Confession Time: This installment is late because I changed gears. Originally, I wanted to do an overview of the current academic research regarding gender in video games, but it didn’t work out. Many of the papers are stuck behind academic paywalls I don’t have access to (which I should have surmised, but was in denial about), and the few papers openly available on the internet…are kind of awful? I can’t say so with authority, since I’m not any kind of an expert on social science research, but it seems like there are gaping flaws in the methodology of these studies that even a newbie can see: suspiciously small sample sizes, strongly opinionated language in the abstract that makes it seem like the conclusions were chosen before the study was even started, etc.
That said, there could be great research about gender as portrayed in video games out there, somewhere; I’m just not currently in a position to find it. However, for someone currently involved in academic research who has access to all these scholarly databases, I think this presents an intriguing area for study; look at all the papers on this topic, and see which ones pass muster as proper research, and which are fluff designed to bolster specific preconceived ideas. Once again, I can only speculate, but I would bet money that a lot of these studies will turn out to be light and inconsequential as a feather.*
So instead of delving into academic research, which I’m clearly ill-equipped to do, I’m going to try something else: talk about how we can analyze video games as though we were doing it from scratch. Before any serious data collection about gender representation can be done, I think there are some very basic questions that need to be addressed, yet are rarely mentioned.
1. When Does An NPC Count As A Character?
Non-player-characters, be they helpful, hostile or neutral, make up the majority of video game characters. However, they range from fully-fleshed out characters, who are just as interesting (if not more so) than the characters the player inhabits, to one-line wonders that have virtually zero presence.
If we’re trying to document gender representation in games, do we count all NPCs as people? It seems like the easy answer is “yes” (since at least some NPCs clearly should be counted), but what about those thousands of characters with one line of dialogue who exist to say things like “the door to the vault is over there,” or “Have you spoken to the Mage yet?” Even if the speakers of these lines are depicted as being men or women in the game’s artwork, they’re less characters than they are in-game info prompts; they’re not meant to have any discernible personality.
So we could go all Bechdel-test on it and make some kind of arbitrary rule, like “An NPC must have at least five lines of dialogue to be considered a character for the purposes of analysis,” but then that runs into a lot of obvious problems; after all, not all one-line wonder NPCs are created equal. An NPC that only has one or two lines can still be infused with personality, while another NPC with multiple lines may be limited to saying a bunch of variations of “the door is over there.” Clearly, the amount of lines is not the issue, but whether or not the character’s dialogue shows any hint of personality– and that’s a judgment call, something that makes gathering data a pain.
There’s also the question of NPCs who function differently than they are presented. I realized this during a recent play through of the original Final Fantasy, where the Dancing Girl is actually more knowledgable than the Sage. If you’re in the business of putting characters into political categories for the purpose of easy analysis, the Dancing Girl would probably go into “female” and “sexualized” (as sexualized as a character in NES graphics can be, at any rate) while the Sage would go into “male” and “authority figure,” or something to that effect. However, if you look at how the characters interact with the player, the Dancing Girl is an authority figure (she always knows what’s going on in the world and where to go next), while the Sage is useful exactly once.
This may seem like a nitpicky distinction, but I think this actually comes up a lot; a game will tell us that an NPC is one thing, but the character actually works in a different way within the story. To use one of my favorite games, Parasite Eve, as an example, Aya Brea’s partner Daniel is supposed to be an experienced, tough-as-nails cop, but in practice he often flails around impotently while Aya does all the actual work– sometimes, he effectively becomes the “damsel” to her hero. Do we count Daniel as a strong man, furthering the archetype of the powerful male authority figure, or is he basically deadweight, leaning on his powerful female partner?
