Attractive women play video games

Representation of men and women in digital games

"Everyone's half-naked in Street Fighter!"

Action structures and characters in digital games mostly follow stereotypical gender roles. The sexualized objectification of female game characters is particularly striking. The few games with female characters often refer to clichéd ideas of femininity, which they reproduce by (not) embedding the portrayed woman in the plot and the visual (sexualized) representation.

By Maike Groen

Depiction of female characters in games

One of the most common roles female avatars play is the position of the “Miss in Need”: They are threatened by the antagonist of the plot and get into a situation from which they can only be freed again by the (male) main character of the game. The capture of women is often the trigger for the entire plot. This is not only the case in current action or role-playing games, but has also been part of the game content since the beginning of the industry Donkey Kong and Super Mario as classic examples.

MMORPG "Tera" - image source

In addition to poor playability, the representation of women in digital games is also problematic. The game design emphasizes the sexualization and objectification of female avatars, who are often noticeable through skimpy and dysfunctional clothing as well as a strong accentuation of their "bust size". A notorious example of this would be Lara Croft from Tomb Raider in the 90s. However, the majority of digital games from the fantasy genre also show primarily sexualized female characters. This is particularly noticeable in the case where an item of clothing (for example armor) has the same values ​​(for example high armor) but looks completely different on male and female bodies.

Apart from problematic game content, where female characters are used as background decoration or sex workers restore the life energy of the male heroes (e.g. in GTA V), in the overwhelming majority of commercially successful games, even in established and ongoing series, it is not possible to choose a woman as the protagonist. How important this can be for the players to identify with becomes clear when the designed mass phenomenon is reversed: The fact that the game Rust Randomly assigning a gender to you provoked a shit storm against the publishers of men who did not feel taken away.

So it is not surprising that more male socialized people are interested in so-called AAA titles, i.e. games with a very high development budget and large-scale advertising, and that girls are interested in puzzle games or The SIMS To fall back on. However, gender-inclusive game design is not achieved by designing new games explicitly for girls (“girl games”). This is because socio-cultural conditions in particular influence the possibilities of access to digital games and thus the choice of certain forms of play (cf. gender, socialization and technology). Game preferences and motivations are not static, but are subject to change. Orientation towards the status quo, which aims at supposedly immanent female gaming preferences, therefore only reinforces existing gender-typical tendencies and prejudices.

Representation of male characters in games

Men are also represented one-dimensionally in digital games. Many games use similar body and face models of male avatars, mostly white and muscular. And their stories are correspondingly similar: heroism and aggression are by far the most common traits, emotionality and reflection tend to be lacking.

However, equating the stereotypical representation of femininity / masculinity is not possible, even in games that show the majority of all avatars in relatively little clothing, such as fighting games (e.g. Tekken). Here, of course, all characters are somehow "objectified", that is, interchangeable, hardly with a background story and without a multidimensional personality. However, the sexualization of the characters is completely different, depending on whether it is a female or a male avatar. Men stay endowed with personality and appear less like things and more like sexy buddies. In contrast, a progressively oriented relaunch of the Tomb Raider Series tended to lead gaming fans to Lara Croft as a sexual object of Duke Nukem (Duke Nukem Forever) to express their displeasure at the fact that you can now see less of their body.

In any case, the representation of the avatars takes place in a social context anyway - and that means that men and women are each sexualized differently. Male sexualization is characterized by strength, power, and superiority. Due to their greater presence in the game, an objectification occurs only in rare cases, since they often have other characteristics besides "sexy". In the case of female figures, on the other hand, fragile postures, childhood schemes and passivity or femme fatale aspects are in the foreground. Something that in the superhero genre (whether comics or films) is now widely criticized by fans, with male characters adopting female poses to illustrate their absurdity.

In addition to the sexualized representation of individual characters, the possible range of male bodies is also much larger than that of women. An example of this is an overview of the champions (status: 2013) of the MOBA games League of Legends, divided by gender. The game is about fighting in a fantasy world, so there are many different types of representation for men: As monstrosities, goblins, with robot parts, giant monkeys or other things. For women, on the other hand, one type of physique clearly predominates - thin and clichéd and attractive. Here you can see, for example, that although the portrayal of men can be criticized, women are clearly more affected by stereotypes - men can at least choose something, women not.

In terms of an open and inclusive game culture, games that offer freedom in both the plot and display of the game and do not force players to follow familiar paths would therefore be welcomed. Examples of this would be the The SimsRow or the Mass Effect-Triology. Here you can not only choose your own avatars to a relatively large extent, but above all a freer form of sexuality can be lived. However, the more progressive examples are still contrasted by an overwhelming number of games in which non-normative forms of desire and gender roles are not visible. And even in the Mass Effect In the series, women mostly have a stereotypically similar physique (regardless of whether they are aliens, robots or humans) and there is greater body diversity for male characters.

At the level of representation, game content still shows a small range of forms of articulation of gender and, above all, a restrictive and reactionary notion of femininity - although more recent developments give hope for a greater inclusion of alternative possibilities.


The short videos by Feminist Frequency on YouTube provide an impressive, albeit logically selective, overview of the roles of women in digital games. Feminist Frequency is a web series founded by Anita Sarkeesian in 2009 that critically examines the representation of women in the media. The English videos are easily accessible thanks to their German subtitles and are explicitly intended for educational use.

References (selection)

Downs, E. & Smith, S. L. (2010): "Keeping Abreast of Hypersexuality: A Video Game Character Content Analysis". In: Sex Roles, 62; 11, pp. 721-733.

Harrar, S. (2010): "The Lara Form - Textual ambiguity and commercial success". In: Swertz, Christian / Wagner, Michael (Eds.): GamePlaySociety - Contributions to contemporary Computer Game Studies. Kopaed-Verlag, Munich. Pp. 13-26.

Williams, D .; inter alia (2009): "The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games". In: New Media Society; 11; Pp. 815-834.

Rust Players divided over unchangeable Character Sexes

Female Vs Male Champion Design in LoL

The Hot Ryu Meme: Sexiness versus Sexual Objectification