Review of Character Representation and Diversity in Games Research

In 2021, We in Games Finland and The National Council of Women of Finland will implement a project “Gender in Play – Representations of Gender in Games”, funded by the Finnish Ministry of Justice. The aim of the project is to encourage the Finnish game companies to take into account the gender roles in games and to diversify these into their own games. The project will identify obstacles creating equal game worlds and stimulate discussion about gender stereotypes and gender-based violence in games as well as how those are constructed within the game industry. The project activates the Finnish game industry to promote gender equality and diversity.

This will be achieved in multiple steps taking place throughout 2021. First of all, an analysis will be conducted to examine the representation of women game characters in games made by Finnish games studios with special attention towards gender-based physical or mental violence towards women game characters. The analysis will consist of two parts: 1) a broader, quantitative, analysis (representing existing tendencies in the Finnish game industry) and 2) a more focused, in-depth analysis based on the framework created by game culture researcher Usva Friman.

Secondly, interviews with Finnish game developers will be conducted. The purpose of this step will be, on the one hand, to further examine and find explanations of the findings of the study, and on the other, to raise awareness of the existing practices and to collect best practice examples. These examples will, finally, be disseminated in form of implications for companies and game developers to support diversity and inclusion in the Finnish game ecosystem.

As the very first step to initiate this change, the following article will present how character representation and diversity in games have been researched until now and will draw upon some of the key findings and most relevant aspects examined globally. It will show that some important steps into examining the issues of characters’ representation in the game industry have clearly already been made. More importantly, it will discuss the lack of true diversity and will emphasize the limitations which are yet to be overcome on a global scale. At the end of the article, a full list of references will be included (with links for open source publications, when possible) for everyone who searches for inspiring and thought-provoking literature about the examined phenomena.

The authors of the article are Antonio Rodrigues, BA in Interactive Media from Tampere University of Applied Sciences, and Nevena Sićević, Master’s student in Games Studies at Tampere University.

Character representation and diversity in games

We’re a nation that believes in the power of play. No matter who you are or where you’re from, there’s a game for everyone”, are the words opening the Entertainment Software Association (ESA)’s Essential Facts About the Video Game Industry published in July 2020 (ESA 2020). According to the same report, 41% of all gamers in the United States are women; therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that games today are constituted by a rising number of playable women characters (Lynch et al. 2016). Gaming is also a popular activity among women in Finland, with 75.4% of them playing digital games and 54.5% of them playing digital games at least once a month (Kinnunen et al. 2020). However, the question of whether contemporary games can speak to each individual player still remains. Moreover, do we even dare to assume that the diversity of human identities and features that can be observed among the players is to be expected within the games, too? This issue has to a certain extent been closely researched and discussed among academic circles; mostly through the examination of the representation of men and women characters in games, depicted by the viewpoints of their (men and women) players.

Over the last two decades, women’s representation in digital games has been a rising interest of academic researchers and games studies scholars. Back in 1998, a research examining 33 Nintendo and Sega Genesis titles popular at that time has given important implications for the future researches dealing with this topic (Dietz 1998), stating that there is “[an] overwhelming tendency to neglect to portray [women] characters at all or to portray them in stereotypical traditional female roles” (p.439), portraying them as victims or “damsels in distress” (p. 434). This tendency does not seem to be a mere zeitgeist of the past millennium. The question of the over-dominant presence of men characters and protagonists has been examined and confirmed multiple times in the following decade (see examples: Janz and Martis 2003, Burgess et al. 2007, Williams et al. 2009, Hitchens 2011). Additionally, Dill and Thill (2007) found that there is a significant difference in players’ perceptions of men and women characters where the former were described by using the words “warrior”, “superhero” and “cool” whereas the latter were characterized as “helpless”, “victim” and “pretty” (p. 860). An interesting insight into the relation between women’s representation, sexualization and societal changes has been provided by Lynch et al. (2016) while, on the other hand, a (limited although) thought-provoking discussion about the traditional beauty ideals and non-traditional gender roles can be found in an article  about the woman protagonist in action-adventure video games by Grimes (2003).

