10:23 am - 12/04/2012

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.

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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jacomus 4th-Dec-2012 03:30 pm (UTC)
She definitely doesn't deserve all the abuse she gets online, but I can't stand Anita Sarkeesian and her wet blanket, subjective view of feminist issues in video games. I'm interested to see how her Kickstarter project/research turns out, though.
ediesedgwick 4th-Dec-2012 03:34 pm (UTC)
Also her eyebrows
devochkazhenya 4th-Dec-2012 04:12 pm (UTC)
i'd have to agree with you. I understand what she's doing and why but I feel like she misses the point a lot of the time. I felt that way during her Hunger Games review. Also I remember she was talking about Caprica or something that had a gay assasin character in it (I've never seen Caprica) and then she argued that 'why does the gay character have to be the killer?' which made me feel like 'why do all queer characters have to be objectivley 'good' characters'?
agatharuncible 4th-Dec-2012 04:51 pm (UTC)
lol mte. "this character is evil because he's gay" =/= "this character is evil and also gay"

I mean, the two things can be related but there are some good stuff out there that taps into the fact that irl gay people aren't always objectively good (or good), and how society contributes to that.
nevermademe 4th-Dec-2012 05:21 pm (UTC)
if you scroll thru the tags or somethin there's a post on 007 Skyfall and how lgbt characters are usually represented as villains in films and shows.
thisampersand 4th-Dec-2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
that Caprica comment is such bs, the gay assassin character was one of the few characters in a loving relationship and was shown to be a caring father figure to his nephew and you know was also surrounded by straight characters doing even more reprehensible things than he ever did iirc.
recorded 4th-Dec-2012 05:46 pm (UTC)
What are some examples of her "wet blanket, subjective view of feminist issues in video games"?

I'd be interested in a legitimate criticism of her work, but mostly it's all just men's rights activists & 4chan trolls being fucking gross so it's challenging to find.
gorlplz 4th-Dec-2012 03:30 pm (UTC)
vulpineways 4th-Dec-2012 05:15 pm (UTC)

Now, I'm totally against any game featuring rape, of course, but I really dislike this over-vigilance. It deviates the attention from the real problems that women suffer.

I'm sure that most of people who rape or beat women don't need to be inspired by videogames.
underthatspell 4th-Dec-2012 06:50 pm (UTC)
But the prevalence of it kind of normalizes violence towards women. It presents abuse as okay. If no one spoke up, nothing would ever change, so it's important that these issues are being talked about so much.
voyevoda 4th-Dec-2012 07:53 pm (UTC)
I'm sure that most of people who rape or beat women don't need to be inspired by videogames.

Fair enough. But a big reason as well why it irks me to see it in games is that they're meant to be escapism. Rape and sexual assault is something that women have to take into consideration 24/7 outside their homes. Bringing it into their entertainment, and especially without giving it the serious consideration it deserves (or in Tomb Raider's case, thrusting it on a character as partial motivation, where no male characters would ever be made to face sexual assault/rape in their origin stories), it's rude and inconsiderate. It isn't just a plot device or a joke and some devs don't seem to get that. =\
run_atreyu 5th-Dec-2012 08:18 am (UTC)
Men who beat and rape women don't come out of the womb raping or beating women, they build up to it over years of exposure to ideas that women are less than men and are an acceptable outlet for their own violence and negative feelings. It's the culture all around us that causes them to be socialised that way, and that includes media. If you want people's attention focused on the 'real problems women suffer,' you're already too late. It's the root cause of those problems that need to be addressed to prevent them to begin with and misogyny (incl. that seen in video games) is the problem.
superdogbiter 4th-Dec-2012 03:30 pm (UTC)
thats why i love saints row
i can dress however i want and the characters respect me regardless of my gender
ectypes 4th-Dec-2012 03:44 pm (UTC)
+ skyrim
anwyn18 4th-Dec-2012 08:28 pm (UTC)
Seconded :) I can even make a fat girl! This makes me inordinately happy.
destroyedatsea 5th-Dec-2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
On top of that you
1) get a trophy/achievement for playing for 2 hours as a female and 2 hours as a male
2) Both the female and male characters have "sex appeal" sliders which means EQUAL OPPORTUNITY SEXUALIZATION! WOO WOO!
harleenfrances 4th-Dec-2012 03:31 pm (UTC)
omw just looked up "rapelay"...any and all ppl that gave approval for it need to be set on fire.
harleenfrances 4th-Dec-2012 03:42 pm (UTC)
on the wiki summary it said there is a "pregnancy option" but i didn't see anything about abortion, i would not doubt it's in the game tho. totally disgusting.
agatharuncible 4th-Dec-2012 04:52 pm (UTC)
I don't even want to look it up. it sounds horrifying.
nuravecunt 4th-Dec-2012 04:56 pm (UTC)
what the fuck? i'm too scared to google
ediesedgwick 4th-Dec-2012 03:32 pm (UTC)
"Japanese game RapeLay, in which players stalk and rape a mother and her two daughters."

