Sexualization of female characters in the gaming world has been a cause of concern but a new study has shown that this trend may actually be seeing a dip over the years, making video games less sexist than they were before.
The Indiana University study analyzed in-game content from 571 titles released between 1983 and 2014 and concluded that the downward trend may have begun about 10 years ago, in the face of mounting criticism against the sexist representation of the female characters.
An increased interest in playing and developing video games among women was another factor that the study cited behind this emerging development.
“What my colleagues and I decided to do was to look at whether the trend of sexualizing female characters was stable over time, whether it’s always existed and whether we’d see any changes as a consequence of some of the livelier social media conversations that have been happening and some of the critiques levied at the gaming industry,” said Teresa Lynch, the study’s lead author, in a press release.
“We found that in essentially the last eight years, there has been a significant decrease in the sexualization of female characters,” Lynch said.
The study is the first to look at female characters in actual game play over the history of their appearance. However, it does not look at the portrayal of women in advertising.
“Advertisements, for instance, seem to exaggerate characters’ physical features in ways that aren’t always consistent with how they appear in the gameplay,” said Lynch.
She explained that in the 1980s and the early 1990s, technology was not advanced enough to sexualize characters but this changed over the 1990s with the transition to 3-D graphics.
According to the authors of the paper — Lynch along with Niki Fritz, Jessica E. Tompkins and Irene I. van Driel— Lara Croft’s popularity following the 1996 game “Tomb Raider” could have had a catalytic effect on video game developers to begin churning out more sexualized characters to enhance sales among the predominant audience of the time — the boys and men.
“But there are also a lot of characters who are in keeping with more feminist notions of what a powerful, non-objectified woman would look like,” Lynch said. “The remake of the Tomb Raider series and Lara Croft’s redesign is an excellent example of the way the industry is now humanizing female characters.”
However, this change can only be seen in cases where the primary character is female. The study found that most games that depict women in secondary roles sexualized the characters more. And the number of these games surpassed women-centric games by considerable amounts.
“When we found they were secondary to a male protagonist, they were more often sexualized,” Lynch added. “This is essentially pointing to the objectification of the character, that the female characters who were secondary don’t have as many important artifacts built into their character, like personality, a backstory or meaningful interaction with other characters.”
The researchers also found no difference in sexist representation in games rated as “Teen” — for players aged 13-17 — and “Mature” — for players 18 and older— by the ESRB ratings. These ratings are not given by the gaming industry but from parents and caregivers themselves.
The article, “Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years,” will appear in the August issue of the Journal of Communication, published by the International Communication Association.