BY COLIN CAMPBELL
Violence against women is still prolific in the world of gaming… but there are signs of progress. Today (25 November) marks the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The question remains why, despite the progress of feminism over the last century, do we still need to stand against violence towards women. The U.N. estimates that at least 30% of women and girls (over the age of 15) in the world have been subjected to sexual violence at least once in their life.
Where do video games, which often portray violence with women cast as victims, fit into what the U.N. describes as “one of the most widespread, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today?”
Video games have a long history of portraying women as victims of violence. Innumerable examples range from games about saving kidnapped princesses, to indefensible portrayals of rape and murder. It’s been argued, many times and convincingly, that video games play an influential part in supporting systemic societal injustices.
Indeed, scandals like GamerGate (2014) – during which high profile women in gaming were subjected to harassment, doxxing and death threats – have demonstrated that misogyny is a long-running problem in video gaming content and among demographics of gaming’s audiences.
Games take place in virtual worlds, but they are also a major storytelling vehicle that reflect and support societal structures, norms, and taboos. For most of its history, the gaming industry which has been vastly male-dominated, has used sexual violence as a device for entertainment and titillation. Their point is rarely to highlight the problem of violence against women, but rather to justify and to seek entertainment in such violence.
Only in recent years – in the #metoo and “fourth wave” intersectional feminism era – have video games begun to regularly depict women as powerful agents and rounded personalities, rather than victims.
VIOLENCE IN GAMING
Many video games feature violence. Given that violent games are often placed within male-contextual violent frameworks – medieval armies, gang wars, cowboys – the people who get killed in games are usually men. Male characters die in combat. Games challenge players to kill, or to be killed. Think of the enemy dudes in shooting game series like Doom or Call of Duty. The original Mortal Kombat (1992) had nine characters who presented as male, and only one woman.
Violence against women is less prevalent in the sense of pure body count, but its occurrence reflects a pernicious and common view of gender. In games, violence against women often occurs in a sexualized context, or is used as a lazy plot device to merely justify further violence.
Researchers have been studying the way women are portrayed in games since the early days of gaming. Again and again, they come back with similar findings, that women in games are under-represented as powerful agents, and instead are mostly used as narrative devices, sexual decoration, or as prizes for men to enjoy.
In 1989, a study by the University of Quebec looked into arcade culture and noted the “deplorable” levels of violence in games, and the lack of female characters or voices in games. After a decade, little progress had been made since in 1998, Tracy L. Dietz published a study of console games, finding that women rarely featured as anything other than targets of violence, princesses, or wise old women, upholding stereotypes of female characters.
Even in 2003, a study found that women “were underrepresented in comparison to their male counterparts [and] were significantly more likely to be shown partially nude, featured with an unrealistic body image, and depicted wearing sexually revealing clothing and inappropriate attire”.
There are a handful of pre-2010 women characters who experience violence and create violence on a quasi-equal footing with their enemies. But they are exceptions to the traditional role of women in games, which is either to entertain, care, and support men, or to receive (or be threatened by) violence.
Take android bounty hunter Samus Aran of Nintendo’s Metroid series (1986), who was inspired by Signourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (Alien, 1979). Adventurer and archaeologist Lara Croft (1996) was originally intended as an alternative to male domination of hero roles but in later iterations, her appearance was drastically sexualized. Only in the 2013 reboot, was she afforded a more rounded personality.
Taken in its entirety, gaming upholds the notion that men are violent, and that women are victims.
DROP DEAD GORGEOUS
It is often the narrative in games that women have only one role, which is to be dead. Dead women are often used as decoration in games, arranged in poses and attire that are overtly sexual.
Video games are far from being the only visual medium that invites schlock and titillation by displaying beautiful female corpses (the trope is known as ‘Drop Dead Gorgeous‘), but its prevalence and lack of subtlety in games is reminiscent of trashy consumer entertainments of the past, like pulp novels and risque comic books.
Cyberpunk 2077 (released in 2020) features a few powerful female characters, but the game is also littered with naked, or semi-naked dead women. In one of its earliest trailers, the game portrays a beautiful android woman wearing a skimpy dress, battling against heavily armored cops, whose bullets strike her body in slow motion.
Many male protagonists’ wives, mothers or daughters are murdered either prior to the story’s beginning, or at the very start of the game. The grief of the protagonist explains his desire for vengeance and his subsequent turn to violence. All this is rooted in patriarchal ideas about the roles of men, as protectors of women. Therefore, the dead woman is both the victim of violence, and its enabler.
On-screen violence against girls and women serves the same purpose. The Last of Us (2013) depicts a man escorting a girl across a post-apocalyptic landscape. The man’s surly, violent nature is justified as a reaction to the murder of his young daughter, a scene which the player witnesses early in the game.
On-screen violence against women can also be political. One stark example is a scene in Red Dead Redemption 2, an open-world blockbuster set in the wild west. The player encounters a middle-aged woman campaigning in the street for suffrage. The player can choose various ways to interact with the campaigner, including an agreeable conversation, but the options which attract the most views on YouTube include beating her up, binding her arms behind her back, and feeding her to an alligator.
