Gender-based violence against women characters

Antonio Rodrigues, Nevena Sićević (two authors’ equal contribution)
This article is part of the Gender in Play project publications. Gender in Play was a project by We in Games Finland and The National Council of Women of Finland that examined the character development and world-building within Finnish games studios’ games from the perspective of gender equality and representation. The project ran 2021–2022 and was funded by the Ministry of Justice.

As our large-scale analysis showed, violence is a common feature found in Finnish action games, just like in most other contemporary video games of the same genre, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that all six examined games depict or incorporate some form of violence, be it explicitly depicted in video or audio materials or implied in the game’s story.

Considering that violence can be recognized as one of the key game mechanics of action games, violent acts that were found in our examined games were mostly dealing and taking damage, fighting enemies and destroying objects. Four games in our analysis (Control, Ignis Universia, Raanaa and Returnal) included women protagonists and the violent actions found in these games were examples of combats between women heroes and their enemies with the players’ main objectives to fight supernatural forces, bring order and/or save the world. The game Small Town Murders, however, which is neither an action nor a shooter, but a puzzle game, was not violent by definition but nevertheless stood out as a special example in our findings due to the overarching theme of murder and solving mysterious death cases as the main parts of the game’s story. The sixth game we analysed, Your Royal Gayness, did not contain any explicit forms of violence; violence was hinted through dialogue options such as controlling an army or deciding on the fate of grandmas attacked by wolves, among others.

It is worth noting that some other games included in our large-scale analysis of Finnish games released from 2018 to 2020 may also include some forms of gender-based violence that we may have missed due to not playing through all the games, and are thus excluded from this analysis. In the same vein, because different forms of violence are so prevalent in games, and some forms of gender-based violence are very difficult to detect, this is a challenging theme to examine in digital games.

Violence against women is “a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women and shall mean all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in physical harm, sexual harm, sychological, or economic harm or suffering to women“ (European Commission, n.d.). We inspected aspects of gender-based violence and violence against women characters from different perspectives, namely by looking at both images and visual portrayals as well as dialogues and narrative. The questions we asked were: which forms of violence are directed towards women characters, are women characters only receivers of violent actions or also providers, are there pornographic images or sexualized views on violence in video or audio materials (such as the existence of sexualized screams and moanings, overemphasized feminine body features and voyeuristic camera angles focused on specific parts of women’s bodies).

Positively, gender-based violence against women was not used as a central mechanic in any of the analyzed games (meaning that no game favored violent actions directed at women characters specifically because of their gender). However, as mentioned in the previous segments of the article, specific examples of aspects or features related to gender-based violence against women characters were found in some of the examined games, as isolated examples in some and more systematically implemented in others.

Based on our analysis, there are three key areas in which features related to gender-based violence against women characters were found and can be discussed: 

1. sexualization and objectification of women characters;

2. women characters as participants and targets of violent actions; and

3. misogynistic speech about women antagonists.

Considering that the area of sexualization and objectification of women characters has already been mentioned as an important aspect in the previous article on women character representation, it won’t be discussed again. Instead, we will proceed to discuss the remaining two areas.

Women characters as participants and targets of violent actions

Looking into the existence and the features of gender-based violence in games requires the person to pay attention to the context of the game world and to understand the setting in which the game was created. If a woman character is a protagonist in an action game or a shooter, she is very likely to be a target of violent actions made by her antagonists. Through the history of video games, popular franchises with lead woman characters have indulged in violent punishments for them, as can be seen throughout the Tomb Raider (Core Design & Crystal Dynamics 1996-present), Metroid (Nintendo 1986-2017) and Resident Evil (Capcom 1996-present) series, as well as in the more recent The Last of Us 2 (Naughty Dog 2020). This can be understood as an aspect of the male gaze, which often seeks to punish women shown on the screen. Three games from our analysis – Control, Ignis Universia and Returnal – are representatives of the same game genres, however, their women protagonists are not only the targets (i.e. receivers) of violence but they are actively participating in these actions. They are equally trying to counter the enemies and find ways to defeat them in order to progress in their objectives.

When it came to violence, the gender of the characters did not seem to have been put out in the foreground. In other words, if we would exchange the woman protagonist with an imaginary man one, we wouldn’t be able to find any aspects which would explicitly state that the violent actions which were targeted towards women protagonists would be gender based. When it comes to the audio effects, however, the example of Selene Vassos in the game Returnal stood out. When the player comes too close to the tentacle-monster hanging from the ceiling in the first biome, Selene will express a gruesome moaning-like scream while being sucked into it and pulled up from the ground. It is left to wonder whether a man character would have the same moaning reaction in this situation.

