“Dissolving the Argument of Misrepresentation of Gender in Video Games of the 21st Century”
The University of Tulsa
April 12th, 2019
Video game culture and the games themselves have become more of an influential media source on today’s society than ever before. Modern-day society is ever-changing and building off past values to develop a culture that we believe is becoming more morally correct. Video games since the mid 1980s have been considered to be a major influential media source amongst children, teens, and young adults. Although loved by many for their playthroughs, animations, quest lines, and characters, video games have become an argument hub for inaccurate gender representation. The storylines, and moral values expressed in them, have been thought to be disrespecting and immorally presenting gender stereotypes. However, when and where these games are created will coincide directly with the ideologies conveyed in these games. Just as a Mark Twain novel might accurately show early southern American life, so might a game of Mortal Kombat in the 90s shed light on a portion of Japanese culture. Over the last two decades, this argument has strangely become more and more relevant, although it is arguable that video games are moving away from the immoral expressions. Diving into the development of characters in video games, the cultural origin influences, and the effects on society it holds, these games are becoming more relevant to today’s values. With supported research and studies on game production, developing trends, and improvements on technology and character portrayal in video games over the years we can conclude that video games now are more accurate than ever before when portraying gender. These productions from mass gaming corporations have stepped in pace with the cultural values of its origin. Now, they expand their values on an international level to attract more buyers, so their characterization is even more strict and must appeal to multiple people and cultures fairly. Although games in the past and early days of video games may not correlate with our morals in our present society, gaming businesses desire the consistent buying of their games from fans. In order to keep these fans, they must market to their best interests and ideas. If offered a mass population offense, games surely would not have an easy time selling their products. With that, it is obvious, through research, that video games have kept up with society’s values and striven to do so since Pac-Man met Ms. Pac-Man.
The concept of video games first emerged in the 1940s from the United States. At the World’s Fair that year, Edward U. Conner created Nim, a computer enabling players to gather match sticks against each other (TheStrong). The technology was founded quite early, but character representation and gender along with it would not come for arguably another 40 years. Many would attest that the 1980 Namco Pac-Man achieved the first gender represented game playable character. After being presented to the market in May of 1980, the revolutionary pro-op game was bolted into mainstream media. Although Mr. Pac-Man was presented as a male character, thousands of fans, men and women, gathered to play the game. Just over a year after Pac-man’s creation, Namco paired with two MIT students who had developed enhancement kits for the game. Steve Golson and Dary McCrae worked vigorously on an upgraded development of which would lead to the first playable female character (Edwards). In an interview with “Fast Company”, directly explained how they wanted to “take out all the good in Pac-Man” and enhance it further into Ms. Pac-Man. This female lead video game would contain four mazes appearing at random, more vibrant colors, faster ghosts, and the notorious fruit of which no one is able to capture 100% of the time. Compared to the first version, Pac-Man, the new enhancement kit would prove much more challenging as the original only had the same maze, with varied ghost speeds and dimmer colors. Although in the 1980s the social equality between men and women was not refined as it is today, these games were a direct representation that most men were willing to admit that their woman, like Ms. Pac-man, could be more intellectual than them and also bring beauty and color to their lives as the two games eventually merged into one plotline. Ms. Pac-Man, in her pink bow, could race through four mazes, escape the ghosts, and bring home the fruit for 260 levels, while Pac-man worked at the same mundane level forever. Without the addition to of Ms. Pac-Man, McCrae and Golson stated Pac-Man would grow “boring and tiresome after about a month or two” (Edwards). With the merging of the enhancement kit from the two students, Pac-Man became a love story between the two characters. Although a woman bringing home the fruit dressed in bright colors and red lips is not an accurate representation of gender across the board, it opened the gate for deeper character representation through gender in video games.
Sadly, to follow Lady Pac-Man, there were few strong female roles for the next few years to lead video game culture and even fewer male characters who were not portrayed as overly masculine. In the late 80s video game productions were more concerned with the classic hero saves the damsel in distress or over exaggerated masculinity in characters saving the world. However, at this point in time, video games were not a huge part of culture hardly anywhere. Sales for video game companies in the late 80s, early 90s were dancing between 90-100 million dollars a year. The mid-1990s to early 2000s is where video game culture ignited. At about 1996, sales had tripled, title sells doubled, and both were on a constant rise (Ioana). Prior to this spike, individuals who were not overly masculine men or overly feminine girls had the choices of playing animated games with this green Japanese Dinosaur, Yoshi, this pink and very annoying thing called Kirby, or simply conforming to the social constructs and playing with Barbie or Scorpio. Sadly, video games started out focusing on animation styles and technology, but not what the players desired in a video game. That is, until 1996, when two games and one new gaming style had been released that opened up new doors for character individuality and gender representation; video games correcting themselves in accordance with society.