The scene provoked critical mainstream media coverage. The responses and comments from many “gamers” were toxic anti-feminism, an outcome that must surely have been anticipated by the game’s creators.
In 2013, Anita Sarkeesian – a feminist academic, campaigner and documentary maker – launched a a series of YouTube documentaries called Tropes vs Women in Games. She displayed, detailed and damned a range of examples, from the “damsel in distress” cliché, to absurdly unrealistic body depictions.
It was to prove a watershed moment as game developers (usually men) who’d had little exposure to feminist thinking about media, watched the videos and finally got the memo.
In the last decade, developers have begun to turn a corner. More video games now feature powerful girls and women. The following is a list of ten notable characters, one each from the past ten years.
2012: Clementine (The Walking Dead)
2013: Lara Croft (Tomb Raider reboot)
2014: Amanda Ripley (Alien: Isolation)
2015: Chloe Price (Life is Strange)
2016: Emily Kaldwin (Dishonored 2)
2017: Senua (Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice)
2018: Madeline (Celeste)
2019: Jesse Faden (Control)
2020: Alyx Vance (Half Life: Alyx)
2021: Selene Vassos (Returnal)
Early next year also sees the return of impressive warrior Aloy in the second installment of the Horizon series, called Horizon: Forbidden West. She, and the characters listed above, are all strong personalities, with their own stories to tell. They do not exist to simply garland a male hero’s journey.
Similarly, online games like Overwatch, Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Valorant include powerful women characters or avatar body types and costumes. League of Legends’ fighter Vi is the starring character in a highly praised new Netflix show called Arcane.
Partly, the difference is down to developers learning, progressing as story tellers, and opening up to new ideas. Ten years ago, few game studios and publishers were talking about the importance of diverse hiring practices. Now, they publicly count it as a priority, even if progress is painfully slow.
According to the International Game Developers Association, 24% of game developers are women, up from 22% in 2015. Progress is there but game companies blame systemic, educational, and cultural reasons for their lack of progress, calling for more investment in STEM education for girls and women. Some companies, like Electronic Arts, are making efforts to implement change in the industry and promote gender diversity by donating to STEM organizations like Girls Make Games.
Game publishers are increasingly unwilling to take on the cost and hassle of consumer and media backlash against offensive and indefensible portrayals of women. In recent years, the games media has hired more women critics and journalists, who have been key in highlighting offensive portrayals.
The result is that, overall, games have backed off from some of their most shocking practices, while behaving more inclusively and intelligently in the number of playable women characters, and in how those women are portrayed.
But while modern games are less likely to portray women as grossly as games of the past, those old games are still available for purchase, or via popular subscription packages. Grand Theft Auto 5, one of the most notorious examples of negative portrayal of women, and of sexual violence as entertainment, was released back in 2013, but it’s still popular today, and it’s still profiting from sexualized violence, and from negative portrayals of women.
how men react
A growing body of research demonstrates that such portrayals make a difference. In 2008, the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology published a research paper on how men react to women characters in video games. For the test, a group of men were shown video game-sourced images of stereotypical female victims. The researchers then tested the men on their attitudes to real life examples of sexual harassment against women.
Versus the control group, the men “made judgments that were more tolerant” of sexual harassment, and by extension, less sympathetic towards the real world victims.
The same research group also investigated how much time the men spent playing video games during their lives, and asked them questions about their attitudes towards women, and towards sexism. The results revealed “significant relationships between long-term violent video game exposure and less progressive sexual harassment judgments and greater rape supportive attitudes”, according to the report.
time for change
The video games industry has a poor record portraying women, partly exacerbated by its previous willingness to defend its own outrages to the hilt. Developers and publishers of the past sought to justify their exclusionary behavior and outright misogyny through weak excuses, commonly citing consumer demand and public acceptance as a reasonable justification, or using ludicrous arguments such as the extra effort of animating women characters. Many were outright dismissive towards any feminist pushback against their games.
As a result, the game industry has much work to do before it can lay claim to true diversity and equality.
But demonstrable change is happening. As media acceptance of sexism in games has declined, and as social media campaigns against offending material have started to bite, many companies are significantly improving the way they portray women in games.
There are still those few companies that find value in stirring up shock and outrage, seeking to curry favorable coverage from right-wing media defenders of “cancel culture”. But judging by their output, most publishers are making more balanced calculations, noting the increase in women playing games, and the financial (and possibly moral) imperative of delivering more realistic depictions of gender.
Thankfully, there is a ready-to-do list for video game companies. They can take a big step forward by delivering on their promises to increase diversity among their workforces, most especially in senior positions. Development teams that portray acts of violence against women can also take these complex issues seriously, by hiring specialists, writers, and advisers. These same companies can also be more transparent about how they approach challenging topics in their games.
Instead of seeking to benefit from sexualized depictions of women as mere victims, games can (and will) make a significant artistic contribution to the reality of women’s lives, and to the fight against social systems that seek to hide or to justify widespread violence.