Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games? by Xeniya Kondrat

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 8, 2015

I’ve written about game-related academic papers a couple of times in the past. I think that the general gaming public would benefit by being more aware of the academic research, and the research would benefit if it received some scrutiny and discussion from the public. If I can ever arrange my schedule to suit, I’d like to do an ongoing series looking at some of these in detail (as with my previous posts) and giving briefer commentary on others (as this post will be).

Enough navel-gazing. Today, we’re taking a brief look at a recent paper in the Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology (Compaso) by Xeniya Kondrat, titled “Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games?”. The abstract:

Gender representation in video games is a current sensitive topic in entertainment media.
Gender studies in video games look at the difference between the portrayal of female and
male characters. Most video games tend to over-represent stereotypes and in general use
extensive violence and cruelty (Maietti, 2008). Some video games use wrong, disrespectful
and sometimes even violent representations of both genders. This research paper focuses
on the current representation of female gender in video games and how they are
represented, stereotyped and used as characters in games. Results show that there is a
difference between portraying women in the past and present. This research paper is
based on previous academic research and results which were achieved with online
questionnaire among game players and two interviews with professionals in the field of
game design. The results show that there is still negative stereotyping of female gender.
However, at the same time, the answers of the respondents show that the target audience
of video games desires improvements in presentation of female gender as well as male.

On accuracy

A study on the changing portrayal of female gender in video games is right up my alley, but this one sets off red flags from the word go. Compaso claims to be a peer-reviewed journal, but the “Introduction and background” section contains some errors that even the most passing familiarity with games (or the most cursory examination of the paper’s sources) would reveal.

I’ll look at just the first paragraph, sentence by sentence. Since Compaso is an open access journal (for which I am grateful, even if I’m being harsh on the paper), feel free to follow along with me, here.

Video game history started in 1940 when Edward Condon designed a computer that could play a game called “Nim” with one player (Video Game History Timeline).

That’s an odd place to begin. If you’re going to include simple games like Nim, you might as well include other electromechanical games of the era. I found a patent for an electrical shooting gallery with a lightgun that was filed in 1936, for example.

I won’t split hairs, though. You can choose whatever starting point suits you–there’s not one right answer. The reason the author chose this particular starting point, I believe, was that her sole source for information on the history of video games was the Video Game History Timeline cited, and it begins there.

The first home video game, “Space Odyssey”, was created in 1972.

I don’t know what to say about this one. I can’t find any game from that year with that title. I think Kondrat is confusing Spacewar! (released in 1962), one of the earliest computer games, with the Magnavox Odyssey (patented in 1968 and first sold in 1972), the first home game console.

In 1993, a release of “Mortal Kombat” forced the US government to start rating the games based on their violence level (Video Game History Timeline).

Again, this is just not right. The ESRB was established shortly after the release of Mortal Kombat (though the way I heard it, Night Trap was more responsible for its formation), but the ESRB is not part of the US government (which isn’t in the business of rating video games, or movies or anything else, for that matter), and games had been rated prior to its establishment, though not in so organized a fashion.

The first game with a female protagonist appeared in 1996: “Tomb Raider”.

Now this is just a whopper. Not only is it incredibly false, missing even hugely popular games like Metroid (and MobyGames lists at least 400 other, earlier games with female protagonists), it even contradicts the Video Game History Timeline that Kondrat has relied upon.

For 1996, the VGHT says “Lara Croft debuts as the star of Eidos’s adventure game Tomb Raider. Players love her, but critics charge that she’s an example of sexism in video games.” No mention of ‘first game with a female protagonist.’

On the other hand, the VGHT’s entry for 1980 mentions that “Two years later [than the release of Pac-Man], Ms. Pac-Man strikes a blow for gender equality by becoming the best-selling arcade game of all time.”

It became one of the most popular games in video game history.

No complaint, Tomb Raider really was popular.

Afterwards, Will Wrights created a game called “The Sims” in 2000 which became the most popular game amongst female players.

First, the man’s name is ‘Wright’. Second, this is just repeating part of an entry on the VGHT: “Will Wright’s The Sims models real life. It is not the first simulation game . . . but it becomes the best-selling computer game ever and the most popular game with female players.”

Further comments

When I first read this paper’s abstract, I’d hoped to be able to write a post reporting on some interesting results, but the sheer density of factual errors in the introduction has quite put me off this paper.

Frankly, my skimming of the rest of the paper has left me shocked that a publication that purports to be a serious, peer-reviewed journal would print it. This paper “was a part of
[Kondrat’s] graduation project for her undergraduate study in International Communication and Media at the HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht.” Formatting or language issues I forgive easily, but the factual errors and lack of clarity and organization is more what I would expect from a high school student’s rushed term paper than a postgraduate student’s paper submitted for publication.

I’d rather build up than tear down, but it’s my policy that if I decide to review something, I follow through on negative as well as positive reviews. In the interest of fairness to the journal: it appears, from a brief look, that other articles published in that issue, if not excellent, are of far higher quality. Some, indeed, look quite interesting.

Bibliography

[Kondrat2015]
Xeniya Kondrat, Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games?, Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology 6, 1 (2015), 171–193.
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2 Responses to “Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games? by Xeniya Kondrat”

  1. BdR76 said

    Good find, there’s also quite a few typos in the pdf like “Tomb Raided” and “Sega, one of leading and main game industry company”. Also, the whole artilce feels so dated. There’s a lot of focus on Tomb Raider (a 20 year old game at this point), while games like “Bayonetta” or “Last of us” would be more relevant.

    • Tracy Poff said

      Oh, the typos don’t bother me too much. It’s my assumption that English isn’t the first language of either the authors or editors, and I’m no great shakes at the foreign languages myself. Presentation is important, but ultimately it’s the ideas that matter.

      Your comment about the article feeling dated is true enough, but it feels more to me like the author just isn’t very familiar with games, and drew examples from (prior, and therefore more dated) research. The general direction of the paper is what I’d expect of someone writing about the intersection between her area of expertise and some other topic (in this case, games). At the end of the paper it is written that “Her current research interests include media depictions of society, gamification and ludification of the culture and Internet culture.” ‘Gamification’ and ‘ludification’ doesn’t mean necessarily mean interest in games qua games, I suppose.

      From the conclusion: “During the desk research and data analysis of the questionnaire and interviews it became clear that video games stereotype not only female gender but also males as well as race and ethnicities.” Of course that’s true, but anyone involved in games research is already aware of this, and I’d expect an expert in the subject might use the opportunity to situate the results (regarding female representation) in context with contemporary research on those problems (male/ethnic representation).

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