There's been a lot of talk about the hypersexualization of women in video games over the last few years, and anyone wishing to tackle the issue would do well to read Teresa Lynch's 18-page article "Sexy, Strong, and Secondary" published in the Journal of Communication last month.
Lynch and researchers Jessica E. Tompkins, Irene I. van Driel, and Niki Fritz studied the portrayal of 571 playable female characters from 1989 to 2014 and found that, on the whole, things have actually been getting better. According to their findings, sexualization in video games reached a peak in 1995 and has since declined save for a few notable spikes (including a massive one in 2012). According to Lynch, this points to "a pattern of change in sexualization over time that indicates the industry may be reacting to its critics."
"We attribute this decline to an increasing female interest in gaming coupled with the heightened criticism levied at the industry's arguably male hegemony," the study says.
Judging from recent events, some of you might be preparing to send nasty tweets to said critics after reading that. But consider the study's other points. Lynch's research into almost 600 characters led her and her team to find that, "on average, female characters are far less sexualized than what previous analyses suggest." What they call "subtle sexualization" can still be a problem, they acknowledge, but they add that the "mere presence of sexualized female game characters does not automatically result in negative consequences for players."
"In other words," the study says, "what scholars, critics, and the public largely assume is a nearly universal feature of female characters in video games (i.e., gross sexualization) seems overstated when considering game content rather than marketing materials."
Many issues remain, of course. The study's introduction, for instance, touches on many themes now common to the conversation, such as the comparatively low numbers of women involved in the actual creation of games or the tendency of women to prefer playing role-playing games or games with "nonsexualized" protagonists.
To what must be the surprise of absolutely no one familiar with such genres, the study notes that the sexualization of women has already been strongest in "male-oriented" genres like fighting and action games. Consider Soulcalibur, where the character Ivy Valentine barely manages to keep her body stuffed in her battle gear.
Lynch's study also demonstrates that while there may be more playable female characters in today's games, they're usually relegated to secondary roles where they're more sexualized than the primary characters. Elsewhere, despite the old standby that "sex sells," the study found no correlation between the sexualization found in a game and its critical success, and that games rated "Teen" and "Mature" usually didn't differ in their depictions of sexualization. In addition, the study finds a strong relationship between the sexualization of a female character and her physical capability.
The paper explains their methodology at length. Only "dynamic play" was considered for the study; not "static box art" or "less interactive opening cinematics," and they pulled their lists of female characters from sites with extensive wikis like IGN, Giant Bomb, and Wikipedia. They based their study of the 571 characters on five-minute clips from YouTube, which reportedly allowed them to "avoid bias in the capturing of the content" and favored YouTube videos without commentary to further avoid bias. All that, on top of the revelation that two of the researchers were "enthusiastic" video game fans, while two were not.
Among many other examples of how they actually identified sexualzation, Lynch noted that they "considered chests sexualized if we observed one or more of the following: breasts disproportionate to the body size (α = .81), bare skin between the armpits and bottoms of the breasts (α = .70), or accentuation by garments or artistic styling (e.g., shading; α = .73)."
And so forth. It's all very thorough and scientific, but at the same time the approach highlights the trouble in defining sexualization in studies like these. Sometimes, as in the camera angles that linger on Lara Croft's rear as she climbs ladders or on the shape of her breasts as she works her way through small openings in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, it's not so overt. Sometimes something as simple as suggestive dialogue or eye contact can be far more objectifying than the sight of a woman strolling around a battlefield in a bikini.
Again, though, the general message of Lynch's study is one of hope. In time, the study says, this may lead to a better gaming environment for everyone.
"Normalizing female characters toward competent and non-objectified depictions may be part of the puzzle of mitigating hostility toward women in gaming," the study says. "For this reason, the trend toward decreased sexualization of female characters—especially if implemented without sacrificing their capability or diminishing their prominence in the game—is promising in cultivating a more egalitarian game culture for all."