However, with time passing, a noticeable shift was to be seen in the games creation and, consequently, in the games research; the option for character customization (Richard 2012) and genderless character selection (Fecher 2012) seemed to have ambitiously opened the space for diversity and inclusion within the gaming realm. Unfortunately, success of these efforts remained scarce due to the poor implementation of the new features. In case of the former (Richard 2012, p. 75), things like game glitches and unsynchronized animations lead to an inadequate addressing of the game towards the player (e.g. by using the wrong pronoun). In case of the latter and on the example of Leo (an androgynous character in Tekken 6), Fecher (2012) discusses how such efforts can backfire, emphasizing the importance of the game context and the limitations set by the traditional gender binary.

In terms of diversity and representation, features such as race, ethnicity and age have also found room in academic research. Unsurprisingly, the results in the studies about the characters’ race reveal that the majority of characters could be depicted as “Anglo” (Dietz 1998), “Caucasian” (Janz and Martis 2003) or “White” (Williams et al. 2009). It is perhaps unsurprising, yet still worthy of noting, that in the study of Janz and Martis (2003), a large number of even 83% of all leading women characters was Caucasian. In their study, Williams et al. (2009) examined the representation of different age, race and gender groups in comparison to the proportion of the same groups in the actual US society. The result of this analysis witnessed an over-representation and over-popularization of white, adult men in games.

Lastly, another important aspect of game research that must not be disregarded is the depiction of aggression and violence in video games. Even though the researchers do agree that the existence of aggression and aggressive behaviors in games is evident (see Dietz 1998, Dill and Thill 2007, Edenstad and Torgersen 2003, Henning et al. 2009, Brennick et al. 2007), their effect on players’ violent behaviors is disputed. For example, the mentioned article by Dietz (1998) examined violence and gender stereotyping and concluded that 80% of the examined games included some form of aggression or violence with 21% of the depicted violence directed at women (p. 437). Dill and Thill (2007, p. 859) elaborate on this finding by introducing the phenomenon of eroticized aggression, a combination of sex and violence which could pose as a threat towards real women. There are also findings, however, which state that there is no clear connection between gaming and violent behaviors (Edenstad and Torgersen 2003) or that playing video games doesn’t affect players’ attitudes considering that the players do not actually replicate the observed behaviors (Brennick et al. 2007). The study by Brennick et al. (2007) does, however, acknowledge a correlation between the intensity of playing and view on negative behaviors, stating that high frequency players (and particularly males) are more likely to condone and be less critical towards negative stereotypic images (p. 411). While it is clear that playing violent games does not automatically lead to violent behaviors outside of those environments, the relationship between game activities, behaviors and cultures is a complicated one. Games are both part of our culture and reflect it, which is why it is important to critically analyze the meanings, values, and behaviors depicted by them.

Throughout the history of feminist game analysis, a common figure often found is the one of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, the so-called “First Lady of games”. Much of the criticism of Lara has focused mainly on her sexualised appearance (MacCallum-Stewart 2014). The criticism of this voyeuristic appeal of Lara can be understood in connection with Laura Mulvey’s (1975) landmark film theory of the Male Gaze. Other articles, from as early as 2001 (see Schleiner 2001, Kennedy, H. W. 2002, MacCallum-Stewart 2014) attempt to look at her through different lenses, trying to understand the differences in the process of identification that goes on in movies and video games. This may be seen as part of the process in which the discipline of game studies formalised itself as a separate entity from film studies, a process discussed by Amanda Phillips in the book Gamer Trouble (Phillips 2020). In the book, Phillips also analyzes a few games and playfully problematizes the limits of Mulvey’s theory in the context of video games, even going back to Lara and criticising her not for her looks, but for her coloniser attitude in the latest games in the series. The limitations of Mulvey’s theory when applied to videogames was a topic also studied by one of our researchers in their previous work (Rodrigues da Silva Neto 2020). Among the new analysis methods tailored specifically for game characters, one that will be particularly relevant continuing this project is Usva Friman’s model for analyzing women character representations in digital games (Friman 2015).

