Pop-Culture | Posted by Danielle B on 12/13/2010

The (Big-Breasted) Curse of Women in Video Games

Video games. Sweet, succulent video games. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day . . .?

Um, sorry about that.

Though my gaming experience hardly compares to my brother’s (who I swear was playing Zelda: A Link to the Past in the womb), I still consider myself a full-fledged gamer, and a darn good one at that.

But what does it mean to be a gamer and a girl? “Teenage boy” and “video game fanatic” are often synonymous, but the same can’t be said for someone like myself. In fact, in her article What Women Want, Aleah Tierney suggests that to be a girl and a gamer is to be “a stranger in a strange land . . . a male-created virtual space.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think Tierney is that far off. According to We need more women in games, an article by blogger Jacob Aron, women represent nearly 38% of all gamers, but only 11% of game developers. But when you think about it, is it really shocking that more women aren’t lining up to work at places like Nintendo, Capcom, and Konami (just to name a few)? Childhood I-want-to-be-a-ballerina fantasies aside (hey, don’t look at me!), women are taught to be practical. *Puts on sarcastic tone* Why risk doing something so math- and science-oriented like developing video games when we should be flexing our natural abilities as helpers and nurturers?

Video game developing just doesn’t appeal to most women (sadly enough), and that’s probably why a majority of the game universe has been molded around puke-inducing male fantasies of macho, gun-totting heroes and exotic, large-breasted women.

Though they make up only 49% of the US population, research shows that 85% of all video game characters are male – and that figure rises to 90% for characters that players can actually control. Excluding race as a factor (which is another issue entirely), male characters in video games are as diverse as ever. They can be bulky-as-heck, gaunt, or average-looking. They can be triumphant heroes, shady villains, or your Average Joe off the street. They can be hunky, intelligent, sleazy, or badass – it doesn’t really matter. There’s no end to the possibilities of what male characters can be.

Expectations for female video game characters, however, are much more constricted. They’re often forced to play the “helpless princess” role, giving a male lead the chance to flex his muscles and “save the day.” Female characters are also constantly portrayed as meek, shy, submissive, innocent, naïve – the list goes on and on. I’ve even noticed that 4 times out of 5, fantasy-game-women are given roles as healers or sorceresses rather than sword-wielding warriors. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with having supernatural abilities (heck, I wouldn’t mind having a few myself), but it makes me think back to the whole “women are supposed to be helpers” theory.

Helpers. Sidekicks. Servants?

Now, for those of you who don’t play video games, I hope you don’t think they’re all sexist piles of crap! On the contrary, there are plenty of awesome, strong women who hold their own against male counterparts (Samus Aran from Metroid and Jill Valentine from Resident Evil both come to mind). But I do have one gripe . . .

Women in video games are always, always, always inhumanly “beautiful.”

Whereas male characters can place anywhere on the scale of attractiveness from “purposefully repulsive” to “god-like,” video game women always have to fall under the latter category. With physiques that make Barbie look average, these characters have impossibly long and slender legs; skinny waists (but wide hips); and breasts that mimic medium-sized watermelons. Just type in “women in video games” to Google Images and you’ll see what I mean!

What the heck? Do you think the people who created these – um – overly-endowed characters just sat down one day and said “so, how big do you think we can get these puppies”?
Because it seems pretty frivolous to me.

I’d say the body proportions of 90% of female video game characters are a huge insult to women in real-life. What is it, video-game-developer-who-lives-with-his-parents, we’re not good enough for you?

Aleah Tierney wrote about her own frustrations when playing Tomb Raider for the first time. The game’s lead (Lara Croft) is often seen as a beacon of female empowerment, but Tierney didn’t exactly see things that way:
“I couldn’t wait to load and play Tomb Raider when it first came out, but when I saw Lara, I just couldn’t take the game seriously. The giant twin pyramids mounted onto her chest look like something she could use to impale her enemies. In many ways her kick-butt presence is a triumph, but the designers’ decision to sexualize her to the point of deformity angered me. I couldn’t get past her proportions, so I put the game away. I’m waiting to see if Lara (or her designers) will evolve in future versions of the game.”

