From Damsels in Distress to Sexy Superheroes: How the Portrayal of Sexism in Video Game Magazines has Changed in the Last 20 Years
Alicia Summers, Monica K. Miller
In this critical analysis I will set out to examine arguments put forward by Summers & Miller in the titular article. This is a relevant source for me as a concept artist as I am at the root of designing these characters. Their portrayal in the mass media is key to how society views the gaming industry, and so it is very much an issue affecting my practice.
This is a particularly interesting article as it examines trends over time (20 years). It is vitally important as a modern practitioner to understand and identify shifting attitudes and portrayals in mass media in order to present work that is both relevant and culturally aware. My aim is to scrutinise the merit of the method used here to draw the conclusion that the shifting portrayal of sexism in video game magazines represents the actual games themselves.
The paper examines changing female representation in video games through an analysis of content published in console-specific magazines. They define ‘Benevolent Sexism’ (“more traditional attitudes towards women, particularly paternalistic, protective attitudes”), and ‘Hostile Sexism’ (“attitudes and behaviours that exploit women as sexual objects”). In video game magazines they propose that benevolent sexism has decreased over time (female characters less ‘innocent’ or less in need of rescue), whilst hostile sexism has increased over time (female characters increased in ‘sexiness’).
Their methodology in testing their hypotheses are sampling a collection of game articles featuring female characters from Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Power magazines from the years 1988-2007, which were evaluated by coders who rated the characters on multiple traits corresponding with attributes of Benevolent and Hostile sexism.
Their results seem to indicate that there is a definite shift in the portrayal of female characters in these magazine articles from benevolent to hostile sexism over time.
The conclusion that the researchers draw is that the content in these magazines is a mere snippet of the actual games, that the sexist portrayals in the articles must be reflected in the games, and that the resulting negative impact is a lot worse, as a players exposure to this content is a lot more prolonged than just reading an article.
Whilst I do not agree that they failed to show the shift from benevolent to hostile sexism in game magazines, they have enough evidence from their data collection to justify that, but then I feel there is a problem with drawing a direct comparison to the actual games themselves.
The main pitfall of this is that the researchers were looking at video game magazines, and not the actual core content (actual games). This is problematic on multiple levels – first of all it’s not looking at the root source, but rather drawing a conclusion on something that is several degrees of separation away from the actual game. To make an accurate conclusion about the portrayals of female characters in video games, then it would be advisable to actually analyse the games themselves.
They even point out the problem, stating: “If female characters are portrayed in this fashion merely in advertising the game, then one can only imagine how they are depicted in the actual game”. Without examining the games it is left to the imagination what those portrayals are – a serious flaw when drawing a conclusion that puts the content of the games as being more ‘extreme’ than the adverts.
So the researchers are actually a few degrees of separation away from what they’re making their conclusion on. The first degree of separation – these are articles by journalists. So they are analysing someone else’s opinion, and that person is providing a condensed version of the game, and a select few images that they have curated.
The second degree of separation is the editorial context. The magazines are owned and curated by their hardware developers (e.g. PlayStation magazine and Sony). They have a vested interest in their platform success, and so will curate content they feel will generate sales. Because of this, I feel that this study is more of an analysis of female portrayals within the advertising industry. It is recognised that this is game advertising, but a definite sub-category nonetheless.
Consider also the context of these magazines and a look at the readership – a stereotypically male demographic. In the article the authors cite examples of hostile sexism in the advertising industry, particularly in products aimed at men (beer commercials), suggesting that adverts create more sexualised version of the game for sales purposes. However, it could be argued that the advertising does have to mirror the content of the game, and so overall ‘trends’ could still largely be examined.
There is also the problem of data collection. The coders were “instructed not to use their own perceptions, but instead were trained to code on how a typical person in the US would view the character”. This is a vague statement and introduces illusory superiority – a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities relative to the general population. So is the coding is being done based on an assumption of a ‘typical person’ that would be a lot more susceptible to sexist portrayals of female characters?
Another issue with this is the time period that the researchers chose to examine. They make their concluding statement to their research findings in 2014 (year article published), but but articles looked at spanned from 1988-2007, so were at least 7 years old. There is a huge amount of rapid change in an industry as young as gaming. One example of this change is Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider franchise. The original game series ran from 1996 – 2008 (within the study range), but rebooted in 2011. Lara was massively re-designed – now ‘appropriately dressed’, proportions were more realistic and not over-sexualised. This is not looked at, despite the article being published in 2014
Although I do not disagree with the hypothesis that the portrayal of females in video game magazines has shifted from benevolent to hostile sexism, I do not think that the researchers have merit to draw their conclusion analysing what are effectively advertisements, especially when they cite other studies indicating the advertising industry is rife with content that objectifies women.
This connection is a classic example of the ‘false clause’ logical fallacy – Presuming that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other. This conclusion could have carried a lot more weight behind it’s statements if the researchers had done their analysis on the actual games themselves.
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Summers, A. and Miller, M.K., 2014. ‘From Damsels in Distress to Sexy superheroes: How the Portrayal of Sexism in Video Game Magazines has Changed in the Last Twenty Years. Feminist Media Studies, 14(6), pp.1028-1040.