Female Gaming Experience and Representation in Video Game Virtual Worlds

Video games and the carefully crafted virtual worlds they offer for exploration and engagement are important to understand. In this article, we observe why they are important to understand for female commentators and those with feminist concerns, although research has also examined matters as varied as racism, racial representation, colonialism, cyberbullying, and much more in virtual worlds. Suggesting the importance of understanding video games is that millions of people access them and participate in their worlds. Thus, video games become entangled with self-identity, social interaction, existentialism, and more.

What is a virtual world? A virtual world is “a separate world from that of the daily living, clearly defined in its spatial and temporal borders” (1), Contrary to some views in game studies, digitally created virtual worlds are not false realities, but are extensions of the real world. A craftily designed virtual world is hardly any different from real-world spaces persons interact with. Just like a playground for children or a sport’s stadium for fans offers real experiences, so do virtual worlds. The obvious difference, however, is that virtual worlds are immaterial and digital rather than physical, but they still serve a range of functions physical spaces do. For instance, the virtual world offered to players of the Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW) presents many “real” possibilities which include play, communication, social interactivity, friendship-making, and much else (2).

Virtual worlds are a particularly relevant site for exploration. These worlds do not exist in or emerge from an empty vacuum. Rather, they are created by designers who themselves are embedded within culture and have their own set of interpretations and biases on various themes (religion, gender, politics, metaphysics, etc.) that influence how one will perceive reality. These human biases and interpretations reflect in video games simply because video games are human creations. As digital spaces, virtual worlds become ripe for academic study. They are, in a sense, sites in which fieldwork can be conducted; for example, a researcher can spend months or years immersed in the virtual world for research purposes and this is what has made them apt for analysis of gender representation. 

Female Character Representation and Gaming Experience

Commentators and feminist theorists have many concerns motivating their study of female representation in games and the experiences of female gamers.

An interesting line of inquiry acknowledges, as we already noted, that video games are cultural objects. Since video games and virtual worlds are culturally influenced objects and within which significant abuse against female players occurs, what does this say about the broader culture in the “real” world outside of the game? As one commentator reflects, “Placing video games within larger cultural discourses is important as video games themselves are the product of larger cultural contexts” (3). This “shows how games are far from separate spaces, but rather are firmly embedded within everyday ideologies of gender, power and privilege” (4). Pertinent questions emerge. For instance, what in video games serves to cultivate sexist and derogatory name-calling of female players? What allows gamers to misbehave and get away with it? If a female in-game character is crafted by its designers influenced by cultural and ideological beliefs, what does this say about broader societal and cultural attitudes? 

Derogatory name-calling and harassment within video games is a common experience for many gamers. This is, of course, much broader than feminism and can become relevant to general gaming experience, cyberbullying, and even the law. But cyberbullying occurring within virtual worlds is relevant to feminist concerns and female gaming experiences. 

Further, it is noted that gender construction in games can have a real-life impact on female players. Research shows that media representations of body ideals can cause body dissatisfaction in many women, as well as shame, self-objectification, and so on (5). Since video games are a form of media that many women and girls engage in, feminist commentators see relevance. These commentators realize that research demonstrates a strong correlation between media consumption and attitudes of acceptable gendered behavior and clothing (6). Media representation provides spaces for gender stereotypes to be condoned and reinforced. These concerns are consistent with social learning theory positing that certain gendered behaviors and beliefs are learned based on what consumers are exposed to daily on TV and in video games, and other media (7).

The female gaming experience is certainly worth taking seriously. Commentator Megan Boeshart argues that the way the female game character, in this case Sylvanas Windrunner from WoW (we will note female character representation below), is represented can inform attitudes of how female players should be treated and viewed in the game (8). The female character’s depiction (such as being unimportant, evil, villainized, or as a sexual object) can lead to male players deeming it appropriate to treat female players in similar ways. Boeshart continues, “I do not argue that all male players treat female players this way because that is simply not true. Rather, what I am suggesting is that if female players continue to be represented in such a negative way, it shouldn’t be surprising that players think it is appropriate” (9).

It is not doubted that sexism is very prevalent in video games (10). In Audrey Brehm’s study, over 75% of female players say they have witnessed sexism in games and 45.3% reported sexism to be a serious problem (11). Video games present opportunities for dominant, masculine ideologies to be reproduced, which is often sexist and demonizes that which does fit into the masculine model (12). Brehm argues that “hypermasculinity”, defined as the amplification of “masculine” cultural stereotypes (13), “allows for an abundance of sexism in online gaming.” 

