Essay:Sexism in Video Gaming

From RationalWiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Essay.svg This essay is an original work by Nullahnung.
It does not necessarily reflect the views expressed in RationalWiki's Mission Statement, but we welcome discussion of a broad range of ideas.
Unless otherwise stated, this is original content, released under CC-BY-SA 3.0 or any later version. See RationalWiki:Copyrights.
Feel free to make comments on the talk page, which will probably be far more interesting, and might reflect a broader range of RationalWiki editors' thoughts.

It is unlikely that anyone would deny the mere existence of sexism in video gaming. It can be found in the gaming community itself. A large part of the community is quite immature, with words like 'rape' being thrown around like it just means 'defeat' and groups of people gaining a sense of superiority just based on which platform they game on, but inherent immaturity shouldn't excuse treating someone differently in a hurtful way just because of their gender, which is what happens in sexism. The existence of any sexism at all related to such a popular medium is not what we are concerned about, though. The real question that interests us is: How prevalent or severe is sexism within the community and the industry, and what forms does it take? Well, according to prominent gaming critic Adam Sessler, 2012 has been a particularly jarring year concerning that as he talks about in this video: #1ReasonWhy - Sexism in the Video Game Industry (SESSLER'S SOMETHING).

In general, it seems to be more difficult to be a woman in any position within the games industry than a man. Women with public faces statistically seem to get more harassing messages than men in the same position,[1] there seems to be a pay gap between women and men[2] and in general there is a bit of a barrier to entry. The fact that some male gamers treat female gamers “differently” should be apparent to any who have enjoyed the medium to a moderate degree. Girls in gaming nowadays have the distinction to be called girl gamers (or, arguably worse, gamer girls). As they become an integral part of the gaming community, though, one can hope that people will come to the mindset that a gamer is a gamer and we can all love and play the same thing without having to deal with term-bound preconceptions. Sexual harassment-related actions like that one time in that one part of the gaming community[3] need to be widely condemned and some mindsets need to especially change regarding that.

The most immediately off-putting and instantly recognizable sexism-related issue is the unwarranted amount of hate speech from an unusually loud portion of the online community towards any feminist notions people dare to bring up.[4] Sheltered by their anonymity and driven by a sense of righteousness, these individuals feel it is an entirely appropriate reaction to feminist examinations and view points of gaming culture.

Sexism is also propagated throughout the medium of video games. For example, women have a significant presence as sexually arousing decoration in the form of background NPCs or promotional material and are underrepresented in more active roles.

As is often the case, there are so many thought-terminating clichés brought to bear upon the opposition that it is difficult to get people to think about proposed issues and patiently discuss them.[5] Below, however, is an attempt to do just that.


Points commonly made Counterpoints
1.) Women are not portrayed as weak that often.1.) Counter example: The fairly prolific damsel in distress trope in video games often does portray them as lacking in ability. Also, yes, games with female protagonists necessarily have a tendency towards a strong female character (although sometimes not exempt from gender stereotypes, see the Samus of Other M and Princess Peach in that one game where she is the rescuer). BUT, what is the number of strong female protagonists as compared to the number of strong male protagonists? Could be a whole lot more balanced.[6][7][8]

2.) Games are made to cash in on their target audience (majority male) and please the consumer, not equally represent men and women to please society at large.2.) It does seem to be somewhat easier to immerse yourself in a game when you are given the option to play as your own gender (though there are of course people who aren't into this kind of immersion and will pick the opposite gender). So let’s pretend for the moment that equal gender representation really isn’t the most pleasing to a majority male audience (not sure about that one) and let’s also pretend for the moment that games companies should aim exclusively to please the consumer without regard for the values of society at large (very debatable).

Even then you can make the argument that there are now a significant enough[9] and growing number of female gamers (yes, even in hardcore games the female population is significant[10]), so it IS important to have more of a balance on that within the games too even from a purely cater-to-the-consumer perspective, though it is questionable that that is ALL games designers think about (money is important, most of the time even the one and only main priority, but that doesn't diminish everything else all the time).

Besides, you do want to expand your market past this narrowly-defined target demographic as well, no?

