What message are we sending young (wo)men when they see these video games characters:
(Mortal Kombat characters)
How about these:
Over-sexualised characters are nothing new in art, but the gratuitous nature of the female characters in the top image is not only worrying but also boring and old-fashioned. In an age when Marvel’s titular hero, Captain Marvel, has gone from a leotard-wearing, thigh-showing dame to a suited-and-booted mohawk-donning badass, why is the video games industry holding back?
The Problem: Marketing Tropes
The feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian points out that in (overwhelmingly older) video games, the main playable character was usually male, and the female character a damsel trope who had to be rescued. The woman was objectified, reduced to a state of helplessness so she became nothing more than his reward at the end of a battle. Instead of being an active agent in her own right, she passively waited until things happened to her – for instance, when Peach is kidnapped in Super Mario Bros or Shirley in Tales of Legendia. Whereas the male character when captured usually used his cunning, strength and skills to wriggle his way out of a tricky situation – to be the hero – a damsel in distress was seen as unable to escape on her own, so had to be saved.
“At its heart the damsel trope is not really about women at all. She simply becomes the central object in a competition between men, at least in its traditional incarnations. I’ve heard it said that in the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team: they are the ball.”
– Anita Sarkeesian
There have been huge steps forwards in the portrayal of women in video games, and I think it’s important to point out that these tropes Sarkeesian talks about are the minority and not representative of the games industry as a whole. Though her opinions and frustrations are completely valid, I also think there is a danger of focusing on a minority of negative examples at the expense of a majority positive trend. If we want the industry to progress, we must celebrate its successes, of which there have been many. For instance, though the games industry is currently a far too male-dominated workplace, there are many talented women who are already changing this – the first coder of a written computer program was after all a woman, Ada Lovelace. Modern pioneers include Jade Raymond, Jo Twist, Amy Henning, Roberta Williams, Kellee Santiago and Yoko Shimomura. Oh, and let’s not forget Michiru Yamane, probably one of the most influential video games composers of all time. We need talented women like these in the workplace who can use their experiences to create and encourage strong female characters they would like to play, thereby gradually removing female stereotypes.
The Solution: Look At The Data
Many incredible video games already exist with strong, empowered female characters. So why are so many women put off video games? Perhaps the answer lies in media stereotypes that perpetuate video games as mainly bloodthirsty shooter games, and marketing that targets a male-heavy audience. When the industry crashed in 1983, and revived in the 90s, developers decided to specifically target young boys as their primary customers, leading to years of gender-biased marketing.
Yet the statistics show over and over again that this marketing is old-fashioned. A study from the Pew Research Centre found that 50% of men and 48% of women said they played games on a console, PC or handheld device – a near equal split. Despite this, 60% of those surveyed thought gaming was a ‘male activity.’
A 2015 study by Entertainment Software Association found that out of 155 million Americans who played games in 2015, 44% were female – that’s 50.6 million people (see pie chart, via). Breaking down the statistics by age and gender, there were more adult women who played games than males under the age of 18, even though this is the gaming industry’s traditional target demographic.
When it comes to mobile games, a report by Flurry found that women make 31% more in-app purchases than men and spend 35% more time in gaming apps. They also have 42% higher retention rates, making them more loyal to the apps than men.
This trend continues with conventions such as Cosplay. In 2014 Forbes looked at the demographic of six of the biggest anime conventions in New York, and found that half the attendees were women.
From a financial perspective, the games industry seems to be missing a hugely profitable audience. Given these high numbers of female gamers, does it not make sense to create strong female characters that will appeal to this target market? From a marketing perspective, isn’t it time advertisers changed their audience to reflect the data?
Deeper Characterisation In Video Games
Does the damsel in distress marketing trope mean we should we remove all sexy female characters from video games?
I don’t think so.
There is a difference between sexy women – a confident sexiness that is part of their inherent personality – and women over-sexualised for the sake of titillation. The question is this: does her sexiness fit with her true, authentic personality as a character or is it superimposed by a male gaze? Perhaps the answer to equality lies not in banning sexy characters completely, but in removing shallow characterisation.
When a character is flat and lacks depth, it’s easy for an animator to put their own slant on them, for instance to over-sexualise a female fighter even though she has no need to be sexualised. For instance, let’s look at Lara Croft:
The image on the right is from 1996; the one on the left is the new re-vamped Lara Croft in 2013. As a character, Lara Croft is a tough-as-nails, Bear Grylls-type explorer who likes to solve problems, not indulge in makeup and pretty clothes. So the 2013 version works much better because at heart it stays true to who she really is – to her authentic inner character. The problem was that the over-sexualisation didn’t fit with her personality.
Another awesome video game with a strong female lead is The Last Of Us. It tells the story of Joel and Ellie, two characters travelling through a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by a zombie fungal infection. The last surviving population has been forced into militia controlled quarantine zones, and the world is desperate for a cure.
Ellie is a fiesty, foul-mouthed teen who is more than capable of defending herself. When she’s kidnapped Joel comes to her rescue, but Ellie nevertheless manages to use her wits, rescue herself and kill the rapist on her own. She’s resourceful, brave and witty. Thanks to the Creative Director Neil Druckmann’s vision, TLOU avoids the typical white male saviour narrative and gives us credible, strong characters who are neither good nor bad but human.
Then again, there are times when a female character is rightly sexualised because it fits with her personality. For instance, Bayonetta in the game Bayonetta is a coquettish and mysterious witch who uses her dark seductive personality for her own personal gain. The characterization fits her personality so the game works.
Women In Advertising
I believe media platforms have a responsibility to represent inspirational role models, rather than propagating fictional, age-old cliches. Thankfully this trend towards showing women as human rather than tropes is spreading also into advertising. In 2014, lifestyle website SheKnows surveyed more than 600 women about femvertising. A staggering 91 per cent believed that how women are portrayed in ads has a direct impact on girls’ self-esteem, and 94 per cent said that depicting women as sex symbols is harmful. Honesty sells, as shown by the huge success of campaigns such as #ThisGirlCan and Dove’s TV ads.
These women are not Hollywood beautiful, they’re fierce and concerned with more than superficialities. The campaign went beyond selling a product, it was a war cry rallying women from all walks of life to come together in celebration of their bodies and their strengths. One year after #ThisGirlCan, 2.8 million 14-40 year old women said they did more activity as a result of the campaign. Now that’s inspiration.
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