Hypermasculinity includes masculine traits and behaviors that can result in dismissal or hostility toward expressions of femininity (14). Because the gaming community is often perceived as a masculine environment, female gamers can become a challenge to this perception and thus be met with hostility and dismissal. For example, there is the presence of rape jokes while those who speak against sexism have been ridiculed, verbally assaulted, and harassed by others in the gaming community. Those who speak against perceived problematic female character representation in games also become victims of verbal abuse. It has been suggested that threats, such as femininity, to male gender roles produce a threat to the self-concept of men, especially those holding extreme male gender roles (15).

Sometimes the result is prejudicial treatment of female players. Female players are often stereotyped as inferior players; as one WoW enthusiast explains: “I have been in raid and when the rest of the raiders found out that raid leader was female the majority of them left group. Another instance was when our group was having trouble downing a particular raid boss and a female raider had a suggestion (who had downed that particular boss). I feel the suggestion was completely dismissed because of her gender” (16). According to a female player: “Once I healed a dungeon and the group said what a great job I was doing. It later was discovered I was female and they were astonished that I “could actually play well with those tits in your way” (their words)” (17).

That fewer females play MMORPGs like WoW might perpetuate the idea that they are generally worse at playing these games than males. This might be further exacerbated because female players are more likely to hide their gender in the game. Also feeding this stereotype is that female players are judged more harshly and scrutinized to a greater degree than their male counterparts. WoW female players speak of their in-game successes being attributed to some other source rather than to them (18). Female players are also ignored, trivialized, and vilified in online discussion forums (19) and fear that others will stop playing with them if their gender identity is revealed (20).

This raises the pertinent issue of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying, sometimes referred to as “griefing” or “flaming”, is a form of harassment in which players utilize video game structure or physics to cause distress in others in a virtual world (21). Flaming is particularly serious and has one or more in-game players swearing, calling names, ridiculing, and hurling insults toward others and against their character, religion, race, intelligence, and physical or mental ability, etc. (22). There are cases in which flaming has led to legal repercussions for perpetrators. 

A feminist commentator on cyberbullying is more specific and would prefer focusing on the gender aspect to flaming and griefing (23). Again, one might ask how this offers insights regarding broader social and cultural norms since cultural norms and gender roles might well translate themselves into the social online gaming world (24). Blehm points to “gendered flaming/griefing” for the insults and derogatory language aimed at the female gender. In WoW, female players have removed themselves from social gaming situations (leaving guilds, raids, servers, etc.) to avoid flaming or griefing. Female players have also been deliberately excluded from social engagement by kicking or barring them from raids and guilds. Female players are thus prevented from enjoying important parts of WoW that are easily accessible for male players. Flaming also occurs in voice chat in which derogatory language is directed at female players. 

We now arrive at the thorny issue of female character representation in video games and virtual worlds. WoW, for example, includes a diverse female cast in its many charismatic warriors, heroines, powerful goddesses, and villains. The issue some have, however, pertains to their highly stereotypical representation. One concern notes the underrepresentation of female lead characters and that many of them play secondary or background roles. These roles are limiting and usually tied to male characters (25). The male character is most often a white, heterosexual, male model (26).

Second, concern is directed at how female characters are portrayed in games. In WoW, as in many other games, female characters are often adorned with revealing clothing and scantily clad. This depiction is seductive and objectifying. For example, the female character is often given large breasts. A 2007 study found that of 479 images in popular gaming magazines, 59.9% of the female characters were sexualized in contrast to the less than 1% of male characters rated the same (27). A female WoW player comments,

“I actually commented earlier on a forum thread about the sexiness of the female characters. The shape of their bodies is laughable and ridiculous. The male bodies aren’t exactly realistic either but at least they don’t look like pornstars. I’m not saying the girls should be flat as a board, I’m just saying they should tone it down a bit… even just a little boob reduction would be better” (28).

Although male characters are often portrayed as muscular and heroic, they are rarely portrayed as objects of sexual desire (29). One could suggest that studies looking at how such depictions of male characters might impact the lives of male players would prove interesting.