I don’t think Lara’s changing anytime soon, pal. In fact, video games are becoming more and more sexualized as time goes on – and as kids (people in general, actually) are becoming de-sensitized to staggering levels of violence and sexualization in all areas of the media, I don’t see conditions improving for video game gals anytime soon.

It’s kind of funny, actually. I can play the bloodiest, goriest games ever – the kind with chainsaws, zombies, and flesh-eating dogs – and they don’t bother me a bit. Why? Because killing zombies is hardly something I’m going to pick up as an actual hobby (and I don’t foresee a People for Zombie Rights group anywhere in the near future, so I’m not offending anybody by takin’ them out). But the gender stereotypes and hypersexualization in games? That affects us. And it sucks. It really, really sucks. Because no matter how kickass a female character is – like I said before – as soon as you type her name into Google Images you’re going to be bombarded with twenty pages of fan art of the woman flashing her (mutant) breasts. It’s degrading.

So I’ll be sticking to my survival horror games, thank you very much, because zombies don’t care if you’re male or female – or whether or not you have gargantuan jugs – they’ll try to eat your brains either way :)

Are you a female gamer? Check out this site for support.

Danielle B also writes for Experimentations of a Teenage Feminist

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  • Natalia @ at 12:30 pm, December 13th, 2010

    Great article, Danielle!

    my mom always refused to buy me video games as a kid, so I’ve never been interested. But I have always been a HUGE sims addict ever since grade seven ahhaha. And I always made my female sims have science oriented, “male” jobs. So you get to choose, which is awesome.

  • Alex @ at 1:28 pm, December 13th, 2010

    Very interesting article. One point – Lara Croft is getting a face lift – or rather, going back in time before she got all her scary bod mods. Yep, they’re creating a new game starring a “young and inexperienced” Lara. Check it out: http://gamerant.com/lara-croft-guardian-light-announced-phil-11757/

    The pictures make her look much more human.

  • Maria @ at 2:30 pm, December 13th, 2010

    I grew up playing games, so I never really thought about the gender stereotypes until a few years ago.
    It angers me, so much. Lara Croft in particular with the way the screen shots hoover over her breasts.
    The day a plain women is a video game, without needing to be saved will be a happy day indeed.
    Always glad to hear of more girl gamers though!

  • Zoe @ at 5:28 pm, December 13th, 2010

    Yes! Feminism and video games is definitely a topic I would like to see discussed more often. My mom reminded me this year that I wrote a letter to Nintendo Power when I was in 6th grade complaining about how women were portrayed in games. I’m not a huge gamer anymore but I still love to pick up my N64 and play some Zelda. When I walked into a Gamestop recently, I looked through the games and the ones geared towards girls were always painfully easy to pick out. I even found a game that involved a raising a child and it came with a plush baby. Ugh.

  • Selena @ at 11:04 pm, December 13th, 2010

    In my experience, girls have been encouraged to pursue careers in math and science. There are multiple Young Women in Science programs across the country, scholarships and programs for girls who intend to become engineers, and so on and so forth. I think that the limits on women’s careers are way more subtle than “Why risk doing something so math- and science-oriented like developing video games when we should be flexing our natural abilities as helpers and nurturers?” and that to pretend that that attitude is often stated so blatantly is to deny subtler and more dangerous reasons why women are stunted in their careers.

  • Robin Palm @ at 3:27 pm, December 14th, 2010

    Interesting article, and it certainly raises some obvious issues with sexism in gamer culture and among games marketed at the “hardcore”, but I feel the the big picture of gaming is a bit different.

    Also some of your examples in this article are a bit off. Especially the picture of DOA volleyball for the xbox? really?
    That’s like saying “there aren’t any good women role models in movies” and using porn as an example

    A few points:
    A) Tomb Raider hasn’t really been relevant for about 10 years now as far as blockbuster titles go since the sales have been awful. But it is funny that you mention “i don’t see them redesigning tomb raider any time soon” when a reboot with a more realistic Lara is just around the corner.

    http://kotaku.com/5712826/please-enough-with-the-tomb-raider-reboots-already

    However, you may be trading a wonder woman type heroine with watermelons for breasts for a more “vulnerable” Lara. But ultimately, it’s about gameplay, not cupsize.

