Gender in Gaming 2: How To Data


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.

7 thoughts on “Gender in Gaming 2: How To Data”

  1. I think a big part of the problem with this whole debate is that “Is this sexist?” is a shitty question. A dozen other questions need to be asked before that question can be answered or is even a relevant question for most people who play games.

    I think you ask good questions. Personally I find most of them are easy enough to answer as long as I’m looking at a specific case. That said, I find there are certain things that need to be acknowledged before anything meaningful can be said. For my own stance I have to acknowledge that creator intent is meaningless. Unless the creators come out and tell us their intent the best we can do is guess at it. Even if they do tell us not everyone will be aware of what they have said. If their words aren’t in the game it isn’t a mandatory part of the experience. So maybe it’s more accurate to say that we can’t discern anything absolute about intent from playing a game so it’s pointless to try. The discussion should focus on other things if only because attempting to discern intent from fiction is like trying to pull something out of a black hole.

    Something else that needs to be acknowledged for meaningful discussion is specific concern. Like… Why are we worried about gender roles in fiction in the first place? Is it entirely because they aren’t fair? Is there more to it? Is it even unfair in the first place when we consider target audience? Those might seem like dumb questions, but they are at the core of the entire debate.

    When is a game character really a character is a good question, but I think we also have to ask how should we think about game characters in the first place even when they are loaded with personality? If I consider the implications of something like say Rapelay I have to ask myself is it even a problem that these characters exist to be violated for the sake of a male revenge/power fantasy?(I believe that is what Rapelay is about at least… I will admit I haven’t played it.) If I ask that question I expect most people to look at me like am some kind of awful amoral asshole. I’m not advocating playing the game. I am simply questioning why I should care that it exists. It’s a question that needs to be asked I think. Not out of apathetic defense for such things, but from a position of genuine curiosity. Fear is a bad answer, morality isn’t much better I think.

    There are plenty of things we(more like scientists who have the tools to monitor such things) could test about fictional fantasies. How does the brain react to “dark” fantasies? Do those reactions affect the way men react to real women or how women react to real men? What kind of preconceived notions do the people being tested hold about the opposite gender? That is an important question because the previous question is dependent on it to be meaningful. I don’t have the ability to be scientific about brain reactions, but I can test myself and my emotional response. I can also note the emotional response of other people. We could poll people and ask what are the social implications of playing those games? Do the people who indulge in these fantasies even have a desire for the real thing? Whatever that might be… Could we trust those people not to troll such a poll? Maybe not, but we can’t get anywhere with this gender debate while those kind of question about fantasies are taboo I think. That is really what this debate about sexulized characters is all about ultimately I think, the health of fantasies. Morality too, but for my own part if I bring up morality I’m not debating anymore, I’m preaching. I need pragmatic reasons to change or even influence my moral stance on just about anything. When it comes to fiction it’s a topic where my moral stance is stronger than usually and has been given a significant amount of thought. That is me and the way I think.

    Are game characters representative of fantasies aimed at men or women? Maybe both? Before we can answer that I think we need to have an in depth discussion about the implications of fantasies on our lives outside of the fantastical stuff we indulge in both fiction and otherwise. Why? Because if it’s all about the fantasy itself… Frankly why should anyone even care? That probably needs to include everything from religion to dungeon crawlers to addictive mobile games to crazy hardcore porn and drugs… Stuff that ranges from the mundane to things that are uncomfortable to talk about.

    Lets say someone is doing meth everyday and it isn’t affecting their normal everyday life in the slightest. That isn’t true, meth messes people up, but lets pretend for a moment that it is. If someone is perfectly capable of doing their meth and returning to reality just fine what reason does anyone else have to care about their drug trips? Turn meth into weed and suddenly that question becomes a lot more reasonable. Personally I have no interest in drugs, I don’t even like alcohol, but why should I have a problem with other people indulging in stuff I don’t like? Fictional fantasies seem significantly less dangerous to our health and social interactions than any drugs. Even the really nasty fictional fantasies seem to be less harmful than weed or alcohol from what I’ve seen. Hell I feel pretty confident I could make a compelling argument for why indulging in fast food is worse for people than Japanese rape games or things like Hatred and GTA if I really wanted to. Most people who eat fast food can still function in society and at the very least avoid committing crimes against humanity.

