The video game industry is a significant one, with a large social impact due to its expansion, particularly with the widespread use of smartphones. It also provides content communicating with its users through several elements of attraction, which makes it easy for the user to be affected by this content. Video games are also the most attractive medium for teenagers and young people, surpassing other media like TV, so it has a great effect on the genesis of active members of society in the near future.
The relationship between video games and gender has been scientifically studied for a long time. Researchers have studied many aspects of this relationship. Video games depend on attracting users by offering virtual environments in which they can get immersed for a long time. In many of these games, users live through dramatic storylines of the lives of characters who go through different experiences and relationships with other characters.
Gender identities of these characters are an important aspect of their stories that users of these games experience. These virtual identities reflect in behaviors and preferences that the users may identify with as far as they are immersed in the game. This makes video games an important source of gender representation that users can adopt and build their gender assumptions around.
Historically, video games were marketed in a way that targeted male users, as games introduced male heroes and topics related traditionally to masculinity. This led to a skewed representation of gender in video games.
Many studies have focused on gender representation in video games, highlighting the differences in roles, attire, and behavior between male and female characters in these games. Studies found that male characters are represented as heroic and powerful, usually in military uniforms, while female characters play secondary roles, are less empowered, and wear revealing clothes.
Gender differences in video games preferences have also been the focus of many studies that have shown that boys tend to prefer games that highlight physical strength like sports, fighting, and shooting games. On the other hand, girls tend to prefer classic puzzles and card games. The studies have also found that boys are more likely to play games not suitable for their age than girls.
The way women are represented in video games has been the subject of much criticism. Female characters, in such games, are always stereotyped and sexualized. Representations of gender in video games extend beyond the characters themselves. Some studies have focused on gender patterns in video game advertisements and in specialized magazine articles. These studies have shown that magazine articles also show male characters as heroic and powerful, while female characters are always objectified.
The studies have also addressed the experiences of women and girls gamers and their role in video games culture. These studies highlighted the growing phenomenon of women and girls playing video games and the need to further examine the symptoms of psychological problems related to this practice.
The studies also explored the stereotypical perceptions and prejudices that female players face in the video games community, including the perception that they are less feminine, anti-social, and not as good gamers as their male counterparts.
This paper seeks to cover as many of these aspects as possible, providing a comprehensive picture of the intersection of gender with video games. The paper also highlights the need to address many of the negative aspects that are still prevalent in both the video games industry and the content it provides, as well as in the gamers community and the sexism and misogyny prevalent in it.
Video Games Industry: Size and Social Impact
What are video games?
Video games is the most common term that is used to describe several types of electronic and digital entertainment applications. Such applications first appeared in the 1950s. Early video games were not digital and did not run on computers, but rather on electronic machines similar to old TV sets. The first digital video game dates back to the early sixties. It was developed on IBM’s PDP-1, which is a mainframe computer. The game’s name was “Space War”.
Video games evolved quickly over the following decades, especially as PCs emerged and spread in the 1980s. Video games had huge popularity since the beginning, thus they had a significant impact on the growth and development of the computing industry. The need for computers capable of processing and displaying 3D graphics specifically to develop more engaging games, in particular, led to the rapid development of specialized Graphics Processing Units (GPUs).
The technical requirements of video games have also led to the manufacturing of specialized devices called Game Consoles. Although PCs have developed a lot and have been used extensively for playing games, there is still a large market for specialized game consoles such as PlayStation and Xbox.
Size and Growth Trajectories of the Video Games Industry
The video games industry has grown tremendously throughout the last decade. Its market value is expected to reach $3.6 billion in 2025. The global video games market size was estimated to be around $195.65 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow by 12.9% (CAGR), in the years 2022-2030.
With new innovations in the fields of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and Metaverse technology, the video games industry is expected to witness great development that would change many of its characteristics. Artificial intelligence in particular has already brought waves of upgrades to the video games industry. It has particularly changed the way games are played.
AI-based games allow personalized experiences tailored to each player, so the game matches the playing style of its player. AI can also produce content in real time to create new challenges and storylines, keeping players immersed in the game for a much longer time.
Social impact of video games
Video games had great impacts on society for decades. Many modern games teach lessons of life that might help players become better members of society. For instance, video games may improve people’s capacity for making decisions, which affects society as a whole in the long run.
Video games have also changed the way other media are produced and consumed, including music, movies, and others. It has become usual that movies are produced based on storylines of successful video games.
In the area of mental health, video games may improve mental activities, including problem-solving skills, and space and direction awareness. Many studies, however, have proved a link between excessive use of video games and anti-social behaviors like insulation, low human face-to-face interaction, and avoidance of direct interaction with others.
Many studies have also shown that playing more violent games tends to encourage more aggressive behaviors and emotions, as well as becoming more easily provoked. Violent video games also lead to a tendency to being less social. On the other hand, one of the benefits of video games is improving self-satisfaction. According to some surveys, 40% of gamers said video games make them feel better about themselves.