Now, let's stop pretending. There is a reason we have values in society. They are inextricably bound to and influenced by what we the people feel they should be. Games where women are handled as nothing more than reward and sex machines are not a simple case of "appeals to the male consumer".[11] Most female gamers will find that revolting and even male gamers will find it hard to defend. There is nothing wrong with discussions about video games that are political in nature, and fittingly there is also nothing wrong with video games being expressive and thus inevitably sometimes carrying political messages. Profit is not the singular be-all end-all driving force behind the creation of video games. If we want video games to be taken seriously as an artistic medium, then they need to endure the scrutiny and be measured against some of the societal standards commonly applied to other entertainment media.[12]

Finally, there seems to indeed be an attitude in the games industry that female-lead games don't sell as well as male-lead games, at least with regards to big budget games. It could be argued that it is a bit of a myth, or perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy,[13] that male gamers appreciate certain types of male leads in their games more. As long as a female character is written to be interesting and engaging there is not really a reason why such a character wouldn't be well-received in the video games market. Diversity can only bring in more options for writers to explore when creating a character. We can never really know how well these options would do once implemented, but what we have currently is more unfounded paranoia than prudent risk-reduction.[14]

3.) Games are often shallow and the characters one-dimensional to the point where a simple plot like damsel in distress is the easiest option.3.) The trope of damsel in distress objectifies women, whether it is the easiest option to use or not. This creates an imbalance in gender representation due to it being such a prevalent and recognized trope. You may say it is more about catering to the market than to women, therefore the easiest option is sometimes the best option, but you see, even from a narrowly demographic/economic standpoint the gaming market is changing as more women take an interest in it and it might be beneficial for video games to move on as a medium to cater to that.

4.) In the trope of damsel in distress the man loves her, that's why he goes through self-sacrifice. Not because she is an objective reward.4.) Often it is about revenge, though, or the sense that the villain has wronged the man by taking something away from him. However, in some more sophisticated games, the plot does emphasize love as a motive (or some other noble motive, e.g. in Shadow of the Colossus). (A woman could just as easily fight for love, though.) BUT, in a lot of games it's just shallow chasing after an object. In Double Dragon Neon, for example, you fight your brother over who reaps the reward gets the girl after having defeated the final boss. As a player it's difficult to care for a character with no real characterization. Note that in a lot of these shallow games the male protagonist also gets no real characterization but at least he's still the protagonist, so he gets some amount of attention as a character. Thus the real complaint here is not that it's unequal characterization, but rather that the woman is reduced to a reward or a mission objective all the time.

5.) Sometimes the men (and often in the damsel in distress trope) are turned into characterless objects too, there's no apparent gender inequality against women in that regard.5.) One could say that the muscle (male) is active and does stuff while the reward (female) is passive and just exists as an object of desire. You see, a balance in active roles would be a welcome improvement. However, that doesn't change the fact that yes, there is no gender inequality in amount of characterization sometimes, but see 4.). In terms of just objectification, though, women do actually have it worse there. The stereotypical reduction to a pair of boobs is definitely not as flattering or empowering as the stereotypical male protagonist walking around with chiseled abs and strong arms, even though both adhere to the same principle of "unreachable body ideal".[15] This example of false equivalence is demonstrated quite aptly by the 2013 action RPG Dragon's Crown, where male aesthetics take the steroidal power fantasies to extremes and female portrayal is absurdly sexualized.[16]

6.) Men have greater upper body strength, so they used to have the responsibility to save women when physical combat was required. The damsel in distress trope comes from that. It's only natural.6.) Keep in mind that, traditionally, combat was not something a woman was supposed to be doing. Bulking up is especially frowned at by common society when a woman does it. Unarmed combat was and is to some degree male-dominated because it was a traditional role for the male to think about fighting and take an interest in sports like boxing or judo. Nowadays the situation is changing, though still not equal. You may find women in general to have a lower weight class on average in competitions, though. Not denying that.

But you know what else? Guns! (Well, weapons in general, but especially guns.) Arguably the biggest equalizer regarding combat that the modern world has brought with it. Little guys can take out big guys if they are sufficiently skilled and trained in shooting. Still, due to aforementioned tradition of thinking more about fighting, there are more men who bother to hone their skills in handling firearms than women.