Nonetheless, the deliberate portrayal of female characters as sexualized is suggestive to whom the industry wants to target their products; as Karen Ross explains, “Historically, boys and men have always been perceived as the primary target market by game developers, so characters and contexts, especially violent ones, have been constructed with the preferences of a male audience in mind… and where most female characters do appear, they are often highly sexualized” (30).

As a sexualized character, one can point to Sylvanas Windrunner, a major female lead in WoW’s universe spearheading the Undead or Forsaken faction in Azeroth. Sylvanas is depicted in a highly sexualized manner. Her upper body armor is mostly a plate bra and her shoulders, cleavage, and midriff are visible. This choice depiction is interesting given that Sylvanas is meant to be an “undead” (zombie) character who should have a rotting corpse. Her sexualized depiction, however, ignores those physical circumstances within the game. This is not so for the other in-game undead characters who evidence clear signs of rot, odor, missing skin fragments, and missing jaws and eyes (31). This makes Sylvanas’ sexualized representation seem like a deliberate choice on behalf of the game developers.

Sylvanas is not the only female WoW character commentators have observed depicted this way. Jaina Proudmoore and Tyrande Whisperwind, to name just two others, are noted for being “heteronormative mirrors” with “available sexualities” (32).

There is evidence of undermining female characters too. A scene involving Sylvanas has been particularly problematic to some commentators in this regard. In a scene, the evil orc Garrosh Hellscream, also a major character in the WoW universe, calls Sylvanas a “bitch”. Sylvanas is again called this at a later stage by another male character. This insult has engendered commentary on the representation of female characters. The “bitch” slur is understood as a cultural depiction utilized to “describe any woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men” (33). In the case of Sylvanas, she “is powerful, and because she is powerful, automatically she is painted as a scary, angry, and unfeminine character through the word “bitch”. This and other problems of the female gaming experience (insults and prejudice against female players, cyberbullying, the need to hide one’s gender identity, seeing female players as sexually available, etc.) show, some commentators believe, the androcentrism of the privileging of males, male experience, and the male perspective in video games.

The sexualized representation of female characters in WoW is suggestive of them being designed and created by male developers. The majority of the WoW development team at Blizzard is male which affords men the power to create their own female characters and shape how others will view these characters. The developers not only create these characters but also develop in-game lore and narrative surrounding them (34).

Those with feminist concerns and concerns over female representation and gaming experience are activists. A major goal is to make video gaming generally more inclusive. Although women constitute a large section of gamers globally, certain game genres, like the MMORPG genre, are dominated by male players and developers. Feminist commentators point out how males being the creators of these games contribute to “negative stereotypes about women in their story writing that help to reinforce the validity of the belief that women have no place in video games, in places of power, or in other spheres that are currently considered male-dominated” (35).

The female stereotyping is, some commentators maintain, “oppressive”. Representation can cause the “social oppression and disempowerment of individuals within the stereotyped group” (36). As such, game representations of females can contribute to oppression.

Several areas that some female gamers believe can make their experience more inclusive and realistic. This includes games offering more realistic customizable options for female players when creating in-game avatars (characters) to navigate virtual worlds. For now, the representation of female characters tends to be limited to hyper-sexualized options. Some suggest that it would help if there were more female game developers on the team and community managers. We noticed how this is a feminist concern since female depictions tend to be created by their largely male designers to attract male gamers who constitute most of the base.

References

1. Rapp, Amon. 2020. “An exploration of World of Warcraft for the gamification of virtual organizations.” Electronic Commerce Research and Applications 42:1-17.

2. Geraci, Robert M. 2014. Virtually Sacred. Myth and Meaning in World of Warcraft and Second Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 213.

3. Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.; Shaw, Adrienne. 2010 “What is video game culture? Cultural studies and game studies.” Games and Culture 5(4):403-424. p. 410.

4. Braithwaite, Andrea. 2013. “‘Seriously, get out’: Feminists on the forums and the War(craft) on women.” New Media Society 16(5):703-718. p. 5 (PDF).

5. Smith, Stacy., Choueiti, Marc., Prescott, Ashley., and Piper, Katherine. n.d. “Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television.” PDF. p. 2, 6, 19.

6. Beasley, Berrin., and Standley, Tracy C. 2002. “Shirts vs. skins: clothing as an indicator of gender role stereotyping in video games.” Mass Communication & Society 5(3):279–293.