    Of course it’s hard to collect data and make something meaningful of it without looking to find what you want to see. It essentially means pioneering ideology. But then that is what makes dissecting it all so much fun. That might also be why people like Anita seem to be so bad at it… I think we also need to realize that good questions are going to lead to more questions and not immediate social action. The whole social justice concept has it’s priorities mixed up. Fix supposed problems first! Understand the implications later…

    I hope all of that is somewhat coherent. I felt like I was going in circles while I wrote that up and I think I’ll only make it worse if I try to edit it much. If not I’ll try to make more sense later when I’m feeling better. I’m holding my head up with one and typing with the other, but you got me thinking and I wanted to respond while your post was fresh on my mind.

  2. For the purposes of these blog posts, I’m basically taking it as a priori condition that the picture of gender we get in games means something– because it tells us something about how we think about gender in reality, admittedly through a very warped fun-house mirror. I’m doing this less because I’m convinced of it, and more because I think that’s the stance you have to take when you set out to do a “Gender in Games” series; if there’s no relationship to reality, then who even cares? However, I realize by taking this as a given, I’m skipping over a lot of the questions that you find most interesting.

    To put it another way, I’m not sure I’m all that convinced that looking at how gender is portrayed in our fantasy lives and then trying to reverse-engineer what that MIGHT say about perceptions of gender in reality is such a great idea, but many, many people seem to already be convinced that it is. So rather than fighting about that, my approach here is more like “Okay, let’s say that analyzing gender as portrayed in video games DOES tell us something meaningful about gender in general. IF that were true how would we go about doing it right? Because I don’t see anyone doing it right.”

    I definitely agree though that the inability to talk about fantasy lives, particularly women’s fantasies, is the 600-lb. gorilla in the room here. The fact of the matter is a lot of women have submissive fantasies (50 Shades being just one prominent example, although God does that movie look awful), and people always talk past each other on this topic without really engaging with it. One side says “women have these fantasies because they’ve internalized the misogyny of their culture and this perpetuates more misogyny, meaning these works are pernicious and should be treated as such,” others say “women’s fantasies operate on a different level then reality and having a fantasy of being dominated has NO RELATION to actually wanting that to happen in reality, due to ‘misogyny’ or any other reason!” and then…mutual disgust with each other. I don’t think there’s ever any discussion, it’s just “it’s because of misogyny and begets more misogyny” versus “no, you’re wrong,” and that’s that.

    I don’t know how we move forward on that, because I think discussing fantasies (particularly women’s fantasies) makes people deeply uncomfortable and that’s not going to change any time soon. So everybody just sticks to their established rules about how they’ve decided fantasy must work, calls everyone who doesn’t agree uneducated and/or naive, and we go around in circles.

    …well, I just depressed myself a bit. Let’s both eat cookies or something:)

    1. I think what your doing is admirable. I don’t think there is anything wrong with asking questions from a perspective where fantasy effects reality. The problem I end up having with people like Anita is the implications they make. If you don’t imply that you have the answer before taking the questions seriously you are already doing something far more interesting(and different) than she is. Maybe not the questions I want to ask, but still interesting.

      Honestly I think the fantasies people indulge in do reflect things about people. The thing is I feel like I need to already know someone pretty well to get anything out of that “warped fun-house mirror” as you put it. I don’t find much value in knowing the intent of the creators, but knowing the intent of the person indulging in a fantasy can tell me all sorts of things about that person. For that matter knowing the intent of the creators tells me things about the creators. It doesn’t tell me anything absolute about their creation, but it does tell me about them. It’s their intent so of course it does right?

      The problem I see is how do we get people to openly talk about their intent going into their fantasies? Not everyone stops to think that kind of thing through, but for obvious reasons they are likely to be disingenuous when talking to someone who has already decided they are evil or when the topic is taboo. It’s not like I never see people talk about their fantasies though. Playing MMOs with large groups of people who usually don’t know each other very well has shown me that some people are all too eager to be open and honest about things no one else wants to hear.

      This might sound counter intuitive, but gender debate itself makes talking about fantasies harder I think. It also makes it seem like we are worse off than we really are. I say that because I do see people talking about the 600-lb. gorilla in the room. They just don’t do it in a debate. Even on the internet where people can be anonymous it can be hard to put yourself out there. Actually one of the reasons I like fiction so much is because it can be really good at making people think about things they don’t want to talk about. I’ve always thought it somewhat ironic that critics of fictions are so bad at something fiction itself is actually good at. So if there is some hope it’s that fiction itself brings people together to talk about their fantasies. It might not inspire them to debate those fantasies with feminists, or well… anyone, but eh, my experience has been that the people who indulge in those fictional fantasies generally have some degree of understanding of what they are doing. Even if no one else does and even when they are really bad at expressing it… So maybe that is the silver lining here? Maybe 50 shades of Grey is actually a good thing for humanity? I’ll still totally take you up on that cookie idea though. Some sugar sounds like a good idea right about now.

