Gender Bias in American Video Gaming

Research Proposal

Project Description

While Americans laud the progress made toward gender equality in the workplace, at the voting booth, and in many areas of American society, gender bias and stereotyping is still very much alive, and is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the world of video gaming. The importance of video games in the United States cannot be denied. According to Kristen Lucas and John L. Sherry (2004), 76% of family homes with at least one boy own video games as compared to 58% of homes with at least one girl, and out of a survey of 375 people, 54.6% of young women and 88.3% of young men were players. Cases regarding various aspects of video games have even reached as high as the U.S. Supreme Court. In June of 2011, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown, Governor of California, et al, v. Entertainment Merchants Association et al., that video games are an "art" in the United States and are, thus, protected in the same way as other arts. Consequently, playing violent video games in no way differs from reading violent literature or looking at violent artwork. Video gaming in the United States also provides an interesting subculture to be explored. This subculture seems to promulgate many stereotypes about women, and these biases are being planted in a huge segment of our society, much of which is the younger generation. The "gaming" or "gamer" subculture in the United States is vast. This subculture is thoroughly explored by J.P. Williams et al. in Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games (2006). This book explores many facets of the gaming subculture in the United States, from strategy to gaming identity to, as one of the chapters in the book is titled, "Desktop Conquistadors: Negotiating American Manhood in the Digital Family Role-Playing Game" (Schut, 2006). What this book, and so many others, fails to look at are women within the subculture of gaming and gamers.

The study of female gamers in the subculture has been basically overlooked, aside from a few articles, both in the world of academia and within the video game industry itself. A female-sympathetic representative of the gaming industry stated that current women video game players are the low hanging fruit and do not warrant the gaming industry’s avid attention (Taylor, 2011). T.L. Taylor (2011) suggests that by studying women who play video games, and by studying the space inhabited by female gamers, we will be able to learn more about the gaming subculture as viewed through the eyes of the minority within that subculture. But Taylor has only mentioned this idea theoretically and has not done any ethnographic work within this minority of the gaming subculture. Jo Bryce and Jason Rutter (2002) also suggest that the stereotype within the gaming subculture is that it is centered on the "anti-social teenaged male" but that there is increasing evidence of female users. By studying these female gamers one can challenge the gender-dominant stereotypes relating to the production and consumption of video games (Bryce & Rutter, 2002). As Lucas and Sherry (2004) state, the male bias in game design is problematic in that it systematically places female players at an early disadvantage in terms of their ability to control the gaming environment, which creates a vicious cycle in terms of reinforcing an inclusion-affection-control pattern that discourages female players from playing video games. It is my intention to do ethnographic research in order to garner information on a part of the American gaming subculture that is wholly overlooked and underappreciated: the female gamers.

At this time, I have already explored a small portion of the vast amount of data that could be easily obtained on this subject. For example, I have compared how a certain armor set will look on a female character as opposed to a male character; I have studied a small portion of the script written into the game by Blizzard Entertainment in the form of the male playable characters' "flirts" (flirting remarks) and the female playable characters' jokes, and I have conducted an in-depth formal interview with the founder of a 450 member all-female guild in the gaming world of World of Warcraft (WoW). If my project were to be selected for funding, I could expand on this information with additional data to give an in-depth and ethnographically sound exposé of the gender bias pervading the gaming subculture in the United States.

On the basis of my preliminary investigations, I developed five hypotheses around which I plan to structure further research and my analysis of results. My five hypotheses are as follows:
1. Female gamers experience gender bias within various video games and in the social sphere generated by the playing of video games.
2. Female characters within games are affected by gender bias and this is illustrated visually in how the bodies of the female characters appear, as well as in the clothing adorning those bodies.
3. Gender bias will also be demonstrated by the language written into the video games as well as in the language of the male players within the social sphere of gamers.
4. Women avoid social situations in video gaming because they do not want to be subjected to any gender-biased remarks their male counterparts may use (expertise-related, and/or sexual remarks).
5. A female player usually feels she must cling to her "lifeline" (original membership sponsor) in the game in order to feel safe, whereas a male gamer will branch out and be less isolated in the gaming world.


I intend to use various methodologies to collect information on the female gamer and the female gaming minority in the gaming subculture. I aim to address my first hypothesis by researching statistics documenting the minority status of female characters in video games. According to current data, fifty percent of people in the United States play video games (Ogletree & Drake, 2007). By extensive research through gaming databases (to which I have access) I plan to find statistics showing how much of that fifty percent are female players, thus ascertaining how large of a minority they are in the gamer subculture. Secondly, I anticipate to use the same research methodology to discover current statistics regarding how many female characters are portrayed in today’s popular video games versus their male counterparts. Data from 2006 show that a mere 13.27% of video game characters are female (Schut, 2006) and I would like to explore whether this percentage has risen in the last four years or decreased. This information will indicate whether the video game industry is becoming more or less biased toward creating female characters or if they are staying on a consistent course.

