Objectification of Women in Video Games

Playing with Women: Objectification and Victimization in Video Games

STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM -- In many cultures worldwide, women are objectified and sexualized across media such as advertisements, movies and video games. In many of these outlets, they are used as “objects that sell,” or eye candy, because revealing images of their body parts lure in the audience. In addition, they are also portrayed as being weak, submissive to men and in need of protection, thus enforcing and normalizing power imbalances in heterosexual relationships. “When a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person, she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desire” (Bartky, 1990).

Today, newer forms of media such as video games and social platforms are duplicating the traditional media perspective in their depiction of women to some extent by also emphasizing their physical features and reinforcing the notion that they are weaker than men.



Research by Canada’s Center for Digital and Media Literacy finds a correlation between the objectification and victimization of women in video games and violence against them. The study quotes media psychologist Dr. Karen Dill-Shackleford (2011), who states: “When women are consistently shown as sex objects rather than agents, consistently depicted in demeaning and degrading ways, and consistently shown as submissive, the result is to condone and support violence against women, and anti-woman attitudes.”

Various organizations like the Women's Campaign Fund, End Violence Against Women and the United Nations have chosen to launch online campaigns to fight objectification and domestic violence. However, given the massive amount of online freedom and the option of anonymity, individual users often resort to harassment and rude comments, which, in many cases, discourages people from actively engaging in this issue through social media. The UN (2013) clarifies that “women and girls who experience violence suffer a range of health problems, and their ability to participate in public life is diminished. Violence against women harms families and communities across generations and reinforces other violence prevalent society.” Therefore, while social media could serve as a platform for change, expression and engagement, it usually acts in the opposite way: it contributes to the issue rather than to the solution.


Heroes and Sex Dolls

Founder of the video web series Feminist FrequencyAnita Sarkeesian, is a Canadian-American media critic who, in March 2013, released “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”. In her videos, she analyzes the use of the “damsel in distress” trope: one of the most clichéd plots in the history of gaming. It shows a female character placed in a situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, just like in fairytales such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. This plot has been around since the game Mario Bros, and is still being used today. This is because “developers are unwilling to give up the damsel in distress as an easy default motivation” (Sarkeesian, 2013).

For example, in 1981 Nintendo assigned game designer Shigeru Miyamoto the task of creating a new game for the American market. In his game the hero, Mario, has to rescue a young lady named Peach, who is kidnapped and trapped in a castle. Peach appears in 14 of the core Super Mario games and is 

kidnapped in 13 of them. The North America release of Super Mario 2 remains the only game in the core series in which Peach is not kidnapped and is a character that can be played with.

Princess Zelda serves as another example as the main character, Zelda, is kidnapped, cursed, possessed and turned to stone. She has never been the star of the game, nor has she been a true playing character in the core series even though the game is about her adventures.

Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories, one of today’s most popular video games, also portrays the “damsel in distress” trope in addition to vivid images of violence against women. For instance, during mission no.23 the main character, Tony, has to chase a man who beat up his boss’s “girl”. After chasing Wayne and catching him, the player is awarded with $1500 and allowed to move on to the next level. 


There are, however, some games in which women are the main characters such as Tomb Raider and the free Facebook game Half the Sky. Despite being identified as a strong, self-reliant woman, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft is still portrayed sexually in both physical features and outfit. On the other hand, Half the Sky, which is part of an online movement for empowering women, does not actually contain any form of objectification such as revealing clothes or emphasized body parts. Women in the game are confronted with situations in which they have to stand up for themselves and confront their partners. The more she confronts her mate, the more points she gets. Those who oppose Sarkeesian’s campaign and her criticisms argue that because men are the ones who play video games, the main characters tend to be males. However, according to Entertainment Software Association’s statistics, 45% of video game players are women. Even though they compose almost half the gaming community worldwide, only 23% of those who work in the game design industry are women. 



Too mainstream?

It has become normal to see women objectified in tabloids and yellow papers since their main focus is on scandals and profit. People go to quality mainstream media such as The Washington Post and the Spanish newspaper El País to get serious news. However, even these media outlets tend to under-represent the issue of domestic violence and cover it as isolated individual incidents rather than a larger social issue. Often, coverage of domestic violence labels the issue as “relationship problems”, implying that the victim is partially responsible, or focuses on the subjects rather than on the act of violence itself. “Coverage gave a distorted view of domestic violence”, says Jason Cubert (2002) in his article “Coverage of Domestic Violence Fatalities by Newspapers in Washington State” published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.


In social media the concepts of accountability and responsibility become very vague. There is no control on what can be published or posted and the coverage of the issue of domestic violence becomes subjective. While some individuals try to use the platform to help solve this issue, others advance and contribute to it through discriminative and objectifying posts or comments. Due to the harassments that her campaign was subject to, Sarkeesian disabled the comments option on her videos, thus closing the door on engagement and therefore diminishing the power and credibility of her initiative