Through the Looking Glass: Gendered Gazes in Video Games 

In her landmark paper, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey (1991) discusses the role of the male gaze in cinema, defining the male gaze as the exhibitionist portrayal of women for erotic, sexual desire, and elements of spectacle in the narrative. Mulvey argues that cinema controls the context in which women can be viewed, breaking down the pleasure of the male gaze from three standpoints: the director, the characters within the film, and the spectator. Notably, the discussion of gendered gaze in cinema often applies to romantic genre conventions in sex and desire. In response, the idea of the “female gaze” has broadened in feminist theory as the specific lens through which a woman is both represented and views the world.

In this paper, I will argue that the male gaze Mulvey applies to the cinema not only extends to video games but is actively reinforced by player behavior. In video games, the pleasure of the male gaze can be broken down into three standpoints: the game designer, the characters within the game, and the player. Furthermore, I will discuss how game designers can not only consider but also imagine beyond the female gaze. 

The Male Gaze Through the Game Designer

In video games, players derive a source of pleasure both from being part of the system of the game and the stylized behavior they enforce (Dhamelia and Dalvi, 2022). Often self-contained, video games reinforce a magic circle of meaning and goals (Brown, 2015). Through the choices of the game designers, video games structure our ways of seeing, thinking, and acting through the agency (or lack thereof) that they afford to the player. Games have been found to reinforce both racial and gender stereotypes, for their values can be translated, even unconsciously, to the player through the reinforcement of behavior and themes through the gameplay (Burgess et al., 2011; Ivory, 2006). 

By the nature of the gaming community and industry, the male gaze in games is unsurprising. From 2014 to 2021, the International Game Developers Association found that the video game industry was dominated by men, with men representing 61% of the workforce, women representing 30%, and non-binary folks representing 8% (Weststar, 2021). The advent of Gamergate, an online harassment campaign against feminism and diversity in video games, in August 2014 actively opposed minorities like women, driving negative stereotypes and hatred toward women in games (Mortensen and Sihvonen, 2019). The lack of representation and support for women in gaming creates a narrow sphere of whose voices can be heard in the gaming industry. While the game designers introduced more playable female characters over time, female characters are sexualized more than primary characters and appear more often in secondary roles (Lynch et al., 2016). 

Dietz (1998) conducted a content analysis that two common depictions of women in video games are damsels in distress – female victims to be rescued – or sex symbols – visions of beauty with large breasts and thin hips. The idea of the damsel in distress has persisted throughout game history, with Nintendo’s Princess Peach as a hallmark of the genre. Princess Peach is famously kidnapped by Bowser in the original 1985 Super Mario Bros game and serves as a core plot device in which Mario’s sole purpose is to rescue her (Knorr, 2018). Through the male gaze, game designers structure Princess Peach and other damsels in distress to be women as spectacles, in which only the male character can forward the story and control events. As an example, the Batman: Arkham franchise not only presents Catwoman as a damsel in distress to be saved by Batman but also utilizes exaggerated walk sequences and camera movements in its game mechanics to hypersexualize Catwoman (Anupama and Chithra, 2022). Just as Mulvey discusses the use of camera technology and movements to present the male protagonist as the center of the action, the game designers of Batman: Arkham use the spatial illusions of their game mechanics to emphasize Catwoman in the male gaze. By hypersexualizing female characters, game designers cater to male desire and women as the erotic object of the male gaze. 

The Male Gaze Through the Characters Within the Game

The male gaze shapes how female characters are represented, depicted, and designed in video games. Evidence suggests that female characters have half as much dialogue as male characters in video games, and this bias is even more pronounced for minor characters (Rennick et al., 2023). The researchers found that male characters are twice as numerous as female characters in nearly 75 percent of games. This discrepancy underscores the gender imbalance of female characters in video games. Moreover, the range of roles for female characters is also narrower compared to their male counterparts. Limiting the scope of female characters, this restricts the depth and diversity of female characters in video games. These issues extend beyond representation into the design and mechanics of female characters in video games. For example, in the fighting games Street Fighter V and Tekken 7, female characters are designed with a smaller range of expression compared to male characters (Şengün et al., 2022). In addition, they not only have to hit harder but also hit more frequently to take down male characters. This design choice perpetuates a gendered power dynamic in video game combat. 

A study of the 150 top-selling video games from 2005 to 2006 analyzes the depiction of female bodies in video games (Martins et al., 2009). At the highest levels of photorealism, female characters were also systematically thinner than the average American woman. Furthermore, female characters in games rated for children were found to be thinner than characters in games rated for adults. This discrepancy raises concerns about the harmful beauty ideals within video games that potentially reinforces unhealthy standards of women in games. Not only are female characters underrepresented in video games, but those that do exist who wear clothing exposed more skin than male characters (Beasley and Collins Standley, 2002). 

