Portrayal of women in video games: 'Grey matter' or 'Sleaze matter'

December 19, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Abstract: Media plays an influential role in our everyday lives and video games are an important part of media. It is necessary to study the portrayal of women in video games because it has an indirect effect on how they are portrayed in reality. This study examined evolution of female video game characters over four decades with the help of a survey conducted with a group that constituted a majority of non-gamers. Results confirm a previous study, which shows an evolution from traditional depiction to sexualized portrayal. In addition there is also a more pronounced positive portrayal that is neither stereotypical nor aggressive, which is referred to as ‘empowered’.

Introduction: In a recent study done by Spil Games (2013), it was revealed that over 17% of the world population constitutes of gamers i.e around 1.2 billion people. Also, around 44% of people who use Internet are online gamers. This number is around 700 million. Gaming world is no longer solely a place for males. According to the same report, 46% of online gamers are females. This number constitutes almost half of people who have access to online media.

Aim: The aim of this study is to examine the evolution of portrayal of female video game characters over four decades.

Rationale: As someone who considers herself a non-gamer, I was intrigued by reading implications of how women are portrayed in media esp. video games. An experimental study by Morawitz-Behm et al. (2009) investigates the short-term effects of exposure to sexualized female video game characters. It revealed that women playing a sexualized character showed lower self-efficacy in comparison to those who played non-sexualized character or no video game at all. Since around 60% of gamers are in the age group of 18-35 (Rick, 2012) which constitutes students and young adults, lower self-efficacy as a result of being exposed to sexualized gaming characters can have adverse effects on their performance in school or at work. Hence, video games like other forms of media have an impact on informing sex role attitudes of children and young adults. Dietz (1998) explains that female video game characters portray stereotypical gender role of being sex objects who are physically attractive. A content analysis by Dill and Thill (2005) stated that most female characters are portrayed as sexualized visions of beauty with scanty clothing and are characterized as aggressive. In a more recent study by Summers and Miller (2014), there has been a shift in portrayal of women in video games from docile characters waiting to be rescued by the male protagonist (e.g. Mario Brothers) to strong protagonists on a mission (e.g. Tomb Raider). Earlier studies have focused on content analysis methods or interview with gamers, but there is not much research on gaining perspective of non-gamers and how their views can be different from gamers. The definition of aggression and sexualization could be at a different level for a non-gamer in comparison to a gamer.

Theoretical Framework: The theoretical framework based in this study is the Ambivalent Sexism Theory (AST) (Glick et al., 2004). It has two components of sexism: hostile and benevolent. Hostile sexism is about evaluating a gender only on the basis of negative characters (for e.g.: women are inferior to men and are mere sex objects), whereas Benevolent sexism reflects positive aspects of gender but it can actually lead to further gender equity and cause damage (for e.g.: women have gender specific roles and they must not deviate from that, women should be revered and protected for their sexual purity).

Method: A total of 40 video game characters were selected randomly from the Wikipedia page dedicated to female video game characters by a non-gamer, not familiar with names of most of the characters. This ensured that there is no bias in selecting the characters. There were 10 characters from each of the four decades intended for study (1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s). They were then administered in the form of a survey on a Google form to 20 participants who volunteered to take part in the study. The participants were asked to describe each character with an adjective that came to their mind right after looking at the character. A restriction of describing the characters in one word was imposed on the participants.

