Denigrating Portrayals of Women are Common in Video Game Industry; Will Sexist Stance End?
The video-game business has a long and troubled history of sexism and gender stereotypes. A round of scandals at multiple gaming companies offered a sad reminder that the industry has a lot more to do to fix its culture and, eventually, repair its reputation.
But the situation isn't hopeless. As a hit release from Sony shows, there is a big market for games that portray women as smart and resourceful actors rather than as pawns, victims and objects of male desire.
An incident at a conference about a decade ago has become the poster child for the industry's cultural issues. “I love the fact you have a lot of very strong female characters,” a woman said to an all-male panel of developers from Activision Blizzard Inc., maker of megahits World of Warcraft and Call of Duty. “However, I was wondering if we can have some that don't look like they stepped out of a Victoria's Secret catalog.” A smattering of applause was quickly drowned out by a sea of boos. Instead of defending her, the developers ridiculed her suggestion.
Despite an outcry at the time, the industry continued to struggle with hostile attitudes toward women. After Microsoft Corp. hosted a party five years ago with scantily clad female dancers on platforms, head of Xbox Phil Spencer was forced to apologize. More recently, League of Legends maker Riot Games Inc. has been sued for gender discrimination, while Ubisoft Entertainment and Activision Blizzard Inc. have let go several executives amid allegations of widespread sexual harassment.
Yet amid these painful episodes, there are also signs of progress. In particular, Sony Group Corp.'s 2017 blockbuster release, Horizon Zero Dawn, shows that there is a huge market for games that don't denigrate women.
Zero Dawn's main protagonist is a female character who doesn't look like a supermodel. Set in a post-apocalyptic time far in the future, the character, named Aloy, battles robotic dinosaurs and aims to stop a rogue artificial intelligence system from destroying life on Earth.
The game's developers said they wanted to create a “believable and inspirational hero for everyone.” And it worked. Players loved the character and the game's engrossing narrative and production values. Horizon went on to become one of Sony's most popular games, with more than 10 million units sold.
The sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, is poised to be one of the biggest releases of 2022 after it launches in February. If successful, it should encourage other publishers to move beyond superficial female appearances and focus on better storytelling and game quality. The positive response to the title among female gamers on industry websites and social media suggests it might help bring more female gamers to console games as well.
Characters like Aloy remain too rare among mainstream games. As a video-game enthusiast, I find it uncomfortable playing leading titles like Tomb Raider, Genshin Impact or Bayonetta, all of which feature female characters in skimpy outfits. But for now, gamers are stuck either watching sexist depictions of women or avoiding many of the gaming world's top franchises. Of course, plenty of best-selling videogames don't rely on cringe-inducing portrayals, but familiar gender tropes of the damsel in distress and the use of overly sexualized characters turn up far too often.
One obvious path toward reform would be to improve diversity among those who create games for deep-pocketed developers. Earlier this month, Activision released a report showing that only about one-quarter of its employees were female, a share it said was similar to its industry peers. A prior study found that women are even more underrepresented in executive roles in the industry. It's hard to imagine that some of the worst game-design decisions wouldn't have been avoided if there were more female voices participating in the process. Reeling from its own scandal, Activision says it will do better and hire significantly more women within five years.
The treatment of women in video games, both behind the scenes and as characters within them, is nothing short of scandalous. Hopefully the latest round of outrages, as well as the example of Sony's Horizon title, will spur publishers to change their culture. It's well past time that they did.
Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Barron's, following an earlier career as an equity analyst.