Are Video Games Becoming Less Sexist?

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New research finds a decline in the sexualization of female characters.

By Tom Jacobs


Lara Croft, the protagonist of the Tomb Raider series. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Thanks in part to its aggressively sexist subculture, video gaming is widely considered a misogynistic realm. There’s an assumption that male designers, creating works for male players, make games in which the relatively few female characters are portrayed in highly sexualized ways.

While it’s easy to find examples of such figures, newresearch suggests they are fewer in number than they were a decade ago.

“The overall sexualization of female characters has decreased in recent years,” an Indiana University research team led by Teresa Lynch writes in the Journal of Communication. “The recent and growing interest of women and girls (in gaming) seems to be influencing game content in positive ways.”

Lynch and her colleagues looked at 571 games released between 1983 and 2014, focusing on “female characters that players could assume control of.” (For games that contained several such characters, one was randomly selected.)

The degree to which the character was sexualized was estimated on a six-point scale. The researchers took into account such factors as “breasts disproportionate to the body size,” an exaggerated waist-to-hip ratio, exposure of skin on her midriff or upper leg, and “if the character’s movements included unnecessary undulation or jiggling that drew attention to their body in a sexual manner.”

“We found a pattern of change in sexualization over time that indicates the industry may be reacting to its critics,” the researchers report. They found the peak level of sexualized female characters was the 1990s and early 2000s.

“The recent and growing interest of women and girls (in gaming) seems to be influencing game content in positive ways.”

“The introduction of Lara Croft in the 1996 game Tomb Raider may have served as a catalyst for video-game developers to feature more sexualized females as a sales tactic to entice male players,” they write.

But that trend apparently ran its course, and “our data reveal a decrease in the sexualization of female characters after 2006,” Lynch and her colleagues add. “We attribute this to an increasing female interest in gaming, coupled with the heightened criticism levied at the industry’s arguably male hegemony.”

While that’s encouraging, the paper contains plenty of caveats. The researchers report “some categories of video games,” including fighting games, still “employ overtly sexualized portrayals.” They also found that, overall, there are more female characters in secondary than primary roles, and those figures were comparatively more likely to be sexualized.

Another disturbing finding, at least to parents concerned about the subliminal messages these games are giving to kids: Games given the formal rating of “teen” (deemed suitable for players age 13 an older) “did not differ significantly from ‘mature’ games (appropriate for age 17 and older) in terms of sexualization.”

They recommend the ratings agency should “provide greater consistency and clarity in descriptors regarding sexualized content,” and perhaps initiate “an additional rating for teens age 15 and younger … in order to caution parents about sexual themes and content (such as overt nudity) that appear in many games rated ‘teen.’”

Overall, however, these findings suggest “the widespread, overt sexualization of females is on the decline.” That’s surely good news. Now we can get back to worrying about how all that virtual violence makes kids more aggressive in real life.