Gender in Video Games

In twine games, female protagonists seem to be portrayed in a normal fashion and as characters who have agency of control like male characters in text-based games—such as in The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo or the cat-petting simulator—but can also play secondary roles in other twine games like Her Pound of Flesh, which objectifies an absent female through the heartbreak memory of a male. Likewise, Depression Quest considers only the emotional consequences of the male protagonist but not the female characters involved. However, women are also objectified in more subtle manners than the case becomes for the preceding 80s and 90s arcade, console, AAA, and PC games. Negative portrayals of women in text-based games only allow for imagination of an individual but some of the explicit graphics and sex appeal in the 80s and 90s titles paved way for a more intense objectification of women in video games. For example, the game company Mystique was one of the few video game companies that implemented sex appeal for lucrative measures during the 80s with Atari 2600 titles like Custer’s Revenge and Beat Em and Eat Em. In addition to being affiliated with an American pornographic studio that thrived during the 15-year Golden Age of Porn period (around 1969–1984), this correlation of national and international influence may partly explain why there was a rise in writing games that essentially dehumanized women in sexual manners since the 70s but failing with the 1983 crash of the video game industry. In the modern sense, there are traces of this influence through games like the 2003 Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball title (having sexually appealing female characters compete) and the 2005-10 God of War series (utilizing sex with women as a means of gaining experience points).

A similar case can also be made with the popularized otome games in Japan during the 90s, which were intended to function as love romance simulations for young male and females; however, even though women are the targeted audience, the goal of winning the desired partner also seems to objectify women as prizes to win in a game.

Moreover, women in video games commonly fall into tropes of a “Damsel in Distress” as proven throughout gaming history and  various franchises. For example, the role of the Nintendo female character Princess Peach epitomizes this trope; starting since the 1981 Donkey Kong game and the seceding Super Mario Bros. franchise, Peach is kidnapped and rescued by Mario in 13 of the 14 appearances in the Nintendo series. This video game trope may have been influenced by the popularized use of the “Damsel in Distress” plot device at the turn of 20th century media and literature—such as in the 1933 King Kong film, Edgar Rice Burroughs novel of Tarzan and the Apes, or the show Popeye. The plot device is referring to women who are in captive or dangerous situations and are rescued by capable male characters. In turn, the growing influence of these tropes may also reflect a shared opinion among the predominantly male-led video game companies of the late half of the century; this shared view may see virtual women as ideally subservient, objects of sex, or non-autonomous individuals that need to be saved by men.

As it relates to masculinity, developers seemed to be more inclined to implementing male heroes and masculine characteristics during the 80s and 90s; some male game developers of AAA titles for Nintendo, like Starfox’s Shigeru Miyamoto (the same creator of Donkey Kong), would intentionally re-write and re-design a game originally made with a female protagonist to a male-led narrative—this was the case for the unreleased Dinosaur Planet around the late 90s to early 2000s. The intent would become more obvious over the years when most video game titles leaned towards the typical male protagonist. Although female roles are primarily portrayed as secondary in most early and modern console games, there are also exceptions of female heroine protagonists that defy the gender roles in AAA titles like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft and Horizon Zero Dawn‘s Aloy, whose capabilities parallel some characteristics that are typical of a male video game hero–such as being a solo but strong survivor or fighter.

Given the historical context of females in video games throughout the years, there has been slight progress with the use of dominant female protagonists becoming more visible not only through AAA titles such as Tomb Raider or Horizon Zero Dawn, but also through indie games like Life is Strange or Transistor. At the same time, however, there are still traces of female objectification through AAA titles like God of War or The Witcher 3. Given that women makeup the majority of videogame users today, the market could be more inclined towards non-dehumanizing portrayals of females in AAA, indie, or app games that appeal to their consumers; perhaps because doing otherwise could contribute to a financial disadvantage as it did in the 1980s. So, given that more video game companies have female protagonist-led and less secondary roles of focus, the times now reflect a much different portrayal of women than earlier “pixilated” versions.

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