The claim that video games are overly sexualized is a legitimate one and an issue that should be addressed. Since the video game community is known to be misogynistic and practically exclusive to males, the bulk of the video game industry follows through by making video games that directly cater to male audiences. This process uses gender stereotypes to generate a self-perpetuating cycle, preventing others from experiencing games they way they were meant to be. Three of the primary ways that the game industry creates sexism in its products are through visuals, narrative, and most importantly, mechanics.
Sexism in video games is most often seen through the visuals (oversexualization of female characters) and the narrative (overuse of weak females as plot devices). However, it’s important to ask a certain question: why video games in particular? Other mediums like films or animations also combine visuals and narrative, and while they do face accusations of sexism, their portrayals of women are rarely as guilty as those seen in video games. Why are sexist portrayals in video games such a problem? To answer that question, we need to take a look at what makes video games as a medium different from film and animation.
Video games are one of the only mediums that involves player input. Following through with that, it’s important to think of video games not as linear time-progression experiences like films, but as variable state machines. Players of video games are able to take actions and see the effects that those actions have on the state machine. The actions that a player may take to change a state machine and the actions that the state machine takes against the player are collectively known as game mechanics.
How are game mechanics being used to enforce gender stereotypes? We can develop an understanding of such methods by studying various contemporary video games and what kinds of mechanics they use to portray women.
Observations of Feminine Mechanics
The character L’Arachel from Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones (2005) is a troubadour who is able to wield the sacred staff Latona. When she uses it, she can fully heal all allied characters and remove status ailments (1), a useful ability in a tactical game like Fire Emblem.
Farah in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) assists the player’s character by shooting enemies with her bow. She cannot be controlled, so the player must fight enemies on the front lines so that they do not reach her.
Vindictus (2010) is an MMORPG with character-locked classes, meaning that mages must play as a female character named Evie. She is the only character in the game who is able to heal her allies, but can fight using offensive magic as well.
In the MOBA League of Legends (2009), each player selects a champion, and each champion has unique abilities that changes the way they are played. The champion Sona is characterized by granting passive bonuses to all allies within a certain distance of her, healing them or increasing their movement speed or other various effects.
During the final fight of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002), Zelda uses her bow to attack the boss Ganondorf while the main character Link attacks head-on. Throughout the series, Zelda is shown to be proficient at archery.
The indie game Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (2010) allows the player, a humble item shop owner, to sponsor treasure-hunting adventurers and follow them in their dungeon forays to manage their loot. One such adventurer, Charme, is a swift thief characterized by the fastest movement in the game and short-ranged, but speedy attacks.
Sword of the Stars: The Pit (2013) allows players to choose one of three characters to explore the titular Pit with. The character Toshiko Hoshinara isn’t as durable as the other two, but she makes up for it with speed and higher proficiency at foraging for new items.
Through these case studies, we can begin to see various trends in how females are portrayed mechanically in video games. Listing these trends out will create an overarching view of female mechanics.
- Healing. Many female characters have the ability to heal their allies and themselves from damage. This is primarily a reactive ability done after an enemy has damaged an ally, as opposed to an active ability.
- Magic. “Healing” was often done through magic as well, but female characters were often able to cast ranged spells as well. This plays into the mystical aspect of humanity, framing females as unknown entities.
- Intelligence. “Magic” is often defined as a subset of intelligence, but in non-magical contexts females are still seen as using their wits to survive.
- Long range. When the females weren’t using magic against enemies from afar, they were using ranged weapons like bows to keep their distance. Range is a form of safety through the ability to attack enemies without retribution, so long-ranged characters are often easy to defeat if an enemy manages to engage them in close combat.
- Speed. When the females weren’t using magic or bows, they were using daggers to strike quickly at enemies and avoid counterattacks. Again, the female is encouraged to outsmart and outplay her enemies, rather than exchange blows directly.
Female mechanics are generally seen to be supportive, playing into the image of women as facilitators and helpers rather than independent pursuers of their own goals. This pattern is a gender stereotype prevalent in many aspects of modern society: the American Dream model of a wife taking care of the house and kids, the Biblical view that God made Eve in order to keep Adam company, and novels like Jane Eyre in which the titular character’s growth happens as a result of her relationship with a male figure.
Observations of Masculine Mechanics
On the other hand, doing the same kind of analysis for males in video games presents almost the complete opposite view. Males are damaging, physical, brawny, short ranged, and tough, creating a general view of independence.
