The Problematic Depiction of Women in the World of Video Games

Graphic by Abby Lass

By Tiffany Wong

It’s no secret that people associate video games with boys. So to speak, video games are ‘just a guy thing.’ But in this rapidly changing world, we are seeing more girls putting down dolls and picking up controllers.

However, even with these new circumstances, most game companies refuse to change the cast of their games. Advertisements are still geared towards teenage boys by using a pretty girl as eye candy. According to Jennifer Jenson, the director of the Institute for Research on Digital Learning, only 20 to 30% of characters in video games are female. That’s a problem. Game developers are just ignoring a large part of their demographic.

I grew up playing a wide variety of video games, but I never really noticed there was a problem because I didn’t know I could fix it. Looking back, women in video games– and in real life– were and still are extremely hyper-sexualized. When I say hyper-sexualized, I mean to the point to where if a male character acted or looked the same way, people would point it out. But because it’s a woman, people just don’t seem to notice.

There needs to be more representation of positive, strong female characters based on their personality and morals as opposed to their bodies.

It’s important for young girls to have a strong female role model, whether it be in real life, in a movie, or in a game. According to Ubisoft technical director James Therien, the addition of women to their release of Assassin’s Creed, Unity would have “doubled the work” for the animation team (qtd. In McCormick). So, it seems that video game companies don’t really care if they provide a female role model or not. Right, because of course, girls don’t play video games. As I said, ‘video games are just a guy thing.’ Except that’s wrong.

A study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association proved that 48% of gamers are female. Yeah, you heard that right, 48% (Sullivan). That’s almost half! Half of gamers are being shut out and left in the dark on representation. And why? Because “it’s too much effort to put in female characters”?

Are women not worth the effort? What kind of signal is that sending to our girls? There’s such a preconceived idea that video games are only for boys, and it’s for a really arbitrary reason.

In 1986, there was a huge collapse in the gaming production industry, and in hopes to resurrect their company, Nintendo shifted their product from the electronics section to the toys section, specifically, the boys aisle, and other companies followed suit (Adam Conover). This has had many negative effects on society, the worst offence being the male perception of women.

I’ve had my fair (or rather, unfair) share of experiences of being harassed online for no other reason than the fact that I was a girl. By the pitch of my voice through the microphone, I would get one of two reactions. Either they would start hitting on me like desperate animals, or they would say that I’m only playing for attention, that I belonged in the kitchen and not behind a controller. Typically, it’s the latter, and when you’re growing up, you tend to believe what people tell you.

To be blunt, it sucked. It sucked that people were so ready to judge a person based on their sex and not on their skill. If there were strong, not oversexualized female characters in the games that these people played, who knows, maybe they would have treated me differently.

‘Well, if you’re treated that way, why use the mic when you’re playing?’

Well, mics are just straight up useful. You can call out the enemy team and warn your allies to not fall for the same traps you did. It’s the same means of communication when you’re doing anything else team-based. It’s a beautiful thing, and when it works, it builds a great sense of community. But when it doesn’t, it brings this negative energy into the group that is just unnecessary.

Unfortunately, people are misinformed about the people they play with. They don’t understand that I play for the same reasons they do. Not for attention, no– I play because it’s fun. Video games are just fun, and I am allowed to enjoy myself. But when people are jerks, that task becomes harder. Surely, I’m not the only victim of this. Take for example: Zoe Quinn, Creator of Depression Quest.

Depression Quest was designed to portray what it feels like to live with depression. This game is more of an experience than anything, really. She gained popularity through extraordinary reviews. But, popularity incites jealousy.

Quinn was called out by her ex-boyfriend with accusations of not having depression and creating this game for attention. The rest of the internet sided with the accuser and false rumors started to spread, misogynistic claims of how she had slept with the journalist to get her stellar reviews (Monette-Crepo). Right, because of course, women can’t achieve anything without sleeping with someone to get there. Even saying that sarcastically sounds wrong.

That is messed up. There’s no better description. I think that the way to fix this huge inequality is to show gamers that, ‘hey, women can powerful,’ and ‘hey, women can do just as much as you think a man can do,’ and that ‘hey, at the end of the day, we’re all people.’ And the way to do that is to implement legitimate female characters into mainstream video games.

Of course, I can’t say that there is absolutely no change happening whatsoever. Multi-million dollar company Activision-Blizzard created a game called Overwatch, 2016’s Game of the Year and my personal favorite. It showcases many strong, independant women. In fact, Overwatch combats a variety of topics, taking on sexism, racism, ageism, and homophobia by adding in characters of varying genders, races, ages, and sexual orientations. But even so, one  game isn’t enough to outweigh the years and years of sexism in games.

The Overwatch community, as a whole, is a very accepting place compared to the rest of gaming, and I think it’s because of the content Blizzard created. 10 of the 23 playable characters are very capable women with a vast array of differing abilities. Zarya, one of the tank heroes, is, in that universe, one of the world’s strongest women. She is a Russian bodybuilder with short pink hair that breaks all lines of femininity while being an icon to women everywhere by using her strength to protect her loved ones.

Upon selecting her character, she says, “Together, We are Strong.” Not, “Men, We are Strong,” not “Women, We are Strong,” because in their world, humanity as a whole is fighting against the same enemy, not each other. We shouldn’t see each other as more or less than one another, because that’s not when we’re at our strongest. There’s a clear imbalance of power between men and women, and the best way to educate the new generation to cause change is to take action through  media such as video games which we and they will use to show the world how men and women can stand as equals.