There’s also the issue of characters that blur the line between NPC and PC; to use another Final Fantasy example, look at the Aeons in Final Fantasy X. The Aeons themselves are PCs, since the player controls them via Yuna, but the “fayth”– the Aeon’s souls, essentially– are non-playable characters whom you can encounter and speak to on separate occasions. Again, this may seem like an unimportant distinction, but let’s say the research topic you’re looking at is “Female PCs with power and influence in Final Fantasy“; if you count the Aeons as PCs, Valefor, Shiva, Anima, and the Magus Sisters help fill out that list; otherwise, they can be easily ignored through a little statistical sleight-of-hand.
It’s easy to look at games with one prominent, flagship character, like Bayonetta or Duke Nukem and make generalizations, but games actually feature countless characters that need to be taken into account if we want to seriously analyze how gender is presented in these worlds. Unfortunately, doing so is actually going to take a lot of hard work, because then you have to concern yourself with trying to extricate personality from game mechanics…to the extent that such a thing is possible in video games.
Now, if trying to figure out where convenient in-game info prompts that take the shape of characters end and characterization truly begins isn’t something that’s interesting to you, fine; but then you may not actually be all that interested in video games as a medium, and probably shouldn’t be analyzing them.
2. When Does a Main Character Even Count As A Main Character?
One thing I’ve noticed is that when people compare the amount of male and female PCs, games with customizable main characters are generally excluded. My husband is currently playing Dragon Age: Inquisition as a female elf, but DA:I usually isn’t included on lists of games with female main characters. Ironically, as customizable lead characters become more popular, this is leading to the perception that there are fewer female lead characters, when that’s not true; there are actually more, they’re just included in games where playing a male is also an option.
There’s a kind of interesting philosophical question buried here about whether or not fully customizable characters are even truly characters anymore, versus “character templates,” but that’s kind of beyond the scope of what I’m talking about. Once again, it’s easy to point to Lara Croft or Kratos as “female lead character” and “male lead character,” respectively, but there are games where this distinction is much murkier.
Of course, there are tons of games where you play as some kind of cutesy dinosaur/spaceship/fuzzy animal with no discernible gender, which probably just counts as an “N/A” in the gender field. But then there are weird cases, like Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. In the PMD series, you answer a series of questions and get assigned a Pokemon; in Blue Rescue Team I was assigned a Squirtle (yaaay!) and in Explorers of Sky I was assigned a Treeko (WTF?). The gender of the Pokemon is whatever gender I picked, and I think I named both of them Karen (it’s been a while).
Now you could just say “Screw it, it’s a Pokemon game, what does it even matter?” but the thing is, PMD actually attempts to have a plot; maybe it shouldn’t, but it does. So your little Pokemon friends are always going on about how it’s so interesting that your character is “a human who got changed into a Pokemon,” and the PC is clearly supposed to be whatever gender the player identifies as. Of course, this has no effect on the gameplay whatsoever; it’s just a fact.
Yet, if I were to list Pokemon: Mystery Dungeon as a game with a female lead, people would probably look at me funny. People bag on the likes of Lara Croft and Bayonetta for their sexuality, but if a female character is presented as being totally unsexualized– as is true in Pokemon, where female and male Pokemon are typically identical (don’t get me started on Nidorina!), people are hesitant to include it under the “female lead character” banner. So do main characters count as female even if they’re only female “on paper,” so to speak? But once we demand that characters be demonstrably female in some respect, are we then in fact asking for gender stereotypes?
Another thing I wanted to touch on is that if we’re looking at gender representation among lead characters in gaming, we should be looking at games all over the spectrum. All too often, when I hear about the supposed dearth of female main characters, the writers are referring exclusively to the highest-budget, AAA titles; a category I haven’t much cared about in over a decade. For someone like me, who plays mostly JRPGs and dungeon-crawlers, women are very well represented as both PCs and NPCs; this is true of a lot of genres most well-loved by women players. That doesn’t mean that a (relative) lack of female characters in AAA gaming is necessarily okay, but a)it’s disingenuous to paint the entire industry as suffering from something that’s primarily true of one subset of it, and b)it’s arguable whether or not it’s unreasonable to expect higher rates of female representation in genres with higher rates of female playership.
