Non-Traditional Women in Video Games:
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Playing with Female Characters’ Gender Presentation
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Video games have become notorious as a male-dominated and heteronormative environment, where gender non-traditional women characters have little space for equal representation. Research has explored the sexualization of women and limited portrayal of gender non-traditional women characters, though it is unclear what the effects are of including non-traditional women in video games. To test this, we randomly assigned 425 people (Mage = 23.81; SD = 5.71) to imagine playing a female character in a third-person, single-player, RPG video game, where the character either had a more traditionally masculine or feminine gender presentation. Participants then rated the character on heroicness, satisfaction with playing the character, and relatability to the character, along with the anticipated quality of the video game. Our results showed that participants rated the character’s traits and the video game quality more positively when the female character appeared more masculine and that this effect was amplified for participants with high egalitarian values. These results suggest that players do prefer non-traditional female video game characters who appear more masculine over feminine female characters.
Keywords: video games, gender, characters, masculine women, non-traditional women
Video games are an important medium of entertainment to study because of their influence on children’s and adolescents’ socialization and education. However, video games have been a frequent, controversial discussion in the video game industry particularly because of the imbalanced gender representation in these games. For instance, extensive research has showcased how video games primarily target a male audience, creating a simulated experience that appeals to the male gaze. Video games portray female characters in a hypersexualized and gender-stereotypical manner during the rare occurrences that they are depicted on-screen. Researchers analyzed how male versus female characters were represented in online reviews for video games, discovering that written reviews and images mentioned male characters more often than female characters, both as an active and playable characters. Reviewers described female characters substantially more on their sexual appeal than male characters, along with many images of female characters being sexually suggestive. Another reviewing platform, the TV series titled X-Play, also drew attention to the sexual appeal of female video game characters. For instance, the 2004 video game titled BloodRayne 2 featured camera zoom-ins on hypersexualized women’s breasts, which were designed to appeal to men’s sexual desires; reviewers romanticized her revealing clothing with risqué camera shots and more.
Although recent female heroes in video games might receive some praise for breaking the norm of primarily male protagonists in video games, these female characters appear to fit a heteronormative expectation for women’s stereotyped presentation. There seems to be a clear trend among many female protagonists in video games; the male gaze has molded the ideal women in video games to be exclusively hypersexualized and hyperfeminine.
Subordinated, Sexualized, and Feminine Women in Heteronormative Video Games
Video game companies’ advertising strategies seem to have presumed that their consumer audience is composed of mostly heterosexual men, leading to the creation of advertisements that disenfranchise and sexualize women. This sexualized portrayal of hyperfeminine women in video games is problematic, particularly for children. Children’s self-perception may be heavily influenced by the idealized, sexualized female bodies presented in video games, creating a stereotypical view of society. Video games’ realism, which often violently victimizes women and portrays exaggerated hegemonically masculine men, blurs the line between what is and is not obtainable, negatively affecting boys’ self-image. Furthermore, these researchers found that male characters were more likely to be playable, the main character, or the hero, whereas female characters were more likely to be supporting characters. Women were depicted as significantly more attractive, sexy (i.e., wearing more revealing clothing), helpless, and innocent. These studies further confirmed the homogenously portrayed hypersexualized and hyperfeminine women present in many modern video games.
Traditional gender stereotypes of men being more dominant, aggressive, noisy, and competitive prevail, placing male characters’ power over women’s traditional characteristics of being more gentle, soft-spoken, and well-mannered. This in turn encourages the perpetuated trend of female characters’ subordination in video games. With most loyal video game players identifying as children, a larger portion of them being male, young boys are exposed to an extensive amount of violence in which male characters control these stereotypically subordinate and hyperfeminized women. Other gender stereotypes and themes of femininity were prevalent among female characters, such as attention to their appearances and flirtatious personalities, visible in their large breasts and revealing clothing. The traditional gender stereotype that women need to be protected by men, a form of benevolent sexism, has also widely spread in many female video game characters’ characterizations as “damsels in distress” who need the male protagonist’s help to survive.
