December 27 2011
There is almost no element of our lives that isn't shaped in some way by our gender, from the toys we play with as children to the careers we pursue as adults. Like most forms of media, games tend to reflect many of the social norms surrounding gender, and in some cases they could be said to perpetuate negative gender stereotypes. Is the portrayal of gender in games a problem, and if so, what could be done to resolve it?
Although video games continue to reach an ever-broader demographic of people, it has traditionally been a male-dominated hobby, and it goes without saying that sex sells to that male audience. I'm convinced that without teenage male hormones, games like Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball would simply never get made, given that they're every bit as much about jiggly avatars as they are about volleyball - a point often driven home by their advertising campaigns. I doubt we will ever see a day when sex isn't used to sell to male consumers. Even if the vast majority of gamers were female, we would still see products featuring scantily clad women targetted at the male portion of the audience.
It should be noted that are many popular games that don't attempt to exploit sex for sales. The Sims, which seems to appeal to men and women in roughly equal numbers, is one of the best examples of this, but there are also a lot of games that don't have any representations of gender in them. Perhaps more pertinent to the issue is how women are portrayed when they are part of the game.
It's natural to ask whether games can or should be designed to be more appealing to female gamers. In fact, there are already quite a few games targetting women, particularly when it comes to casual offerings and Facebook games. Clearly, a game aimed strictly at women is going to look very different from a game aimed at men. On one end you've got something along the lines of Dream Day Wedding, on the other you've got Call of Duty. Sure, you could make a game with muscular men running around in tights, but if all they do is shoot at each other it probably won't go over that well with women. It's a safe bet that, unlike men, most women will opt for a game with ponies over a game with guns.
Of course, the real challenge is to appeal to both genders equally, although I don't think anyone has come up with the magic recipe for that yet in any form of media. On the bright side, the game industry is gradually changing, as is the consumer, and there is a growing recognition of the potential revenue to be made by reaching the female portion of the audience. Again, market forces will ultimately determine the content of big-budget games in much the same way that they dictate the kind of movies and television shows that get made. We can hope that over time both the consumer and the product will grow a little more mature, but I'd wager that female avatars in bikini armor will be part of the gaming landscape for a long time to come.