Actually, a weird kind of capitalist snobbery seems to be at work here– all the more interesting because it’s perpetuated by the kind of people who typically say things like ‘capitalism is a vector for spreading oppression.'” It seems to be a mutually understood fact in the gaming industry that while a lot of niche genres are absolutely crawling with diversity, Call of Duty and Halo and whatever are male-dominated, and since those games make the biggest bucks, that’s all that matters. But I digress, sort of.
3. What Are Sexualized Main Characters?
To be honest, figuring out which characters count as sexualized versus those that are simply neutral, or “sex-positive” or what have you, is not something I’m particularly interested in. However, since this does seem to be a popular topic, how do we determine which characters count as sexualized? Right now the standard seems to be “any female character in a revealing outfit is sexualized, period, that is all, everybody go home,” which seems insufficient to me.
The main problem seems to be that scantily-clad females are considered sexualized, while scantily clad male characters are considered male power fantasies, and are therefore not sexual…because, you know, sex and power are completely distinct concepts with zero overlap. And it’s not like having a fantastic body ever counts as a power fantasy for women, because no woman ever wishes she had a better body than she does in order to have more power over men, right? Yeah, no woman has ever fantasized about that, not even once….*looks around shiftily*
To be serious, plenty of male characters have exposed chests, and male chest muscles are a well-known turn-on for many women; however, these characters generally aren’t considered sexualized because they fall under the “male power fantasy” banner, and are therefore exempt from the “sexualized” category; I think any honest critic needs to reexamine this, because it’s creating an either/or situation where none actually exists.
Also, it goes deeper than clothing and lack thereof. To return to my obsession with Final Fantasy (what can I say, FF-lover here), look at the case of Squall from Final Fantasy VIII; handsome, brooding in that way that’s inexplicably attractive to us artsy female types, cased from head to toe in tight black leather. Squall doesn’t show any skin below the neck, but if you don’t think he’s a turn-on to female players, then I have a bridge in Fisherman’s Horizon to sell you. Yet, because he’s a) a male and b) wears plenty of clothes, I don’t think he’s generally considered a sexualized character…well, outside of the many players who dig him, but you know what I mean; he’s not considered sexualized by games critics and media (to the extent that games criticism even acknowledges that Final Fantasy exists.)
How do we determine what counts as sexualized when revealing clothing is treated differently for both characters, based on a kind of dubious logic? Furthermore, how do we classify characters where their design does not emphasize or exaggerate their secondary sex characteristics, but are still considered sexy by a large percentage of players; how do we make a distinction between “sexy” and “sexualized,” when so much of it comes down to personal taste, almost despite the intentions of the creative team?
Also, to what extent does context matter? For instance, if someone who doesn’t know about Chrono Trigger hears that the character Ayla wears a small fur bikini, they would probably think Ayla was a sexualized character. However, when you keep in mind that Ayla is a literal cavewoman, combined with the not-at-all provocative style of the Chrono Trigger artwork, combined with Ayla’s personality, she doesn’t seem sexualized in the slightest to me. Who decides these things? How could you decide?
As I’ve been saying all along, maybe this just seems like a lot of nitpicking. But to me, that’s what this kind of analysis is–picking the nits, because the devil is in the details and all that. If we want to really understand the picture of gender we get from different games, and not just what self-assured academics tell us it is probably is or should be, then someone needs to do the tedious work of figuring out the ratio of male NPCs to females in particular games and genres; how those NPCs are depicted; the gap between what the game tells us the NPC is versus what they actually are, and how that sometimes differs along gender lines, and so on and so forth.
Really, the more I think about it, the more I wonder if anyone really wants to do this research properly at all. It’s really hard.
*People complain that Anita Sarkeesian doesn’t use much scholarly research to back up her arguments in her Tropes Vs. Women series, but to be fair to Ms. Sarkeesian, I’m not entirely sure she could if she wanted to. You can’t cite what doesn’t exist.