Look at portrayal of women in games over the last 31 years reveals spike in sexualised protagonists in the 1990s following release of Tomb Raider

Study finds number of sexualised female characters has fallen ‘significantly’ in the last decade

A new paper from a group of researchers at Indiana University has suggested that the treatment of female characters in games has drastically improved over the last ten years.

Lead author and PhD student Teresa Lynch, assisted by academics Niki Fritz, Jessica E. Tompkins and Irene I. van Driel, looked at 571 titles released in the 31-year period between 1983 and 2014, focusing on whether major female characters were sexualised.

"In the 1980s and early 1990s, a lot of the graphical integrity just didn’t allow for the characters to be sexualised," explained Lynch.

"When we fast-forward to the next generation of consoles, which happened in the early to mid-1990s, we see the transition to 3D graphics, and that’s when we saw a big spike in the sexualisation of female characters. That continued its upward trajectory through the early 2000s and then, suddenly, we saw a decrease."

The paper particularly highlighted 1996’s Tomb Raider as potentially causing a rise in the number of sexualised female characters, with the game’s success possibly inspiring other devs to sexualise their characters to try and increase sales traction among the dominant male audience.

However, the study continued, this negative effect has been somewhat reversed over the last decade.

"We found that in essentially the last eight years, there has been a significant decrease in the sexualisation of female characters," Lynch explained.

"There are also a lot of characters who are in keeping with more feminist notions of what a powerful, non-objectified woman would look like. The remake of the Tomb Raider series and Lara Croft’s redesign is an excellent example of the way the industry is now humanising female characters."

Despite this, it’s not all good news. While lead female characters were found to be less likely to be sexualised, secondary characters “continued to be sexualised to a much greater degree”.

This is particularly worrying given a second finding that the proportion of women with primary roles in games has actually fallen, dropping from 52 per cent in the early years of the sample to 42 per cent in more recent years.

In news that may surprise some, the study found that the RPG genre is particularly sensitive in its treatment of women, with characters less likely to be sexualised than in categories such as action and fighting.

It also discovered that age ratings make little difference to the portrayal of women, with games rated ‘Teen’ (13 to 17) and ‘Mature’ (18-plus) exhibiting no differences in their sexualisation of female characters.

"When women are interested in gaming, they tend to spend far more time playing games than men,” Lynch concluded. “When it’s central to their identity, they’re more protective of what it means to be a gamer. So women are an important part of the core culture of gaming.

“Continuing to show one-dimensional portrayals of female characters and dismiss concerns about the way female characters are portrayed just doesn’t make good business sense.”

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