The famous “damsel-in-distress” trope (i.e. a woman who is captured and who is waiting to be rescued, most often by a man) is another example of common misrepresentations of women characters which the examined Finnish games seem to have successfully overcome. In the story of Raanaa, the Goddesses were captured by evil spirits; they were, however, not saved by a man, but by a young girl. Bonnie Pirello of Small Town Murders, in an attempt to run away from her mobster husband, firstly tried to defend herself in an armed conflict, and later on, after being put under police’s protection, teamed up with another woman, the game’s protagonist Nora, in a dangerous act of disguise and tricking her attacker.

Picture 21. Bonnie Pirello’s self defense.
Picture 22. Nora acting as Bonnie Pirello.

Seeing the attack on Bonnie and reading about the reasons behind her escape, there were hints which could lead towards the conclusion that Bonnie was a victim of gender-based violence perpetrated by her husband. However, we don’t know much about Bonnie’s history  nor did the examined levels provide much information about the nature of her relationship with her husband. What can be stated, though, about Bonnie’s character is that the game did not represent her as a victim. On the contrary, she was introduced as someone who is not afraid and who could take care of herself, which was clearly defying the aforementioned damsel-in-distress trope.

Misogynistic speech about women antagonists

As already stated in a previous part of this article series, when analyzing the representation of women characters in games it is not only important whether women characters speak and are spoken to, but it is also important how they are spoken of. The use of offensive language directed towards women characters, especially when it comes to women enemies and antagonists, is largely present in games, is used to emphasize the antagonism between the characters and often manifests in misogynistic ways men characters speak about or act towards them (relevant examples and perspectives about this can also be found in Sarah Stang’s speech about women monstrosities in games).

In our examined games, there were two examples of misogynistic speech about women antagonists, namely in Small Town Murders and Ignis Universia. It is important to note that these examples were not only directed towards the main antagonist of the game (making them a crucial story feature, such as in Ignis Universia where the man character spoke about the “ugly head of the dread wizardess Galgatax” who brought peril to the world), but also towards less central characters which for some players might go unnoticed. This is the case of Elizabeth Higgins (Small Town Murders) who was, after her death, referred to by her son Jimmy as “that wretched old hag”, which is a misogynistic term often used in contemporary language as a means to offend or degrade women, referring to “an ugly, slatternly, or evil-looking old woman” (Merriam-Webster dictionary, n.d.). 

Picture 23. Misogynistic speech in Small Town Murders.

Although the examples of misogynistic and other degrading language towards women characters found in our analysis were rare and were used as an attempt to emphasize the antagonism between the characters, such representation is nevertheless dangerous and could contribute to the harmful usage of language which showcases women as characters that deserve disciplining and punishment.

Conclusion to the Blog Series on Representation of Women Characters and Character Diversity in Finnish Games

The aim of this analysis was to examine and to highlight good practice examples which contribute to the development of complex, multifaceted and brilliant female characters who have full agency, who are not represented as one-sided stereotypes or only seen as merely a representative of their gender. The six examined Finnish games offer a great deal of positive examples regarding the representation of women characters as well as character diversity. Possibly the biggest variety of good practice examples could be found in the ways the games addressed the women characters’ backgrounds and participation; this was both the case among the big titles as well as less known games. The women in these games are accomplished characters whose actions are determined based on their professions or skills: they are in positions of power and their actions influence the course of the story.

However, there are areas in which improvements can be made. Firstly, women characters in Finnish games are often objectified and sexualized in terms of visual, aural or narrative-based elements. Secondly, the women antagonists are gendered through the use of misogynistic language and offensive attributes aimed towards them. With the dissemination of the results, and furthermore with the upcoming activities in the project, we aim to bring these examples to the surface and engage in a meaningful discussion with the games studios about possible obstacles and challenges they face in developing diverse characters in their games and how these can be overcome.

Some of these aspects were already mentioned in our articles; we found examples of diverse characters not only in regards to gender but also in sexuality, culture, roles and mental health. These cases have been discussed and highlighted as examples of good practices in character creation.

Academic literature:

Monstrosity 21 Keynote: Sarah Stang. (2021). Link: 


Capcom. (1996-present) Resident Evil Series. Published by Capcom.

Core Design & Crystal Dynamics. (1996-present). Tomb Raider Series. Published by Eidos Interactive & Square Enix.

Housemarque. (2021). Returnal. Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Lizard Hazard Games. (2018). Your Royal Gayness. Published by Lizard Hazard Games.

Miksapix Interactive. (2019). Raanaa – The Shaman Girl. Published by Miksapix Interactive. (Version 1.2., latest update January 21, 2021).

Naughty Dog. (2020). The Last of Us 2. Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment.

Nintendo. (1986-2017). Metroid. Published by Nintendo.

Random Potion Oy, Hologram Monster Oy. (2020). Ignis Universia: Eternal Sisters Saga DX. Published by Random Potion Oy.

Remedy Entertainment. (2019). Control. Published by 505 Games.

Rovio Entertainment. (2019). Small Town Murders: Match 3 Crime Mystery Stories. Published by Rovio Entertainment. (Version 2.0.0., latest update June 7, 2021).