The concept of ambivalent sexism refers to how sexist portrayals are most problematic, but can also be potentially empowering. Female characters – especially in fighting games – can perpetuate ambivalent sexism through their portrayal. In a textual analysis of female characters from the United States and Japan, Tompkins et al. (2020) found that female bodies represent two different themes: bodies as objects and bodies as weapons. In their analysis, they argue that female bodies are sexualized in provocative outfits that invite a male gaze with overtly sexual, dark allure. Thus, female characters do not only act as objects to be gazed upon but also are used as weapons in-game combat to serve as a mechanism of voyeuristic pleasure, as Mulvey discusses in her theory of the male gaze. Through these characterizations, female characters are underrepresented, objectified, and reduced to mere visual objects in video games. 

The Male Gaze Through the Player

Within a video game, the player’s choices, interactions, and preferences can reinforce gender stereotypes and the male gaze. In particular, the representation of the player in video games can reinforce the male gaze. Larrain and Haye (2019) suggest that the self is an aesthetic effect, where we actively imagine the self as a process of agency and identity. When players take the role of a character in a video game, this extends the player’s sense of self through the transformation of experience into agency. Players who identify with their avatars experience more game enjoyment (Trept and Reinecke, 2010). However, a study of 2,956 gamers showed that while 9% of women prefer playing male characters, 29% of men prefer playing female characters (Yee, 2021). A possible explanation for why men are more likely to prefer playing female characters is that female characters, which are designed for the male gaze, are another way that men can control women’s bodies. 

While not all players perpetuate the male gaze, players can actively seek out characters that conform to traditional gender norms and/or are hypersexualized in appearance or behavior. By promoting these characters, players continue to perpetuate the male gaze in-game and reinforce unhealthy beauty ideals associated with these characters. These choices can also influence players’ self-image and interactions. Barlett and Harris (2008) found that video games have a negative influence on men’s and women’s body images when showing participants muscular male characters and thin female characters, respectively. Evidence suggests that general video game exposure for adolescents is significantly related to sexism, irrespective of gender, age, socioeconomic status, and religion (Bègue et al., 2017). Therefore, we see that video games can unknowingly extend the beliefs of their players. 

While Mulvey’s definition of the male gaze focuses on the role of the audience as a spectator, video games are unique because they require active, and often reinforced, participation. To move forward in the game, players must not only engage with the narrative and mechanics of the game but also make choices that continue the spell of illusion in the game. These complex interactions between the player and female characters as agents, avatars, or narrative plot points push the player beyond the spectator role. Therefore, the male gaze is not only voyeuristically enjoyed by the player, but driven forward by their choices. Players not only look at women through this lens passively, but they are also agents that further the male gaze through the mechanics and choices presented in the gameplay. 

Looking Beyond: Gendered Gazes

In response to male gazes in media, the female gaze has offered an alternative lens through which to imagine media through the perspective and worldview of a woman. In the film industry, this movement has pushed for the rise of female directors, telling stories from female points of view or about issues that impact women (French, 2021). Other interpretations have focused on the presentation of gendered bodies in media, emphasizing the role reversal of women as spectacle and men as a spectator in the presentation of male sexual objectification in cinema (Perfetti-Oates, 2015). Common pitfalls in designing games for women have been assumptions in the video game industry that games are associated with male characteristics and that certain games are not suited to them or what they “naturally” select to play (Lopez et al., 2019). Increasing female game designers, stories centering women, and reversing gender roles should be important goals of the video game industry as it moves away from the male gaze. 

Yet, the idea of the gendered gaze in itself is emblematic of the ideas of ambivalent sexism discussed earlier. Pushing for a female view can provide a framework for us to analyze and empower female stories. Nevertheless, its emphasis on heterosexual norms can be limiting – where do queer, trans, and nonbinary stories fit into our gendered gazes of video games? Female fans of Final Fantasy VII and Legend of Zelda disrupt the conventions of the sexist depictions of video games, introducing stories with a feminine gaze around male homosexuality in video game fan comics (Hemmann, 2020). Although these stories subvert the heterosexual male gaze, they can still represent queer stories as spectacles, structuring queer stories in the same exhibitionist role that women take on in the male gaze. Female protagonists like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider can tell female stories. Nevertheless, these stories can still be limited by this gendered gaze, telling a different, but not necessarily better version of femininity than before. Despite being a landmark female protagonist, Lara Croft’s character is still limited by the gender binary, her traits are criticized for being traditionally prized by male heroes and lacking uniqueness (Engelbrecht, 2020). Thus, the gendered gaze constrains the gaze of the game designer, characters, and players to a binary view. The gendered gaze can also repeat the same power dynamics associated with the male gaze, centering the woman as the spectator. Shifting the gaze from one gender to another does not necessarily solve the problems associated with the voyeuristic pleasure of the “other” as the spectacle. 