How Do Game Developers Take Gender Into Consideration?
Target audience gender assumptions
For a long time, the video games industry was predominantly a field of heteronormative males developing games for themselves and for other heteronormative males as well. Even in our time, this hasn’t changed a lot, although throughout the last two decades at least, the percentage of women and girls playing games has increased tremendously. Their numbers today are almost equivalent to the numbers of men.
It can, however, be said that the video games industry has shaped its traditions depending on the assumption of a targeted audience of males, either teenagers or young men, and specifically heteronormative.
Gender stereotypes in games design
Being oriented toward an audience of heteronormative males and more so through specific traditional stereotypes of what satisfies their imagination makes video games more likely to reinforce typical gender stereotypes.
Video games often tend to promote male players’ feelings of power and freedom to have whatever they want. On the other hand, the design choices in video games for female characters reflect masculinity contradiction, oscillating between the stereotypical images of the innocent damsel in need, seeking male protection and saving from the predicaments she is vulnerable to, and the strong independent woman who seeks to exploit males and ultimately eliminate them.
Excluding the game’s main character from being a woman is the first design decision that entails restricting female characters to secondary roles, which means less interest in adding any depth to these characters. This includes that female characters’ share of dialogue is very limited and in most cases insignificant in the development of the game’s events.
Generally speaking, female characters in video games receive much less attention from designers regarding their agencies and abilities. On the other hand, designers focus on their appearance in terms of physical characteristics and attire. While interested in these aspects, they ignore logical consistency in terms of how suitable are they to the context of the game or its other details.
Gender in video games marketing
The advertising and marketing industry has always had clear gender targeting policies, so it is not surprising that the industry’s policy for marketing video games is that they are mainly male-oriented products. This is reflected in the fact that advertising materials for video games tend to highlight aspects related to violence and sexual arousal.
Video games marketing content often uses the female element in an over-sexualized image, even if this does not represent the reality of the marketed game content. As a result, video games marketing content often alienates women who either do not identify with the female characters presented in such content, or feel offended by the reduction of women to the sexual aspect of their identities.
Women Characters in Video Games
Gender discrimination is quite obvious in the way women characters are presented in video games. There is a large gap between the way men characters are presented compared to women characters.
Men characters of different types are the majority in video games. Particularly, the number of female characters that players can choose to play through is very limited. Accordingly, in addition to having a small number of female characters, most of these characters are non-playable characters (NPC), which in principle means that they are secondary and often decorative characters. In most games that revolve around one main character, this character is a man, and until not long ago, it was rare for the main character to be a woman.
Men characters receive most designers’ attention, and thus these characters often have depth. Being the main characters that players use most of the time to play through, designers are interested in giving them many positive qualities, or at least favorable aspects of the stereotypical perceptions of men.
Men’s characters tend to be heroic, adventurous, strong, intelligent and possess multiple abilities and different skills. In contrast, female characters receive little attention in terms of their behavioral and mental characteristics, and they are mostly one-dimensional characters confined to traditional stereotypical perceptions of women in general. They are mainly presented as weak and in constant need of men’s help.
The only aspect that receives attention from designers when it comes to female characters is physical qualities and appearance. The focus is on emphasizing sources of seduction and sexual attraction by exaggerating certain physical features. In addition, the female characters’ clothing is chosen so that it reveals the largest possible area of their bodies, regardless of how appropriate this is for the role they are supposed to play in the game’s plot or the surrounding circumstances.
This trend in designing the physical characteristics and appearance of female characters in video games results in the objectification and over-sexualization of these characters. What is meant by objectification is that these characters lack any human depth and are mere objects whose purpose is limited to sexual arousal. Over-sexualization means confining women to the sexual aspect of their identity. These two phenomena extend beyond physical characteristics and appearance to the behavior of female characters and the roles they play.
Women and Video Games Community
Women’s experiences in the video games community
Throughout recent years, women have become part and parcel of the video games communities. This is despite the fact that their experiences and contributions have been overlooked, ignored, or marginalized most of the time. Recent studies have shed light on the various ways that women used to get involved in gamers communities and the challenges they have faced in the process.
An important aspect of women’s experiences in gamers communities is the way they embody the video gamer identity. Studies have shown that women’s gaming preferences are personal and contextual, rather than specifically gendered. Women who play video games are a diverse group and their identities as gamers can be embodied in multiple ways. This challenges the idea that there is a “female gamer” in the singular, and it highlights the importance of recognizing the individual autonomy of every woman in gamers community.
However, it is important to acknowledge that women in video game player communities constantly face gender stereotypes and forms of discrimination against them. Stereotypes prevalent in the gaming community can support gender perceptions that discourage women’s participation in gamers communities. Female gamers may also experience negative interactions and harassment from other players within online multiplayer games and in gamers communities.