Although women are gradually being more included in the video game industry as consumers, businesses still treat them as an “other” category. As the 2015 documentary film Code: Debugging the Gender Gap showed, there exists this “brogramming” phenomenon in which most technological industries have become a male-dominated space. These heteronormative spaces may further encourage stereotypes that perpetuate gender biases, such as the “girl gamer.” This stereotype depicts an incompetent woman video game player who does not belong. As shown in the video game review TV series titled X-Play, the female reviewers were frequently discredited to not be “real” gamers. During a segment where a male video game player challenged the female hosts on the TV series, the show’s viewers even stated that the female host’s physical attractiveness hindered her ability to be a good video game player. With little regard for women video game players beyond physical attractiveness, hypersexualized and feminine women have become the norm.
Non-Traditional Women in Video Games
The general discussion connecting video games and gender is limited, particularly for more masculine-appearing women characters. Given the binary and heteronormative construction of the video game community, queerness and feminism are rarely discussed in this heteronormative space. Although we have explored how gender intersects with women video game characters—particularly with women being depicted primarily as hyperfeminine and hypersexualized—there seems to be little scholarly discourse around video game characters who are non-traditional in their gender roles, such as women who present themselves as more masculine. Even when non-traditional women in video games are represented, video game producers seem to find it difficult to realistically represent transgender, queer, and cross-dressing characters, often failing to depict the oppression and politics that people who hold these identities truly experience.
For our research, we are specifically looking at non-traditional female video game characters as defined based on a deviation from society’s heteronormative model of what is considered “ideal” and “normal” for women. The gender non-traditional, masculine-appearing female character can be one representation of women—particularly a stereotype of the “butch” lesbian woman—which differs from their normative feminine portrayals which we often see in video games. Notably, our depiction of non-traditional women in this research represents only one embodiment of the much more expansive diversity of women that exist. Women, people of color, transgender people, non-cisgender men, non-straight people, and many more identities are underrepresented in video games. Due to the larger underlying issue of underrepresentation in video games, we decided to focus our research specifically on one underrepresented group in gender presentation: non-traditional women. Our research explores the missed opportunities for appealing to a diverse set of players from different backgrounds, due to an underrepresentation of non-traditional women in video games.
This study aimed to measure the association between the gender representation of female video game characters and people’s perceptions of the character’s heroicness, level of satisfaction and relatability, and a video game featuring the character. We examined this relationship through a survey to further explore how female video game characters’ gender presentation affects people’s perceptions of both the character and the video game.
Our research is led by the following research question: how does the gender presentation of female video game characters influence perceptions of both the character and the video game? We hypothesized that (hypothesis 1) participants would perceive their character and the quality of the video game to be higher if they were presented the masculine female character as their in-game protagonist. We also hypothesized that (hypothesis 2) participants with a high traditional rating would evaluate the female video game character and the quality of video game equally or higher for the masculine female character than the hyperfeminine female character.
Analyses included 425 people (Mage = 23.81; SD = 5.71). Participants were recruited through the r/SampleSize online subforum on Reddit, several video game-themed channels on the online group chat Discord, and undergraduate college and video-game themed groups on the social media platform Facebook. Participants must have been at least 18 years of age to have been eligible for participation in this study. To more accurately represent video game communities’ demographics, we attempted to recruit video game players who we defined as officially registered members of a primarily video gaming-themed organization. A total of 755 participants were recruited to join the survey. Participants were removed from analyses if they failed to meet the eligibility criteria (n = 327), if they did not answer enough questions for proper analyses to be conducted (n = 2), or if participants did not seem to take the questions seriously (n = 1). See Table 1 for participants’ demographic characteristics.
