Gender in Play is a project by We in Games Finland and Council of Women of Finland that examines the character development and world-building within Finnish games studios’ games from the perspective of gender equality and representation. The project runs 2021-2022 and is funded by the Ministry of Justice.
This article provides insight into how game developers reflect on gender-based violence in games. It is based on interviews conducted as a part of the Gender in Play project among Finnish game studios and connects to a previous article resulting from this project on how gender-based violence is reflected in games made by Finnish developers (Rodrigues & Sićević 2021a).
Gender-based violence in games is not just about physical violence against women characters; it can be, for example, sexualisation , misogynistic speech, silencing, or repeating negative stereotypes about one gender or certain character types in a game. Recognising different forms of gender-based violence usually requires paying attention to the context of the game world and gameplay – that is, playing the game. For a more in-depth definition of gender-based violence in our project, please have a look at our article, “What is gender-based violence in games” (Myöhänen 2022).
As part of the Gender in Play project, we interviewed Finnish game developers about diverse character development and gender-based violence in games.
Semi-structured interviews were conducted in ten Finnish game studios during autumn 2021. Participants were selected based on a previous quantitative study on Finnish games during 2018-2020 (Rodrigues & Sićević 2021b), highlighting studios that seemed to put effort into character representation. Studio locations were evenly distributed throughout the country. The size of the game companies varied from small, publicly funded indie studios to the biggest players in the Finnish game industry, and the size of their games ranged from small indie games to large-scale financial successes. Game platforms ranged from mobile to console and PC.
With four of the interviews, two or more people from the game studio were present, making the number of participants 16 persons. Their job titles included CEO, Creative Lead, Narrative Writer, and Game Designer. Interviewees identified as women, men, and transgender, with just over half identifying as women.
Six different interviewers conducted the interviews. Due to Covid-19, all interviews were conducted over Zoom or through a similar online tool, and recorded for transcription purposes. Interviews lasted between 20 and 80 minutes, with the average length being roughly one hour.
Pseudonymised interviews were coded thematically. Parts containing discussion about gender-based violence were marked, analysed, and grouped; findings are presented in the upcoming chapters.
Does this study reflect the whole Finnish game industry?
The Finnish game industry consists of around 200 active game companies. The median number of studio employees is eight (8), the average being 25. (Neogames 2021.) There are some game studios in Finland that employ more than 100 people (this is considered as a large game company in the Finnish context), but most companies are labelled ‘small’ based on their headcount.
Based on the participant selection and small sampling, these interviews do not represent the whole Finnish game industry. Hence, any generalisations drawn from these results or depictions where these results are portrayed as representing the entire Finnish game industry should be cautiously made. However, there are some features in the results that might indicate some of the ideas are becoming more common. It is also worth noting that the interviewee selection includes some major players of the Finnish game industry, whose reachability is many times bigger than average.
Our interviewees had some common features worth highlighting. Most of the people interviewed were well-versed in questions about gender-based violence in games, especially when it came to physical violence against women or stereotypical characterisation in games. All the people we interviewed intentionally tried to avoid stereotypical representations in their work, in general, giving a lot of thought to different character representations. These and other themes raised in the interviews are presented in the following chapters.
The themes rising from the interviews included four larger themes which break down into smaller sub-themes. The results and notions related to gender-based violence from our interviews are divided into the following main chapters:
- Breaking harmful stereotypes
- Demarcation of real-world and game-world violence against gender
- Equal opportunities for all characters, even in death
- Writing gender-based violence in games
In the following, whenever it is not meaningful for the context, all interviewees are referred to as “they” when their gender is not a matter of significance.
Breaking harmful stereotypes
All of our interviewees were well aware of character stereotypes that are typically used in games, and many felt an urge to break them. The reason most often mentioned for that urge was that breaking the stereotype would create more interesting and relatable characters and narrative. If the interviewee was from a minority background, it was relatively common to list this aim as an intentional goal.
"It would be easy to always go with the stereotype, but then it's kind of more delicious and story-tellingly more interesting to break the stereotype. If you create that stereotype, then you must break it at some point to turn it into a story. So, they can be used but it has to be done smartly. It must also be respectful, with a meaning to respect that source of the stereotype, or who that person is and what culture he or she is from."
