Playable female video game characters have become less sexualized in recent years, according to a new study that complicates narratives about how women are represented in the medium.
The paper, “Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years,” examines how women have appeared in 571 video games from the early 1980s through 2014. It found that sexualization peaked in the 1990s, when three-dimensional graphics became the norm, and has trended downward in recent years.
“We attribute this decline to an increasing female interest in gaming coupled with the heightened criticism levied at the industry’s male hegemony,” the study’s authors write.
The findings are anything but straightforward, though. It’s true that playable, “primary” female characters have become less sexualized over time. But non-playable, “secondary” female characters still tend to be objectified. And the study found that more often than not, when women do appear in games, they’re secondary characters, not primary ones.
The study also found that women are as sexualized in games rated “Teen,” for ages 13 and up, as they are in “Mature” games for people over 16 years old.
“Our findings indicate that children who play video games likely encounter sexualized imagery prior to adulthood,” the authors write. “This may indicate that video games have normalized sexualization of female characters across audiences of varying ages.”
So, all in all, the data doesn’t lend itself to easy conclusions. Sexualization may be decreasing overall, but women still aren’t represented equally in video games, and they’re commonly objectified in games targeted at younger audiences.
The analysis is remarkable in that it observes video games across genres and budgets over a substantial period of time. While you might visualize modern AAA titles like “Assassin’s Creed” or “Mass Effect” when you think of video games, the medium is much more diverse, with an extensive history acknowledged by this study.
Teresa Lynch, a Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University who led the research, said the findings disrupt conventional thinking about female video game characters.
“Part of the reason that we believe previous analyses have painted such a dismal picture of female representation in games is because they’ve sampled only top-selling games,” Lynch wrote in an email to The Huffington Post.
“When people think of what female characters look like in games, they’re often thinking of those found in AAA titles and on top 10 lists because these are prominent figures in games, they’re recognizable, sometimes staples of a series,” she added. “These characters disproportionately skew perceptions of the industry’s styling of female characters because they’re visible and, often, popular.”
Researchers established precise criteria to measure sexualization in video games, assigning variables for accentuation of a character’s buttocks, bare midriffs and so on. They collected data by watching five-minute gameplay clips on YouTube, avoiding marketing materials and non-playable cinematic sequences.
That’s not to suggest promotional images don’t play a role in how people perceive video games ― but such images were beyond the scope of this study.
“Advertisements, for instance, seem to exaggerate characters’ physical features in ways that aren’t always consistent with how they appear in the gameplay,” Lynch said Wednesday in a press release about the research.
Take “Tomb Raider,” for example. A 1997 “pinup” feature in the magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly depicted the original game’s hero, Lara Croft, in a swimsuit that exposed a lot of her body. While the character was sexualized in the game, as the study indicates, her actual, polygonal representation bore little resemblance to these promotional renders:
One limiting factor to the study’s approach is that the data was gathered from observing video clips. Video games are interactive, and this approach can’t account for how players might interact with a character over time.
“This is certainly not a one-stop, be-all-end-all study,” Lynch told HuffPost. “We have limitations, and our goal was never to say that sexy characters are all bad or that there is no circumstance in which sexualization is appropriate. Given the richness of game environments alongside the potentially powerful roles these female characters fill, there are tons of ways in which the context can influence perceptions of these characters.”