With the release of the new “Tomb Raider,” gamers are able to kick butt and take names as one of the most recognizable characters, Lara Croft, in video game history. However, when looking at the issue of women in video games beyond “Lara,” the issue becomes more complicated.
“It’s safe to say that women are still underrepresented as main characters in [video] games, and when they are represented, these depictions can be problematic,” said Mike Schmierbach, an assistant professor of media studies.
Schmierbach said, despite recent advances, many female characters in video games are highly sexualized, but Robert Carrier, president of the Penn State Video Gaming Club, said the belief of women being simply “damsels in distress” is no longer true.
Characters like Princess Peach and Zelda, Carrier said, have been reworked to be less needy of help from the stereotypical male protagonist.
“They still do need saved more often than not, but it's shown that they could take care of themselves if need be,” Carrier said.
Part of the problem, Schmierbach said, is the sex appeal of female characters that companies like to capitalize on in the marketing of games.
“Many games mirror broader fantasy archetypes, and while those are arguably problematic they certainly weren't developed by the game creators,” said Schmierbach. “Games rely on quickly identifiable character types just as other media do.”
Thus, Schmierbach said, stereotyping, while problematic, is effective.
Still, the world of video games, once dominated by males, is now experiencing a surge of female players looking for equal representation, said Richard Taylor, a professor of telecommunications.
Taylor said 47 percent of all gamers are women, and the fastest-growing demographic in gaming is women 18 years or older.
Additionally, he added, adult women make up 30 percent of the game-playing population. By comparison, boys 17 years or younger, usually thought of as the most prominent demographic in video gaming, only makes up 18 percent.
Schmierbach said game-makers may be missing an opportunity by not directly marketing to women, mainly because of the focus on appealing to men.
“I think the bigger problem right now is the extent to which certain portions of the game playing audience refuse to accept that the over-reliance on highly sexualized female characters is problematic,” Schmierbach said.
Schmierbach cited online environments, which have become increasingly popular in the gaming world,as being extremely harsh and a magnet for sexual harassment or mistreatment of female players.
“It's hard to think that some of this isn't due to the way many women are shown in game,” he said. “But I think it has more to do with the nature of semi-anonymous online speech in general.”
Taylor also said that women are slowly, but steadily, becoming a larger part of the game-making population.
“Although it is a slow process, more and more women are employed at many levels of the video game industry,” he said.
While video games were once “a man’s thing,” Taylor said a growth of women in the game-making field has led to a stronger concentration on the female audience.
Of course, there is still a way to go until equality of sexes in video games truly exists, Carrier said.
“Women as the sole heroine isn’t still a common thing, unfortunately,” Carrier said.
But if recent developments are any indication, that could all be changing very soon.
“There are still side-kick females in mainstream games, but there is a whole genre of strong, even ferocious, female lead characters,” Taylor noted.
Both Carrier and Taylor noted that the recent reboot of “Tomb Raider” has made the character less sexualized and more dimensional, allowing players to root for the female fighter.
“Where once Lara Croft was heavily criticized for her exaggerated features, this reboot has stripped that away and it really is all about her struggles,” Carrier said. “You come to sympathize with her, and she is genuinely a strong character.”
Taylor noted that maybe the oversexualization of women in video games is simply stating something about the heightened conditions of a make-believe world.
“Most females are highly sexualized, but in fairness, most male stereotypes [of video game characters] are more buff than anyone I know,” he said.
Another advancement in gender equalization for video gaming is the option for gamers of choosing their characters and, more importantly, their gender.
“I definitely see a trend toward allowing players to choose their gender to better identify with the protagonist,” Carrier said. “While it usually just means slight changes in dialogue or character interaction, these women can nonetheless become the [heroines] in their games.”
Carrier and Schmierbach mentioned “Mass Effect” as a great example of gender equalization.
“‘Mass Effect players who controlled a female Shepard were a minority, but they were a vocal minority that eventually persuaded the developer to better recognize that a chunk of their fan base expected to see a female savior in advertising materials,” Schmierbach said.
With the world of video games rapidly changing, Schmierbach said game-makers can finally show off their creativity to address the sex issue, by creating female characters that break the mold.
“If you have eight different models for male opponents but the only women are in bikinis, that's just laziness,” Schmierbach said.
Women, Taylor predicted, will play a major role in the future of video games.
“While [the video gaming industry’s] roots in the teenage male market are deep, its future depends on going far beyond that,” Taylor said, pointing out the importance of the role of women as avatars, gamers and even creators.