Stereotypes themselves are not harmful, as many of our interviewees noted. For example, in mobile games, it is important to create characters that are easy to grasp quickly, due to the nature of the platform and game types that are typical to mobile play. One AAA developer said that they do not want to play into harmful stereotypes, but they use a lot of stereotypes and tropes in design by subverting them or using them for effect rather than as the basis for a whole character. However, almost everyone repeated that they intentionally tried to avoid harmful stereotypes which have a negative impact on a certain group of people.
The interviewees’ aim in recognising and using the stereotypes was not just to turn the character representations upside down, but to also find some depth and interesting storylines for their characters to develop.
"When you write and think about those different characters, you don't always even realise what those stereotypes [you are using] are, and still they are always there to be found. It's a huge source of inspiration for you when you realize what those stereotypes are. How can I turn this other way around? How can I make something great out of this and at the same time make people think, ‘well, this is not the typical case now’? ‘How have I always thought this needs to be the case’?"
Yet another damsel-in-distress
Among gender-based stereotypes, the damsel-in-distress is perhaps referred to the most in games. It also raised most anticipation among the interviewees. One man producer wrapped up the feeling: “I was terribly tired of these princess characters myself as there was, in every game, a princess with flowing hem who was just smiling.” One woman narrative writer thought aloud: “If I would do a princess that needs to be saved, I would rather do… actually, I have written one princess in a game that needed saving. It was a man.” These developers wanted to create independent women characters that are capable of acting and solving game quizzes, but even more than that, the character had to have some dimensions. “A paper-thin representation” of a damsel-in-distress was not enough, as one interviewee concluded.
Amazonians, a new norm?
Opposite to a helpless princess, at the other end of the spectrum, is women who are represented as great warriors. This was noted in several interviews, with one narrative writer describing that phenomenon as follows:
"The role of women and the representation of women in games has plucked us and me so much. The fact that women are always Amazons. They are warriors and tomb raiders. They have super-trimmed bodies and so forth. They are always forced to be either a warrior or a prostitute – or a witch. It largely follows that teenage boy fantasy selection."
Some interviewees stated openly that representing women as warriors is not necessarily a good thing. As one interviewee pointed out, “We do not want to give an impression that the only way to be cool and valid is to be a soldier or have a masculine role”, continuing, “That’s why it was really important to also have cool feminine characters”.
Still sexy b*tches
Hypersexualised women characters have been under discussion quite a lot, and continue to be. Our interviewees stated clearly that it is not the way they are interested in continuing.
"We had that conversation about how sexy and all these characters are. That it would be an easy solution that let's make these now insanely sexy and sell this game to men. But that was the line again we didn't want, as the company, to cross."
Previous qualitative research conducted in this project showed that the woman protagonists of the examined games were not dressed in extremely revealing outfits (Rodrigues & Sićević 2021b). Still, there is some pressure to use feminine outfits for woman characters. In a similar tone, one of our interviewees asked whether a woman soldier would have time to apply perfect makeup while in the middle of a war.
One game developer shared their worry about how stylised, young, and beautiful woman characters can alienate players from the real world and create unrealistic expectations of real women, thereby paving the road to objectification.
"My interest here is how some game characters, for example, manga characters or even game characters in general, alienate those who play those games from the reality of what a woman is. I think it's kind of more complicated violence against women."
Body as a battleground
As in real life, women’s bodies in games are expected to follow a specific standard. One game developer listed the requirements for a woman game character: she should have an hourglass figure, a beautiful little chin, big lips and big eyes, long lashes, and pretty hair. Anything breaking this body type will face, if not resistance, then at least questioning.
"In the early part of the project, when there were just plans for what the main character would look like, there was also feedback from the team about how one can define that it is a woman, since the body does not look like a woman's body. It's not very shapely. [Our character] has relatively wide shoulders and no makeup and is old and so on. I needed to tough it out that it is a woman, even if it lacks these so-called typical features."
