The tiresome canard about how “sex(ism) sells” has been approached by many different people in many different ways with no concrete correlation between sexist or sexual content and marketplace success. I will look at two examples from opposite ends of the spectrum and attempt to understand the extent to which gender roles play a part in their success.
Although an extreme example, the highly popular, open world franchise, Grand Theft Auto is famous for its controversial adult and violent themes. The name along with the rating gives the player an idea that this will not be an innocent, light-hearted bit of fun, but rather a window into an expansive criminal underground (actually not so underground) in an urban gang setting and a corrupt society.
It should come as no surprise that the résumé of Rockstar Games along with racism and adhering to strict stereotypes also includes sexism. GTA V has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at. The only upside to Rockstar’s treatment of women is that there isn’t a female protagonist for them to butcher.
At the other end we have the 2013 series reboot of Tomb Raider. The character Lara Croft was first introduced in 1996 as a hyper-sexualised female Indiana Jones. At the time the video gaming culture, in terms of both industry and consumers, was male-dominated therefore Lara designed by and for men, acting the way men liked (like exploring and shooting) and looked the way men liked (consider that Angelina Jolie had to wear a padded bra in the films to faithfully recreate the bust of her virtual counterpart).
The 2013 video game has made significant improvements in the representation of women. It is set before the events of the previous games, when Lara is not some kiss-ass tomb raider, but rather a young woman with everything to prove. Throughout her journey she shows she is strong, intelligent as well as street smart, independent, resourceful, disciplined, compassionate, vulnerable, raw, but most importantly real.
The success of such a franchise illustrates that the industry, as well as the consumers, have the potential to treat female protagonists (and female characters in general) with the respect they deserve, ushering a new era of gender roles in video games.
Behm-Morawitz, E & Mastro, D 2009, “The Effects of Sexualisation of Female Video Game Characters on Gender Stereotyping and Female Self-Concept”, Sex Roles, Vol. 61, pp. 808 − 823, Springer Science and Business Media.
Everett, A & Watkins, S. C 2008, “The Power of Play: The Portrayal and Performance of Race in Video Games,” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp.141-164.
Koda, T et al 2009, “Avatar Culture: Cross-Cultural Evaluations of Avatar Facial Expressions,” AI and Society 24.3: 237-50.