A new study shows that in recent years, female characters in video games have become less sexualized than they have been in the past.
Though the sexualization of women in video games is far from obsolete, data found by researchers at Indiana University shows a downward trend in the level of objectification in the last eight years.
The researchers analyzed the female characters from a random sample of 571 games released between 1983 (when the first anthropomorphic female characters in a video game was introduced) and 2014. They only looked at games that contained playable female characters, and omitted games based on franchises like X-Men, the goal being to narrow their study to look exclusively at how the video game industry creates female characters.
The researchers measured sexualization by looking at the breasts and butts of characters, and how prominently they featured within the game. "We looked at whether these particular regions of the body appeared nude or emphasized through shading or were disproportionate to the body," Teresa Lynch, the lead author of the study, told Broadly in an email. "This was a very nuanced measure, but it allowed us to differentiate characters who might simply be busty, for instance, from characters with highly sexualized breasts."
The only characters analyzed were the playable ones. "We were interested in looking at the characters that players spend time with—taking on those characters' roles and looking at those characters' bodies," says Lynch. "It also allowed us to consider how a character was portrayed in terms of her capability under the player's control."
Their findings showed that the sexualization of female characters was highest on average in the 1990s. They also found that though there was a spike in the number of sexualized female characters in 2012, the average amount has decreased in the last eight years. Initially, the data showed that as the number of female characters increased, so did the percentage of their sexualization. But in 2006, sexualization began to decrease, even though there were still more female characters coming out.
Lynch attributes this to the fact that there are more women working in gaming these days, and that "the industry and studies show that when women have a part in designing roles for women onscreen, the results tend to be more egalitarian." She says it's also likely that, because of increased awareness about objectification, "men and women both have become more sensitive to negative portrayals of women."
Research has shown that male characters in games are often idealized as well, notes Lynch. However, because they are often made to look more muscular, it's hard to make a direct comparison with the female characters being made to look more voluptuous. "We tend to focus on the sexualization of women in games because it is so flagrant and obviously portrayed in the advertising of games," says Lynch. "However, that doesn't mean that men aren't objectified in video games as well."
Read more: The Women Pushing Gender Out of Gaming
The study did find, however, that sexualized women in video games weren't any less capable. In fact, they found a positive correlation between a female characters' sexualized body and her capabilities in the game. Nevertheless, according to the study, "Positive portrayals of female characters who are strong, capable, and attractive without overt sexualization may be an important factor for encouraging women to become interested in gaming."
Plus, despite the downward trend in sexualized characters, the gaming industry still has sexism to confront. This study did not factor in how women were sexualized in video game advertising, where the portrayal of characters may differ from how they are seen in the games. Plus, though studies have shown video game use is almost equal between men and women, only 22 percent of employees in the video game industry were women in 2014.