Changing the Game: How Can the Gaming Industry Be More Gender Inclusive?
By guest contributor Kate Harveston
When Super Mario Brothers first came out, my brother and I spent hour after hour trying to save a princess trapped behind Goombas and those weird-looking duck-turtle hybrid things. I never thought about the premise behind the game—that women characters were delicate flowers in need of rescue. To my young mind, I accepted that mindset in the same fashion I accepted fairy tales featuring damsels in distress.
Early video game manufacturers definitely catered to a certain audience, namely young men, many of which probably enjoyed escaping into gaming to create strong alter egos. Over the years, more women have joined the ranks of heavy-duty gamers, but has this influx of women players changed the way women characters get treated in the gaming world?
The “Madonna/Whore” Paradigm
Early game designers included women characters not as equal players, but rather as either innocent little princesses or sultry seductresses. This Madonna-versus-whore treatment of women in video games reinforced the false belief that women only exist in terms of their relationships with men. Any personality traits a unique woman character might possess were often overlooked.
As time progressed and more women began gaming, video game manufacturers began including more women characters to choose from in role-playing games and the like. Allowing gamers to select women avatars appeared to be a step in the direction of gender equality, and in some ways, it was.
However, serious gamers soon discovered that selecting a woman character often meant losing the game. For example, in the fighting game Dead or Alive, the woman protagonist must engage in battle with her much larger, stronger, and more powerful father in the second half of the game, putting the players who chose the woman character at a distinct disadvantage.
Even something as basic as the way game designers attire their women characters leaves these characters at an additional disadvantage. It’s a bit difficult to run very fast in high heels! No man video game protagonist has to go into battle clad only in his Fruit of the Loom boxer briefs, but women characters often wage war in skimpy bikinis or are otherwise scantily-clad.
How Video Games Impact Behavior
The issue of the gender divide between the treatment of characters in video games has implications beyond just the gameplay itself. Multiple studies suggest that while frequent exposure to violent video games doesn’t necessarily lead to criminal activity, images still do influence behavior. The consequences of how a fictional avatar treats women characters could potentially translate into the way the player interacts with women in the real world. At best, exposure to violent video games that also objectify women normalizes the objectification of women in real life. At worst, it may lead to more actual violence against women.
About four out of five victims of intimate-partner violence are women. One in six women have been the victim of a rape attempt, and one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives. With harrowing numbers like that, we should be looking at any and every way we can to prevent furthering the violence against women that is unfortunately so prevalent in society.
Perhaps the solution is as simple as parents taking more of an active role in preventing their children from playing violent games that send the wrong messages about how to treat women. For example, should a child tell of playing a violent game at a friend’s house, a parent should take time to talk with them to help them process what they saw and explain its full context.
Changing the Game for the Better
Video game manufacturers likewise should take responsibility for the way their creations portray women. While many video game manufacturers have shied away from using women protagonists in the past, they should realize women gamers prefer entertainment that portrays them complexly. Even if sales of a game with a woman protagonist dip among men, women could more than make up their slack!
In addition, video game manufacturers should embrace diversity and eschew rigid gendering that treat women as secondary in importance to men. Likewise, manufacturers should eliminate the practice of making men avatars automatically stronger or more talented than their women counterparts. Featuring more trans and nonbinary characters would also be an excellent addition to gaming.
Furthermore, primary and secondary schools alike can encourage women to explore the amazing opportunities of STEM fields, including video game design. The interest definitely exists. In Australia, for example, women make up 46 percent of all gamers, but only 15 percent of all of those working in the video game industry. Many researchers consider educator bias as a contributing factor, as many schools encourage boys to enter science and math career fields whereas young girls are steered into nurturing positions such as nursing or teaching.
In the end, few people believe that women have reached total equality in all areas of life, the lives of gamers included! Works of art such as video games serve as powerful tools in creating an alternate reality that can be more, not less, inclusive.
About Kate: Kate Harveston is a young writer from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. She enjoys topics related to culture, feminism, and women’s health, and how those elements intersect and act upon each other. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter or visit her blog, So Well, So Woman.