Besides, (and here's the real point of this passage!) gaming is an interactive, artful medium, not one that necessarily reflects the real world (which is to say that only a small part of the genres focus on realism in any meaningful way). Physical strength is but one factor in video game combat (and no factor at all when it comes to guns). There are often other stats involved like cunning, agility, intelligence, etc.. In history there are precious few examples of women in battles (Joan of Arc, Queen Boudica, etc.), but that shouldn’t stop us from implementing much more of that in video games. Gaming is ideal for promoting balanced taste, creativity and diversity and evolving past having tropes like the damsel in distress as a default fall-back will help with that.

7.) Simplistic female spin-offs of established male characters like Ms. Pac-Man are a progressive attempt at reaching out to the female gamer audience rather than a sexist effort to mark women as secondary in video games.7.) This is probably true. The intention is not to marginalize a gender in these cases, but rather to appeal to said gender. However, this attempt at outreach could have been so much better if it was not simplistic. There is little reason to see Ms. Pac-Man as anything more than "Pac-Man with a bow", since the bow is the feminine article that is primarily responsible for distinguishing her from Pac-Man, a distinction made on the grounds of gender alone. To effectively reach out to a female audience, it would be better to make Ms. Pac-Man come into her own, to avoid the notion that she is just derivative of Pac-Man. For example, what if she was called "Bori-Woman" and was a square shape instead of a round shape, or if not, at the very least a palette-swap from the round Pac-Man shape? There will of course still be the feeling that even that could be considered as derivative to Pac-Man, even though it would be less derivative than "Pac-Man with a bow". There is no way of completely getting around that, since the character is still a spin-off, but there are ways to spin-off less simplistically and reach out more effectively.

8.) I really enjoy playing as a masculine power house and watching highly sexualized women in my video games and I don't think there is anything wrong with having more of that.8.) There may be nothing wrong, inherently, with people choosing to make and enjoy such games. This has, however, become very prevalent in the industry and as a result people have started to comment on how they would like to see more games that deviate from it. There is also nothing wrong with that. The world is (hopefully) big enough for all of us.

9.) You say that gender objectification is a problem because it influences people's thinking, but you say nothing about violence in video games being a problem like that! Isn't that a bit hypocritical?9.) Violence in video games can be cathartic and act as a form of stress-relieving entertainment, which is all fine and dandy. It can also be symbolic, either teaching you of the dangerous consequences of violence (Call of Duty 1 about the horrors of war, especially in the Russian campaign) or on the flip-side seemingly glorifying it, the latter of which is where the problem is supposed to lie. Now, since it is a video game, that glorification does not carry over into the real world because as a sane person you either quickly learn to separate game from reality or stop playing violent video games forever in utter disgust.

Now we need to draw the parallel from that to gender objectification in video games:

It can be symbolic, either teaching you of the follies of viewing a character of the other gender as purely an objective (as was done in the puzzle platformer Braid) or on the flip-side reinforcing it, the latter of which is where the problem is supposed to lie. Now, since it is a video game, that reinforcement does not carry over into the real world because as a respectful person you either quickly learn to separate gender in-game from gender in reality or stop playing video games containing such tropes forever in utter disgust.

See, one may wish that last sentence was as applicable as the parallel one for violence, and certainly there are some to which it does apply, but tropes like the damsel in distress have been around for ages before video games even existed. Women have been portrayed in need of being acted upon due to their own inability to do naught but submit to such a degree that it has turned into a classic and recognizable trope. These tropes within video games aren't doing anything else than restating that over and over, thereby reinforcing it, helping keep the trope well alive and recognizable for possibly generations of gamers to come. It is a quick and easy plot type to implement in a shallow game, true. Growing beyond it, though, could lead to more diversity, vitality and broad appeal for gaming as artful entertainment. Certainly it wouldn't hurt to have some interesting twists to classic Super Mario Bros.!