The character Seth from Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones is a paladin and one of the first commandable characters in the game. Paladins are strong characters who are typically only available later in the game, so having such a strong ally at the beginning of the game means the player is often incentivized to rely on Seth’s strength.
The Prince of Persia in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time fights enemies using a sword and dagger, using acrobatic moves to disable enemies before dealing a killing blow. Farah’s arrows are unable to kill enemies, but can weaken them enough for the Prince to finish them off.
One of the other classes in Vindictus is Karok, a giant fighter who wields pillars like staves. Karok is the only character in the game who is able to directly butt heads against the massive bosses in the game.
In the MOBA League of Legends, one of the oldest champions Alistar is a minotaur who is able to shove enemies around and reduce incoming damage by an immense amount, making him a strong frontline fighter.
In the final boss battle against Ganondorf in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002), Link must play aggressively and pressure Ganondorf so that Zelda’s arrows can hit: otherwise, Ganondorf will dodge them and take no damage.
The first adventurer you can access in Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale is Louie, a well-rounded swordsman with wide sweeping attacks that are easy to use. In addition, he is one of the only characters able to block incoming attacks.
Travis Hudson in Sword of the Stars: The Pit is a sturdy, powerful Marine with the highest might out of the three playable characters. Thanks to his prior military training, he is adept at using weapons and is often incentivized to fight his way through situations that a person playing as Hoshinara should have run away from.
Applications of Gender in Game Mechanics
Since video games are primarily an interactive medium, the mechanics used in video games need to allow players to interact with the game’s state. The easiest way to do that is to give players characters who are independent and strong and able to exert force on the world around them. However, as we saw from the analyses above, such characteristics are primarily associated with male characters. It thus follows that most game mechanics revolve around being a strong character exerting your will on the world, rather than being a support character who helps that strong character inflict their will on the world.
Many video games revolve around trends in masculine mechanics as we saw above, partly because they are intentionally meant to attract a male audience. Games like first-person shooters (Gears of War series, Halo series, Call of Duty series), action-adventures (God of War series, Darksiders series, Devil May Cry series), and fighting games (Dead or Alive series, Soul Calibur series, Street Fighter series) all involve inflicting damage on other people.
Why, then, aren’t there games aimed at women that revolve around the trends in feminine mechanics we saw above? Games for women, like the Imagine series of video games, are primarily simulation games that involve dressing up, applying makeup, or other stereotypically feminine actions. Part of the stigma against female gamers is the fact that they are not skilled or competent to play video games, so they are left to play casual, low-skill simulation games – and when the industry creates casual, low-skill simulation games for female gamers, the cycle starts to perpetuate itself. However, this is the key point necessary to understand why gender stereotypes happen in games: it’s a question of skill.
Flow in Game Mechanics Versus Gender
The problem lies in how each type of mechanic relates to the concept of flow, otherwise known as a state of intense concentration on the task at hand. Flow is a way of keeping players engaged and interested, but in order for flow to work, players must be able to develop their skills over time, so that the game can then become more difficult and maintain flow. Video games must through their design enable players to get better at the game, as a prerequisite to allow flow to happen. Therefore, we can see that a good game mechanic needs to have depth that enables players to have a changing skill level.
With this in mind, we can see that stereotypical games for females are built with an intentionally low skill cap, preventing flow from happening. However, games are inherently meant to be flow-based experiences, so allowing players to get better at a game is essential. Just as it is practically impossible to get better at a dress-up game, it is likewise practically impossible to play a match in a fighting game without getting better at it, even if just slightly.
Even in the case studies where trends in feminine mechanics were observed, female characters were often easier to play as than male characters, by automatically targeting enemies, or using speed and range to stay perpetually out of harm’s way, or a variety of other ways. If female mechanics are constantly portrayed as being easier than “real” mechanics, it defeats the very purpose of video games as flow-based skill-development experiences.
The stereotype that girl gamers cannot play difficult games creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in the “games for girls” market seen today and the rejection of females as serious gamers. This is not a healthy state for the game industry to be in: games are a valuable tool for learning and personal growth that should be accessible to everyone. How can this problem be solved?
Rather than thinking about mechanics in terms of how well they fit into images of gender roles, it may be more viable to focus on mechanics purely in terms of how well they can engage players in flow. Bad game design and gender stereotyping happens hand-in-hand when mechanics are built around sexism.
Bad Design: Purna, Dead Island (2011)
The playable character Purna in Dead Island is a former cop proficient at using firearms. She has an ability called “Gender Wars” which passively increases the amount of damage Purna deals to male enemies. However, this is not a flow based mechanic: enemies are generated randomly (2), and there is no skill involved in hoping to meet more male enemies. Not only is the skill a bad mechanic, it also perpetuates gender stereotypes of radical feminists and their misandry.