The body types or other visible issues were also discussed in terms of game villains. “Why do the bad ones always have scars or a certain kind of clothes”, wondered one game developer who then thought about how seeing a scar as the trademark of an evil character may hurt people carrying scars in real life. These stigmas were something of which our interviewees were aware.
Is there a gender-based personality?
It is not only the body that should follow the stereotyping rules – personalities should also do so. One developer reflected on the design process where they ended up making a forthright and saucy woman character, and a timid and quiet male character:
"This character design process happened so long ago that [I cannot remember] was it even completely conscious. Partly it must have been conscious, but when it started to develop, we noticed that this was going to be a lot of fun. We were just happy that, well, these all are personality traits that most certainly are not gender-specific in any way."
One developer noted that personality traits are not gender-specific. Our interviewees did not consider reproducing stereotypical feminine or masculine personality types to be sustainable, partly because such characters were considered boring to play.
A good example of consciously trying to avoid reproducing personality stereotypes was provided by one developer whose game had a character that was a sexual minority. The developer received player feedback praising them for not repeating the cliches attached to this minority. Another example of not repeating gender personality stereotypes can be seen in the character of Selena Vassos in the game Returnal from Housemarque (Rodrigues & Sićević, 2021d).
Limitations in representations
Our questions mainly addressed gender, but it seemed equally important for some interviewees to break the harmful ethnic stereotypes present and have their characters represent different ethnic backgrounds.
Even though computer technology has advanced in huge leaps during recent years, it still creates challanges for some representations. Technical difficulties faced in supporting different ethnicities were mentioned: for example, a game engine’s lighting options might favour fair-skinned characters.
Some interviewees also discussed language. English is the standard language in games, and for some indie developers, it might be impossible to include several languages in their games at a high enough quality. These technical and production budget reasons will hopefully be solved in the future through further advancements in technology.
Demarcation of real-world and game-world violence against gender
In game making, the real-world and game-world violence might collide from both directions. How much should the fantasy be affected by the limitations of real-world patterns and vice versa, when it comes to something as serious as gender-based violence? Following are the viewpoints our interviewees addressed.
Bringing age realism into games
Several of our interviewees highlighted the need for realism related to the age of woman characters. Age discrimination exists in games (Rodrigues & Sićević, 2021a), and characters that are supposedly older still tend to look remarkably young. As one of our interviewees mentioned:
"… And to avoid that, the character is visibly rejuvenated at that point. I'm for this idea that if there is a woman in her fifties, goddamn sure she already has wrinkles at this point, and you can't get over it. She can't be visualized as a 30-something fresh face. And if someone manages to be a fresh face in their thirties, they at least have eye bags and similar."
Another interviewee mentioned how it would be absurd to have a military leader that looks 18 years old, because this position would require experience and that explicitly equates to a higher age. Yet another game developer was slightly devastated as their player feedback showed how players relate more with an older secondary character than the younger main character.
Representation versus reality
A different angle to realism is how much it can be bent in games to favour gender representation. This was especially the case with games based on particular historical times or cultures. A game is not a history book, as one game developer stated: even when the game is based on history, it is still pure fantasy.
Another interviewee analysed the same topic from a cultural perspective. They noted that the culture their game was set in—the interviewee’s culture—had distinctive gender roles, but there were real-life examples of how these roles were broken, with women doing men’s jobs, for example. This developer saw no issue in breaking similar boundaries in their game.
The question of realism also applies to instances when a game maker has to consider how much their game should include violence that is typical in real life. Should the real world violence be reflected in games, if the game character would most likely encounter it in real life, or that is essential for understanding character’s experience?
This case was discussed in-depth in one of our interviews: the game depicted a real place and time and the game character represented a minority gender that faced a constant threat of physical and psychological violence just because of their gender. The violence was not a core aspect of the game, but excluding the violence could create toxic positivity and distort the reality too far.
Women can be violent, too
In real life, women can be violent, too, yet stereotypes or idealised images might imply otherwise. One game developer received player feedback about having woman soldiers in games, even though this was, in this case, also historically correct. Similarly, another game developer had negative player feedback on women acting violently in their game, even though the game had its roots in real-life events. Yet another game developer noted how representatives of the feminist movement were violent against transgender persons at a certain time in history, raising a question if that is something that should be included or excluded from game words.