Out of 20, 18 of them claimed to have not been familiar with most of the characters. Considering that the survey was administered in less than two days time, it was not possible to get details on the gender of the participants. After looking at the responses from the survey responses, the characteristics were grouped into 5 categories: Sex role stereotype refers to benevolent sexism (Glick et al., 2004) in which characters were described by words that showed their incompetence, for e.g. pampered, damsel, deceptive, frightened, helpless. Non-sexualized beauty refers to women portrayed as visions of beauty (Dill & Thill, 2007), for e.g. princess, elegant, cute, mystical, beautiful, bright etc. Aggressive is defined by Dill & Thill (2007) as “behavior intended to harm another living being” (p. 862), for e.g. words like assassin, attacker, badass, dangerous, scary, fierce. Sexualized is again defined by Dill & Thill (2007) as “showing skin, particularly cleavage, midriff and legs; large breasts, extreme proportions, provocative poses, postures or facial expressions” (p.862) and accentuated sex appeal, for e.g. hot, heels, busty, sexy, seductive, revealing, sultry seductress, voluptuous. Aggressive and Sexualized are also forms of hostile sexism (Glick et al., 2004). Empowered is added in the study to classify the positive words that were used by participants to describe the characters, for e.g. brave, normal, thoughtful, well-prepared, smart, strategic, spirited, honorable. There has been a dearth of study that classifies female video game characters in positive light.

Findings & Discussion: The data was segregated into the above-mentioned 5 categories. Entries for each decade was counted and plotted in bar graphs shown below:

Figure 1: Portrayal of females in video games (characteristic-wise)

Figure 1 depicts the characteristics portrayed over time. Sex role stereotype and non-sexualized beauty have decreased over a span of four decades. At the same time, females being portrayed as sexualized and aggressive symbols have increased. There has also been a slight increase in the portrayal of females as empowered characters. There are several more recent characters like Elizabeth (Bioshock) and Madison Paige (Heavy Rain) that look like ‘real’ females as described by survey participants.

Figure 2: Portrayal of females in video games (decade-wise)


From figure 2, which depicts the characteristics according to time frame, it is evident that aggression has topped all years except 1980s. In 1980s, women were portrayed in a more traditional gender stereotypical role. 

Figure 3: Graph showing ‘stereotypical’ and ‘eroticized aggressive’ behaviors

In their study, Dill and Thill (2007) have also noted that apart from being sexualized, scantily clad and visions of beauty, female characters are also depicted as a combination of sex and aggression, which they refer to as eroticized aggression. Figure 3 shows a line graph that shows combined traditional roles of women (sex role stereotype and non-sexualized beauty) and eroticized aggression (sexualized and aggression). The results show an inverse relationship between the two. This confirms the results of the study done by Summers and Miller (2014) in which they conclude the shift from benevolent sexism to hostile sexism. Women are no longer portrayed as innocent princesses put on a pedestal in need of rescue. They are aggressive highly sexualized characters that play the central character. An added theme that came up from the results of study was the positive attributes of the characters that did not fit in either of stereotypical or sexualized roles. These were positive traits like brave, normal, thoughtful, well-prepared, smart, strategic, spirited, honorable etc. Hence, there arose a need to create an additional category. From figure 1, it is clear that women were empowered during the 1980s and it went down in 1990s and 2000s but it rose to the highest in more recent characters. In the 1980s it could possibly be a result of benevolent sexism when women were treated with respect and honor for their caregiving and traditional nature. But in more recent times, despite the sexualization and aggression there are empowering characteristics as well. It shows yet more evolution from benevolent sexism to hostile sexism to empowered womenIn a recent game launched by Half the Sky foundation, the central character Radhika (Figure 4) is a traditional looking female but she travels around the world taking care of jobs and helping other women in need. Instead of having ‘big bust’ she has a ‘big brain’. Does this mean that there is could also be a shift towards focusing on the intellect of women than just her physical body?

Figure 4: Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) and Radhika (Half the Sky)


  • Spil Games (2013). State of Online Gaming Report. Retrive from http://auth-83051f68-ec6c-44e0afe5bd8902acff57.cdn.spilcloud.com/v1/archives/State_of_Gaming_2013_UK_FINAL.pdf
  • Behm-Morawitz, E., & Mastro, D. (2009). The effects of the sexualization of female video game characters on gender stereotyping and female self- concept. Sex roles, 61(11-12), 808-823.
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