Tomb Raider was the first of these, released in 1996, it had the first strong female character as the primary focus of the story line. Lara Croft was a badass, gunslinging phenomenon in video game culture. Top-shelf game reviewing corporation, GameSpot, remarked Croft as a “globe-trotting, gun-happy lass” who had “become the matron saint of a new revolution in 3D gaming”. Tomb Raider, opened-up the doors to express new forms of gender representation in video games. Croft had abandoned a posh, British lifestyle in the UK for an adventurous and dangerous way of living (Soete). Before Croft, 12 years prior, the second film of Indiana Jones, was released. Another popular adventurer was to be made into the female version of himself in Tomb Raider. Like Jones, Croft was intelligent and strong willed; she was not the Barbie or Princess Peach in the gaming industry. However, there were immediate and fair complaints about the construction of Croft. The production team was predominantly male and therefore the adventurer was not dressed like Indiana Jones, but was however in practically daisy-dukes, a very tight cloth for a shirt, and overly large breasts. The game began to get a few nasty reviews from many parties a few months after releasing the game. However, as previously stated, the gaming industry has always been a consumer-dependent corporation first, and because of this their first interest is sales. In order to have good sales, you must market well to all sides or at least the majority. So, these companies have always showed a willingness to comply with the demands of the players. Later that very year, Atari opened its doors to female employees to work on the production team to give Croft an appropriate makeover for her adventures. Soon, the game had an expansion released as well as a sequel that featured Croft in a looser tank-top and cargo pants with her hair pulled back and out of the way (Harveston). Due to Atari’s willingness to strive for accurate representation of a strong, independent woman in the jungle, sales were even more successful than the first and many games followed suit and evolved with Tomb Raider’s adjustment.
Following in its footsteps, Final Fantasy Vii, was released in 1988 with several different individuals the player would have to be in the quest-line. The Final Fantasy game series has always remained on the top charts of best sellers, especially in the 90s (Kasavin). The primary focus of these games, according to Game Spot, was “technology, playability, and narrative combined”. For a primarily narrative storyline, with the players mostly participating in travel, puzzles, and combat, several personality types and gender roles must be presented to add an appeal to everyone who the creators believe should buy their game. In Final Fantasy Vii, our main characters are Cloud, the protagonist, Tifa, Cloud’s significant other, and Sephiroth, the antagonist but brother to cloud. Although female representation is a major focus on this argument around game, not every male is a big, buff, martial arts and military master. This game genuinely breaks the mold with its lead male character. BBC News states how early animations, especially Japanese, are discriminatory towards both sides, showing the extremes in features and personality stereotypes. However, the Final Fantasy series was quite ground breaking. Cloud, was a small character, with small muscle tone and heavily clothed (not much armor except for on his shoulder). He was not loud, overzealous, and over masculine. In fact, a YouTube review over the personality types of the game by Lin Tor, describes Cloud as being very “unemotional and matter of fact”. Stating how he goes through “several phases” to display his character development in the story line. Lin Tor, along with a Game Spot review, described Cloud as “introverted” and driven by “deep thought and emotions”. Although he did have to play classic hero and save his wife, Tifa, he certainly did not mind cross-dressing in order to do so. Tifa, having her soft traits and gentle touch, was also quite the butt-kicking queen. Lin Tor described has “extroverted oriented, reliant about actions and experiences”. In many early games, we see the females sit-back and watch the men do the action, but in the Final Fantasy series, Tifa does not (and WILL not) sit back and abstract or simply just watch and play hopeless damsel. She is a dominant character role and focuses on the plan at hand and what exactly needs to be done (Tor). Tifa was not featured with any large physical attributes, was scene in several outfits that were never too revealing, and the player would play with her character almost as much as Cloud. She also certainly did not shy away from the most evil and powerful character, Sephiroth, in hand to hand combat. Sephiroth is a peculiar wonder. In the gameplay, Sephiroth was considered the most elite character and had ascended to a titan-like standing. However, he was not your general strong, evil male villain. The god-like soldier was soft-spoken, a thinker, and a master of the silver tongue. There are no strong gender reviews on the character himself, but every player gets a stronger fear of Sephiroth when he has no need of massive rippling muscles, quick to anger personality, boisterous shouting, or a longing for control. In fact, his only longing is for his stated “mother” and “destruction of the world”.
Surrounding the creation of Final Fantasy, this still ongoing game series was a partner to begin the creation of one of the most revolutionary video game-play styles in history. It was one of the earliest forms of Role-Playing-Games, or RPGs for short. RPGs were a new idea that allowed players to create their game character entirely down to their actions, clothes, hobbies, and what they would say. The first of these was Dungeons and Dragons, but digitally was sparked in video games in the late 80s (Cobbett). Many games wanted to mimic the Dungeons and Dragons game-play style of the close relationship between character and player. The creation of RPG games, allowed players, regardless of gender, to create exactly who they wanted their hero, farmer, villain, or soldier needed to be in that player’s eyes. It required more and more advancements in coding and technologies, pushing these massive gaming companies to expand and constantly advance in their technological endeavors. It would require advancement codes such as IVEs, MLVs, ILEs, and photo-geometrics in the 21st century (Shirey).
