Violence and Stereotypes of Women in Video Games

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During one of our frequent conversations on Facebook, Nerd of the Sands made me aware of the latest video by Anita Sarkeesian on female tropes in video games. As a female gamer, I have always enjoyed her videos. Women make up 48% of habitual gamers and it’s ridiculous to me that there is still so much animosity towards women in the industry. I can’t tell you how many horror stories I’ve heard from female gamers and especially from women aiming for a career in video game development. Even without those stories, you need look no further than the comments Sarkeesian gets on her videos to see what a loud minority of gamers think about women. With all that said, I couldn’t make it through Sarkeesian’s latest video.

Titled “Women as Background Decoration: Part 2,” this latest video (what I saw of it) goes into how women are objectified as part of the scenery of the game. As dead bodies, they are often displayed in provocative positions. To push the story forward, they are often attacked, beaten, raped or killed. Rape and sexual assault are my top fears. I find it hard to watch scenes where people are literally raped before my eyes. The constant footage of women screaming, being attacked and/or killed was too much for me. When I closed the video, a question came to me. Did those images bother me because I don’t play games like that or did they bother me because I’d never seen so many back to back?

The video opens with a clip from Assassin’s Creed, a game I do play. The fact that women make up the majority of beggars and harassed citizens in the street has not escaped my notice. Keep in mind, it is not the violence alone that bothers me. Video games often involve overcoming some dangerous, dire challenge. They are action movies you can play. Fighting is part of the experience. The fact that women are the victims of violence doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that men are not equal victims of violence.

This photo, “damsel in distress 1” is copyright (c) 2014 Steven Damron and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license
This photo, “damsel in distress 1” is copyright (c) 2014 Steven Damron and made available under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license

I’ve been looking at the games I play this week. With free time limited, the titles I play don’t move far beyond Final Fantasy and Assassin’s Creed. In middle school and high school, there was an awesome demolition derby game I loved along with a Crash Bandicoot game. I don’t feel like violence against women was ever used in excess to move any of those stories forward.

Let me clarify that, in real life violence against women is unacceptable. I’m sorry, I have to amend that again. In real life, violence against anyone is unacceptable. Unless you are currently in danger, there is no need for violence (and, of course, the actions of the one threatening or attacking you are unacceptable).

In a video game, I anticipate that many of my challenges may involve violence because of a villain’s violent act towards my characters. Never have I felt like women are unjustly targeted (with the exception of those background Assassin’s Creed victims. I’ve only played the first game, though).

Here’s an example. My favorite video game is Final Fantasy IX. The game opens with plans to kidnap the princess. Tables are turned when the princess then demands to be kidnapped and takes control of her situation. While she has a lot of feminine qualities, she is also one of the strongest people in the game. She’s determined, she fights and she’s a key character. Any violence against her does not mark her as a background character because she plays a significant role in the plot.

Since I couldn’t finish Anita Sarkeesian’s video, I’m not sure what her key arguments are. I’m sure she makes some points I agree with and some I don’t. Nonetheless, I am happy she is here to start this much needed conversation.

I don’t think violent video games make people violent, but I do think they can perpetuate stereotypes. For example, a person who plays a video game where it is seen as normal to beat a woman accused of infidelity might be more likely to think a woman beaten in real life for that accusation has gotten what she deserves. Another possibility is that people who play games where most violence is against women already have opinions on women that justify that violence to them. My boyfriend loves war games, Battlefield being his favorite. Women are not being beaten and killed in that game – everyone is. Everyone is wearing similar armor. Female bodies aren’t laying provocatively on the ground.

While I think Sarkeesian is starting a welling-meaning and important discussion, I’m doubting her examination after watching this video. I’d been wondering if the games I’ve been playing have objectified, belittled and abused women without my notice. While Sarkeesian appeared to have endless examples, I found it hard to find many in the games I play. What KiteTales has to say about Princess Peach and Zelda moved me.

Yes, there are issues we should discuss when it comes to gender representation across all media, including video games. However much I like Sarkeesian’s videos, I’m starting to think she is only choosing games that support her theory. I’d give her arguments more weight if she discussed games working against her theory.

I’m am left wondering about KiteTales video. When we play games like Mario or Zelda, how much of out impression of non-playable female characters is based on our own ideas of gender roles? If a character is non-playable, does that erase any ability they have to play a significant role? What is more concerning, how women are treated in video game worlds or the lack of video games that feature women as main characters?