uhhhh WHAT? wtf
piratesswoop 4th-Dec-2012 03:38 pm (UTC)
mte jfc
allybally12345 4th-Dec-2012 03:39 pm (UTC)
To make things worse, I remember hearing that you can further make the girls suffer by impregnating them then aborting the baby against their will.

Just...what the fuck?! Whyyy would anyone even want to play a game like that?! D;
near_dark 4th-Dec-2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
When it comes to the Japanese, it's best to not ask too many questions.
agatharuncible 4th-Dec-2012 04:53 pm (UTC)
Just...what the fuck?! Whyyy would anyone even want to play a game like that?! D;

vulpineways 4th-Dec-2012 05:17 pm (UTC)
My my, this is SO SICK! Ugh!
The person who invented it needs to excluded permanently from the gene pool.

mana_runigha 5th-Dec-2012 12:04 am (UTC)
A bad ending is one of the girls deciding to keep the baby. Yerp
devochkazhenya 4th-Dec-2012 04:12 pm (UTC)
aleksie 4th-Dec-2012 04:22 pm (UTC)
I just read the Wikipedia entry on this. It is horrific that a bunch of people would make this game and that people have purchased it.
lucciolaa 4th-Dec-2012 04:39 pm (UTC)
saintssin 4th-Dec-2012 04:41 pm (UTC)
the fuck
bunnycupcakes 4th-Dec-2012 05:01 pm (UTC)
I looked it up in the past and I still can't believe it exists and that anyone would WANT to play it.
leaf_collector 4th-Dec-2012 05:38 pm (UTC)
da fuq
heart_of_butter 5th-Dec-2012 08:52 am (UTC)
Sad thing is a game like RapeLay is not unique in Japan. Not by a long shot.
ediesedgwick 4th-Dec-2012 03:33 pm (UTC)
I basically never play video games but the only 3 games I've played all the way through are ones where you get to have a qt female character.... Buffy the Vampire Slayer, SSX Tricky/SSX 3 (Elise) and Jet Set Radio Future (gum)
stebo 4th-Dec-2012 03:35 pm (UTC)
wauwy 4th-Dec-2012 03:55 pm (UTC)
dis piece of crap game
kurai007 4th-Dec-2012 04:12 pm (UTC)
godramaclub 4th-Dec-2012 04:19 pm (UTC)
leaf_collector 4th-Dec-2012 05:39 pm (UTC)
lmao this gif their faces why
poop_of_death 4th-Dec-2012 03:40 pm (UTC)
numbedtoe 4th-Dec-2012 03:47 pm (UTC)
i thought the same tbh.

it's an important issue but good lord i didn't want to start my day on wank.
milly 4th-Dec-2012 03:42 pm (UTC)
Anyone who has NOT gone through Mass Effect as FemShep at least once is missing out so much. I tried starting a game as MaleShep after finishing up ME3 with my FemShep and gave up after just a few hours. The voice acting is HORRIBLE and so blah compared to Jennifer Hale's performance.
numbedtoe 4th-Dec-2012 03:48 pm (UTC)
FemShep is the only way I can play Mass Effect 2 &3. I adore her.
kristinkat 4th-Dec-2012 03:49 pm (UTC)
IA. It's such a shame 'cause Mark Meer is really lovely and charming outside of that performance.
kindakooky 4th-Dec-2012 04:34 pm (UTC)
ia so hard, femshep really goes against all the stereotypes of women in videogames, and the voice acting is just amazing
onyx_obsidian 5th-Dec-2012 07:58 am (UTC)
Except her breasts got bigger each game. :/
voyevoda 4th-Dec-2012 04:39 pm (UTC)
While I love Mark Meer for all his voice work aside from Sheploo (which is really a case of poor directing, I think), the WHOLE feel of the game changes when I play as FemShep. With Sheploo it's sort of a generic space shooter for me. With her, it's, IDK, new and different in a way.
nuravecunt 4th-Dec-2012 04:58 pm (UTC)
i thought about doing a second play as a male but then like...FemShep <333
arbiterin 4th-Dec-2012 05:06 pm (UTC)
FemShep is perfection
leperheart 4th-Dec-2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
fuck that. i'm off to go buy me1 for my ps3 as soon as i get my fat lazy ass off this chair and it is male!@shep all the way. time to knock some kaiden space boots!!!!
anwyn18 4th-Dec-2012 08:31 pm (UTC)
It's true. I've never loved a game character like I love my FemShep.
ectypes 4th-Dec-2012 03:44 pm (UTC)
ugh just needed to get this off my chest