|Transgender (as noted by participant)||6 (1.41)|
|Transgender (as noted by participant)||8 (1.88)|
|Transgender (as noted by participant)||11 (2.59)|
|Did Not Answer||7 (1.65)|
|Heteroflexible/Mostly Heterosexual/Bicurious||19 (4.47)|
|Alternative Descriptions||8 (1.88)|
|Did Not Answer||6 (1.41)|
|African American/Black||4 (0.94)|
|Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander||36 (8.47)|
|Middle Eastern||2 (0.47)|
|Native American||1 (0.24)|
|Biracial/Mixed Race||23 (5.41)|
|Alternative Description||8 (1.88)|
|Single, never married||320 (75.29)|
|Married or domestic partnership||76 (17.88)|
|Alternative description||25 (5.88)|
|Some high school||18 (4.24)|
|High school graduate||66 (15.53)|
|Some college||154 (36.24)|
|Associate degree||27 (6.35)|
|Bachelor’s degree||115 (27.06)|
|Master’s degree||37 (8.71)|
|Professional degree||2 (0.47)|
|Doctorate degree||6 (1.41)|
|Less than $25,000||117 (27.53)|
|$25,000 to $34,999||53 (12.47)|
|$35,000 to $49,999||65 (15.29)|
|$50,000 to $74,999||60 (14.12)|
|$75,000 to $99,999||40 (9.41)|
|$100,000 to $149,999||49 (11.53)|
|$150,000 to $199,999||15 (3.53)|
|$200,000 or more||18 (4.24)|
|Did Not Answer||8 (1.88)|
Demographics questionnaire. The demographics questionnaire section featured questions that asked participants about their race/ethnicity/nationality, relationship status, education level, and socioeconomic status.
Traditional-Egalitarian Sex Role Scale (sample α = 0.91). The Traditional-Egalitarian Sex Role Scale (TESR) evaluated participants’ attitudes toward traditional versus egalitarian sex roles. Participants were prompted to rate the degree to which they agree versus disagree with several statements (e.g., “In groups that have both male and female members, it is more appropriate that leadership positions be held by males”) based on a 7-point Likert scale, with 0 representing Strongly Disagree and 6 representing Strongly Agree in response to the statement. A higher score on the measure translated to higher egalitarianism, whereas a lower score on the measure translated to lower egalitarianism.
Female video game character’s gender presentation. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions which differed in the gender presentation of their assigned female video game character; the character appeared either to be more masculine or hyperfeminine. Both characters were player-modified versions of generic melee-based, sword-wielding warriors from the same video game—The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a single-player RPG game released in 2011—and appeared relatively equal in abilities and power. Participants in the first condition were assigned a character that appeared gender non-traditional and masculine, conservatively dressed and well-armored, physically large, and muscular. Participants in the second condition were assigned a character that appeared gender traditional and hyperfeminine, larger-breasted, dressed in more revealing clothing, sexualized, and agile.
Character heroicness scale (sample α = 0.91). The character heroicness scale was focused on measuring participants’ perceptions of their assigned female video game character’s level of heroicness as a part of her personality traits. Because protagonists in video games are often depicted as heroic, this effectively measures players’ general perception of video game characters. The scale featured questions that prompted participants to rate their female character on certain traits and characteristics. Participants were presented a list of descriptions that represented the character’s level of heroicness and leadership (e.g., “My character is clever.”; “My character is brave.”) and then asked to rate their character based on a 7-point Likert scale (0 to 6, which respectively indicated that they Strongly Disagree or Strongly Agree with the statement matching their character). A higher score versus a lower score on the measure respectively translated to a more heroic or less heroic perception of their character’s traits.
Character satisfaction and relatability scale (sample α = 0.88). The character satisfaction and relatability scale examined participants’ overall level of satisfaction with and relatability to their assigned female character, knowing that they would play the character in-game. Since players are expected to assume the role of their playable character in RPGs, it is important that players can relate to and enjoy playing as their character. The scale featured questions that prompted participants to rate their female video game character on how satisfied they were with their assigned character and how much they could relate to the character. Participants were presented with a list of descriptions that represented their level of satisfaction and relatability to their character (e.g. “My character will be fun to play as.”; “I am satisfied with playing my character.”) and then asked to rate their satisfaction of their character based on a 7-point Likert scale (0 to 6, which respectively indicated that they Strongly Disagree or Strongly Agree with being able to relate to or be satisfied with their character). A higher score versus a lower score on the measure respectively translated to higher or lower satisfaction and relatability to their character.
