Art imitating life: How sexism in video games mirrors real-life gender imbalance

Want to play as a female character? Choose the vulnerable victim, or the sexy, disproportioned vixen.

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Last week, the #1reasonwhy hashtag took Twitter by storm.

It provided an outlet for gamers and game designers alike to express their frustration with the sexism of the gaming industry. The comments from women working in the industry reflected and repeated many of those we have collected on the Everyday Sexism project, from across a wide variety of jobs and workplaces. Particularly poignant were the stories from women who had been dismissed out of hand before their work had even been seen, or those afraid that a single failure would be deemed “proof that woman shouldn’t be in the industry”. The answer “Because every disclosure of harassment feels like risking never being hired again”, was also achingly familiar.

But what really struck home was the similarity, on the #1reasonwhy hashtag and amongst other articles, between gamers’ virtual experiences and the real-life gender imbalance recorded to our project website daily. We were struck by the multitude of ways in which sexism within video games themselves seemed to mirror real-life sexism.

Women are underrepresented

On starting her now famous Kickstarter project to examine the tropes of women in video games, blogger Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency said it all when she described the “limited and limiting ways women are represented”. From “damsel in distress” to “sexy sidekick” and “background decoration”, she quickly sketched the secondary roles to which female characters are frequently consigned. According to data gathered by Electronic Entertainment Design and Research this year, only 4% of 669 games surveyed had an exclusively female protagonist.

Back in real-world underrepresentation, that’s exactly the same percentage as the proportion of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Meanwhile from business to politics, journalism to the church, women experience real-life relegation too. From making up less than a quarter of MPs to running only 2 out of the FTSE 100 companies, we have a very long way to go to achieve equal representation.

Women are objectified and sexualised

One of the most frequently cited examples of videogame sexism is the widespread trend for female characters to be presented in barely-there costumes, with highly sexualised and unrealistic body shapes, bulging breasts and tiny, disproportionate waists.

The phenomenon is reflected in the real world, where women are bombarded with a constant stream of unrealistic airbrushed images from magazines and billboards to television advertising. The augmentation of breasts, the reduction of waistlines and above all the emphasis on looks over and above character or intelligence is a common theme.

Women suffer sexualised violence

Several games have been criticised for including varying degrees of sexualised violence, from the attempted rape of Lara Croft in the new game prequel released this year to more explicit representations such as the Japanese game RapeLay, in which players stalk and rape a mother and her two daughters.

It is hard to conscience the justification for creating virtual representations of sexualised violence when 23% of adult women experience sexual assault and approximately 80,000 women suffer rape and attempted rape every year, with over 2 women a week on average killed by a current or former partner. The boundaries between the two were blurred in 2008, when a judge explicitly cited the “worrying mirror of conduct” of a teenager jailed for a string of sex acts after playing the game Grand Theft Auto, in which the main character can beat up prostitutes.

Women are infantilised and victimised

Apart from frequently needing to be rescued by male protagonists, female characters often appear extremely youthful and are portrayed as “submissive, emotionally vulnerable and entirely dependent on men”. Indeed, one member of the team behind the new Lara Croft prequel even specifically stated that the storyline was based around an assumption that players would “want to protect her”.

From a recent fashion editorial featuring bloodied models with black eyes and bruises, all the way down to the labelling of female athletes as “girls” in commentary during the Olympic games, and female infantilisation in advertising and magazines, this issue is not confined to the world of gaming.

Women suffer catcalling and street harassment

Perhaps best documented of all, thanks to the brilliant site Fat, Ugly or Slutty, is the near-constant harassment; the stream of sexual slurs, insults and demands female gamers can face when trying to interact on gaming platforms like Xbox Live.

The real-life parallel here needs little elaboration; suffice it to say that a study by the US-based non-profit Stop Street Harassment found that almost 90% of women had experienced street harassment by age 19.

But the future does look a little brighter. Alongside initiatives like Sarkeesian’s, the very existence of the #1reasonwhy hash tag shows the powerful momentum behind this issue, whilst those in the know seem optimistic that progress is already underway. Video game blogger and venture capital analyst Bob Thomas says things are moving in the right direction, with “great games (like the Mass Effect series), which are putting male and female characters on equal footing. It's nice to pick up a game where a player can say "Sex: Female", and not have the game say "oh? So you want to have massive breasts and be a wizard and cast pink spells?" Gamers have matured, and the audience is quick to pick up on gaffes like that now.” He stresses: “I don’t think the gaming audience accepts sexism lightly” and says that for companies “who are mature enough to acknowledge that their developers' sex is not the basis of their creativity, the benefits are clear."

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