A new Indiana University study analyzing in-game content from 571 titles released between 1983 and 2014 finds female video game protagonists are increasingly less likely to be sexualized. The decline began around almost 10 years ago, and may potentially be attributed to the increased criticism of how women are portrayed in games, combined with more interest from women in playing video games.
Teresa Lynch, a Ph.D. candidate in The Media School at IU and the study’s lead author, explains that she and her colleagues created the study to “look at whether the trend of sexualizing female characters was stable over time, whether it’s always existed and whether we’d see any changes as a consequence of some of the livelier social media conversations that have been happening and some of the critiques levied at the gaming industry.”
To analyze the data, they focused on playable female characters only, and observed four areas of their bodies-the chest, buttock, waist, and leg regions-as well as their movements. They then summed the variables into a sexualization index which they applied to playable female video game characters over the last 31 years.
The researchers saw spikes in sexualization around the transition from 2D graphics in the early ’90s. The popularity of the first Lara Croft Tomb Raider game in 1996 may have led to a rise in sexualized characters, as well, as other developers sought to mimic the game’s success with boys and men.
The study also found:
- Secondary characters are more likely to be sexualized than lead characters
- Female characters in RPGs are less sexualized than women in action or fighting games
- There’s no difference in the sexualization of female characters in games rated by ESRB as Teen compared to games rated Mature, suggesting that the sexualization of women has become so normalized, people “don’t think of it as something that might be objectionable for young children” says Lynch.
The study did not make comparisons to games featuring male primary characters, and it only looks at playable characters in games, not advertisements.
“As more women have joined the industry as professionals, and men have seen hypersexualization and objectification of women in media as a legitimate concern, I think we’ll continue to see better and more varied representations of women in games,” theorizes Lynch. “In turn, I think more girls will have their interest in gaming piqued.”
The point of the study isn’t to suggest that female characters shouldn’t ever be sexy, but to suggest that context matters. “Sexuality and physical attractiveness are important parts of women’s identities,” notes Lynch, “and many women and men enjoy playing as sexy characters in games as long as the context makes sense. But when you have a male character in body armor and a female character in a bikini fighting side by side, it’s hard for women not to feel trivialized and objectified.”
Because this study only goes through 2014, it also doesn’t include the spate of games released in 2015 and 2016 starring non-sexualized female characters like Evie Frye in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Lara Croft in Rise of the Tomb Raider, Faith in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Joule in ReCore, Michonne in The Walking Dead: Michonne, and Emily in Dishonored 2.
“Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years,” appears in the August issue of the Journal of Communication, published by the International Communication Association. Access the paper here or read this article about it to learn more about the study.