Scrutiny of the portrayal of gender and sexuality in video games has (thankfully) been growing in recent years. Headline-making controversy over tent-pole games like Tomb Raider, Metroid: Other M, and Dragon Age keeps popping up as both gamers and game makers (a bit of an arbitrary distinction, as most game makers are themselves gamers) awaken to issues of gender role stereotyping. It would be easy to posit that this would be a slow awakening as gaming is an industry run mainly by males from majority demographics - people who are rarely exposed to what it's like to live without their privileges - but this would ignore the complexity of the societal and financial forces (again, a false dichotomy as society and finance are inextricably intertwined) at work in the industry.
A new piece of research by Christopher Near of the University of Michigan, published recently in the journal Sex Roles, explores how some of those forces play out. In particular, the research examines the relationship between the portrayal of gender roles in box art and game sales themselves. Near posits that a focus on non-sexualized female characters (Princess Peach, for example) would be related to lower game sales, while box art focusing on men of any type would be related to higher sales; further, box art in which female characters are not the focus but are sexualized (Cortana, for example) would sell better. To quote the author:
In short, it is expected that "sex sells," but only when the sexualized women portrayed are also depicted as marginalized, consistent with a gender coding of the game that fits cultural stereotypes (Kimmel 2008). In this view, the success of Lara Croft was anomalous, as she was depicted as a central (albeit highly sexualized) female protagonist in the box art for Tomb Raider.
Follow along after the jump.
Of course, there's much more that sells a game than box art, so the research factored out variables such as reviews, when the game was published, ESRB rating, genre, system, and producer. But Near found that, even with all of those variables controlled for, the hypotheses were supported. Putting female characters front and centre, especially ones who are not showing cleavage, in a swimsuit, or off to the side, was associated with fewer game sales. Unfortunately, the statistics show this is a rather strong effect, and it is independent of who published the game, for what system, when it was published, and so on.
As Near readily points out, however, this is early research from an incomplete data set. The study examines US data only, and boxart can vary from region to region, so limiting the generalizability of the findings. Only games with ESRB ratings T and M were included, which are " a subset of games that are most often targeted at young males and are the most likely to feature sexualized women. " No PC games were included, and data suggest higher presence of women in casual game content, and more women playing casual game content. Importantly, while the regression analysis performed by the author is good at parsing the effects of different variables, it can't tell you how X causes Y - or even if X causes Y. In this case, it would make little sense to suggest that poor sales retroactively result in non-sexualized, central female characters being on the cover of a game, but if production companies don't believe those images will sell AAA titles, you won't see those images on box art or in other promotional material. Having women front-and-centre might only happen, therefore, for games that companies don't expect to sell well - or signifiers of a main character's femininity might be either obliterated - ehem - or purposely sexed up - ehem.
But levelling criticisms here is simply meant to point out what considerations need to be taken in future research. While it doesn't take empirical analysis to tell us that women are less-than in the video game industry, Near's bit of analysis shows that featuring women prominently, and especially when it's not in a sexualized way, is involved in a game's sales being lower than others.
And how sad is that?