Video game characters are iconic in youth popular culture. Their influence goes far outside of the realm of the game, so that even youth who do not play games are exposed to video game characters. For example, it is common for products to use video game characters in their marketing campaigns when targeting young adults. Moreover, it is not unusual for there to be an overlap between video games and other forms of popular culture. Video games may be spun off into books, cartoons, films, and television shows. There is nothing inherently wrong with the presence of video game characters in so much youth-oriented popular culture. However, while video games may seem like harmless fun, it is important to understand the content of those video games and the message that content sends to young players, in order to understand the potential negative impact of these games.
Concerns about video games tend to focus on three specific areas: violence, sexism, and racism. However, it is difficult to look at any of those issues in isolation. Sexism and racism have been used, for centuries, to support the dominant white male society; violence has been a means of forcefully perpetuating racism and sexism throughout society. Therefore, it is important to consider that all three issues tend to reinforce the negatives aspects of the other two issues. For example, paper will focus on sexism, though it is important for the reader to understand that any discussion of sexism in video games must, necessarily, discuss violence given that how the characters interact will either support or fail to support claims that video games are sexist. It is one thing to show scantily clad female characters, and some people may parse language and suggest that is simply a matter of objectification. When one looks at whether those scantily clad figures are subject to violence, it becomes more difficult to suggest that objectification does not imply sexism.
Popularity of Video Games
Video games are extremely popular, particularly among teenagers and young adults. They are particularly popular among young men. It is important to understand that a significant percentage of a teenage male's free time may be spent invested in video games. It is not only the time spent playing the game, but also the time spent discussing games with friends, reading gaming magazines, and in other related, ancillary activities, which determines what percentage of an individual's time is spent on video gaming. Moreover, it is not only the people who play video games that are influenced by video game culture; it is anyone who comes into contact with people who play videogames. The time spent on videogames has improved dramatically. Even more apparent is the way that videogames have come to pervade popular culture, as a whole This is a dramatic increase since the video game first became popular, because young adults had to go to arcades to play games at that time. The availability of home gaming systems has changed the world of gaming, which has changed the world of popular culture, and, literally marked a shift in overall youth culture.
Changes from Early Video Games
Evolving graphics have also led to significant changes in video games, making them very different from the first games that became popular in the 1970s and 1980s. "In the early years, gender representations in video games were limited to graphically unsophisticated characters such as Ms. Pac-Man, the hungry yellow orb whose only indication of gender was her pixilated hair bow" (Dill and Thill, "Video Game Characters" 851). Modern video games have the graphical capability to depict much more realistic human characters. Moreover, advances in other areas of technology allow these characters to move much like humans as well, imparting a sense of realism and present-ness to the characters that simply was not there in the days of Pac-Man. Video game designers take full advantage of this technology, portraying characters that are realistic, if not real. Moreover, because of this realism, it can be hard to distinguish between the video game character and portrayals of real people. Looking backwards at another form of popular media, the cartoon, one can look at an overtly sexualized character like Jessica Rabbit and understand that her proportions are not achievable in a human character. However, the blurring of the line between live-action and video games gives sexist implications to unrealistic representations of female proportions on other-wise human-looking video-game characters that may not necessarily have existed in prior forms of media.
Female Presence in Video Games
Another element that has changed in video games is the increase in the presence of female characters since video games were introduced. Video games began as a male dominated genre, and have remained a male-dominated genre since their inception. This is no surprise, given that young males are the primary players of video games. Whether the developers created the market or filled a void in an existing market is a subject for a different discussion, but females have consistently been underrepresented in video games. Moreover, even iconic early female videogame figures were generally marginalized in their roles. Ms. Pac Man might be the great exception, though there was nothing humanistic in the Pac-Man games, making it difficult to relate events from Pac-Man to the broader cultural context.
However, once "realistic" human-like figures began to be portrayed in video games, it became clear that women were treated as marginal when compared to males. Female characters did not appear as frequently or in the same roles as male characteristics. For example, Mario Brothers' popular Princess Peach Toadstool was present in the early video games, but players could not choose to play her character in the game. On the contrary, she was a damsel in distress that the brothers were attempting to rescue. While Princess Peach has evolved with the Mario Brothers' gaming legacy, she has not been joined by a substantial number of female protagonists in that game, or in other games. Female characters remain significantly underrepresented in video games.
Perhaps the most iconic, and most controversial, of all female videogame heroines is Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Croft simultaneously reaffirmed and challenged allegations that video games were sexist. The evidence that Croft was evidence of sexism in video games was largely based on her physical appearance. "Her body is excessively feminine- her breasts are massive and very pert, her waist is tiny, her hips are rounded and she wears extremely tight clothing" (Mikula p.79). In other words, Lara Croft is a sexual object. However, the relevant question is not whether Croft is a sexual object, but whether she is only a sexual object.
Physically, her appearance mirrors that of many other women in videogames, and might make her appear more than a visual treat for the boys playing the game. However, Lara Croft if not a background character in her video game: she is the lead character in the game. Moreover, the back-story in the game makes it clear that, while she may be unrealistically feminine and her appearance hypersexualized, Croft is more than a sexual object. She is also strong, a good shot, and intelligent. In fact, "As the sole survivor of a plane crash, who used her wilderness skills to stay alive for two weeks -- as well as being a trained rock climber, expert shooter, motorcyclist and world famous archaeologist" it would be error for anyone, from a fellow character in the game to a scholar commenting on the game, to assume that Croft was some type of victim (Mikula p.79). What these conflicting facts about the same character make clear is that it is impossible to lionize or demonize Croft. "Lara is everything that is bad about representations of women in culture, and everything good" (Mikula p.79-80).
Of course, Croft is not the only, or even the typical, female character in videogames. Many games do not feature strong female protagonists, but focus on women in objectified roles. Perhaps the most egregious examples of the objectification of women in videogames can be found in the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series of videogames. In GTA games, characters are very stereotyped by sex. Now, the series focuses on car thieves, so it is important to keep in mind that the characters portrayed in the series are generally criminals. The women in the series tend to be prostitutes or other types of sex workers, while the men are violent thugs. However, it is not simply the degrading occupations that alarm people about the depiction of women in GTA. Violence against women is not simply part of the background of the game, but something that characters can actively engage in throughout the game. Female prostitutes, when hit by a male character, are programmed to respond, "I like it rough" (Dill, "Media Violence" p.4). As if that type of encouragement of violence is not sufficiently alarming, in one of the games, a male character can have sex with a prostitute, then kill her and take his money back, earning…