Are video games inherently sexist? Designers and game makers discuss

We take at look at the design and representation of female characters in video games and ask if they are falling behind the real world in terms of gender equality.

Grand Theft Auto Five, published by Rockstar Games. Photo courtesy of IGDB

Many would argue that for too long, the gaming world has been male-dominated, filled with gun battles, fast cars and macho characters. Female characters have often been designed as visions of male fantasies, as sweet, simpering sidekicks or as damsels in distress, should they exist at all. But as the real-world fights for better gender equality and an end to sexism, is the gaming world falling behind?

The representation of women in video games has long been a topic for debate: Testament to this, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum which will soon be moving up to the museum’s Dundee counterpart, is currently shining a spotlight on the issue.

Over the past two years, more than 40% of all game players in Great Britain have been reported to be women, across all platforms combined including consoles, online and mobile apps, according to research commissioned by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe. Female game makers are also slowly making their mark on the industry, with 22% of game makers from around the world identifying as female, according to a survey by the International Game Developers Association conducted in 2015.

As the demographics change, a shift does seem to be happening — but is it happening fast enough within video games themselves?

Stereotypes and clichés

The way female characters are designed and depicted has often been sexualised and derogatory, drawn with exaggerated figures and minimal clothing, or falling victim to harassment and violation in games such as Grand Theft Auto Five.

Even non-human characters are often hit with “girly” stereotypes; a recent redesign of Sheila, a female kangaroo in the new Spyro Reignited Trilogy game, gives the character a nipped-in waist, glamorous eyelashes and a new hairdo. This went on to spark a social media backlash with critics questioning why a cartoon kangaroo needed to look “sexy”.

But the look of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, a fictional female character who has been criticised extensively in the past for her scantily-clad demeanour, has started to evolve in a more body-positive way. Designed in the 1990s with unrealistic proportions, modern iterations of the character are finally beginning to be more representative of a real human, with the BBC poignantly noting that “the hotpants have gone and her breasts have shrunk”.

Leading roles

The number of female protagonists in games still lags behind the abundance of male ones. Many children in the late 1990s played Pokemon Red, Blue and Yellow on the Gameboy Colour, with gameplay centred around a male avatar. Now a remake of the game, Pokemon, Let’s Go Pikachu, has launched on the Nintendo Switch, sparking a wave of nostalgia by bringing shiny new graphics to the same storyline, and offers players the option to play as a girl character. Playable female characters are also available in other remakes of Pokemon games including Pokemon LeafGreen and FireRed.

Some would say things are improving and strong women characters do exist; one example is a survivor called Ellie in the apocalyptic game, The Last of Us, who is a secondary character to her brother in the original game but will be the main playable character in the upcoming sequel, The Last of Us Two.

Independent games offer more examples, such as the mother and daughter protagonists in Monument Valley Two, a game app designed by UsTwo, which explores the duo’s relationship as they travel through beautiful yet precarious mazes on a journey together.

We asked designers and others in the gaming world their thoughts about the representation of women in video games, whether they feel there is underlying sexism in the animated field — and whether they think this is changing.

Nina Freeman, game designer, Fullbright. Photo: ©NashCo Photography.

“When addressing issues around sexism and sexualisation of women in games, it’s important to remember that AAA games — blockbuster, mass market games by major publishers, like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto — that are often referenced in these conversations aren’t actually the only games out there.

Nor should they represent the industry as a whole. There’s a vast body of work, mostly by independent creators, that does include positive, complex and interesting depictions of women — games by developers and designers such as Christine Love, Lea Schönfelder, Bahiyya Khan and Jenny Jiao Hsia, for example. For people who are interested in supporting work by and about women that does not adhere to sexist stereotypes, then I’d recommend looking at games by those creators.

I do think video game culture has earned its reputation of having poor representation of women, but that is because of deeper cultural issues that plague all art. Video games, as a medium, aren’t inherently sexist — it’s the creators and the cultures they function in that are the problem.

Sexism needs to be addressed at a deeper level in our societies and cultures before we can see more positive representation of all minorities and women overall. One good way to promote this sort of cultural change is to support and signal boost work by women and minorities. It’s easy for smaller creators who are doing progressive work to be forgotten in light of whatever news splash the big AAA games are making, so supporting their work is imperative if video games want to become a better and more inclusive space.”