Perceived video game quality scale (sample α = 0.92). The perceived video game quality scale evaluated participants’ ratings of the anticipated quality of a video game that featured their assigned female character. This scale aims to connect the experimental condition of the female character to the video game itself. The scale featured questions that prompted participants to rate the quality of the video game that featured their female character. Participants were presented a list of descriptions that represented the quality of the video game (e.g., “The video game will have an interesting story.”; “The video game will be fun to play.”) and then were asked to rate the quality of the game based on a 7-point Likert scale (0 to 6, which indicated that they Strongly Disagree or Strongly Agree with the questionnaire’s positive description of the game). A higher score versus a lower score on the measure respectively translated to a higher or lower perception of the quality of the game.
Recruitment advertisements were published online in several channels, asking for consent to participate in a research survey that studied video game character design. Participants completed a brief screening question about their age, determining their eligibility to participate in the survey. Eligible participants then proceeded to complete the survey. Participants were first instructed to imagine themselves in the character-creation phase of a single-player, third-person RPG video game. Participants were explicitly informed that their character selection was purely aesthetic and would not influence their gameplay experience. After reading this description, participants were randomly assigned one of the two conditional images of their assigned female character: either a more masculine or more feminine gender presentation. Participants then completed the character heroicness scale, the character satisfaction and relatability scale, and lastly the perceived video game quality scale, all based on their assigned character. Participants lastly completed the TESR scale and the demographics questionnaire, being informed that these sections of the survey were independent of the previous questions. Participants’ responses remained anonymous, and their participation was purely voluntary with no compensation offered to them.
We conducted all analyses using the Statistical Package for the Social Science (SPSS), Version 25.
Hypothesis 1. To test the effects of female video game characters’ gender presentation on participants’ ratings of their character’s heroicness, rating (satisfaction and relatability), and the anticipated quality of video games, we conducted independent samples T-tests.
Hypothesis 2. To assess whether participants’ scoring on the TESR scale moderated the effect of female video game characters’ gender presentation on participants’ ratings of their character’s heroicness, rating (satisfaction and relatability), and the anticipated quality of video game, we conducted moderation tests with the PROCESS macro, Version 3.3, integrated into SPSS.
Hypothesis 1: Do Players Prefer Masculine, Non-Traditional Women Characters?
Character heroicness. Results supported hypothesis 1, which stated that participants who were assigned the gender non-traditional and more masculine female character would rate their character’s heroicness to be higher than the gender traditional and hyperfeminine female character. There was a significant difference in the scores of female video game characters that appeared more masculine (M = 4.33, SD = 0.72) and female characters that appeared hyperfeminine (M = 3.27, SD = 1.03); t(421) = 12.39, p < .001. Our results suggest that when participants play a more masculine-appearing female video game character, as opposed to a traditionally feminine-appearing female character, they perceive their character as more heroic.
Character satisfaction and relatability. Results supported hypothesis 1. There was a significant difference in the scores for female video game characters that appeared more masculine (M = 3.05, SD = 1.30) and female characters that appeared hyperfeminine (M = 1.71, SD = 1.26); t(423) = 10.76, p < .001. Our results suggest that when participants play a masculine-appearing female video game character, instead of a hyperfeminine-appearing female character, they are more satisfied with the character and feel more related to the character.
Perceived video game quality. Results supported hypothesis 1. An independent-samples t-test showed a significant difference in the scores for female video game characters that appeared more masculine (M = 3.14, SD = 1.08) and female characters that appeared hyperfeminine (M = 1.98, SD = 1.20); t(423) = 10.52, p < .001. Our results suggest that participants prefer masculine female characters in their video games, as compared to hyperfeminine female characters, because participants perceived and rated the video game featuring the gender non-traditional character more positively.
Hypothesis 2: Does TESR Impact Players’ Perceptions of Female Video Game Characters?
Effect of TESR condition on character heroicness. Results did not support hypothesis 2. The moderator effect of TESR on the relationship between the gender presentation of female video game characters and perceptions of female characters’ heroicness was statistically significant: ∆R2 = .02, F(1, 418) = 9.72, p = .002. That is, participants who had high TESR scores (higher egalitarian values) rated the masculine character as more heroic than participants who had average or low TESR scores. However, high TESR participants who were assigned the hyperfeminine character rated their character as less heroic than those with average or low TESR scores. See Figure 1 for a visual representation.
