Keywords: Video games, representation,2SLGBTQIA+, entertainment, media
The video game industry is one of the largest entertainment mediums in the world according to some research reports 40% of the world’s population are active gamers, that’s over 3 billion people (DFC Intelligence, 2022). At first glance, since the gaming industry involves such a mass amount of people, you’d think there’s a lot of room for inclusion and proper representation however, you wouldn’t have to dig very far to find some fundamental problems. This is most notably showcased by the perpetuation of gender roles and gender stereotypes in video games. One of many examples is the damsel in distress stereotype, where the male character is always showcased as strong and brave, almost functioning as a god in a lot of games whereas the female character is often weak, submissive, and frequently sexualized. This essay will aim to showcase, gender as it’s treated and represented in video games while also focusing on examples of games that have and haven’t represented gender properly.
Starting off I’d first like to examine the treatment of Men in video games. It’s no secret and really no surprise that men are the main gender represented in video games with white men specifically being greatly overrepresented in video games (Williams et al., 2009). Often being depicted as overtly masculine, being depicted as the hero character, and due to the nature of being in a video game, the male protagonists take on an almost godly position over the other characters in the game. Sometimes the male characters literally being gods. It can be debated that there are games that have a female protagonist or god-like characters but within the context of there being a gender representation gap, this depiction of men can perpetuate gender stereotypes.
I’ll look at this more when discussing women in video games but the sexualization or lack of sexualization of men in video games contrasts greatly when compared to the sexualization of women. While there are examples of sexualized male video game characters, Nathan Drake from the Uncharted games is a light example, as it is incredibly hard to find overtly sexualized male characters in mainstream games. Nathan Drake’s sexualization is very different in contrast to a sexualized female character like Quiet from Metal Gear Solid. Where Nathan Drake is sexualized in the same way a character like Indiana Jones would be considered sexualized (attractive, smart, masculine, strong, charming, etc.) he’s not a sexual object in the game, he keeps his clothes on and his sexualization is never a core part of his character. Where in contrast to this, Quiet from Metal Gear Solid is sexualized and a textbook example of a sexual object within the game, her clothes do not stay on. It goes even beyond that as her sexualization is written right into her character, described in-game as “she breathes through her skin”. Given as an explanation as to why she is wearing the absolute minimum amount of clothing despite being in an active warzone in Afghanistan. Examples like Quiet are not hard to find at all whereas even a soft example like Nathan Drake is much harder to track down.
Click here to see an image of Nathan Drake.
Click here to see an image of Quiet.
An interesting genre of games that tend to have a smaller gap between how male and females are represented are fighting games. Both men and women are highly sexualized in these types of games such as Mortal Kombat and Super Street Fighter, which are the two biggest franchises in the fighting game genre. Even then in a game like Mortal Kombat, there’s still the opportunity to choose armor-clad men but very few if any armor-clad women. It should also be noted that fighting games are really the only place you can find overly sexualized males to the degree that women are in other genres of video games, and that’s only because it’s been the nature of fighting games to overly sexualize their characters since the 1990s. Sexualization and sexual objectification are almost expected in these games and have become a part of the genre, which is why it’s probably one of the few game genres to consistently sexualize men in the same way women are sexualized in other games.
Directing focus now to women, I’m going to acknowledge that in video games female characters are regularly offered much more sexualized clothing/armor options compared to male characters, it’s unfortunately been like this for a long time, but it has also been discussed and written on plenty of times. So, alternatively, I’d like to focus on the actual characterization that women are provided in games, such as how they are written or how they work into the video game world and game mechanics. The writing for female characters in games has always been problematic and mirrors similar narrative tropes found in film. As previously mentioned, the damsel in distress trope was very prevalent in video games, found as early on as Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros. (1985) and Zelda in Legend of Zelda (1986). While as a trend the damsel in distress trope has fizzled out in modern gaming in preference of more fleshed-out narratives, there are still plenty of examples today, seen in Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017) and Bioshock Infinite (2013).
Recent years in gaming have found a surge of strong female protagonists, in characters such as Ellie from The Last of Us (2013), Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), and Female Commander Shepard from Mass Effect 3 (2012). However, the prevailing gender of narratively crafted characters is still male, and non-crafted characters are where proper video game gender representation lies. A non-narratively crafted character is a blank-slate character that many video games use to help immerse players into the game. These character types are then created by the player in some way. This can be as simple as choosing the gender of a silent protagonist at the beginning of a game such as in Far Cry 5 (2018) or as complex as choosing every minute detail of your playable character, from the pitch of their voice to the highlights in their hair, as is found in Sims 4 (2014). Leaving the playable character as open-ended as possible helps maximize representation for not only male and female players but can help to represent the
Overall representation of2SLGBTQIA+ is severely lacking and what representation there is, can be very problematic. Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013) is the second-best-selling video game of all time with around 170 million copies sold globally (Take-two Interactive Software, 2022). However, within this virtual world, trans background NPCs (Non-playable characters) were depicted in caricatured ways, and in a video game that is played by millions globally, this posed serious issues with how trans people are represented and perceived by others. It wasn’t until early 2022 that the re-release of the game removed transphobic content but, after the game being released with the content for almost a decade it’s safe to assume that some damage was done, especially in the context of a game that is known to attract a younger audience and was played by so many people.