As the number of women in gaming communities increases, many have begun to discuss the way women are represented in these games. This debate usually leads to polarization among members of these communities. The way women are represented in video games is a constant cause of dissatisfaction for most and is responsible for much of the objectification and marginalization that women face in gaming communities.
While the increasing number of female gamers has led to the emergence of a movement in the video game industry towards a more pluralistic and inclusive representation of women in these games, this movement is facing fierce resistance from a large number of gamers. These players are directing their anger due to changes in the industry at women in the gaming communities.
Despite the challenges that women face in gaming communities, they try to make a meaningful contribution to these communities. Studies have shown that female players are actively involved in building networks of like-minded people and creating supportive communities. Female gamers also play important roles in developing and supporting independent games. Women gamers have been instrumental in challenging the status quo in the gaming industry and advocating for more inclusive and diverse gaming experiences.
It should be noted that women’s experiences in gamers communities can vary based on factors including cultural context and individual backgrounds. For example, studies have shown that women negotiate their identities as gamers in the face of dominant discourse among gamers, highlighting both the challenges and opportunities available to women in gaming communities.
Misogyny, violence against women, and gaming communities
Several incidents highlighted the prevalence of misogyny and the tendency to practice forms of violence against women among males in gaming communities. These incidents always revolve around criticisms made by feminists and other women of the way women are represented by female characters in video games.
In many cases, women who have voiced these criticisms have faced vicious waves of attacks, harassment, and rape and death threats by groups of gamers in a quasi-organized efforts to silence these critical voices.
The recurring phenomena that confirm the spread of misogyny and the tendency to engage in violence against women among gamers cannot be separated from the prevailing patterns of representing gender in these games. There is a cycle of feed and feedback that results in a continuous reinforcement of the sexism of many video games and the sexism of some players of these games. The result of this is a kind of subculture for these players that is doubly sexist and misogynistic.
Psychological and Behavioral Impacts of Video Games
Psychological and developmental impacts of video games on girls
The psychological effects of video games on girls and young women have been the subject of several studies recently. Many studies have explored different aspects of this topic, including the impact of video game content, the way gender is represented in video games, and the social dynamics in gaming communities.
Studies have shown that the tendency of many video games to represent women in an over-sexualized manner can contribute to negative psychological effects on female players. It has been found that exposure to over-sexualized female characters in video games may lead to self-objectification and feelings of lower levels of self-efficacy among female gamers. This can have a significant impact on female players’ self-esteem and their mental health in general.
In addition, the representation of women as passive or submissive can reinforce stereotypical gender perceptions and contribute to the marginalization of women in gaming communities, and this has a psychological impact on female gamers who want to find their place in these communities.
The predominance of violence against women in video games is another aspect that has a significant psychological impact on female gamers. Studies have shown a relationship between exposure to violent video games and negative behavioral tendencies toward women, as well as increased aggressive behavior. The sexual objectification of women and violence against them in video games may contribute to the normalization of these behaviors, which may have a lasting impact on female gamers, especially young girls.
The prevailing environment in gaming communities, in turn, has an important impact on girls’ psychology, as female gamers face harassment and discrimination, including sexual harassment, in these communities. This can lead to psychological stress, physical pain, and mental health problems. Negative experiences and hostile environments can lead girls to not fully participate in gaming and contribute to feelings of exclusion and alienation.
Psychological and developmental impacts on boys and young men
Teen boys and young men live through video games in a world where they are at the center due only to being males before anything else. This reinforces a deep psychological and mental link between self-valuation and masculinity. It also reinforces a feeling of gender worth that contradicts with reality. The excessive exposure to violence in general and violence against women, in particular, generated a tendency to see gender violence as the norm and as being justified in different situations.
This paper has sought to offer a comprehensive picture of the multi-forked and complex relationship between video games and gender. In conclusion, video games create a virtual world that revolves around a single center, which is the heteronormative male.
It is obvious that video games designers seek to attract male players by making this virtual world satisfy their desires and wildest dreams. This is reflected in designing women characters that usually appear weak, negative, and over-sexualized.
While this prevailing image in video games certainly has an impact on reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes in society, it is important not to overlook the fact that the relationship between this image and the prevailing gender stereotypes in society is a reciprocal one. Video games designers don’t simply fabricate gender stereotypes out of thin air. Instead, they express openly the implicit assumptions in the prevailing culture that is still full of discrimination against women, even as it tries on the surface to alleviate this discrimination.
Demands for more inclusive video games that cater to the different preferences of their players along the whole gender spectrum are indeed necessary. But succeeding in changing the video games industry tangibly and as compatible as it can be with gender equality values is not going to be achieved unless the whole society has gone through a real change where misogyny and discrimination against women have disappeared and full equality and real respect for gender differences have prevailed.