Gender Neutrality: Razor Girls, Brütal Legend (2009)
In Brütal Legend, you are able to command armies in real-time strategic combat. Some units are basic infantry, some are supportive, and some are designed to siege enemy structures. One type of unit at your command is the Razor Girls squad, a group of women armed with giant crossbows. The Razor Girls fulfill all the mechanical gender stereotypes: they have long range, but they’re fragile if enemies get up close, playing into the notion that girls have weaker constitutions. However, from a purely mechanical standpoint, the Razor Girls can still be used skillfully: there are moments when they will be effective, and moments when they won’t, and the player needs to have the foresight to make quick judgments on what to do with the Razor Girl squads.
The important thing to note is that nearly all real-time strategy games have basic ranged infantry, just like the Razor Girls. Chinese in Age of Empires II can train Chu Ko Nu units. Zergs in Starcraft II can summon hydralisks. Americans in Company of Heroes can call in riflemen squads. All of these kinds of units spanning multiple different real-time strategy games serve the same purpose. Even though Brütal Legend reinforced the stereotype of women as supporting units without enough constitution for frontline combat, boiling down the Razor Girls to a purely mechanical level leaves the “long range low health” type of character, which can be recontextualized to mean aliens or medieval warriors or World War II soldiers. Razor Girls in Brütal Legend aren’t as much of a gender stereotype as they are a game mechanic.
Character Thematics: Gaige, Borderlands 2 (2012)
Gaige has an ability called “Close Enough” which allows bullets she fires to ricochet off objects and hit enemies if they missed their original target. Considering that Borderlands 2 is a first-person shooter game, the game’s designers were accused of trying to make Gaige into a stereotypical easy-mode character for girls to play as because they weren’t good enough to actually play the game. However, in order to truly understand the context of what Gaige was meant to be, it’s necessary to dig deeper into “Close Enough.”
At its maximum level, the skill gives missed bullets a 50% chance to ricochet towards a nearby enemy, and ricocheted bullets deal 50% damage. Effectively, this increases her gun damage by 125%: it increases her accuracy by 50%, but damage dealt that way is reduced by 50%. In contrast, another Borderlands 2 character Zero has an ability, “Precision,” which directly increases his accuracy by 25%. What’s the difference between the two, if they result in an equivalent increase in DPS?
Zero is meant to be an accurate sniper: he wants his accuracy to be as close to 100% as possible, so a 25% boost helps him towards that. Having a bullet ricochet for less damage goes against his design, because he shouldn’t be missing in the first place. On the other hand, Gaige is a wild anarchist who prefers close/medium range combat and automatic rifles. She naturally misses often – she expects to, so having bullets ricochet helps her focus on spraying bullets as per her design, versus encouraging her to carefully aim each shot as “Precision” encourages Zero to do.
The rest of Gaige’s design also works to incentivize players to promote the ferocious spray-and-pray playstyle that Gaige was meant to fulfill. Certain guns can inflict elemental status effects, like setting enemies on fire or electrocuting them for a period of time. These elemental effects have a chance to trigger every time a bullet hits an enemy, and the damage they deal are independent of the actual amout of damage the bullet dealt. “Close Enough” allows Gaige to hit more bullets and thus gives her a higher chance to activate elemental effects. Note that “Precision” would not have incentivized Zero to play the same way: having a passive 25% accuracy increase does not encourage him to shoot more bullets, but rather to take his time with each individual shot. While Zero fulfills the image of a silent sniper, Gaige fulfills the image of a reckless futurist shooting bullets without abandon.
While at first Gaige seems to be a perfect example of making an easy mode for women, her ability is actually not as powerful as it seems to be, yet simultaneously promotes the intended gameplay that she was meant to offer to players. Using “Close Enough” in a strategic manner is still a matter of skill and foresight, enabling flow to happen through the player’s changing skill level. “Close Enough” as an example of game design pushing a thematic character shows that mechanics do not need to be shallow or easy to convey their theme.
Difficulty and Flow: Faith Connors, Mirror’s Edge (2008)
Mirror’s Edge was a new take on the first-person shooter genre by focusing on Faith’s mobility and speed as a core gameplay mechanic rather than direct combat with enemies, as was the standard for games of that genre. The game’s design constantly reinforces the notion that enemies are meant to be avoided rather than fought, which some players felt was cowardly and weak. Using Faith Connors as the lead character in a game like this might have seemed like more gender stereotyping: using a woman in a game where you were too fragile to fight enemies face-to-face could imply that women themselves were incapable of doing such things.