Effect of TESR condition on character satisfaction and relatability. Results did not support hypothesis 2. There was a statistically significant moderator effect of TESR on the relationship between female video game characters’ gender presentation and the ratings of these characters: ∆R2 = .03, F(1, 420) = 15.92, p < .001. That is, participants with high TESR scores were more satisfied and better related to the masculine character than participants with average or low TESR scores. However, high TESR participants who were assigned the hyperfeminine character were less satisfied with their character and found the character to be less relatable than those with average or low TESR scores. See Figure 2 for a visual representation.
Effect of TESR condition on perceived video game quality. Results did not support hypothesis 2. There was a statistically significant moderator effect of TESR on the relationship between female video game characters’ gender presentation and the rating of a video game’s quality: ∆R2 = .01, F(1, 420) = 5.76, p = .017. That is, participants with high TESR scores rated the quality of a video game that featured the masculine character to be higher than participants with average or low TESR scores. However, high TESR participants who were assigned the hyperfeminine character rated the video game that featured their character to be lower than those with average or low TESR scores. See Figure 3 for a visual representation.
We investigated the relationship between the gender presentation of female video game characters and participants’ perceptions of a video game that features the character, along with their perceptions of the character itself.
People Perceive Masculine Female Video Game Characters to Be More Heroic, Satisfiable, and Relatable
Results supported hypothesis 1, which predicted that participants would find the more masculine female video game character to be more heroic, satisfying, and relatable. Participants might have more strongly perceived the female character’s masculine gender presentation over the character’s female identity. This coincides with research that connects masculinity with heroism. Participants also rated the more masculine female character to be both more relatable and satisfactory. This may be based on a familiarity bias, because our literature review has shown that many video games feature primarily male protagonists.
Participants Rate Video Games Featuring Masculine Female Characters to Be of Higher Quality
Results supported hypothesis 1, which predicted that participants would review a video game featuring the more masculine female video game character to be of higher quality. Because this is standard in the industry, it is unsurprising that participants perceived these video games—with female characters who follow the masculine model of heroism—to be of higher quality. This may show the potential biases involved in participants’ pre-emptive perceptions of a video game’s quality, derived only from the character’s gender expression.
TESR Influences Effects of Female Video Game Characters’ Gender Presentation on Female Characters’ Heroicness, Satisfaction and Relatability, and Perceived Video Game Quality
Results did not support hypothesis 2, which predicted that participants with lower egalitarian values would perceive more masculine video game characters’ heroicness, satisfaction and relatability, and video game quality more negatively than hyperfeminine characters. Perhaps the reason why participants with low egalitarian values, as opposed to those with high egalitarian values, perceived more masculine characters—and video games containing those characters—less positively is because these characters differentiate from traditional gender stereotypes of women’s sexualized gender presentation. This could explain why participants with low egalitarianism had somewhat higher perceptions of both the hyperfeminine female character and the video game that featured this character when compared to participants with high egalitarianism; these feminized female characters fit the traditional gender expectations of feminine-appearing and sexualized women. It appears that, even though these women appear more masculine and thus would coincide with the male-dominated video game character space, this was not the case; participants with low egalitarianism disagreed with the disruption caused by having masculine presentations connected with women characters.
This same reasoning could explain why participants with high egalitarianism, versus participants with low egalitarianism, perceived both the hyperfeminine female character and the video game containing this feminine character to be lower. The sexualized hyperfeminine female character more strongly supported traditional gender stereotypes, which would contradict these participants’ lower traditional values. Therefore, participants with high egalitarian beliefs were more likely to support one form of non-traditional gender expression for the female character where she appeared more masculine.