14 thoughts on “Violence and Stereotypes of Women in Video Games”

  1. When I was growing up I was lucky enough to have an uncle who knew something about videogames, and he gave me Metal Gear Solid. I count Meryl as one of my early female idols. Even though she wasn’t playable and got beat up, she was strong. So very very strong. While these good examples of female characters are few and far between, that’s what I remember from my video games. Yes, the video games industry needs to mature beyond expecting their market to be made up of stereotypes of teenage boys. But I think we’ll get there. Women’s portrayal in film, tv and novels have become incredibly versatile, and even though a lot of the blockbusters still cater to old stereotypes, they aren’t remembered. We remember the stories that challenge the stereotype. Yes, the situation is disconcerting, but I’m hopeful for the future 🙂

    1. And there are just so many examples of strong female characters in video games. I theorize there might be as many strong female characters as male characters. Now if we could just get those strong characters to be playable ^_^

  2. Hmm. I am wary of this debate. i have seen it descend into name calling too many times. I do see the point, and of course I see a need to make female characters in games more acceptable. I do wonder if female characters in games that are good don’t get enough of a mention? Aries in FF7 was one of my favourites. FF10.2 was an all female cast, and yes, I know they were dressed scantily, but as characters they were awesome. And what about games where you can choose the character you play? I am thinking of Saints Row. You can create how your character looks, how they dress, how they sound. I always played the female characters because the voice acting was much better. I didn’t dress them up sluttily. The best costume was the presidential suit. I am saying all this because I think finding a middle ground is the best way to discuss something. With the internet as it is, it is so easy for arguments to start, and do they really get us anywhere? And I agree with you about Sarkeesian. She has a lot of examples of the bad, but I think there are a lot of good examples, she dismisses because it does not fit with her argument.

    1. She’s great only because she’s putting the discussion out there. I would say she has no point if the comments provided honest rebuttals. Instead, her videos get horrible comments, often targeting her specifically because of her gender. If nothing else, that alone tells us there is at least a loud minority of gamers who don’t see women as equal. Right now, as I sit here, my boyfriend is playing Destiny. There is guns, violence and all that, but not once have I seen a woman specifically used and/or targeting for her gender.

      I don’t really have a problem with violence against women in video games because games are often a hero’s struggle, which often involves violence. I have a problem with violence only against women. It’s not like there aren’t some questionable games out there, but I’m under the impression that violence specifically against women is minor (but I’m only looking at the games I play and the games my circle of friends play). What annoys me most is that women aren’t always playable. That’s getting better, though.

  3. That was a great post, though I recommend you finish the video entirely to get her point.

    And as a male gamer playing male-centric games assuming very masculine characters in worlds where women play unessential roles, I can say that she may be on to something.

    Women are victims of violence in games, they are background characters that serve no role except as eye candy.

    But so are men. Her examples are very narrow-sighted and cherry picking examples to make her point, which is very sexist when you think about it. Equality implies neutrality, no one side should be elevated over the other. If I played a female Argonian slicing the heads of Male guards in Skyrim, isn’t that the same as playing GTA character killing female NPCs?

    Sexism IS present, but not to women exclusively. Men are objectified so much in other media outside gaming, that insecure male teens fail to interact with females because of the standards set by women. BUT note that it does go both ways.

    The problem with sexism that leads to misogyny and androgyny is that we think it’s all the fault of one side. It’s not. And Anita is just as guilty of being a sexist as any other person.

    1. Part of her point wasn’t just that women are victims of violence in video games. She also mentioned how violence towards both sexes are different. In a game where violence against men and women is near equal, the dead bodies of women are more likely to be displayed provocatively than the bodies of men. That is something to think about. I just have my doubt that the sexist violence is so rampant as she implies. I’ve played a lot of games and watched a lot of people play other games and have rarely seen the kind of images she constantly shows in the video.

      Men are objectified in their own way, but we’re not discussing other media, we’re discussing video games.You could say that the macho look of lead male characters objectifies men. I’d accept that. There certainly are men who develop eating disorder and such due to societal pressures. I hardly think you can call that misogyny, though, because it comes from the same place as pressure on women.

      I’ve discussed on this blog a few times my idea that patriarchy isn’t so much about whether or not you have a penis as it is about masculinity. Anyone, male, female or otherwise, who does not display typical masculine traits is seen as less than feminine traits. As such, a man who does not appear physically strong will not be treated the same as one who does. A man who like pink, enjoys fashion or dares to share his emotions will be looked down upon for displaying non-masculine traits. It’s a shame these things aren’t discussed more often in feminism. They may not be as big of problems as those that affect women, but that doesn’t make them something to be ignored.