    B) also, comparing AAA blockbuster titles aimed for dudes and saying “hey look this can be sexist” is pretty obvious. It’s like saying action movies starring Sly Stallone are machismo and sexist. Well, duh, It’s not aimed for women, usually. Much like movies, women have different tastes in games than men do.

    Women typically play games that are more pick up and play like puzzle games, platformers, or basic FPS’s like halo.
    They also can get into role playing games a lot. Many of these games let you personalize your character anyway. Plenty of girl gamers play WoW.

    Aside from RPG’s…. most women who don’t self identify as a gamer would rather play a more casual game like Ms Pac Man than say… Grand Theft Auto. I’m not sure why this is, ,………..but I think many times men play games for competition, or to achieve things and get a sense of accomplishment (E-Penis if you will), while women play for the interaction, story, or just simply to pass the time.

    It’s pretty easy to see that a big drop in female console gamers occurred right in the mid 90′s. Almost everyone I know played mario as kids. Maybe even Sonic. The time of the Playstation 1 was when the controllers got significantly more complex as did the overall game design. Casual gamers dropped off as the “hardcore” gamer emerged. However, millions of people were probably still playing the SNAKE game on their TI-85 calculators. The recent wave of more “intuitive” control (wii, kinect, move) has successfully tapped back into this casual gamer market, of which many are women. Nintendo’s “Blue Ocean” marketing strategy worked.

    This is not saying that more complex game design > casual game design.There’s different strokes for different folks. I think simple game design can be more pure, and there’s a lot less to screw up. Ms Pac Man is one of the best designed games of all time, and is certainly better designed for a casual experience than something like Final Fantasy VII. Yet it’s also simple. “Eat Dots. Avoid Ghosts” Done.

    Current Xbox and PS3 games are primarily aimed at the “hardcore” gaming market, which is predominantly male. You have to look at other platforms such as the wii, Facebook, cell phones, and the internet to realize that the market for “female gamers” is growing tremendously, albeit sometimes in traditional stereotypical gender role ways.

    For example, cooking games, equestrian games, dance games, “MY SKANK BRATZ” doll games (shoot me for knowing that) are aimed at little girl gamers. These types of games weren’t around as much back in the day.
    “Bejeweled” is one of the most popular games ever (downloaded over 150 million times) “Nuturing” type games such as The Sims, Second Life, Nintendogs, Animal Crossing, and hell even Farmville are extremely popular among women. Most of these women wouldn’t consider themselves “gamers” however, and that’s a huge issue.

    I could go on.

    Basic point here is that women play different games than men do for a multitude of reasons. It certainly could be socialized gender roles and norms in our society. “Men like guns and boobs and girls play w. ponies”
    But women do play lots of games, and there’s a huge industry for it. Those types of games though aren’t usually “hardcore” or made for “l33t gamers” and don’t garner the press that a AAA X360 title does, so we still think gaming is a “boys only” club. It’s not.

    C) lastly, regarding only attractive women in games… . That’s certainly not exclusive to video games. Look at cable news anchors, models, saleswomen, receptionists even. But that’s a reflection of society, not an indictment of video games.
    Also, it’s a matter of laziness in programming. Just as in art, It’s simply is easier to draw/program an ideal body type instead of relatively normal or overweight one. Straight lines are easier than curves, especially for computers. Heck, they still have a pretty difficult time portraying overweight people looking as anything but giant blocks, blobs, or boxes unless the character model is of extreme importance to the game. For example, Rufus in Street Fighter 4 or Bob in Tekken 6. Those characters wouldn’t have been possible 5 or 10 years ago. It’s not a great excuse, but the reasoning is there.

    Thanks for your time, Gaming is way more than the “hardcore” or the ones that self identify as “gamers”. Sexism in games and marketing aimed at the hardcore market or gaming subculture is endemic, but gaming overall is much bigger than that.

  • Alex Catgirl @ at 4:55 pm, December 14th, 2010

    I have some artistic ability, when I was in HS I developed avatar accessories, think clothes, for IMVU like many other teen girls, so not only are their female game developers, there are *teenage* female character developers.

    Unfortunately, the big development studios are behind the times, being formed by and for male geeks with poor social social skills (hence appeal of totally unrealistic female characters).

