By Shubrojyoti Mookherjee
Video games are a medium of considerable influence and, due to its mass appeal ad reach, is an efficient means of representation of a phenomenon. While it has benefits of inculcating a sense of competition, usage of mind, etc., it also has certain glaring limitations – their depiction of the very characters and their roles in the game. This is relevant to the question of how as a medium of social control, video games have combined the themes of gender and, consequently, power. The scope of the topic is quite wide and brings into its ambit not only the ramifications of representation of gender roles, expectations and stereotypes but also the involvement of the people who create the game, who are predominantly male.
There is a general argument that game design and game play are gender neutral. However in reality, not only these aspects but also the presentational aspects of the game are strongly gender-based. Gamers of both genders tend to crave realism and the more realistic the gender of the character and its depiction, the easier it is for a player to identify with the character (Williams, Consalvo, Caplon and Yee 2009).
Most of the popular video games have male characters as the protagonist. A 2009 study published in New Media & Society found that 85% of playable characters in major popular video games are male (Williams, Martins, Consalvo and Ivory 2009).The predominant presence of male characters and the relative absence of female characters lends support to the probable gender-bias approach to game development and representation in video games.
However, the major problem starts when the female characters do appear in video games. The current representation of women in video games is questionable. The games are more likely to present women with unrealistic bodies and often show provocative sexual and violent behavior (Laniya 2005).
A very prominent empirical research (Dietz 1998) examined the portrayal of women in a sample of 33 popular Nintendo and Sega Genesis videogames. Firstly, there were no female characters in 41% of the games. In 28% of these, women were portrayed as sex objects or were hyper-sexualized. Approximately, 80% of the games included aggression or violence. While 27% of the games contained ‘socially acceptable aggression’, 21% depicted violence directed at women. In another empirical research (Dill and Thill 2007), female characters were more likely in comparison to male counterparts to be portrayed as sexualized (60% versus 1%), scantily clad (39% versus 8%) and as showing a mix of sex and aggression (39% versus 1%).
If there is a correlation between the reality and the representation of women in video games, one asks oneself, is such a representation realistic? It is perhaps not possible to determine what representation conforms to reality as it will differ on the basis of who is the consumer of such representation. But surely, it is not an ideal or close-to-ideal representation. If not so, there arises a question as to the effects of presence of these representations to the audience, with special emphasis, the children.
The probable impacts of consumption of such games can be explained with the “Proteus Effect”. The Proteus effect proposes that the visual characteristics and traits of an avatar (in the virtual world) are associated with specific behavioral stereotypes and expectations. When an individual believes that others will expect from them because of their avatars’ appearance, they will behave in that manner (Yee and Bailenson 2007). An academic study suggested that due to the Proteus effect, manifestation of an objectified or a sexualized character can have adverse mental effects. They concluded that women, who used sexualized characters that resembled them, had a higher “rape myth acceptance”. This is the validation of incorrect idea about rape that blames the victim, and increases self-objectification as a result of extensive body-related thinking (Fox, Bailenson and Tricase 2013). It can be suggested, in accordance with the above mentioned study, that gamers who use such characters are more likely to develop insensitive attitudes towards women and themselves in reality, considering the presence of the Proteus effect.
Further, video game characters have the potential to shape players’ perceptions of gender roles (Dietz 1998). Through the psychological process of social comparison processes, gamers tend to learn societal expectations of appearances and roles. It is mostly suggested through games like GTA (Grand Theft Auto) and the like, that girls are expected to be dependent victims and that their only concern is to maintain beauty and sexual appeal. On the other hand, boys may understand their role to be a protector of women, as they are apparently inherently stronger and powerful. This perpetuates the gender stereotypes, which most societies are trying to disrupt and destroy to move towards a gender-sensitive society.
Dill and Thill (2007) in their academic work, in discussing the repercussions of perpetuating gender stereotypes through video games, observe that such portrayals reinforce a patriarchal, sexist and untrue view that men are aggressive and command more power; but furthermore, they submit that such reinforcement necessarily implies that women are just an ancillary aspect and are seen as “Sex objects,” “eye candy,” and subjugated characters.
