When Josef Kates invented Bertie the Brain, one of the earliest computer games, he did not know he was laying foundations for a global industry. Nor did he have any inkling of the fact that the profession was going to be dominated by the likes of Ralph Baer, known for patenting the first home video game system.
More than 70 years after the early games made their debut into the world, gaming is no longer just an industry but as intrinsic a part of our lives as the internet.
According to a report by Accenture, the value of the global gaming industry exceeds $300 billion, which is more than the combined markets of movies and music worldwide. The pandemic has further contributed to drastically increasing the number of people playing video games around the globe.
What this basically means is that we are now looking at a new future where gaming has emerged as not only a pastime but also a learning experience for children and adults alike. Bandura’s Social Cognition Theory holds that what we observe in our environment influences our behaviour.
Video games too, consequently, hold considerable influence over the behaviour of people, especially children. So the real question that arises here is, what are our children, the ‘future’ of the world, learning from these video games? Is it just teamwork? Sportsmanship? Or is it something more sinister, like sexism and misogyny for example?
Several studies conducted around the globe have come to the same ominous conclusion; many of our beloved games actively promote sexism, unrealistic body images, misogyny and cultivated toxic masculinity in our society.
The launch of every edition of Grand Theft Auto has been met with the same counts of criticism: sexual objectification of women, misogyny and overall lack of inclusion of strong female characters. But don’t go on trusting me blindly of course!
Numbers speak for themselves; a 2007 study of 225 video game covers found that even though male characters appeared more frequently, the female characters were more likely to be portrayed with over-exaggerated and objectified sexiness.
The unrealistic portrayal of Final Fantasy VII’s character, Tifa Lockhart, and Catwoman divert the attention from their non physical characteristics. Such hypersexualized characters not only promote hostility towards women by the male gamers, but also lead to a negative body image for female gamers.
If this wasn’t a pressing enough problem already, a study in PLOS ONE indicates that exposure to sexist video games can decrease empathy for female violence victims. In an era where gender-based crimes are at an all-time high, this can only spell doom. Surely this isn’t what we want little kids to learn right? Putting the genie back in the bottle is no longer possible.
Video games are a much needed respite for millions and it’s a moral obligation of the creators to make them safe spaces for all genders and communities. Gone are the days that video-gaming was a solely male pursuit; female gamers now demand a better representation and enhanced role of female characters.
LMAO men are so fragile 😭😭😭😭🥱 pic.twitter.com/YRDRhQKCVl
— Kelly (@Nilkski_) January 13, 2021
The costumes and portrayal of different body types can not only be used to promote body positivity but also help in making the industry more inclusive of the queer and trans communities, who are still severely underrepresented in the industry, with the number of popular games with queer or trans characters being next to zero.
Inclusion of androgynous clothing is the best way forward, as people become more and more confident in the perception of their sexuality. The 2018 Spider Man video game was not only inclusive of the queer community by featuring the pride flags everywhere, but also took a major step in countering sexism by changing the attire of Black Cat, a prominent character in the game.
While this is just a small step in the right direction, it’s still a significant one and a perfect example for other video game creators to follow.
The lines between media and entertainment have blurred to the point of extinction. People aren’t just consumers anymore, but critics too. We owe it to ourselves to question dubious representation of our fellow citizens and demand that these industries do better. It is only through collective action that we can bring sweeping change.
The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.