Video games aren’t a boys club. Recently the Entertainment Software Association released a study showing that adult women actually make up 36 percent of the gamer population—while adult men and teenage boys surprisingly lag behind at 35 percent and just 17 percent.
But the game industry is lagging behind too, and that’s where Feminist Frequency steps in. Produced by media critic Anita Sarkeesian, Feminist Frequency is a video series dedicated to talking about just how women are represented in video games–with a specific focus on harmful stereotypes and tropes.
Here’s Feminist Frequency’s question: if women are increasingly the majority of gamers, why are games overwhelmingly packed with sexualized female bodies? Why are depictions of women in video games essentially limited to playthings and victims?
In her latest episode, “The Women as Background Decoration Trope,” Sarkeesian notes the proliferation of “insignificant non-playable female characters whose sexuality or victimhood is exploited as a way to infuse edgy, gritty or racy flavoring into game worlds,” with the object of “titillating presumed straight male players.”
While studies on the cognitive effects of video games have primarily focused on the potential link between violent games and violent behavior in general, the authors of “Do Stereotypic Images in Video Games Affect Attitudes and Behavior?” published in Children, Youth and Environments, want to take that a step further. They’re interested particularly in one of the less documented consequences: the affect of negative gender stereotypes on gamers.
They note that researchers in the past have produced plenty of documentation of the “negatively stereotyped gender images (Dietz 1998; Dill et al. 2005),” in video games, including “females in submissive, sexually exploitive roles—as busty, brainless, victims of aggression (Provenzo 2000).” Some games even “portray and even reward sexualized violence towards women without emphasizing any negative consequences to the perpetrator.”
While gender stereotypes can start as early as preschool—trucks versus dolls, pink versus blue (Killen et al. 2001), social psychologists say that gender stereotypes about adult gender roles and sexuality are formed during adolescence. And they fear that exposure to these stereotypic expectations can lead to “discriminatory behavior and attitudes in adulthood (Dovidio et al. 1996; Dovidio, Glick, and Rudman 2005).”
And it looks like that played out last week, when in response to the latest Feminist Frequency episode, online harassment from male, self-described “real gamers”—including threats of physical harm to her and her family— actually drove Sarkeesian out of her home.
Happily, Feminist Frequency’s new video has been widely praised and shared. Better yet, the threats Sarkeesian has endured have lead to an outpouring of support and calls for change in the industry. Recently, indie game designer Andreas Zecher wrote an open letter to the gaming industry, calling on gamers and developers alike to take a public stand against hateful, harassing speech in the gaming community.
He declares, “We believe that everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened.” To date, the letter has close to a thousand signatures—and counting.