A recent study at Indiana University analyzed female video game characters over the last 31 years. The three-decade study spans from 1983 to 2014. That’s pretty much the entire history of video games. “Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years,” was published in the Journal of Communication by Teresa Lynch, Jessica E. Tompkins, Irene I. van Driel, and Niki Fritz.
The 20-page study looked at 571 different games with playable female characters. Games were categorized using five variables: genre, ratings level, critical score, release year, and if they were a primary character. An additional 11 variables were used to examine each female character’s sexualization, such as nudity and hypersexualized body types.
“The study provides a long view of how trends in character design have changed over time,” said researcher Teresa Lynch. “It assembles an otherwise disjointed picture of what has been going on with female video game characters over the years.”
The video game industry is infamous for its problematic depiction of women. But the study reveals that things are at least a bit better than they used to be. The 1990s were a particular dark age for women characters. The study found that sexualization of female characters peaked around 1995. It has gone down since 2007. Rather depressingly, the availability of playable female characters peaked in the 1980s, during the 8-bit era. Playable female characters have begun to level off after a dip in the 1990s.
The 1980s and 90s saw the video game industry explode in growth. But women developers made up only 3% of the workforce in 1989. Lynch notes that an extremely male-dominated environment lead to characters like Lara Croft. Croft is often cited as one of the best video game heroines. But her design has always included a huge bust, lots of skin, and a smoldering super-model face.
That sexy version of Lara was seen as recently as 2008’s Tomb Raider: Underworld. Then a funny thing happened. Lara got a makeover in 2013. Now she’s a grimy, bleeding, badass action hero who’s revitalized the franchise. Both Tomb Raider (2013) and last year’s sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider were written by Rhianna Pratchett.
“There is a dominant masculine preference and there has been toxic encounters that are gendered in nature,” said Lynch. “But the game industry has been very receptive in trying to involve more women. It’s having more open conversations than ever before.”