  3. I really enjoy these kinds of articles because it gives me a perspective I don’t normally get. Serious discussion of these issues from a woman who isn’t batshit insane.

    I’d really like to have a conversation with you about female characters because I’m beginning to think that it’s something I need to gain more perspective on as I continue my writing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly aware that there are tons of people out there who simply will never be satisfied, and I don’t plan on submitting to them.

    But I always approach my characters from the neutral position of just trying to make the most interesting imaginary people that I can. Sometimes gender is a relevant factor, but a lot of the time it isn’t… at least I think so. Both in reality and in fiction, I believe that both genders constitute a variety of pros and cons, largely based on societal views but sometimes just ordinary science as well. I try to keep that balanced in my writing, as I personally believes these things more or less cancel each other out.

    I don’t really have any consistent female readers, and the ones in my circles are too busy writing delicious yaoi buttsex (their words, not mine) to bother. My writing will always appeal to very niche subset of people, but I sometimes feel a bit insecure as to whether I’m doing a good job portraying my female characters. Am I unintentionally pushing people away? I doubt it, but sometimes I have to wonder.

    When I was younger (back in my fanfic days… *shudder*), I used to severely limit my usage of female characters simply because I was so afraid that I wouldn’t have any idea how to write them well that I gave up before I even began. I actually think a lot of male writers suffer the same insecurity. We don’t *mean* to misrepresent, it’s just that we’re guys writing (mostly) for the benefit of other guys, so where do we get that perspective from?

    In an interview, John Lasseter of Pixar was asked why they hadn’t had any female protagonists in their films before Brave, and he simply responded, “Yeah well, we’re a bunch of guys, so…”. Writers have a tendency to get lost in their own heads, after all. Sometimes I wonder if female writers feel the same insecurities about writing male characters….

    Anyway, great article as always.

  4. In my personal experience female writers do have some insecurity writing male characters, except the stakes are lower. If I write a male character that seems off in some way, it might take people out of the story, but that’s about it; no one’s going to accuse me of being a horrible person just because I wrote a character that didn’t engage them. Whereas, if a male writer writes a female character that people feel is poorly written, then they have to face the criticisms that they writer is too busy being a horrible misogynist to understand our shared humanity, or something.

    Sometimes I wish I was a yaoi fan; it seems like that community is having a great time, and they give zero fucks what anyone else thinks of them. Seems like a really fun group to be a part of, except yaoi does pretty much nothing for me, so I can’t really participate ;/

    I’d be happy to talk writing with you, although I don’t know if I’d be much help– I’m a “write by intuition, for better or worse” person, so I don’t really have any guidelines that I follow or think anyone else should follow. Whenever I see writing guidelines like “Never have your characters do this,” or “Always remember to do this,” I kind of want to strangle someone just a little bit.

    1. Right, of course context and presentation is very important. Despite what some people would have us believe, there’s really no hard and fast rules for writing… writing to a mainstream audience maybe, but not writing in general.

      I guess maybe in the most broad and general way possible, I want to know what you think the biggest trappings are? What are the most common and/or egregious mistakes? And again, that’s not to say that critique applies to every situation in every story, but just in general. By the same token, maybe the most applicable suggestions on what I could be doing.

      I’m not overly-conscious about these things. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t believe I was already doing a good job. But I like gaining perspective, so I’m quite curious.

      1. Actually, the biggest pet peeve I have about female characters right now is something that seems to be perpetrated by female writers more often than males. In order to prove that their female character is a badass, the writer will have the character make reckless, stupid decisions, in situations where any sane person (of either gender) would know to ask for help, or at least put off doing anything until they could come up with a better plan. Of course, sometimes being reckless is part of the characterization, so I can’t really be mad when a female character who’s supposed to be reckless does something reckless. I guess it’s a question of whether or not it feels like something the character would legitimately do, versus the author clumsily making a statement: “See how badass this female hero of mine is? She’s so independent, she don’t NEED no man or anybody else!” *Facepalm*

        I guess that’s symptomatic of the hang-up about “strong female characters”; it’s become so important to make female characters strong that sometimes that strength becomes a kind of parody of the idea of strength…which is not to say that really strong characters can’t be believable and interesting, if done well…arrrgh! Write what you love, the rest will work itself out >__<

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