[Spoiler (click to open)]I went out friday night in DC. we had just gotten home to the hotel where we were staying, it was maybe 3:30, 4 am. my friend and i left to go to the CVS around the corner to get supplies for a drunk girl upstairs. outside the hotel there was a guy who would not leave us alone. he was sitting there on a bench, doing nothing, relatively young, decent-looking guy. he asked us where we were going. we said we needed to get something for our friend. he asked if there were any parties around, if he could come with us, etc. we tried to help him out with names of bars, but it was after 3 and everything was closed. my friend, drunk, was like OK BYEEEEE awkwardly just so we could get out of there because his air was really predatory. i'm shocked that he didn't follow us. when we got back he was waiting for us in the lobby. he says "HI" all aggressively when we pass w/o saying hello... like you deserve a hi from me. what if i don't feel like talking to you? i don't know you. we get in the elevator, hit our floor number and he comes RUNNING to catch the elevator with us. he puts his hand through the door and i was like FUCK NO and got out, yelling at him and looking for concierge. there was someone at concierge, but they just didn't give a fuck that this man had just RUN at the elevators towards us and that i was yelling at him to leave us alone. the weird guy stayed in the elevator like i told him to, my friend and i sat down and waited in the lobby. in walks some douche bag who cat calls to us, his friends (one of whom is a young female) laughing. i told him to fuck off and he got all fake-offended, made some colorful remark and got into another elevator.

anyways i hate people. especially after 3 am. maybe i am overreacting, but that guy gave me the creeps.
anagram42 4th-Dec-2012 03:51 pm (UTC)
You did not overreact at all! I know if I were in that situation I would have frozen up. Good on you for standing up and telling that asshole off!
It's a damn shame you had to go through that, bb
numbedtoe 4th-Dec-2012 03:51 pm (UTC)
bb never, ever, ignore that feeling you get. seriously. it's better to be wrong and rude than to ignore it and kick yourself later. i totally believe in getting a vibe off people. i've had that. and i don't think you're overreacting.

few things are worse than dealing with someone who completely gives you the predatory feeling and doesn't want to take a hint or a simple no.

and fuck that hotel for not dealing with that situation.
backtoblack 4th-Dec-2012 03:52 pm (UTC)
No, that's scary and I would have done the same exact thing. Who the fuck chases people around in the middle of the night?
delta_cephei 4th-Dec-2012 03:54 pm (UTC)
You're def not over reacting, that's really creepy. It's really sad that the people working didn't care at all about the situation. You'd think they'd want to protect their customers from creeps.
praiseheathus 4th-Dec-2012 03:56 pm (UTC)
Gurl, I'm sorry. That shit sucks and people like him need have toothpicks shoved under his cuticles and forced to step on legos for all of eternity.
bloblawslawblog 4th-Dec-2012 04:07 pm (UTC)
You dealt with that better than I would have.. that's seriously terrifying, especially the whole elevator situation. The fact that the concierge did nothing, is something I bet the owner would love to hear.
crup 4th-Dec-2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
you're not overreacting. if you felt scared and/or threatened, his behaviour was not ok. no one should ever make you feel like that!!
aleksie 4th-Dec-2012 04:14 pm (UTC)
You didn't overreact at all. You need to report that conceirge's ass to the management and/or corporate office if it's a huge chain.
bittermunchkin 4th-Dec-2012 04:18 pm (UTC)
It's downright negligent that the hotel employee didn't threaten security or just go ahead and call them. My friends and I were being followed by some guys who'd seen us at the hotel pool when we were like 14, 15 - they left the pool and came to our floor but never went into any room and just stayed by the elevator and watched us walk down the hall - and the guys were obviously over 18 and the employee we informed thought it was funny and didn't do shit until we told our parents.
alienclit 4th-Dec-2012 04:46 pm (UTC)
How can anyone see humor in that? Like what?
idreaminargyle 4th-Dec-2012 04:31 pm (UTC)
can you file a complaint with the hotel manager that the employees didn't do anything or even try to help?
This is a legit safety issue that needs to be addressed
alienclit 4th-Dec-2012 04:47 pm (UTC)
You should rip the hotel people a new one so you get free shit and this doesn't happen to someone else who stays there in the future. I'm sorry that happened, though. Alcohol + raging testosterone = gross as fuck.
saintssin 4th-Dec-2012 04:50 pm (UTC)
When you're in a situation like that, ALWAYS trust your instincts. There's always a chance you're wrong, but who gives a shit? Better to be wrong and safe than anything else, imo.

