples of sexist portrayals of women, but games with such examples are in the minority and do not dominate the market. Bayonetta (Platinum Games, 2009) is the most recent example, and the upcoming game Lollipop Chainsaw (Grasshopper Manufacture, 2012) is proof that similar titles will continue to appear. However, such games are in their own niche category, and are likely to still garner criticism. Unfortunately, there will continue to be games that attract unwarranted criticism in regards to sexist accusations. Games such as Cooking Mama (Office Create, 2006) are suffering for unjust reasons, just by being given the same labelling as games like Bayonetta. Cooking Mama is a sterling example of how 'games for girls' should be created; by increasing appeal to females, yet keeping them gender-neutral. There is still a lot of criticism as to whether Lara Croft is good for female gamers, or whether she is in fact a marketing tool for males. As Mikula (2003) puts it: "by and large, women enjoy 'being' Lara". She states that her good points far outweigh her bad points, that she is "everything a bloke wants and everything a girl wants to be; for others, she is a role model, symbolizing adventure, independence, possibility and strength" (Mikula, 2003). Those that saw Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996) as insulting are in the minority, so it isn't without reason to suggest that the game could very well be an early example of 'genderneutral' games. With the recent success of these 'gender-neutral' video games, it could very well be that the 'games for girls' marketing, as well as the misconceptions surrounding it, will shift its focus to younger female gamers, leaving the older female gamers to pick and choose games without people making incorrect assumptions. As Flanagan (2005) mentions, "'girls' are as diverse in their interests, abilities and tastes as any other category of people".
While this essay focuses specifically on the representation of females in relation to video games, there is also the male view to take into consideration. Male gamers have, for a long time, been seen as 'geeks' or 'nerds', a label that female gamers themselves do not receive. With the over-sexualisation of female protagonists, is it also true that male protagonists are too stereotyped, or even sexist? An analysis into the marketing behind video games targeted a females would provide an interesting look at current trends and potential alternative ways of advertisement. Point of sales and printed advertisements specifically appealing to female gamers could in fact be unnecessary, especially when females largely play the same games as males. A thorough breakdown of techniques could yield an ideal method to appeal to both genders, while remaining gender neutral in wording and visual style.
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