Harmful player feedback
One less discussed phenomenon concerning game-related violence is intentionally harmful or threatening player feedback, and how much it affects game development. Some players might fiercely harass game developers, if they do not like some aspects of the game. This process is well known by game developers, as phrased by one of our interviewees:
"Not everyone dares to bring [diverse game characters] to market, or they bend to make the character as a feminine woman in order not to raise any conflicts with the audience."
Some interviewees mentioned about comments they got of their characters. The comments were related to women being feminine enough; homophobic comments about homosexual characters; comments about women acting violently in the games; remarks about ethnic minorities in the game; and woman characters not being sexy enough. Still, many interviewees were almost surprised by how few negative comments their diverse characters had attracted.
Equal opportunities for all characters – even in death
The interviewees were also asked whether characters receive different treatment based on their gender in the game studio’s games. One form of psychological gender-based violence in games is choosing not to incorporate similar development options for certain characters that make those characters weaker and would not encourage players to select them. Historically this was the case with women characters. Characters might have different skills, but it takes careful balancing to give all characters equal opportunities to succeed and develop in games.
Equal opportunities for every character to develop appeared to be something that game studios have considered. The impact of cultural conventions was noted, and many actively tried to challenge their thought processes when designing characters, like the following indie studio leader and designer pointed out:
"That's the goal. Of course, it's difficult to completely escape the way that society has sort of brainwashed us to think less of many female characters, but I think it is important to try to actively combat those preconceptions that you might have of what a female character should be like and what a male character should be like. But yeah, of course the goal is that all of the characters have the same opportunities to develop."
Publishers for gender inequity
Sometimes it was not just questioning one’s own biases, but questioning the attitudes of other remarkable instances influencing the game content. One game developer expressed how they had to defend the decision for equal development opportunities for all game characters to their publisher, and explain to the publisher that it was exactly their intention and how they wanted the game to be.
A publisher might gain considerable power over the game’s content. When the publisher finances the entire game development process, the game company’s funding is tied to milestones that the publisher needs to approve. A publisher’s opinion is not irrelevant to that game company, since that might mean delays in milestone payments.
In some cases, the publisher might affect gender representation on a larger scale. One of our interviewees stated the following:
"Previously, we made an offer for this [similar kind of game they had published later]. One reason for rejection was that we had a girl main character. Boy players don't perceive it as a character they would engage and that drives away boy players, even our girl character was very tomboyish and a fully qualified action character! Apparently, gender-based upbringing is still strong, even though the situation has improved considerably in recent decades. But it is still there, the necessity to think about whether the players agree. Well, the girls agree to play with every character. They don't have any problems. But raising boys is a bit like… you're girly and tit-cheeky and similar, if you play with a girl character or play with girl dolls."
Equal opportunities do not mean similar treatment for all
One of our interviewees, who had created significantly diverse characters in their game, pointed out that it might sometimes be necessary for the gameplay to have some differences in how the characters are treated. When asked if they think that woman characters receive different treatment than man characters in their games, they answered:
"That is an interesting question.[--] That's maybe not always even a good thing. In some cases, it's very good to not sort of do things differently based on the character's gender, but there are some considerations [--]. It's good to keep in mind stereotypes and everything, when you're working on the game, so you can avoid them in cases where it's going to be harmful, and I guess that's one of the reasons. And also, in a game that actually is about exploring how the world treats, for example, sexual minorities or people of different genders. It is important to know those differences."
Another developer explained how, in their games, they put extra effort into woman characters and their treatment, even to the extent that woman characters might get nicer treatment than men.
Best practices: keep the list
Best practices are the topic of our next upcoming article, but one deserves to be mentioned here.
If the game has plenty of playable characters, some developers have come to the solution of keeping a list of character qualifications that includes features like gender, ethnicity, body type, or such, to make sure that there is a diverse representation in games. In one case, the list included the deaths of side characters in order to avoid certain genders or ethnicities being numerically over-represented in death.