As a guy, I'm not exposed to stuff like this very often. But I met a creepy guy at the bus terminal here not too long ago. The guy kept trying to touch me and then tried following me into the bathroom. But I knew there was going to be a problem just by the not-so-subtle glances. When you're right, you're right.

People are fucking creepy. Trust your instincts and don't ever worry about overreacting.
agatharuncible 4th-Dec-2012 04:57 pm (UTC)
you're not overreacting. if he's completely innocent and didn't mean to scare you then that's what social skills are for. you don't just aggressively demand people you don't know to greet you and you don't barge into the elevator like that, etc. especially not when the people in question are women, we get so much shit that we have good reason to feel unsafe.
leaf_collector 4th-Dec-2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
not unreasonable at all, tbqfh
kudos to you for standing up, that is seriously not ok for some dude to do that
gorlplz 4th-Dec-2012 05:52 pm (UTC)
u shoulda brought out da pocketknife and SLICED dat muddafucka
sviibwhapp 4th-Dec-2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
I don't get how this is a spoiler. I thought that spoilers were plot lines and stuff from movies or tv shows that someone else may not have yet seen.
bananasnrum 5th-Dec-2012 12:01 am (UTC)
I would call the hotel management or customer service hotline and complain that there was no security/action by concierge to make you feel safe in their hotel. you are a paying customer - someone working there should have been able to make you feel safe!
dynamite_state 4th-Dec-2012 03:44 pm (UTC)
All the MK ladies and their outfits VS the guys tbqh
manubibi 4th-Dec-2012 03:50 pm (UTC)
Are we aknowledging this now? Everything that's commonly known as "manly stuff" has this kind of representation of women. However, some games are taking these clichés and throwing them in the gutter so... I wouldn't say all videogames are like this...Gaming changes very fast so maybe videogames will get to be more respectful of women
But most of them are somewhat disgusting rn, yeah. I noticed that like 10 years ago. Are they noticing this just now?
wauwy 4th-Dec-2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
10 years ago there was no outlet to discuss it and a lot of modern female gamers hadn't reached adulthood.
manubibi 4th-Dec-2012 03:56 pm (UTC)
Well internet has been with us for more than a decade now and I'm sure there were adult female gamers that played with the first playstation and had an internet connection and could notice these things
I'm just baffled because I'm like "duh" XD
praiseheathus 4th-Dec-2012 03:57 pm (UTC)
There's no expiration on acknowledge sexism (or any bias for that matter), especially when it's still so rampant.
megalixer 4th-Dec-2012 03:59 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the gaming industry/gaming subculture has been like this for some time, but I do think that the representation of women is somewhat better now than ~10 or so years ago. Now I feel like there is generally more of an effort to be more inclusive, the idea that 'girls just don't play games' is (slowly) dying . . . it's just that the industry is still dominated by males who don't really get it tbh.
voyevoda 4th-Dec-2012 04:40 pm (UTC)
It's been an ongoing problem, yeah, but this year it's been actually discussed openly and including media and industry voices/coverage, so it might just actually get somewhere in the coming years, rather than voices being drowned out year after year.
numbedtoe 4th-Dec-2012 03:52 pm (UTC)
jebus i hadn't heard of the lara croft near rape. goddamn. so sick of this shit.

wauwy 4th-Dec-2012 03:52 pm (UTC)
too depressing to read rn

Clinging to the perfect queen in my icon.
taecish 4th-Dec-2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
celes' theme song always make me tingly n teary tbh :'(

or is that terra I'M SO CONFUSED rn

Edited at 2012-12-04 04:09 pm (UTC)
wauwy 4th-Dec-2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
ia and I love Celes BUT that is actually Terra.

It's ok, they're really hard to tell apart when Terra doesn't have her flawless green haircape.

ETA: lol just saw your edit.

Edited at 2012-12-04 04:15 pm (UTC)
burn_a_miracle 4th-Dec-2012 03:59 pm (UTC)
This is why I like to play Skyrim. My character is always a woman and she is always a badass.

This article is just depressing. Damn.
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