‘Critically evaluate the representation of gender in computer and videogames’

In this essay I will discuss the representation of women in computer and videogames, I intend to consider a number of things, beginning with a discussion of representation generally, drawing largely on the work of Stuart Hall. I believe that an understanding of representational theory is important if we are then going to apply it to something more specifically, in this case, gender in computer and videogames. I will also be looking at stereotypes as a particular form or representation, as I expect to find them prominent in a number of computer and videogames. I will be looking at the ways different genders are represented within these texts, who the texts seem to be intended for, as well as who is actually playing them. I intend to use specific examples to illustrate my points, looking at games such as ‘Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball’, ‘The Sims’ and ‘Tomb Raider’ among others. I also wish to look at who is playing games, and what games they are playing, I will do this with reference to ‘pink games’ and all girl gaming clans in games such as ‘Quake’. I will also discuss the games industry, and the problems inherent in it, such as the unequal percentage of women on the workforce. I intend to focus on the representation of women, as this appears to be more problematic then that of men.


Stuart Hall describes representation as an ‘essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture’ (Hall, 1997a: p15). Hall then goes on to explain that he believes that there are two major ways in which representation can work and be successful, the first is to depict or describe something, to be able to picture it in ones mind, as a result of a description or portrayal, because something bears a likeness to the thing being represented. The second type of representation, according to Hall is that of symbolism, when one thing stands for, or is a symbol for something else, the thing being represented (Hall, 1997a: p16) this occurs when there is no logical connection between the two things, or to use Ferdinand Saussure’s terminology ‘the signifier’ and ‘the signified’ (in Easthope and McGowan (eds) 1992: p6). Hall also suggests that representation is what connects meaning to language, both verbal and written as well as the less obvious forms of language such as images, However, as Hall states, there must be a group of people to whom the language, the signifiers have meaning in order for them to be used and for representation to be achievable. The most obvious example of this is different languages that are used in different countries, a person must have knowledge of the German language to recognise that ‘lesen’ means ‘to read’ or ‘schreiben’ means ‘to write’.


I believe that the stereotype is a widely used mechanism within computer and videogames; therefore I think that it’s prolific use makes it important to understand what is meant by the term as a form of representation. Dyer describes stereotypes as a form of social construct, and states that they are mainly used as a way of referring to or talking about people that one does not understand or know (1993: p138). According to Weedon a stereotype is a the ‘construction fixed and often negative images of another social group, which is then applied without differentiation to all members of that group’ (2004: p167) meaning that stereotypes are simply generalisations based on a small minority of people and subsequently applied to a larger group. Weedon continues using the example that ‘the assumption…that all women are less rational or more emotional than men, [is] based on reductive, stereotypic thinking’ (2004: p167). Sometimes these generalisations have a basis in the history or past of the people concerned but they are also based on not much if anything at all. This is problematic for a number of reasons, such as the way in which they are usually negative, as Barker states  ‘a stereotype involves the reduction of a persons to a set of exaggerated, usually negative character traits’ (Barker, 20005: p307), Stuart Hall goes on to emphasise this point by saying that ‘stereotyping reduces, essentializes, naturalizes, and fixes difference’ (Hall, 1997b: p258)


The first example I wish to discuss is ‘The Sims’ and ‘The Sims 2’, both of which can be seen as problematic in several ways regarding the ways in which gender is portrayed and represented. According to Pnueli ‘The Sims titles are the only videogames that have managed so far to establish a long standing ‘demand and supply’ relationship with its female consumers’ (2005: p2). The first thing Pnueli discusses regarding women in ‘The Sims’ is the problematic nature of Bella Goth’s character, describing her as a sort of housewife femme fatale character within the games framework, ‘she is ‘bored stiff over the house’ and has nothing better to do than flirting around’ (Pnueli, 2005: p2). Although, as Pnueli states, the game initially appears to be quite liberated in terms of a woman's role, with both male and female characters having the same professional opportunities and starting with equal amounts of money, there are restrictions, a major one being that of the issue of childcare, when a couple with the games have a baby, it is the mother that must stay home and care for it, only being able to return to work when the baby has grown into a child, and then has to start her career from the beginning, despite any previous achievements (2005: p4). Pnueli draws in the work of Laura Mulvey in his discussion of the game, and her ideas about ‘visual pleasure’ and ‘the male gaze’, she states that ‘pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female’ (Mulvey in Pnueli, 2005: p4) Pnueli suggests that ‘The Sims’ is a voyeuristic game by nature, as the main objective of the game is to create and watch characters, however, Pnueli also points out that contrary to Mulvey’s ideas, in ‘The Sims’ both male and female characters are equally subjected to the ‘gaze’ of others.


