Video game design systematically marginalizing women

Written by: Russ Chizek

T he video game industry has a problem with gender representation. But if the media ever hopes to reach its full potential, game developers and publishers need to stop alienating more than half the planets population. Females purchase and play video games, but reflective of the patriarchal society we live in, the video game industry is dominated by games that exclusively feature male characters.

Video games are arguably the youngest entertainment media and also the only interactive media. Gender representation in games brings a slightly different and important angle to the debate. It’s one thing for an individual to not be able to relate to a character that they watch in a film or read about in a book but it’s another thing altogether to not be able to relate to a character who is being virtually inhabited by the person playing the game.

By taking one glance at mainstream video games, it would seem like an obvious assertion to surmise that men are the only people who play video games, or at least that they comprise the vast majority.

Walk into a game store and take a look at the shelf. You’ll be assaulted by constant depictions of men wielding guns, swords and striking overtly masculine poses.

If there weren’t a single female in the world that enjoyed playing video games there might not be an issue. But the number of women picking up controllers is increasing year after year and yet the video gaming industry remains stagnant.

According to a report by the Entertainment Software Association, 45 percent of all video game players in 2013 were women. This shows an increase from 2006 when the same study showed that only 38 percent of video game players were women.

Unfortunately, much of this comes down to the fact that the video games industry is a business and sales numbers indicate that a game with a female lead simply won’t sell as well as one with a male lead.

While writing for The Penny Arcade Report, editor Ben Kuchera contacted Geoffrey Zatkin, Chief Operating Officer of EEDAR, a video games research and consulting firm. In this article, Kuchera said, “In terms of pure sales numbers, in the first three months of availability, games with only a male hero sold around 25 percent better than games with an optional female hero. Games with exclusively male heroes sold around 75 percent better than games with only female heroes.”

This is why the change needs come from below; from people without dollar signs in their eyes and without obligations to stockholders.

There has been significant progress seen throughout the independent video game community, but with each stride forward comes backlash from those who don’t believe that any change is necessary.

The most prevalent example of this occurred when feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian set up a Kickstarter campaign to fund production of a web series dedicated to exploring the depiction of women in video games.

“When she first set up the Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the “Tropes vs. Women” series, the sheer amount of vitriol she inspired was astonishing. Her social media accounts were flooded with hate mail, and someone even designed a video game where players could punch her in the face.” said Gavia Baker-Whitelaw in a March 9, 2013 article for The Daily Dot.

We might be able to catalyze more positive change if we go a layer deeper and look to game design students to begin setting a new precedent for gender representation in games.

“Admittedly, I’d fallen into the trap of defaulting towards male characters and hadn’t really put much thought into gender. Creating characters of your own gender is an easy way for the creator to share a connection with their character. Is this good character design? Certainly not, but it’s the easiest and often the most natural way to create a character,” said second year Game Design major Raymond Hess.

Simply having females characters in a game isn’t the only issue, however, it’s also important to have females represented in a positive and realistic way.

Hess said, “Even when female characters are present, they’re often represented poorly. Physically, female characters are often ridiculously proportioned and sexualized.”

Crystal Jeffrey, another second year Game Design major at Mercer said, “I only pay attention to gender if it will make a major difference in the story.“

Also a second year Game Design major, Mike Albert said, “If the story isn’t directly impacted by gender, I think you should include both genders as an option.”

The danger with this sort of thinking that is that it’s operating under the flawed logic that a certain kind of story absolutely must star a male character. When we let our preconceived notions determine the way that we write characters and stories we are really just unknowingly perpetuating the very stereotypes and tropes that we need to push back against in order to achieve equality.

As a medium, video games have the ability tell a story and provide an experience unlike any other. However, games are still growing and in order for them to evolve in the right direction and to be taken more seriously by society, the industry needs to work to better include everyone.

Hess said.“ It’s a designer’s responsibility to ensure that anyone can relate to their character, and that should transcend gender. Characters should have enough personality that you can relate to them whether they are male, female, human, alien or anything else.”

It would be crazy to believe that it’s possible to change this trend overnight but if there were a way to make shifts in thoughts and actions from the ground up perhaps we could eventually live in a world where Princess Peach could rescue Mario more often and it wouldn’t be all that strange.

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