With these new technologies, The Elder Scrolls game series developed in the early 90s. Developed by Bethesda Game Studios, the game makers were of many different ethnicities, races, and gender affiliations (Giant Bomb). With such a culturally diverse board, the studio has created some amazing games, including the Fallout and Elder Scrolls game series. These RPGs are video games where the players can completely immerse themselves. In the game-play, the player can create their character exactly to themselves or to their fantasies. Specifically, let’s focus on the number one selling in Bethesda Game Studios, two-time Game of the Year champion, and two-time RPG of the Year champion The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (IMDB). After the creation of video game RPG’s. Skyrim was amongst many in games known as open-world RPG’s, where the playing field was an entire universe free for the player to roam with his or her created character. At the start of the game, the player can create his or her character as male or female, with many races to choose. The players can then adjust every facial and bodily feature of their character down to cheekbone height, weight, eye color, etc. (Cowen). Open-world game-plays have a many number of quests and inner-plot-lines surrounding the main characters story, all of which he or she can take part of. This calls for a large number of non-playable characters, or NPCs for short. Every NPC is customized to an early medieval lifestyle, but all conveying their own personality. In Skyrim, there are very many forms and representations of male and female genders through all ages. These characters are presented not only with different personalities, but also with different body types, social classes, race, and sexuality. Yes, in these open-world games players now have the ability to choose whether their character is gay, straight, lesbian, etc. In Skyrim specifically, you get married by obtaining an Amulet of Mara and asking the question to an NPC you have helped on a quest. The character one can spouse with can be black, white, male, female, or a giant lizard person called an Argonian (Reynolds).
It’s also not just RPGs and MMOs making this adjustment! First Person Shooters and Military games are now in the mix. Black Ops 4: Blackout had several different representations of gender and characterization. For a game so heavily built on its live-multiplayer gameplay, it held a story mode to represent every character. Writers for Forbes claimed this game had a character for everyone who enjoys first-person shooters. In the character list the players can choose from 10 specialist to be and 3 of which are female, and one of which is a lesbian. The owner of the elite squad in the game is also a woman, the world’s first quadrillionaire. Although the odds are not entirely even quite yet, the statistics show that as significant growth and as an attraction to female gamers as they could play with three characters whether they prefer the brute force “Battery” or the computer hacking genius “Seraph” (Conditt, 2014). Though it still is small, it shows that even the most masculine of gaming industries are adjusting for their gamers.
Games productions such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fallout, Black Ops 4, the Final Fantasy series, and much more have changed the entire realm of gaming. Not only is it an RPG, but also a free realm, open-world concept game. These games enable players for self-expression in the worlds and stories they love, despite gender, race, or sexuality. According to Engadget, the number of gamers since the creation of RPGs has spiked exponentially for both genders. In a report in 2014, RPG free-realm games were the 2nd most purchased and 53.6% were male gamers and the 46.4% were female (Conditt). The numbers are now more equal than ever before in gaming history due to the technological advancements, and that of corporate monopolies in gaming actually adhering to feedback from their consumers. Even so, just as these productions have in the past, continuous improvements are being created due to consumer involvement and technological advancements. “ESO”, the Elder Scrolls’ official YouTube has shed light on the future games coming to play in the next few years from Bethesda Game Studios. Bethesda has currently been working with a brand-new game coding technique Nintendo recently developed, “Photo-Geometrics” (ESO). The new device allows game makers to use actual people and take a series of photographs to completely animate every inch of a person’s body and use it to animate motion. Shirley Curry, “The Skyrim Grandma”, was the first to undergo photo-geometrics for Bethesda. The elderly woman and Skyrim fanatic, has been taken through the steps to where her character mimics her perfectly in the game play (ESO). If a company were to use this for the majority of NPCs in their open-world, RPG, MMO game then the discrepancy between misrepresentation between genders, bodies, and race would almost be entirely eliminated in the world of gaming because those NPCs would be animations of a living diverse group of selected/volunteered people.
Video games have only been around for nearly half a century, but they have been criticized many times for their misrepresentation of gender. There have been many claims that because of a mostly male populated staff and production team, modern video games have been labelled as unfair to women and other sexualities and genders. Although this still occurs today, the argument is outdated and has no longer kept pace or been fair to the current developments and improvements in the video game industry on an international level. Due to further research, studies, news reviews, corporation reviews, and customer reviews, video games today are more accurate than ever before when conveying these topics in their story-lines and characters. Video Games have rapidly grossed to be one of the most influential media tools to youths and adolescents, and because of this, video games must consistently rewrite and make amends to the values of their games in order to keep them on an equal standard as society. More than most big-business companies, the gaming industries must adjust to customer reviews. In fact, they embrace negative and positive reviews; this is exactly why the “rate this app” pops up whenever an individual has downloaded a new game to their device. These companies desire is sales, and as the rise for equal gender representation came about, video game industries are forced to appeal to these views. With the help of technology like photo-geometrics, revolutionary game concepts like RPG free-realms, and a diverse staff like in Bethesda Game Studios has led to the near depletion of gender representation in modern video games.
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