The video game industry is infamous for its heteronormativity and misrepresentation of identities, with video games designed to target a male audience. However, with people, and in particular women, holding diverse backgrounds more actively playing video games, the industry must understand everyone’s unique differences to be able to truly maximize on all customer segments. Former research has studied the surface-level gender disparities and inequalities present in video games. However, there are few studies that examine non-traditional gender presentation—and even lesser so, non-traditional women—in video games. Our research contributes to feminist knowledge by exploring identities that are often marginalized in the heteronormative environment of video games. We aim to not only normalize but encourage video game creators to increase the representation of gender non-traditional characters—particularly non-traditional women—in their video games.
Regarding our study, participants’ stronger positive perception of more masculine female video game characters may further the goal of increasing masculine female character representation in video games. Participants’ ability to interpret heroicness based on the character’s masculine gender presentation may mean that people are able to adapt to a non-traditional female character and accept more masculine-appearing female video game characters. This could also further confirm participants’ patriarchal view of heroism, where heroism is attached to masculinity.
Participants’ more positive perceptions of masculine female video game characters nonetheless show that, by increasing representation of these gender non-traditional characters in video games, this may positively improve a video game’s success. Taking into consideration that there was a significant main effect, regardless of participants’ traditional or egalitarian beliefs, the appeal for more masculine characters seems accurate for many audiences. This appeal may help to defuse many video game makers’ fear of not being able to connect with their “mainstream” players due to producing games with non-traditional characters.
With many video games still failing at properly including non-traditional gender presentations and particularly queerness in their video games, our research shows that this is an opportunity for businesses to disrupt the video game industry. Especially for role-playing games, as we examined in our study, many video game developers are slowly realizing the importance for all players—specifically LGBTQ players—to be able to vicariously play their character, a need which we anticipate will only proliferate. Many video game makers have already taken the initiative of producing LGBTQ-friendly games that respectfully and comprehensively portray this form of queerness. Indeed, video game developers must and have slowly begun to realize the importance of visual diversity in their characters to remain relevant in the industry.
Limitations and Future Research
Although our research examined a large sample of participants on many measures, several flaws existed in our research that may have affected results. For instance, the partly homogenous demographics of our sample may have limited the generalizability of our results. Most of our sample consisted of white, cisgender, heterosexual, young adults who were in the middle- or lower-income bracket, had at least some level of college background or higher, and were single. Our sample size was primarily recruited from Reddit, which may have contributed to this unrepresentative sample. This makes it difficult to generalize our results to the population, since video game players come from various backgrounds; for instance, the LGBTQ community of video game players is especially prominent and growing, a group for which we were unable to recruit a large number of participants. Given the nature of our research to study gender non-traditional characters in video games, this would have been an excellent demographic for our specific research purposes.
Because of the limited number of masculine female video game characters available online, our images for the female characters were taken from a popular video game that might have been recognizable to some participants. However, due to heavy player modifications on these characters, they might have been less distinguishable. And although we informed participants that their character was female, we did not directly ask what participants’ perceptions of their character’s gender was. We also did not ask how many male or female characters participants saw in the games they play, so we had no way of confirming that their experiences are representative of the video game community at large.
Lastly, we conducted our research through a survey method. This may have limited participants’ ability to truly embody their assigned female character, along with possibly forming other causations for their perceptions. Future research may consider exploring the vicariousness in role-playing video games; an image of a female video game character may not be as relatable as a video or perhaps allowing participants to directly play as their assigned character. Conducting an interview with participants may also better explore what people’s ratings and evaluations are based upon. Additionally, this research focused on gender presentation for women characters in video games; however, it would be equally as interesting to explore the effects of gender presentation for male video game characters. Studying people’s perceptions of non-traditional and feminine men in video games may encourage even more heterogeneity in video games’ portrayal of characters.
Overall, our research aimed to encourage the video game industry to break from the highly sexualized and gender stereotypical female characters, created by the highly male-dominated video game industry. We hope that by proving the potential value in increasing representation of non-traditional characters, we can convince video game makers to increase their representation. Another major goal of our research was to also attract video game makers’ attention to design a more diverse array of female characters who accurately represent their diverse community of players. Gender non-traditional and queer representation currently seems to be a less touched upon topic, yet a highly promising strategy for video game makers to consider in the near future.
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