Finally, it is important to acknowledge that games and their characters do not appear from a vacuum, but from real-life companies and real-life developers. The lack of diversity within the games industry is something that has been well documented (e.g. International Game Developers Association 2019, Interactive Software Federation of Europe 2020, European Games Developer Federation 2020), where in Finland the number of women employees in the game companies makes just a little over 20% (Neogames Finland 2019). Issues with misogyny within the gaming community came to mainstream attention during 2014’s Gamergate harassment campaign, which saw attacks focused against several women in the game industry, notably developer Zoë Quinn and feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, along with conspiratory accusations against game researchers (Mortensen 2018). Moreover, reports of sexism, abuse and harassment in the industry have been cropping up in the media at alarming rates in the past years as a part of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements (Lorrenz and Browning 2020, Orr 2019, Schreier 2020). The matter of diversity in the games industry is a global one and the media silencing of women’s disadvantage in the game industry has been observed both in the US and Finland (Kivijärvi and Sintonen 2021). If, as Philips puts in her book “critique is an important and vital part of achieving justice” (Philips 2020, p. 169), then the textual analysis and criticism of representation can be an important tool in achieving equality in game worlds. However, this improvement in representation should go hand-in-hand with improvements in equality within the industry itself. This is something this project will also seek to address in its next stages, firstly through interviews with the Finnish game companies about matters of diversity in their games and development teams. We will compile the results of these interviews with the findings from our game analyses and present them as a collection of good practice examples and implications for the developers. These implications will, finally, be disseminated nationally and shared with the whole Finnish game industry in form of a series of lectures and workshops advocating for and promoting equality and diversity among the Finnish game companies and their games.

Publications

Brenick, A., Henning, A., Killen, M., O’Connor, A. and Collins, M. (2007). Social Evaluations of Stereotypic Images in Video Games. Unfair, Legitimate, or “Just Entertainment”?. In Youth & Society. Volume 38, Number 4. p. 395-419. DOI: 10.1177/0044118X06295988

Burgess, M. C. R., Stermer, S. P. and Burgess, S. R. (2007). Sex, Lies and Video Games: The Portrayal of Male and Female Characters on Video Game Covers. In Sex Roles. Vol. 57 issue 5, p. 419–433. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-007-9250-0

Dietz, T. L. (1998). An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior. In Sex Roles. Vol. 38 issue 5–6, p. 425–442. DOI: 10.1023/A:1018709905920

Dill, K. E. and Thill, K. P. (2007). Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions. In Sex Roles. Vol. 57 issue 11–12, p. 851–864. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-007-9278-1

Edenstad, T. and Torgersen, L. (2003). Computer Games and Violence: Is There Really a Connection? In Level Up Conference Proceedings. Utrecht: University of Utrecht. (open access: http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/computer-games-and-violence-is-there-really-a-connection/)

European Games Developer Federation. (2020). European Game Industry in 2018. Available online at: http://www.egdf.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/European-Report-on-the-Game-Development-Industry-in-2018.pdf

Fecher, D.L. (2012). Gender Issues, fighting games, and progress: Finding a place for a genderless character in Tekken 6. Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 12(2). (retrieved from http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/122/Fecher_Leland.shtml)

Friman, U. (2015). From Pixel Babes to Active Agents – How to Fix the Lack of Diversity in Female Digital Game Characters. Pori: University of Turku. (open access: https://press.etc.cmu.edu/index.php/product/well-played-vol-4-no-3)

Grimes, S. M. (2003). You Shoot Like A Girl!: The Female Protagonist in Action-Adventure Video Games. In Level Up Conference Proceedings. Utrecht: University of Utrecht. (open access: http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/you-shoot-like-a-girl-the-female-protagonist-in-action-adventure-video-games/)

Henning, A., Brenick, A., Killen, M., O’Connor, A. and Collins, M. J. (2009). Do Stereotypic Images in Video Games Affect Attitudes and Behavior? Adolescent Perspectives. In Children, Youth and Environments. Vol. 19 issue 1, p. 170–196. DOI: 10.7721/chilyoutenvi.19.1.0170

Hitchens, M. (2011). A Survey of First-person Shooters and their Avatars. Game Studies. In The International Journal of Computer Game Research. Vol. 11 issue 3. (open access: http://gamestudies.org/1103/articles/michael_hitchens)