My second hypothesis deals with the clothing and body shapes of female characters within video games. I anticipate using a few different methodologies to establish information that will answer this hypothesis. First, I plan to use ethnography. In order to do this I will, first, immerse myself in the video game subculture not only with the people who play these games, but through learning to play the games myself. I have already found groups of girl gamers who regularly meet to play different games. By meeting and playing with these women and with their characters in the game, I will be able to see first-hand how the female characters are presented in regard to body type and apparel. Also, I will be able to show examples of the often stark differences between male and female armor sets to the women in the group, to gain the female gamers’ perspective on the female characters’ clothing and appearance within the game. I also intend to use focus groups of non-game playing females and non-game playing and game playing males in which I present them with photographs of the differences between how a particular armor set will look on a male character as opposed to a female character. Through these focus groups, I will be able to obtain a typology of group reactions, and to contrast and compare them to show how female characters are treated in video games. I also plan to show the artwork and cover art portraying female characters of several different popular video games to these focus groups. I will solicit their opinion on how the artwork is used to influence people to buy the video games, focusing specifically on how the female characters in the artwork appear. This methodology is based on an article by Melinda C. R. Burgess, Steven Paul Stermer, and Stephen R. Burgess entitled "Sex, Lies, and Video Games: The Portrayal of Male and Female Characters in Video Game Covers" (2007) in which they hypothesize that males would be portrayed more often on video game covers but females would be portrayed in a hypersexual manner in an exaggerated and objectified sexiness. They then discuss what effect these negative portrayals could have on gamers (Burgess et al., 2007). I aim to use this concept by showing the artwork and discussing how such artwork could lead to a negative connotation regarding females and, specifically, female gamers.

To address my third hypothesis I will use interviews as my methodology. By interviewing female gamers, through both in-depth formal interviews as well as informal interviews, I will be able to ascertain how female gamers feel about the social sphere in general and communication practices in particular related to the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) gaming scene. By scrutinizing their responses, I will be able to establish if they feel rejected within the gaming social sphere, and/or if they feel a lack of control. I also intend to supplement the interviews with a direct analysis of linguistic exchanges and behavioral interactions within the game, evaluating them in reference to the interviews.

With respect to the scripted language written into games, I will be using language analysis as a methodology. I have already explored the male flirts and the female jokes, but I will be expanding my examination to include quest scripts and NPC (non-playable characters) scripts. Language analysis of these scripts, along with the already collected data, will allow me to get a firm grasp of gender roles in gaming from the perspective of a company that writes and produces these games, in this case Blizzard Entertainment Company.

According to T.L. Taylor (2011), women avoid interacting in the social sphere in many MMO games because they fear retribution in the form of remarks by male characters (for examples consult To perceive how females do interact in a male dominated gaming social sphere, I expect to use participant observation. This will allow me to access a wider range of examples and unbiased data. As opposed to formal or informal interviews, I will be able to witness examples of this type of behavior anonymously and, therefore, the data will be untainted by the knowledge of my presence within the social sphere.

To investigate my fifth and final hypothesis, I also propose to use in-depth interviews and ethnographic observation. I will accomplish this by attending meetings of female gamers in a group that meets once a week to play together the MMO game World of Warcraft. At these meetings I can interview the members to establish how they learned about the game, who introduced them to it, and how they remain in the game (whether it is through the person who introduced them, or if they have branched off and found other friends). If they have found other friends, I will be able to explore the avenues that led them to feel safe enough in the social sphere to branch out and create these relationships. Therefore, I will be able to create a social map of the gaming sphere.

Background and Rationale

Through an initial exploration of female presence in American video gaming, I was able to formulate a set of hypotheses that I would like to use to guide further research. First, I have discovered a major theme in all articles I have reviewed on this topic: there is gender bias against women both in video games as well as in the social sphere of the gamer subculture. Female gamers, as well as the characters they play and the non-playable character (NPC) females within certain games, are consistently treated in biased ways. Female gamers are generally overlooked by the industry that serves them. In fact, the video game industry giants automatically assume that women have an "aversion to competition" and men are "better at first person shooter games because they were historically the hunters of the tribe" (Taylor, 2008:50).

Another theme within the literature on the gaming subculture is how the gaming industry has created female characters that are merely “eye candy” for male players. Perhaps the most blatant and long-standing example of this is the female heroine of the Tomb Raider game series that began in 1996 and recently released its latest game (2013). Lara Croft is a well-educated, British female who is involved in adventures raiding old tombs. Thus, she is akin to Indiana Jones, but unlike the male Indiana Jones, she wears a minimal amount of clothing and is incredibly busty. In "Does Lara Croft Wear Fake Polygons? Gender and Gender-Role Subversion in Computer Adventure Games," Anne-Marie Schliener (2001) explores the gender bias female characters face within the gaming world, focusing on Lara Croft as the original example. In order to make this clear, she mentions a patch that was created by a Tomb Raider fan for the game and, at one point, was posted prominently on the official Tomb Raider website for download. The patch, called "Nude Raider," would strip Lara Croft of all her clothing so she would then play her adventures in the nude. Schliener states that by typing in the words "nude raider" in a search engine she found numerous sites offering the patch, forums requesting the patch, and 1,072,226 pictures showing Lara Croft nude as a result of the patch (Schliener, 2001). Lara Croft is, by far, not the only example of how clothing is an indicator of gender bias towards female characters in video games. Beasley and Standley (2002) explore gender bias while specifically looking at clothing in their article "Shirts vs. Skins: Clothing as an Indicator of Gender Role Stereotyping in Video Games.” Beasley and Standley (2002) used content analysis to examine the portrayal of women in forty-seven randomly selected video games in which they found that of 597 characters coded, only 82 (13.74%) were women and the majority of those female characters wore clothing that exposed far more skin than their male character counterparts.