Erika Clegg, co-founder, Spring

“For an apparently modern industry, much of gaming puts women and men into alarmingly traditional roles: powerful hunter-gatherer man, scantily-clad doe-eyed sexy woman. It’s part of the retrograde projection of gender that’s afflicting the music industry at the moment too. Does it matter? You bet it does! If we perpetuate distorted stereotypes through entertainment it has a fundamental impact on progress in the real world, especially on young people’s aspirations and self-esteem.

Change is complicated by the fundamental differences between motivations for play: women look to complete, design and create new worlds, men to destroy and compete. So when a survival game has a strong female character, she’s still operating in a male gaming world.

One of our team trained as a game designer — just three of his fellow students were female, of whom only one entered the industry. Clearly the industry is aware of the need for progression in all respects as it makes commercial sense. Diminishing the impact of gender in games for men and women alike is a good step, and some games for kids are taking this on board — Fortnite doesn’t allowing gender selection, for example. Also, there is no doubt that more women in the industry would lead to more realistic depiction of both sexes in products.”

Axelle Van de Goor, producer, Studio Output

“Growing up in the 1990s, it was the norm to have the single option of playing as a super virile male character. Games were designed and marketed by males for males, so female characters often took on the forms of the core audience’s fantasies. Today, there’s a much larger female gaming community, one that’s expected to grow further, as well as a stronger presence of female game makers.

With that in mind, we’re starting to see a shift — a subtle one, but a shift none the less — in how female characters are represented. Red Dead Redemption Two’s Sadie Adler, for example, is a total badass that brings a breath of fresh air to the game with her wit and independence. That said, there’s still a long way to go.

When it comes to fair female representation and inclusion, it’s a classic case of design being the problem but also the solution. With an evolving market demographic, and technology opening the door to even more detailed designs, now feels like the time for game makers to think much more deeply about what they want to represent and express with each character before they bring them to life.”

Jasmine Idun Isdrake, creative director at Playcentric Studios and founder at game innovation hub Collaboratory

“There is a lack of diversity in game characters and female leads, and has been since I started making games and playing them as a kid in the 1980s. There were a few examples: Samus Aran in Metroid, later Faith in Mirrors Edge, and today Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn and Senua in Hellblade are my favourites.

Still I can count these on both hands and compared to male characters, the gap is huge. There are few LGBTQ+* characters in games, too. Art house and indie games are usually more diverse and investigate subjects like sexism. One cool example is Nicki Homaj where the player wears a pink wig and high heels with embedded sensors and responds to sexist comments by moving controllers.

It is getting better, both in games and at the studios making them. Sex and violence are part of life and in the stories that people share and interact with, but tacky, sexist scenes just makes me lose interest and respect for the developers. Diversity is about quality.

I feel no difference as a gamer playing muscular male Kratos in God of War or my customised, old and wise female character in Bloodborne. I play to relax, get into a story world and feel a flow in movement and slashing of monsters, because everything is well-designed. As a game developer, diversity and inclusion is always at the core, and that work never ends if we want to keep up quality in our industry.”

*Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and others.

What do you think about the representation of women in video games? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Glenn February 21, 2019 at 11:07 pm

    Great article.

    As a gamer since the days of the Commodore 64. The age old stereotypical characters and storylines have been the normal status quo of the industry. Like our society, gaming tropes are changing from the damsel in distress, in the likes of original Donkey Kong, progressing to the nerdy amazonian that kicks ass in the Tomb Raider series through to the relatable Alloy in HZD and Ellie in The Last of Us, narratives and character developments have truly come a long way. But it needs to go further. Much like the film industry is a mirror reflection of our current viewpoint in society, so are games.

    As an older gamer, I look for games that have a well thought out narrative and strong lead roles (Be it male, female or other) that have faults, that are vulnerable, that face adversity and can triumph in the face of what ever challenge is presented to them.

    For myself, gaming has always been about the immersive experiences of the worlds and the characters you can explore. Like our ‘real’ world ‘virtual’ experiences help mold and define our personalty of who we are. Gaming can be the tool to change societies perceptions, it just needs to lead the charge.

    I encourage my children to game and I play along with them and as a parent I am mindful of stereotypical representations, I’m not saying we need to get rid of fantasy driven tropes as they have a purpose, and who doesn’t enjoy blowing shit up just for the hell of it! But when characters and narratives are done in a thought provoking manner, it truly is magical.

    Are games inherently Sexist? Yes, but not as much as they used to be. Things are changing, and the future is looking good.

  • Ace May 1, 2022 at 1:10 am

    This is a great article but you have always been able to play as a girl in the pokemon games. I don’t know if thats what you intended to say but thats how the writing comes off.

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