International Game Developers Association (2019). Developer Satisfaction Survey 2019. Available online at: https://s3-us-east-2.amazonaws.com/igda-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/29093706/IGDA-DSS-2019_Summary-Report_Nov-20-2019.pdf 

Interactive Software Federation of Europe (2020). Key Facts 2020. Available online at: https://www.isfe.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ISFE-final-1.pdf 

Janz, J. and Martis, R. G. (2003). The Representation of Gender and Ethnicity in Digital Interactive Games. In Level Up Conference Proceedings. Utrecht: University of Utrecht, p. 260–269.  (open access: http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/the-representation-of-gender-and-ethnicity-in-digital-interactive-games/)

Kennedy, H. W. (2002). Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? On the Limits of Textual Analysis. In Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research. Vol. 2 issue 2. (open access: http://www.gamestudies.org/0202/kennedy/)

Kinnunen, J., Taskinen, K., Mäyra, F. (2020). Pelaajabarometri 2020: Pelaamista koronan aikan. Tampere: Tampere University Press. (open access: https://trepo.tuni.fi/handle/10024/123831)

Kivijärvi, M. and Sintonen, T. (2021). The stigma of feminism : disclosures and silences regarding female disadvantage in the video game industry in US and Finnish media stories. Feminist Media Studies, Early online. DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2021.1878546 (open access: http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:jyu-202101281331)

Lynch, T., van Driel, I. I., Tompkins,  J. E. and Fritz, N. (2016). Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years: Female Game Characters across 31 Years. In Journal of Communication. Vol.66 (4). p.564-584. DOI: 10.1111/jcom.12237

MacCallum-Stewart, E. (2014). Take That, Bitches! Refiguring Lara Croft in Feminist Game Narratives. In Game Studies. 14 (2). (open access: http://gamestudies.org/1402/articles/maccallumstewart)

Mortensen, T. E. (2018). Anger, Fear, and Games: The Long Event of #GamerGate. Games and Culture, 13(8), 787–806. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412016640408

Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Screen. Vol. 16 no. 3, p. 6-18.

Neogames Finland (2019). The Game Industry of Finland Report 2018. Available online at: http://www.neogames.fi/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/FGIR-2018-Report.pdf 

Phillips, A. (2020). Gamer Trouble. New York: New York University Press.

Richard, G. T. (2012). Playing as a Woman as a Woman as if a Man. In Well Played. A Journal on Video Games, Value and Meaning. Vol. 1 no. 3, p. 70–93. DOI: 10.1184/R1/6687059

Rodrigues da Silva Neto, A. (2020). Lara Croft and Jill Valentine : understanding the representation of female protagonists in triple-A video games in the #MeToo Era (Bachelor’s Thesis). (open access: http://urn.fi/URN:NBN:fi:amk-2020112424016

Schleiner, Anne-Marie. (2001). Does Lara Croft Wear Fake Polygons? Gender and Gender-Role Subversion in Computer Adventure Games. Leonardo. Vol 34, No 3. P. 221-226. DOI: 10.1162/002409401750286976

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) (2020). Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry , 2020. Open access: https://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Final-Edited-2020-ESA_Essential_facts.pdf 

Williams, D., Martins, N., Consalvo, M. and Ivory, J. D. (2009). The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race and Age in Video Games. In New Media Society. Vol. 11 no. 5, p. 815–834. DOI:10.1177/1461444809105354

News articles:

Lorrenz, T and Browning, K. (2020, June 06). Dozens of Women in Gaming Speak Out About Sexism and Harassment. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/style/women-gaming-streaming-harassment-sexism-twitch.html

Orr, L. (2019, September 17). ‘This industry has a problem with abuse’: dealing with gaming’s #MeToo moment  https://www.theguardian.com/games/2019/sep/17/gaming-metoo-moment-harassment-women-in-games

Schreier, J. (2020, July 21).  Ubisoft Family Accused of Mishandling Sexual Misconduct Claims. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/ubisoft-sexual-misconduct-scandal-harassment-sexism-and-abuse 

Games referred to in the article:

Bandai Namco Games (2007). Tekken 6.

Eidos Interactive (1996-2009) and Square Enix 2010-present). Tomb Raider Series 

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