In an examination of the language scripted into the MMO game World of Warcraft through a sample of written content, I have been able to detect a gender bias in reference to the jokes the playable female characters say and the flirts the male playable characters use. Most of the female jokes regard personal care for their appearance (i.e., waxing, getting nails done, hair color, weight, etc.). Through these types of jokes, Blizzard Entertainment Company is essentially stating that women are most preoccupied with their appearance. They are turning tough characters that fight monsters and destroy evil into petty creatures whose utmost care and concern regards their appearance--something Blizzard does not do to their male characters. Meanwhile, their male characters' flirts show a propensity towards discrimination against females. Many flirts are sexual in nature. Many of these speak of the eagerness of the male characters to simply forgo foreplay and get right to the sexual act without concern for the females' names or desires. Some of the jokes are, of course, not that bold in nature but instead are laced with heavy sexual innuendo and are utterly inappropriate. Lucas and Sherry (2004) argue that these biases cause women to have less motivation to play such games due to the gender biases they endure not only in communication but through the very scripts of the game.

When studying the gaming culture and trying to expose gender bias within it, one also needs to look at communication within and outside of the games. Lucas and Sherry argue that gender differences can be seen in gaming by focusing on the interpersonal needs for inclusion, rejection, and control. They state that females report, in a study of 534 young adults, less motivation to play in social situations (Lucas & Sherry, 2004). Another aspect of female gaming that must be explored is a female gamer’s introduction path into MMO games. Through studying the space inhabited by female gamers and their pathways into that space, one can learn why they play these video games and through what avenues they were introduced to such games. A family member, co-worker, or friend introduces many females to the games. They stay in these gaming environments by legitimate habitation through the person who introduced them to the game (Taylor, 2008). Thus, since these people were the female gamer’s introduction to the game, they become a lifeline for staying in the gaming space. This leads to female isolation in the social sphere. Oftentimes, this is the case because the female gamer does not want to branch out from the person who introduced them to the game. They never feel secure enough in a male-dominated social sphere to share much of themselves (Taylor, 2008).

Over 50% of young American women and 88% of young men currently play video games in a regular way. It is my hope that through my planned project, should my hypotheses prove correct, the issue of gender bias in the video gaming world would be documented, informing users of its reality, and possibly moving the industry toward some needed changes.


Beasley, Berrin, and Tracy Collins Standley. "Shirts vs. Skins: Clothing as an Indicator of Gender Role Stereotyping in Video Games." Mass Communication and Society. vol 5. no. 3 (2002).

Bryce, Jo, and Jason Rutter. "Killing like a girl: gendered gaming and girl gamers’ visibility." Paper presented at the Computer Games and Digital Culture Conference, 2002.

Burgess, Melinda C., Steven P. Stermer, and Stephen R. Burgess. "Sex, Lies, and Video Games: The Portrayal of Male and Female Characters in Video Game Covers." Sex Roles 57, no. 5-6 (September 2007).

Lucas, Kristen, and John L. Sherry. "Sex Differences in Video Game Play: A Communication-Based Explanation." Communication Research 31, no. 5 (October 2004).

Ogletree, Shirley M., and Ryan Drake. "College Students’ Video Game Participation and Perceptions: Gender Differences and Implications." Sex Roles 56, no. 7-8 (April 2007).

Schliener, Anne-Marie. "Does Lara Croft Wear Fake Polygons? Gender and Gender-Role Subversion in Computer Adventure Games." Leonardo. 34. no. 3 (2001).

Schut, Kevin. "Desktop Conquistadors: Negotiating American Manhood in the Digital Fantasy Role-Playing Game." In Gaming As Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity And Experience in Fantasy Games, edited by J. P. Williams, Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. K. Winkler, 100-119. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.

Taylor, T. L. "Becoming a Player: Networks, Structures, and Imagined Futures." In Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives in Gender, Games, and Computing, edited by Y. Kafai, C. Heeter, J. Denner, and J. Suns, 50-65. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2011.

Williams, J. P., Sean Q. Hendricks, and W. K. Winkler. Gaming As Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity And Experience in Fantasy Games. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.

Return to the table of contents for 3.1 Writing for Cultural Anthropology