Game designers should consider how the gazes of the game designer, the characters within the game, and the player interact. Video games should push these structural boundaries to tell stories that challenge, not reinforce gendered gazes. Like any form of media, video games are shaped by and shape societal values. By creating diverse stories with characters with agency and complexity, games can challenge the gendered gaze we as players use to interact and make choices. To look beyond the gendered gaze in video games is to reinforce ourselves as players without diminishing characters as mere extensions of plot or pleasure.

Works Cited

  • Anupama, K., & Chithra, G. K. (2022). Of Castration Anxiety and Hypersexualized Female Bodies: A Critical Assessment of the Objectifying Gaze in Batman: Arkham Video Game Series. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 12(9), 1921-1929.
  • Barlett, C.P., Harris, R.J. The Impact of Body Emphasizing Video Games on Body Image Concerns in Men and Women. Sex Roles, 59, 586–601 (2008).
  • Beasley, B., & Collins Standley, T. (2002). Shirts vs. skins: Clothing as an indicator of gender role stereotyping in video games. Mass Communication & Society, 5(3), 279-293.
  • Brown, D. (2015). Games and the magic circle. Encyclopedia of Computer Graphics and Games1–4. 
  • Burgess, M. C., Dill, K. E., Stermer, S. P., Burgess, S. R., & Brown, B. P. (2011). Playing with prejudice: The prevalence and consequences of racial stereotypes in video games. Media Psychology, 14(3), 289–311. 
  • Bègue, L., Sarda, E., Gentile, D. A., Bry, C., & Roché, S. (2017). Video games exposure and sexism in a representative sample of adolescents. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 466.
  • Dhamelia, M., & Dalvi, G. (2022). Pleasures in games: Conceptual Analysis of fun and its constructs. Gaming, Simulation and Innovations: Challenges and Opportunities, 197–210. 
  • Dietz, T.L. An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior. Sex Roles, 38, 425–442 (1998). 
  • Engelbrecht, J. (2020). The New Lara Phenomenon: A Postfeminist Analysis of Rise of the Tomb Raider. Game Studies, 20(3), 9.
  • French, L. (2021). The ‘Female Gaze’. The Female Gaze in Documentary Film.
  • Hemmann, K. (2020). Beautiful War Games: Transfiguring Genders in Video Game Fancomics. Manga Cultures and the Female Gaze, 103-123.
  • Ivory, J. D. (2006). Still a man’s Game: Gender representation in online reviews of video games. Mass Communication and Society, 9(1), 103–114. 
  • Knorr, A. (2018, November 14). How princess peach’s story draws on 2000 years of women in peril. Kotaku. 
  • Lopez-Fernandez, O., Williams, A. J., Griffiths, M. D., & Kuss, D. J. (2019). Female Gaming, Gaming Addiction, and the Role of Women Within Gaming Culture: A Narrative Literature Review. Frontiers in psychiatry, 10, 454.
  • Lynch, T., Tompkins, J. E., van Driel, I. I., & Fritz, N. (2016). Sexy, strong, and secondary: A content analysis of female characters in video games across 31 years. Journal of Communication, 66(4), 564–584. 
  • Martins, N., Williams, D.C., Harrison, K. et al. A Content Analysis of Female Body Imagery in Video Games. Sex Roles, 61, 824–836 (2009).
  • Mortensen, T. E., & Sihvonen, T. (2019). Negative emotions set in motion: The continued relevance of #GamerGate. The Palgrave Handbook of International Cybercrime and Cyberdeviance, 1–23. 
  • Mulvey, L. (1991). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Feminisms, 432–442. 
  • Perfetti-Oates, N. (2015). Chick flicks and the straight female gaze: Sexual objectification and sex negativity in New Moon, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Magic Mike, and Fool’s Gold. In Gender Forum (Vol. 51, pp. 18-31).
  • Rennick, S., Clinton, M., Ioannidou, E., Oh, L., Clooney, C., Healy, E., & Roberts, S. G. (2023). Gender bias in video game dialogue. Royal Society Open Science, 10(5), 221095.
  • Tompkins, J. E., Lynch, T., Van Driel, I. I., & Fritz, N. (2020). Kawaii killers and femme fatales: A textual analysis of female characters signifying benevolent and hostile sexism in video games. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 64(2), 236-254.
  • Şengün, S., Mawhorter, P., Bowie-Wilson, J., Audeh, Y., Kwak, H., & Harrell, D. F. (2022). Contours of virtual enfreakment in fighting game characters. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 180, 121707.
  • Trepte, S., & Reinecke, L. (2010). Avatar creation and video game enjoyment. Journal of Media Psychology.
  • Weststar, J. (2021, July 18). 2021 Developer Satisfaction Survey. Ontario, Canada; International Game Developers Association. 
  • Yee, N. (2021, August 5). About one out of three men prefer playing female characters. Rethinking the importance of female protagonists in video games. Quantic Foundry.

About the author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.