      1. point taken. though I think it should be recognized that as far as video games are concerned, sexism in both sides do exist.

        My view stems from a common misunderstanding that women are typecasted into objectified roles, when there are a good number of cases that it isn’t true (you gave FF9 as an example, a game I enjoyed and loved), and that whatever examples Anita used were cherry picked to display a bias on her argument. Like Saints Row, where you don’t just kill female hookers with phalic weapons, but you can kill male strippers as a female dominatrix as well.

        I think a better dialogue between both sides should happen to have better games that don’t favor either sex.

        But Anita refuses feedback, which is understandable given that majority of male gamers would immediately be toxic towards her given the chance. It’s like a disturbing positive feedback loop the re-enforces sexism with more sexism. Which is sad.

        So yeah, it is a shame that you can’t have a discussion about this and not have one side claim foul.

        1. But even her examples are flawed, as the video I included here points out. Many women, while they may be background characters, do play significant roles. Which I why I’m more concerned about women being playable characters, but that’s getting better.

          “But Anita refuses feedback, which is understandable given that majority of male gamers would immediately be toxic towards her given the chance. It’s like a disturbing positive feedback loop the re-enforces sexism with more sexism. Which is sad.”

          This is what I mean by patriarchy perpetuating masculinity – not men in general. We can’t talk about this issue. If someone would have left a thoughtful comment about sexism against men or kindly rebuttal her arguments, we might have seen something. But, the patriarchy that worships masculinity won’t allow that to happen. To admit to being oppressed is weak – is feminine (as in, a feminine trait, not exclusive to females).

          I guess what I’m trying to get at is that there isn’t some hidden agenda for matriarchy that causes us to ignore sexism against men. It’s that the patriarchy refuses to acknowledge that such feminine traits and struggles are also men’s. Because men are supposed to be masculine. Men are supposed to be, act and do certain things because they are masculine. I do see this discussion inching its way into gender equality discussions, which is good. The pressure for men to be “manly men” is just as destructive as many of the messages girls get.

          1. I agree. There is some gender bias that is the root of all this. So my thesis: “Should gender roles be accepted?” Sometimes, denying roles that make society work for the sake of equality could be the reason why sexism exist. I guess I’m suggesting that accepting the difference between genders is the best way to tackle sexism.

            Though, also yes you are right, this isn’t the forum to discuss this topic in-depth and should be explored in a more appropriate setting.

  4. She does, thankfully, come up with some examples of good games, toward the end. It was a rough episode. Maybe if she had details on how prevalent the more egregious games were, it would help. Lots of games can be “bestselling”, but how do they compare to the rest of the market?

    1. I looked up a list of the top selling games of all time. Most are Nintendo games and most have many playable female characters to choose from. I haven’t seen a study, but most of the games I play and that my friends play don’t have scenes like she showed.

  5. “I don’t think violent video games make people violent, but I do think they can perpetuate stereotypes. For example, a person who plays a video game where it is seen as normal to beat a woman accused of infidelity might be more likely to think a woman beaten in real life for that accusation has gotten what she deserves. Another possibility is that people who play games where most violence is against women already have opinions on women that justify that violence to them.”

    I can see the potential for exposure to violence from not just video games but from movies and books to potentially lead someone to do more violence in real life. It leads me to wonder whether or not I should be watching or playing certain things or whether I should promote them in any way.

    But at the same time, I didn’t turn into a violent person even though I have seen much violence, so maybe there is an element of choice. What do you think causes people to become violent?

    In my time playing video games, I got really tired of rescuing princesses. There was one game where a woman rescued a prince, but that kind of thing is rare.

    1. Games have expanded far from the ‘save the princess’ thing. Those princesses have become more dynamic and playable, if they exist. I personally prefer a game with great character development, story and gameplay. It’s why I’m so drawn to Final Fantasy.

      I do think there is an element of choice in violence. Violence has existed for a long time. Our society is actually far less violent than in the past. I think blaming any form of media on violence is just an excuse.

      1. I don’t think that all media is entirely to blame for violence, but I would have to disagree that our society is less violent than in the past.

        I certain did enjoy the Final Fantasy games. I used to have the first game for NES.

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