    Now to be fair, character rigging is a bitch, hair is an even bigger pain in the butt as unlike our hair, 3D hair doesn’t move like hair, it’s static…so you end up getting impaled by it, causes all kinds of problems.

    Soo the easy cheesy solution is to just stick a huge set of bewbs and paint a skimpy outfit on a male character and call them females :D :D :D .

    Seriously, if you look close at many of the video game characters males and females have the same body shape! Hewo, I’d have to work out at the gym for 20 years to get a body like that(and I’d probably lose my bewbs too)…on average girls tend to be shorter and have less girth/width/bulk than boys.

    Some game studios try, but it’s up to us to demand better representation.

  • 28six @ at 1:13 am, December 15th, 2010

    Im a guy, gamer, programmer, i lurk here from time to time and one of the reasons for the under representation of women in game design is usually around 2 reasons.

    1. The game development industry is notorious for being filled with anti-social people. Although, the stereotypical nerd is incorrect, a majority of us have anti-social attitudes and lack of social skills. Yes we do love D&D, and Warhammer 40K. the reason for the scantly clad women is, that’s our dream. As a result of our anti-social attitudes we branched off and formed our own culture(pretty much all things IT). We are perceived as weird, odd strange, and in some instances shady possible murderers. Nothing that women like. We dont really like change and dont conform to others ideals. We do believe in a meritocracy, if you got the skills welcome aboard.

    2. The hours are a bitch. There is no over time, at all. You will be working 70-90 hours a week. This is called crunch. Alot of women complain and question why they have to work and just cant hang and leave. Understandable as the stress is large enough to kill a small elephant.

  • j @ at 7:45 am, December 17th, 2010

    Wow, nice mansplaining in the previous comment! Look, nerd women who are interested in developing games are you know, often anti-social nerds too. The problem is the boy’s club mentality. Many men simply don’t want any faggy GIRLS girlying up their sexxxy and macho male fantasy games. I have a male friend involved with videogame design and even he is uncomfortable with the level of “omg we’re totally so macho” attitude.

  • EmilyBites @ at 9:50 am, December 17th, 2010

    Hi Danielle – first time for me on the site, and really, THIS.
    WoW gamer here, among other games, and I am sick to death of female characters having bikini armour, big boobs, implausible waists and hips. Female characters designed like this are primarily defined as ‘sexual’, according to a mutant, pornulated idea of what it means to be a woman (sex object!). Thanks, but I can be demeaned on the street any time – I don’t need to go online to be reduced to a pair of anatomically implausible tits.

    Couple of commenters above (see Robin Palm’s novel) felt the need to mansplain to you how you are totes missing the point. Popularity of LC and her new look aside, you make a valid and important point. I could go on. (But you probably need some sleep after reading that novel).

  • Emily @ at 5:17 pm, December 17th, 2010

    One more thing the article leaves out is that if you’re playing any sort of games with multiplayer interactions, and you either have a female avatar or a feminine user name or a feminine-sounding voice, you will get “ZOMG pix please?” and “Tits or GTFO!” reactions until you decide to just turn off voice chat and pretend you’re a guy. This leads to the illusion that there are fewer female gamers than there really are.

    Also, considering the number of girls in my computer science classes back when I tried majoring in it, and the percentage of girls that dropped out to do something else (usually another STEM field that they felt was a better fit for them), that 11% of game developers that are female probably pretty accurately reflects the proportion of women that have the training to be game developers – in other words, the lack of female game developers is probably a pretty direct result of everything else that prevents women from going into similar fields.

  • Reb V @ at 11:05 am, December 19th, 2010

    My sister and I are huge gamers, have been for years, though I must admit I’m now a little out of practice. When listening in on the X Box Live though it is still very clear that the female voice is still deeply in the minority.

    I think part of the reason is down to the fact that many boys/men have constructed a social group around their game playing that doesn’t lend itself well to new comers, particularly those that aren’t as experienced and doesn’t afford female friends the opportunity to learn. Trying to wangle my way into my now ex’s all male games night was a nightmare, despite the fact that they knew I didn’t own a console of my own and this would have been the only opportunity at the time to play and practice.

    There is also still the ‘ha ha, beaten by a girl’ stigma around when a group of boys play games, it really becomes a regression session at times.

  • TOMS @ at 3:55 pm, January 17th, 2011

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