However, I think the most obvious example of voyeurism, and other things that Laura Mulvey discusses, within a game, is ‘Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball’. It  ‘throws the hot girls from the Dead or Alive fighting series into skimpy bathing suits and has them battling it out in high-powered volleyball matches’ (Anon, 2006). The story behind the game only worsens its appearance, a man named Zack, who features in a previous game, wins a ridiculously large sum of money in a casino, with which he purchases an island, and goes on to name it after himself ‘Zack Island’. He then decides to get the female characters from the previous game onto his island under false pretences, telling them that the next tournament will be held there. Once there they realise the truth and are stuck there on the island in bikinis playing volleyball, while Zack is free to sit in his hotel and watch (anon, 2006b). This clearly reflects Mulvey’s ideas, she says  ‘At the extreme it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs’ (Mulvey, 1989: p17) Another part of the game involves buying gifts and getting rewards, these are all in the form of clothes, accessories, and swimsuits. However, one of the main criticisms of this game, in terms of gender representation, has been the way in which the female characters have been taken from ‘Dead or Alive 3’ where they feature as strong women in a fighting game, and been placed into a new game where they are relatively passive and scantily clad. One advert for the game features the tagline ‘play with a friend or play with yourself’ (Anon, 2006c). However, it has been argued that the game itself, and its marketing are so blatantly sexist that they were in fact intended to be ironic.

Another example, which also draws on Mulvey’s ideas, is that of the ‘Tomb Raider’ Games, which again, at first glance seem to be a positive reflection on women, featuring a strong, intelligent, attractive female protagonist Lara Croft. According to Toby Gard, the creator of ‘Tomb Raider’, Lara ‘confounds all the sexist clichés apart from the fact that she’s got an unbelievable figure’ (in Cassell, 1998: p30). Gard went on to explain that Lara is both a strong independent woman that makes her attractive to female players but also has a ‘sexually attractive figure for their core male market’ (in Cassell, 1998: p30). However, there have been complaints and objections, from the female fans, regarding the promotional tactics used to sell the game to male players including the ‘hiring of scantily clad model to impersonate Croft at computer trade shows’ (Cassell, 1998: p30). Another thing that emphasises the voyeuristic and subsequently problematic nature of the game is an ‘underground industry in home developed nude shots of Lara croft, including a ‘nude raider’ (1997) website’ (Cassell, 1998: p30). It is also worth noting that ‘game magazine coverage… explain the phenomenon almost entirely in terms of her erotic appeal to young male players’ (Cassell, 1998: p30). It has also been argued that, despite appearances, Tomb Raiders success is not due to women's identification with Lara croft, not because they are empowered, but rather because it is an opportunity for men to experiment with the notion of disempowerment (Clover in Cassell, 1998: p31).


I believe it is also important to pay some attention to who is playing these games, and what games they are playing. It is a long-standing stereotype that it is boys that play games, and the recent emergence of ‘pink games’ such as ‘Barbie Fashion Designer’ helps to enforce this stereotype and further segregate women and girls from the world of gaming (Cassell, 1998: p108-9). However there are many examples that work against these sorts of stereotypes, the most noted of which is that of  ‘Quake’ and its numerous female clans, with names such as ‘Die Valkyrie’ or ‘Clan PMS’ (psycho men slayers) to do battle in on-line ‘Quake’ tournaments (Cassell, 1998: p32). As Cassell states ‘The most powerful challenge to the separatist logic behind the girls’ game movement has come from an unlikely corner- organisations of female gamers who have embraced the traditional fighting games, especially Quake, as a space where they can confront men…and literally beat them at their own game’ (1998: p32).