Writing gender-based violence in games
One of our interview questions was whether gender-based violence in games has been a topic of discussion in the game studio.
Our interviewees claimed that gender-based violence was rarely discussed formally in the studios, but there seems to be informal discussions between creatives in companies about the topic. Some interviewees presented that there was no need for such discussion, mostly because their studio did not make violent games, their design team had representation of various forms of diversity, or they already monitored their production in order to avoid misogynistic or otherwise hateful actions against certain game characters.
The trust of certain individuals in a company, or in a design team, to notify a possible act of violence against a certain group of people was eminent. It is important to note that even though such reporting is good work practice, it would be even better to discuss these practices openly. It can be a heavy extra task for one person to check and follow possible violations of violence against certain, or several, groups of people.
Related to physical violence, there were tendencies to avoid placing women antagonists in action games and, on a larger scale, to represent antagonists as para-natural or otherworldly forces to avoid murdering humans.
How would you feel about doing violence for a living?
Drawing or designing violent games, or hypersexualised characters, for living might not feel emotionally good for some game industry employees. It should be clear that if the game’s content makes an employee feel awkward, and they feel unable to work with the topic, they should not be forced to do so. There is still too little information on this issue too, but as in every case, making a generalisation might be misleading. As one of our interviewees mentioned: “I like to play around gloomy stuff because my life is pretty joyful and happy after all. So in a way, I use that as an opportunity to safely research those darker sides.”
The shadow of Lara Croft
Lara Croft was mentioned various times in our interviews. It was an extra question at the end of the interview; however, Lara was also mentioned many times spontaneously during the interviews. A typical example of this was pointing out that when a woman protagonist in an action game dies in-game, Lara Croft -kind of deaths that execrate or sexualize the event should be avoided.
Being the first notable woman protagonist, it might be that Lara Croft has set some long-standing standards of do’s and don’ts in woman game character design (see also Jenni Varila’s article “Diversity matters because you matter”). But many of the studio creatives we interviewed had several good examples of more relatable, more interesting characters who would set even better benchmarks when creating a game with a women lead character.
In this article, we have covered how game makers construct and understand different aspects of gender-based violence in their games. We specifically wanted to understand how different forms of violence were considered and discussed by game developers who have included women main characters, or other characters representing minorities among game characters, in their games.
The developers interviewed were aware of different aspects of gender-based violence, and they considered many aspect of gender-based violence when developing the character. Although discussions around gender-based violence were rarely part of the development process’s formal agenda, they were discussed within the development process. All of our interviewees were very much aware of stereotypes and oversexualised women characters, and took into account several intersectional layers too.
Our interviewees saw room for improving character design in games, but on their behalf, they did their part in making game characters more diverse and equal. As one of our interviewees concluded:
“Our actions will likely change the way these things are experienced. If we, and enough other developers, diversify our designs, even the louder critics will eventually get used to the fact that noticeable breasts, for example, aren’t always mandatory in female character designs.”
We wish to express our gratitude for everyone participating in our interviews.
Myöhänen, T. (2022). What is gender-based violence in games. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/what-is-gender-based-violence-in-games/
Neogames Finland (2021). The Game Industry of Finland Report 2020. Available online at playfinland.fi, or https://assets.website-files.com/6076c3887b3a876adff7a25a/60b880eddf1741d278871bec_FGIR-2020-Report.pdf
Rodrigues, A. and Sićević, N. (2021a). Gender-based violence against women characters. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/gender-based-violence-against-women-characters/
Rodrigues, A. and Sićević, N. (2021b). Gender in Play – large-scale content analysis about the character representation and diversity in Finnish games. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/analysis-character-diversity-games-large/
Rodrigues, A. and Sićević, N. (2021c). Women character representation and diversity in Finnish games: a qualitative analysis. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/women-character-representation-and-diversity-in-finnish-games-a-qualitative-analysis/
Rodrigues, A. and Sićević, N. (2021d). Gender in Play: character diversity. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/gender-in-play-character-diversity/
Varila, J. (2022). Diversity matters because you matter. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/diversity-matters-because-you-matter/