Alternatively, The Sims series has been a beacon of 2SLGBTQIA+ representation in the video game community for years. Same-sex couples were in the games since the first entry in the series, The Sims (2000). The Sims gave players the option to choose sexuality and gender preferences for their sims (Playable characters) or let their sims organically develop their own sexual and gender identity. As the games went on, they really perfected gender representation in my opinion and many online trans communities have discussed how The Sims has helped people achieve a sense of gender euphoria and cope with feelings of dysphoria. This goes back to the use of character creators in games being key, as I previously mentioned Sims 4 (2014) has a very in-depth and open character creator. The reason Sims 4 is the gold standard for gender representation is because of how open-ended the character creator is and that allows for the representation of seemingly anyone. The gender of a player’s sim can be as binary or non-binary as someone wants. Even playable and non-playable sim’s sexuality, as well as gender, work in fluid ways. Characters’ sexualities and gender expression can change as the game and characters evolve and interact.
While The Sims series is great when it comes to gender representation its success lies within the players’ decisions and the fact that almost all the characters are completely blank, non-narratively crafted characters. The true lack of successful gender representation lies in games with narratively crafted characters. A game that consists of all narratively crafted characters yet still succeeds in representing a multitude of genders is Mass Effect 3 (2012). The playable protagonist of the game who is known as Commander Shepard is a prominent male character from previous entries in the series however, in this game the player is given the option of choosing Shepard’s gender, male or female. While many games have done this with their protagonists prior to Mass Effect 3, it’s a notable example as both the male and female versions are fully voiced by separate voice actors and the female version feels like its own character. By this I mean the female version isn’t just a female clone of the male Shepard, she has her own nuances and characteristics that separate her from the male Shepard.
Mass Effect 3 is unique in its depiction of its playable protagonist, but successful gender representation also shows up in the non-playable supporting characters that appear throughout the series. A noticeable aspect is the use of the damsel in distress trope, whereas in Mass Effect 2 the trope is used on the male character Kaidan, who is depicted as being inferior to the protagonist and must be saved on multiple occasions. While there are other female damsel-in-distress-type characters in the series, it’s interesting to see the trope used on a male character, especially since it is such an anomaly narratively in video games.
Another notable supporting character in the Mass Effect series is the character Liara who in-game is a race known as the Asari. The Asari are an interesting race because they are gender neutral and have remained a fantastic way of establishing the concept of non-binary genders to players. This in turn helps understanding of gender fluidity, accomplished through the accessible medium of video games. The most recent entry to the series Mass Effect Andromeda (2017) goes even further in explaining that since the Asari interact with humans operating on more binary pronouns in Mass Effect, some prefer male or female pronouns while others will prefer gender-neutral pronouns. I remember playing Mass Effect 3 growing up was one of my earliest introductions to the idea of gender neutrality and helped to positively disrupt my understanding of gender. While characters like Liara still aren’t perfect as they are depicted as being “alien” in Mass Effect games, there is still value in flipping gender tropes on their head with Kaidan and introducing the massive demographic of gamers to the idea of gender going beyond just male and female.
As video games become more popular, the desire for proper representation within video games becomes stronger. This stems from decades of poor gender representation, such as females acting as nothing but a demonstration of the male protagonist’s strength and superiority and being created for the male gaze resulting in over-sexualization. It hasn’t been until the past decade of gaming that the number of female protagonists with complex and strong characteristics has significantly risen, but there is still a noticeable misrepresentation in the video game industry when it comes to females. Lack of representation continues to plague the
2SLGBTQIA+ community especially when it comes to narratively crafted characters. Recent games such as Celeste (2018) and The Last of Us Part 2 (2020) which have strong written, narratively crafted protagonists and antagonists that are a part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, show a promising trend toward better representation in the future. Even though it may be seen as too late, games such as Grand Theft Auto 5 re-releasing with transphobic content removed makes me optimistic, as gaming companies become increasingly aware of their influence on society and that there is a responsibility to try and not misrepresent groups of people. Until narratively crafted characters that represent gender in respectful and meaningful ways become the norm, character creators and non-narratively crafted characters are crucial to gender representation in video games. Character creators that go as in-depth as The Sims 4 or as surface level as a binary character selection, all help to make games feel more inclusive and representative of all the different people that play, something that I hope the gaming industry continues to prioritize going forward.
Global Video Game Consumer Segmentation, DFC Intelligence. 2022. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.dfcint.com/dossier/global-video-game-consumer-population/
Take-Two Interactive Software. 2022. “Investor Presentation – November 2022.” Q2 2023 Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. Earnings Conference Call. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.take2games.com/ir/quarterly-earnings
Williams, Dmitri, Nicole Martins, Mia Consalvo, and James D. Ivory. 2009. “The virtual census: representations of gender, race, and age in video games.” New Media & Society, 11(5), 815–834.