Since these video games are majorly marketed for children and adolescents, in an earlier mentioned empirical research (Dietz 1998), it was observed that video games, like other media forms, impact the identity of children, especially when the games reveal traditional gender roles and violence as central themes of the game. Thus, it is an effective means of social control. It is an informal means of social control, whereby the child is led to develop actual behavior which is confined to a narrower range of what is acceptable by group standards, which in this case happens to be portrayal through video games. The gender roles absorbed by the child become for the child and the adolescent, the basis for other roles and for action. Additionally, masculine and feminine symbols become a part of a child’s identity.
Some video games reward sexualized violence towards women. Desensitization to the suffering of others and lower empathy to sexualized characters is aggravated by exposure to aggressive images in the video (Funk 2005). This will have a negative effect on the adolescent’s “social cognitive development”, desensitizing them to gender stereotypes. Unguided exposure to such stereotypical portrayals of women may detrimentally affect social relations and create justifications for social exclusion. The concern is that as more and more accepting children and adolescents become of these ideas, the more likely they are to engage in stereotypical expectations (Henning, Brenick, Killen et al 2009).
Further, in majority of video games, it is shown that the women are ‘powerless’ as compared to men and hence are ‘damsels in distress.’ This subtle portrayal of power dynamics creates an impression in the mind of the audience that women in general are weak and need protection; and perpetuates the presence of inequality between the sexes in the minds of the gamers.
Notwithstanding legal measures of age requirements, the gaming industry must see active participation from “responsible” people, irrespective of gender in terms of game development, content control and game-playing. Perhaps gender-neutral games must be introduced.
Dietz, Tracy L. (1998) “An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behaviour” Sex Roles, 38(5):425-442
Dill, Karen E. and Kathryn P. Thill (2007) “Video Game Characters and the Socialisation of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions” Sex Roles 57(11): 851-864
Fox, Jesse, Jeremy N. Bailenson, Liz Tricase (2013) “The embodiment of sexualized virtual selves: The Proteus effect and experiences of self-objectification via avatars.” Computers in Human Behavior 29: 930–938
Funk, J.B. (2005) “Children’s Exposure to Violent Video Games and Desensitization to Violence.” Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America 14: 387-404.
Gottschalk, Simon (1995) “Videology: Video-Games as Postmodern Sites/Sights of Ideological Reproduction” Symbolic Interaction 18(1); published by Wiley on behalf of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. Retrieved November 02, 2016 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/si.19220.127.116.11)
Henning, Alexandra, Alaina Brenick, Melaine Killen, Alexander O’Connor and Michael J. Collins (2009) “Do Stereotypic Images in Video Games Affect Attitudes and Behavior? Adolescent Perspectives” Children, Youth and Environments; Children in Technological Environments 19(1). Retrieved November 02, 2016 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.19.1.0170 )
Laniya, Olatokunbo Olukemi (2005) “Street Smut: Gender, Media, and the Legal Power Dynamics of Street Harassment, or Hey Sexy and Other Verbal Ejaculations” Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 14(1): 91-130 Retrieved December 02, 2016 from HeinOnline.
Williams, Dmitri, Mia Consalvo, Scott Caplan, Nick Yee (2009) “Looking for Gender: Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers” Journal of Communication. 59 (4): 700–725.
Williams, Dmitri, Nicole Martins, Mia Consalvo, James D Ivory (2009) “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race and Age in Video Games” New Media & Society Sage Publications. 11(5): 815–834.
Yee, Nick and Jeremy Bailenson (2007) “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior” Human Communication Research 33: 271–290.
Shubrojyoti Mookherjee is pursuing law at West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS), Kolkata, India. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Writing in Academia”, edited by Anannya Dasgupta, Krea University and Madhura Lohokare, O. P. Jindal Global University, India.