7. Brehm, Audrey L. 2013. “Navigating the feminine in massively multiplayer online games: Gender in World of Warcraft.” Frontiers in Psychology 4(903). Available.

8. Boeshart, Megan. 2014. “Female Gamers, Sylvanas Windrunner, and Sexism: Gender Politics in World of Warcraft.” Dissertation, Texas State University. p. 66.

9. Boeshart, Megan. 2014. Ibid. p. 66.

10. Bertozzi, Elena. 2008. “‘You play like a girl!’: cross-gender competition and the uneven playing field.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 14(4):473-487; Dill-Shackleford, Karen. E., Brown, Brian P., and Collins, Michael A. 2008. “Effects of exposure to sex-stereotyped video game characters on tolerance of sexual harassment.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44(5):1402-1408; Jenkins, Henry., and Cassell, Justine. 2008. “From quaker grrls to desperate housewives: a decade of gender and computer games.” In Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, edited by Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun. London: MIT Press; Gray, Kishonna L. 2012. “Intersecting oppressions and online communities: examining the experiences of women of color in xbox live.” Information Communication and Society 15(3):411-428; Salter, Anastasia., and Blodgett, Bridget. 2012. “Hypermasculinity & Dickwolves: The Contentious Role of Women in the New Gaming Public”. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56(3):401-416; Braithwaite, Andrea. 2013. Ibid.

11. Brehm, Audrey. 2013. Ibid. 

12. Gray, Kishonna L. 2012. Ibid.

13. Parrott, Dominic J., and Zeichner, Amos. 2008. “Determinants of anger and physical aggression based on sexual orientation: an experimental examination of hypermasculinity and exposure to male gender role violations.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 37(6):891-901.

14. Salter, Anastasia., and Blodgett, Bridget. 2012. Ibid. p. 402.

15. Parrott, Dominic J., and Zeichner, Amos. 2008. Ibid. 

16. Brehm, Audrey. 2013. Ibid. p. 5. 

17. Brehm, Audrey. 2013. Ibid. p. 5. 

18. Brehm, Audrey. 2013. Ibid. p. 6.

19. Herring, Susan. 1999. “The Rhetorical Dynamics of Gender Harassment On-Line”. The Information Society 15(3):151-167. 

20. Yee, Nick. 2008. “Maps of digital desires: exploring the topography of gender and play in online games.” In Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, edited by Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun, 82-95. London: MIT Press.

21. Warner, Dorothy E., and Raiter, Mike. 2005. “Social context in massively-multiplayer online games (MMOGs): ethical questions in shared space.” International Review of Information Ethics 4(7):46-52; Coyne, Iain., Chesney, Thomas., Logan, Brian., and Madden, Neil. 2009. “Griefing in a virtual community: an exploratory survey of second life residents.” Journal of Psychology 217(4):214-221.

22. Kayany, Joseph. M. 1998. “Contexts of uninhibited online behaviour: flaming in social newsgroups on Usenet.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 49(12):1135-1141. p. 1138.

23. Brehm, Audrey. 2013. Ibid. p. 2.

24. Malpas, Jeff. 2009. “On the non-autonomy of the virtual.” Convergence 15(2):135-139. 

25. Brehm, Audrey. 2013. Ibid. p. 3. 

26. Eklund, Lina. 2011. “Doing gender in cyberspace: The performance of gender by female World of Warcraft players.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 17(3):323-342. 

27. Dill, Karen E., and Thill, Kathryn P. 2007. “Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions.” Sex Roles 57(11):851-864. 

28. Brehm, Audrey. 2013. Ibid. p. 8.

29. Dill, Karen E., and Thill, Kathryn P. 2007. IbId.

30. Boeshart, Megan. 2014. Ibid. p. 41-42.

31. Boeshart, Megan. 2014. Ibid. p. 42.

32. Mandelbaum, Jolie. 2010. “The Visible Female: Rape Culture and Horror in Starcraft and Warcraft.” An Online Feminist Journal 3(2):81-97. p. 87.

33. Zeisler, Andi. 2007. “The B-Word? You Betcha.” The Washington Post.

34. Boeshart, Megan. 2014. Ibid. p. 26.

35. Boeshart, Megan. 2014. Ibid. p. 45.

36. Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. 2010. Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 180.

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