However, Mirror’s Edge was not an easy game. Avoiding enemies was not a matter of cowardice: it was a difficult task in and of itself, and the difficulty made it a rewarding experience. Even though the mechanics may seem stereotypically feminine, it was still an engaging experience.
And Mirror’s Edge left an interesting effect in its wake: other first-person shooter games began using parkour movements as well. Titles like Brink, Dishonored, and Dying Light began featuring male protagonists in high-mobility roles. The first-person shooter genre became enriched with this new take on action and combat: not as a show of brute force, but as a demonstration of speed. Mechanically, the concept of speed over power is not inherently feminine, and by embracing that concept Mirror’s Edge was able to introduce a new way of thinking that proved to not only be gender-neutral, but also engaging through flow.
Healing: Soraka, League of Legends (2009) versus Roland and Maya, Borderlands (2009) and Borderlands 2 (2012)
In the game League of Legends, many of the characters who are wholly devoted to healing their allies are females (Soraka and Sona being the main examples). These characters essentially made combat useless, because if you tried to damage your enemies they would just get healed right back to full health. Because of dedicated healers, the game became extremely passive and stagnant with very little action taking place at all (3). Notice that the core of the problem isn’t just healing itself, it’s the characters who are completely 100% healers. The game’s designers thought that being the dedicated healer was the fantasy that players wanted to step into when playing a female role, and the game suffered for it. Now, they’re smarter from their lesson, and they design better characters.
On the other hand, consider healing in the game Borderlands 2, which is a fast-paced FPS where players are constantly teetering along the brink of death. For a game like this, healing is an essential mechanic that plays into the game’s thematic feeling. Poke around each character’s skill trees for a little bit and see how many of them have some form of healing. Every single one of them does. In fact, there was a skill that appeared in both Borderlands 2 and the original Borderlands game, where you’re able to heal allies by shooting them. In Borderlands, that skill was given to Roland the Soldier, whereas in Borderlands 2 that exact same skill is given to Maya the Siren. Since shooting allies to heal them turned out to be a good mechanic, it was carried over to a new character in the sequel, who was a different gender. The “shoot allies to heal them” mechanic was not tied to any specific gender, so it’s gender neutral (at least in the context of Borderlands).
The idea that certain mechanics are tied to certain genders is not unlike the idea that the color pink is tied to femininity. But the problem is, both of these ideas are wrong. If I’m painting a landscape and I reach for my pink paint tube, what’s going through my head? Am I thinking “I want to use pink so females will buy my work,” or am I thinking “I want to use pink sunset streaks in the sky to complement the dark green grass over here”? The latter train of thought results in a better painting, and the former train of thought perpetuates the “pink = feminine” stereotype. Focus on creating good things, and you get good things. Focus on fulfilling stereotypes so you can lock onto your target audience, and you not only fulfill stereotypes but your creations also end up being bad.
Honestly, game design can only go so far. It can indeed go very, very far: a game can make you feel like a lab rat, or a guilty consumerist, or a human sacrifice, or a computer program. But a game can’t make you feel like a woman. It can make you feel like what you THINK being a woman would feel like, if it is intentionally designed to make you feel that way. That’s a very subtle difference, but a very important one that leads to the problem: when game designers focus on the image of what playing as a certain gender feels like, that’s less effort they’re devoting to creating actual good game mechanics.
Mechanics that are used to stereotype gender roles naturally tend to be bad game mechanics in and of themselves, because the focus is on the gender rather than the whole experience. On the other hand, well-designed mechanics are gender neutral, because deep skills are recognizable through the aesthetic and narrative context they are placed in. Gender trends always have exceptions: some games have male healers, and some games have female brawlers. The idea that mechanics can create the feeling of gender is false: they are capable of creating characterization and tactics, but truly good mechanics are gender neutral.
(1) Any character whose proficiency at wielding healing staves is at a high enough level can use Latona. However, in the game’s narrative, Latona is one of the sacred weapons of the nation of Rausten, and L’Arachel is the princess of Rausten. Thus, we can still make the connection between L’Arachel and Latona.
(2) It’s worth noting that a certain type of enemy, called “punks,” are exclusively male, making Purna stronger against them. However, all other enemy types have randomized genders.
(3) Morello, the lead content designer on League of Legends, talks more about the support problem here: http://forums.na.leagueoflegends.com/board/showthread.php?p=26453416#26453416