Positive examples[edit]

Now for the obligatory section of positive examples so that this article doesn't just seem like whining:

  • Most refined RPGs tend to be pretty equal in terms of gender representation and treatment.
  • Competitive multiplayer games don't place as much emphasis (or even any) on plot, so are largely exempt from above points about plot tropes.
  • A lot of games let you customize every little detail about your character, including gender. Needless to say, gender inequality in terms of protagonists falls flat on its face as an issue here. There are also other games that let you pick between a cast of male or female characters.
  • In a lot of games you have a silent protagonist, which makes it easier for players to insert themselves, making character immersion a non-issue, regardless of what gender the player or the in-game character is.
  • Alyx Vance in Half-Life, Shodan in System Shock, Chell and Glados in Portal, Samus Aran in various Metroid games, Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, Jade in Beyond Good & Evil, Amy in Zanzarah, Alice in Alice (3D platformer), etc., etc.

So you see, there are a lot of examples involving positive development or unaffected areas in gaming, so why not have an optimistic attitude! If we care enough, we could even reduce our reliance on objectifying tropes like the damsel in distress and also grow and mature as a community in terms of gender-related issues. Believe it or not, inclusivity synergizes well with creativity.[17]


Let us embrace everyone and live happily ever after! I guess that's easier said than done and there is a fair amount of gnashing of teeth and occasional discourse to go through beforehand.

I will leave you with one last line of thought. Some might be wondering: "So, should I shun every game where I detect sexism?" Ultimately, of course, that is up to you, but consider this: Is Super Mario Bros. a bad game because it exhibits the damsel in distress? If a game is fun to play or has other merits, surely that deserves to be recognized. Sexism isn't an all-defining issue, but it deserves recognition as well. This is a bit of a tautology, but it makes a good point: Everything should be given its due.


  1. A Natural A/B Test of Harassment - Emily Greer, co-founder of Kongregate, on the differences of messages received between her and her brother/co-founder
  2. Videogame Biz: Women Still Very Much in the Minority (Variety)
  3. Sexual harassment as ethical imperative: how Capcom’s fighting game reality show turned ugly (The Penny Arcade Report)
  4. Anita Sarkeesian - The Monster Gamers Created (Jimquisition) - Honestly, what is the harm of having feminist examinations of video games? It shouldn't be a big deal.
  5. Misogyny, Sexism, And Why RPS Isn’t Shutting Up (Rock, Paper, Shotgun)
  6. Up At Noon: Mass Effect: The Need for Strong Female Characters - Up at Noon - Jennifer Hale (voices a huge portion of the female characters in gaming) about the state of female characters
  7. THE CREEPY CULL OF FEMALE PROTAGONISTS (Jimquisition) - Sometimes you have to fight tooth and nail just to get your game backed if it has a female protagonist, the merits of creativity and diversity be damned!
  8. Response to Anita Sarkeesian Damsels in Distress Part One - Tropes vs. Women in Video games - Presents some statistics about female protagonists in video games. Also offers an interesting secondary opinion on tropes vs. women in video games, although fails to consider the implications such tropes have on the progress of gaming towards gender equality and diversity.
  9. Look at these statistics from 2012, you’ll be surprised:
  10. What's a "hardcore" game anyway? Oh well, have a link that vaguely explores this... sort of: Nielsen Study: Majority PC Gamers Female, Solitary (Rock, Paper, Shotgun)
  11. Ride To Hell Angry Review - WORST GAME EVER? - The representation of women in Ride To Hell is only one of the myriad aspects of it that attract criticism, but it's there and people care!
  12. Errant Signal - "Keep Your Politics Out of my Video Games" - Viewing video games as simply a product to be enjoyed by a consumer runs contrary to viewing them as a respected art form
  13. Games with exclusively female heroes don’t sell (because publishers don’t support them) (The Penny Arcade Report)
  14. Diversity in videogames - Rhianna Pratchett on female characters and videogame writing- An insightful interview between Youtube gaming personality TotalBiscuit and Rhianna Pratchett (BAFTA nominated for her writing work on Heavenly Sword among other achievements) wherein the status and benefits of diversity in video game characters is discussed.
  15. OBJECTIFICATION AND... MEN? (Jimquisition) - Jim Sterling on differences in gender objectification
  16. On the Women of Dragon's Crown (The Games of Chance) - A very good discussion of Dragon's Crown's gender equality issues. The ridiculous gender-related aesthetics are actually of the least concern, relatively seen to the problems with agency and damselling.
  17. NEUTERED (Jimquisition) - Jim Sterling on the merits of inclusivity