Another issue that must be addressed is that of the games industry, it is a common theory that the reason the games market, and the range of games available to consumers is so male oriented, and limited is because of the lack of women working in the games industry. The director of Xbox advanced technology at Microsoft, Laura fryer stated that ‘half the population isn’t having input into what’s being created…and the one thing I learned is that people make games they want to play’ (in Haines, 2004: p8). Of course this notion is only problematic because of the tiny percentage of women that makes up the working force of the games industry ‘according to the Skillset census of 2002 only 16% of those working in the games industry are women’ (Haines, 2004: p5), Lizzie Haines states that this seemed to be more of an issue in larger companies, with some having a percentage of women as low as 1% (2004: p5). The problem goes further however, since the majority of women that are working within the games industry have managerial, administrative, marketing and PR roles, with 73% working outside of game creation and other specifically game related roles (Haines, 2004: p6). There are also numerous problems for the women that are already working within the games industry. From her survey, Haines noted that a significant number of women stated that they felt they were slower to be promoted and their skills were much less recognised, ‘female UK games professionals earn £374 less at starting salary, and progress more slowly through the ranks’ (Krotoski in Haines, 2004: p11). A female QA lead tester stated that ‘I’ve had to work twice as hard as most blokes here to progress in my career. I find it a constant battle to continue working in the place I bizarrely love’ (in Haines, 2004: p3). It could also be argued that these sorts of ideas and statistic could also be part of the reasons behind not only what games are being made, but also the way in which they are being made. I personally find it hard to believe that there were many women working on ‘Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball’ and as Kate Roberts asks ‘would ‘Tomb Raider’ have sold so many copies if Lara had been wearing a nice warm sweater and sweatpants?’ (in Cassell, 1998: p30).


There are other factors that aid the continuing exclusion of women from the gaming world, the main targeted audience for most videogames is 18-35 year old males, this results in a number of things, including the lack of playable female characters in videogames, because it is commonly believed that a male would not want to play a game as a woman, however, ‘using a female protagonist actually increased sales of ‘Kings Quest IV’ overall by bringing in more female game players’ (Wright in Frejadis-Chuberka, 2005: p3). However, as Frejadis-Chuberka states, rather than seeing the inclusion of female playable characters as a positive step towards the inclusion of women, it has in fact been used to further ‘reinforce the male status quo as players of videogames. The female playable characters in most games are highly sexualised and designed with a heterosexual male gaze in mind’ (Frejadis-Chuberka, 2005: p3), and so once again we are drawn back to Laura Mulvey’s ideas of voyeurism. Another example of this is ‘Grand Theft Auto III’ which feature highly masculine activities, the playable character is male and to gain health points he must have sex with prostitutes, letting women know that this game was intended for men, Frejadis-Chuberka states that ‘the lack of playable character choice highlights the absence of consideration of women as an audience for the game during the game design phase’ (2004: p4) despite this it was ‘considered to be one of the most ground breaking videogame due to its freedom of play in a living world’ (Frejadis-Chuberka, 2005: p3).


From looking at the examples above and the discussion of the videogames industry itself I think it is clear to see that the representation of women within computer and videogames is very limited to stereotypes and sexualised generalisations, even looking at ‘The Sims’ where it is the female who must stay at home to care for the baby, losing any previous career related achievements, simply goes further is reinforcing the idea of women as housewives, in ‘The Feminine Mystique’ Betty Frieden raises the issue of magazines and how they endorse myths of fulfilment through domesticity in a chapter called ‘The Happy Housewife Heroine’ where she states that ‘the image of… the suburban housewife with an up and coming husband and a station wagon full of children...this image- created by women's magazines, by advertisements, television, movies…shapes women's lives today and mirrors their dreams’ (1963: p30), I believe the same ideas can easily be applied to videogames. If women are not generalised or sexualised within a game, then it usually means that they are completely absent, which is possibly even more problematic than the other two issues. Games such as Tomb raider would not be as widely noted if games with a female protagonist and main playable character were commonplace. I think this stems from the popular belief that playing videogames is a male pastime, therefore when games are created they are created by men, for men, even when a female audience is considered, such as in ‘Tomb Raider’ with the inclusion of Lara Croft as the main character, men are still the targeted demographic, hence her skimpy outfit and figure. Because of this some women are disinclined to both play games and work in the industry, resulting in a vicious circle where women are unlikely to be considered as an equal audience for videogames and unlikely to become an equal part of the working force behind the production of videogames.


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