How the cycle of misrepresentation continues and what we can do to end it.
CW: This article discusses topics of sexual harassment, hate speech and body image, which could be distressing to some readers.
Women have been misrepresented in video games ever since Lara Croft's triangle chest and impossibly tiny waist made their first appearances in 1996. Recent years have seen an amplification of better representation for women in video games, with diversified body types and women of colour, in particular, being represented more than ever. However, the root cause of this matter still exists. Women still aren't being represented enough in video games. With 86.4 percent of female internet users aged 16 to 24 years worldwide having played video games on any kind of device in 2021, women are far from unlikely to consider themselves gamers. So, why are game developers failing to include, represent and celebrate a diverse range of people in their products?
Women have had very little positive representation in video games since their inception, and as a result, men have become used to a singular type of representation of women - white, Eurocentric, skinny, big breasted and often with very little clothing. Whilst this is an entirely inaccurate portrayal of women, particularly of those fighting in war-like/apocalyptic scenarios, it has quickly become the expected norm. Now, whenever a woman who doesn't meet these standards is introduced, the character will more often than not be met with endless backlash, usually claiming that ‘a real woman wouldn’t look like that’.
One prominent example of this came with Aloy, from Horizon: Forbidden West. Gamers complained that her new character model wasn’t as slim and 'feminine' as the one from her previous game, Zero Dawn. This even led to Twitter users making their own alterations, claiming they've 'fixed' her appearance to look more 'feminine'. These fixes included altering her physical features, slimming her face down, and adding eyeshadow and lipstick, which actually fail to exist in the game world of Horizon itself.
Another example would be the rampant body-shaming of Abby from The Last of Us Part II. Abby is a playable character with a muscled and stocky physique and has been the subject of mass misogyny online. People have stated that real women could never look like her and that it isn't possible to bulk up in a post-apocalyptic world, whilst not targeting the same abuse to the equally as stocky men in the same game. In addition to this, the abuse continued into real life, resulting in the character's voice actor, Laura Bailey, receiving death threats. The game was also targeted by mass negative user-reviews claiming that Abby's physique is "off-putting".
All of this negativity online makes for a grim looking future for positive representations of women, as it is loud enough to put off other developers from creating realistic female protagonists. However, if the fear of backlash is why there's so little representation, where does this backlash origin from in the first place?
Existing beauty standards
Cis-het beauty standards can be blamed for the vast majority of abuse. By forcibly desexualizing a woman that doesn't meet these standards through misogynistic abuse, men can feel like they’re taking her down a level, and making her weaker. They believe they cannot find her attractive because she’s already physically powerful; if she has power socially as well, where will men stand? Simply by existing, that woman will be attacked because she makes men feel like they’ve been emasculated.
On the other hand, men will try to 'reclaim' their masculinity by fetishising these women instead. Because they aren’t stereotypically feminine, they can only be deemed ‘acceptable’ to the male gaze if they are fetishised in a way that sexualises them and makes them maintain their femininity.
Another reason we don't see much of this representation in a lot of media is because it might turn off male audiences and this is one of the main issues - cis-het men were the only demographic in mind when coming up with these characters. Because larger women are a rarity in media, people will often demand an explanation as to why they looks that way. It's as if they must go through some sort of painful trial to explain why their body is the way it is, whereas if it was a man, would anyone really question it? Some characters who faced this kind of criticism include Gridlock from Rainbow Six Siege and Zarya from Overwatch. Regarding Overwatch, Zarya is less stereotypically feminine than the other women in the game, with a stocky build, short hair and battle scars. However, Brigitte, another woman in the game, is also very muscular, but because she has more feminine traits, she’s deemed more acceptable to men and doesn't face similar abuse. This all comes down to the fact that if a woman isn’t deemed attractive, she isn’t deemed worthy enough to be in a game. She cannot be her own entity.
The cycle continues - or does it?
This mindset travels with them, meaning that the men who get jobs developing video games will then infuse their backwards, sexist thinking into their craft. As a result, the cycle continues. This issue can only be solved by diversifying the game industry as a whole, by creating an inclusive space for women and non-binary people. Everyone deserves to feel safe and represented in the gaming community, and the mindset of only respecting people you're attracted to needs to end.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic button when it comes to fixing the lack of diversity and inclusion in video games. Even games that do feature minorities aren't always inclusive, the same way that games that have missed the mark aren't necessarily malicious. So while the hard work remains on developers to push for inclusivity, it's also important for us as an audience to continue the conversation about inclusion and hold these games to the standards we deserve. By continuing the talk about the importance of diversity, the sooner the industry will start to reflect the desires of the players it aims to serve.
If you're wondering what you can do to help as an individual, you can begin the shift of this culture by actively supporting games that are making a real effort to push for diversity. Just to name a few, Apex Legends, Hades and Spiritfarer all have fluid game casts, with a mélange of different body types, genders, cultures, and sexual orientations represented in a positive light. By voicing your support for these types of games, you can further the conversation around social equality and highlight to developers what we really want from video games.