Sexism in Video Games: Yes, it's there, but it's Getting Better
We’re all for equality.
While the topic is not new, last year a major discussion began about sexism and women in video games. Anita Sarkeesian's series "Tropes versus Women in Video Games" received both praise and derision in the gaming community, and brought the issue more into the mainstream.
Aside from the controversy regarding the finances of her project, Sarkeesian raised some good points about women in video games. She's right that female protagonists are underrepresented in video games. She's wrong about "the damsel in distress" trope devaluing female characters, and her "Ms. Male" trope is nothing more than a case of confirmation bias.
I am not going to go into any more detail regarding Sarkeesian, since that has already been done countless times during the past year or so. I mention her because no article about sexism in gaming would be complete without doing so. Moreover, the fact is that her series has been a huge catalyst for getting the discussion moving. It's an important discussion that needs to be had. However, while we're talking about women in gaming, it's important to recognize that the tide had already started to shift. While it's true that gaming remains male dominated, I believe that it has improved over the last 10 or so years, and will continue to do so.
Sarkeesian and her tropes.
Gaming is a young medium when compared to film and print. Video gaming has only been around for the past 37 years (this is about the time home consoles came out). That's not very long. Additionally, games aren't created in a vacuum. They reflect the attitudes and mores of the people who make them, and those people get their views from the society in which they grew up. For example, when you think back on the old television shows of the 1950's and 1960's, women were always portrayed as homemakers and mothers. If they had a career, it was as a secretary, or other subordinate position. Now, think of how women are portrayed on television these days. The same thing will happen with video games.
Part of the issue is that there are too few women in the video game industry. Only 11 percent of game designers are women, and three percent of programmers. Female programmers earn $10,000 less than their male counterparts, and designers make $12,000 less.
Women's underrepresentation in the industry has powerful consequences for game design and marketing strategies. As Bioware's David Gaider noted during his talk on Sex and Sexuality at the GDC in 2013, most developers are marketing to the male, age 18-25 demographic, while ignoring the fact that the average age of gamers is 30 and nearly half of them are women. However, even with the testosterone overflow, more and more women are becoming gamers. Even over the last 10 or so years, attitudes about women gamers have changed. It's now an acceptable pursuit for a woman to play video games. This was not been the case for my generation. I, as a female gamer, have always been considered an outlier.
Attitudes about women in video games have been improving. They are improving as a result of both better prevailing attitudes about women in general and women gamers specifically. There are more female main characters in recent years than ever before, and many female characters are strong, awesome women in their own rights. I'm going to look at three modern games that I, as a woman, have enjoyed, and that at least give the player the choice about which gender to play.
Dancing the night away in Simville.
The Sims 3
OK, I know what you're going to say. The Sims doesn't count - it's not a real game. Actually, I beg to differ. Simmers put as much, or even more time into their games as Call of Duty players put into theirs. It's a game, end or story.
The highly praised original game launched in 2000 and has spawned two incarnations to date: Sims 2, in 2004 and Sims 3 in 2009. The fourth iteration, Sims 4, is coming out in the fall of 2014. The game play is roughly the same in each version: you create a character or a family, plop them into a house, and manage their little lives, or mismanage them, if you prefer. While the original game and in Sims 2, your game play was confined to the currently active lot, Sims 3 opens up the neighborhood. You can roam around at will, and not hit a loading screen even once.
The type of gameplay the Sims franchise offers is one that many women enjoy. In fact, 60 percent of Sims players are women. I am one of those gamers. I've always called my Sims games little worlds in miniature. It brings back childhood memories of the Storybook ride at Disneyland: I can remember being entranced by the little, perfectly made miniature houses that we passed them by during the boat-ride. The Sims gives me the ability to create my own stories and to play God. It's also great fun to torture my little people.
Mjoll and Aerin
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Like its predecessors, Skyrim lets you choose your character's gender and race. There are a variety of NPCs of both genders in the game, and none are portrayed in a stereotypical way. Here are a few examples:
Adrienne Avenicci: Adrienne is a blacksmith, which is not your typical female occupation. Far from being a shrinking flower, dependent on a man, she's the one who works outside all day creating the armor and weapons, while Ulfberth War Bear, a male, tends shop inside.
Aela the Huntress: Aela is one of the Companions, a guild of warriors who protect the townspeople from bandits and beasts. She is one tough female who is just as strong and capable as any of her male counterparts. When you first join the Companions, she's not at all sure you can cut it, and she'll tell you so, whether your character is male or female.
Mjoll the Lioness: Mjoll is a warrior who has taken up residence in Riften, the town of thieves and other miscreants. She is the epitome of the strong and silent type, while her lover, Aerin, a soft-spoken man, follows her around town, like a lost puppy. It's obvious that he's physically weaker than Mjoll, and if anyone were to accost the pair, it would be she who'd be doing the rescuing.
I don't love Skyrim for its even-handed gender characterizations, though. They're there, and that's good, but the reason that I love Skyrim is because it is a huge, open world RPG. I am the hero of the story and I can run around bashing in skulls and throwing fireballs at my enemies. It's also extremely moddable, and I have taken full advantage of that fact to personalize my game to suit my tastes. Yes that means I have sex mods and skimpy armor, but I am an equal-opportunity objectifier: my male companions are just as kitted out in skimpy attire as I am! However, you can play Skyrim, modded or not, and not see an ounce more flesh, male or female, than you wish to. It's entirely up to you to decide what you like – that's the point.
Dragon Age: Origins
Dragon Age: Origins lets you choose the race and gender of your character and has many customization options available. It is a typical RPG with real-time strategy elements. Along with your character, you control a party of companions who join you as you advance on your quest to save the kingdom. It also features romance plotlines that your character can pursue with certain members of your party. The cast of characters includes three very capable and nuanced females:
Morrigan: Morrigan is an amoral dark mage who lives by her own code. She's opinionated and will tell you what she thinks, whether you like it or not. She is voiced by Farscape's Claudia Black, and has become an iconic character among RPG fans. She is heterosexual, and is available to be romanced by a male player character.
Leilana: Leilana is an ex-chantry priestess. She is virtuous, but not in the traditional sense, as we would think it. Her sexuality is fluid and she is open for a romance with the player character of either gender.
Wynne: Wynne is not your typical female character in that she is older, substantially older than the other characters. Her age has conferred upon her great wisdom, but hasn't enfeebled her physically or mentally.
What I like about Dragon Age: Origins is the depth of characterization, the overall story, the character customization and the romance. There are very few games that come with romance options out of the box, and fewer still that do it tastefully. DAO does this very well.
All’s not lost. Things are getting better.
The point I am getting at is that while we have a long way to go before women are represented fairly in gaming, we have made some real progress in recent years. Are there still too few female protagonists? Absolutely. Are there still problems with how women are portrayed in games? Of course. You'd have to be blind not to see that. At the same time, you'd have to be equally blind not to notice the improvements that have been made.
The writing is on the wall: more women are playing games and willing to be counted as gamers. As time progresses, this demographic shift will necessarily lead to changes in game design and marketing strategies. It may take the next 20 or 30 years to be fully realized, but it's going to happen.