Female Sexualization and Gender Inequality in Video Games – DIGC302 Research Report

Over the past four decades, the video game market has developed into a $10 billion a year industry in the U.S. As the popularity of video games has increased, the profile of the gamer has shifted, reflecting the wider variety of consumers that play video games today (Dietz 1998). The image that comes to mind when picturing a video gamer should no longer be an adolescent, or even teenage, boy, as women and adults are playing games in greater numbers. An industry survey indicates that 45-47% of all game players are female, and 80% of girls (grades 4 – 12) report playing games in their homes (CNNmoney.com 2006). Further, the average age of video game player is 35 years old, demonstrating that gaming is no longer just a childhood pastime, nor is it purely a male domain.

In this essay I aim to outline the issues surrounding female sexualization and gender inequality in video games and by extension, the gaming industry. Throughout the history of video games the target audience has been the young male demographic, meaning that it often behooves developers to include sexualized female characters (Dietz 1998). The characters are frequently promoted by marketers even when, and perhaps most importantly when, they have no real relevance to the game whatsoever. An infamous example of this is Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2’s promotion of the motion-controlled ‘boob jiggle’ feature, while the actual game revolves around being a ninja. For decades gaming has been thought of a male pursuit, and this essay aims to explore the elements that perpetuates this mentality while dissuading or barring women from participating in this male domain (Richard & Zaremba 2005). I discuss the impact of ‘the male gaze’, the idea of male sexuality and how it differs from female sexuality, the toxic misogynistic environment online and the experiences of women in the industry and professional gamers. The major issue I found in this area of study is that although there is much research out their defining and exploring the impact of sexualization and gender inequality, however, very little suggestions on how best to counter this injustice (Deaux & Lewis 1983).

In terms of the characterization of women in video games, content analytic research indicates that females are vastly underrepresented in popular video games and are often hypersexualized when depicted. Not unlike other media, video games offer a narrow range of roles to female characters. Overall, research suggests that when female characters appear in video games they most often serve as victims or prizes and occupy stereotypical gender roles such as brazenly sexualized beings and objects of sexual desire (CNNmoney.com 2006). Glaubke’s (2001) work examining the content features of video games demonstrated that “female sexuality [is] often accentuated with highly revealing clothing”; underscoring the prominence and perpetuation of the sexualized image of females in video games. Further, Beasley and Standley (2002) found that 70% of female characters in Mature-rated video games and 46% of female characters in Teen-rated video games were depicted with abundant cleavage, 86% of female characters were portrayed wearing clothing with low/revealing necklines, and 48% of female characters were dressed in outfits with no sleeves. This is in contrast to only 22% of male characters represented in clothing with no sleeves and 14% of male characters wearing clothing with low/revealing necklines (Beasley & Standley 2002).

Moreover, females were twice as likely as males to be shown wearing revealing clothing. In addition, the vast majority of female characters have been found to be NPC’s, meaning non-playable characters — thus highlighting their secondary and exiguous status (CNNmoney.com 2006). When playable female characters do appear in video games, they are typically overtly sexualized and portrayed wearing promiscuous dress and engaging in seductive acts. Notably, however, these characters are often high status, powerful characters, such as the heroic figures more commonly associated with men. Although this type of female character fits the normative characteristics of an action hero (i.e. male action hero) by demonstrating strength, speed, intellect, and independence, her sexuality is her defining feature, relegating her status to that of an object to be gazed upon. In other words, her role as an action hero is tied to her body and sexuality (Dietz 1998).

Sexualization is defined by the APA (American Psychological Association) as when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal. When any person is held to a standard that equates to physical attractiveness, to sexiness and when sexuality is inappropriately forced on someone (CNNmoney.com 2006). Considering the scarcity of females in video games, the mere presence of a prominent female video game character may trigger attention and serve as a motivator for individuals to adopt congruent gender-related beliefs. In particular, gamers may adopt beliefs and standards that are in line with these sexualized portrayals, resulting in the desire to be like the characters (among women) and to judge self and others based upon the characters (among both men and women) (Beasley & Standley 2002). The blending of stereotypical and counter-stereotypical attributes into female heroines, like Lara Croft, complicates the task of understanding the influence of such portrayals on media consumers. On the one hand, such female characters are strong, bold, intelligent, and independent, but on the other hand they are ‘made-up’ (with makeup and clothing), sexualized, and objectified. These latter characteristics are what maintain females’ vulnerable and non-threatening status. Thus, the powerful role of the female heroine is diminished by the emphasis on her physical feminine appearance (Deaux & Lewis 1983). In particular, it is the sexualization of female characters in video games that seems likely to negatively influence video game players’ perceptions of self and women in society. Based on the assumptions of social cognitive theory of gender development and differentiation, exposure to sexually objectified women and girls in video games would be expected to influence social perceptions about gender and women’s gendered self-concept (Deaux & Lewis 1983).

Despite game developers knowing that there’s a rise in female gamers, there’s a broad definition of what ‘gaming’ is due to the various types of game genres there are. While we know there’s more female gamers, it doesn’t necessarily mean that most females are playing these blockbuster action games, and could instead be focusing on smartphone gaming, simulation gaming and such. But of course this is all stereotypical which is the exact problem – the gaming industry relies on stereotypes (Dietz 1998). It stereotypes the male protagonist to be hegemonic and masculine due to that’s what’s stereotypically expected from an action hero, it’s stereotypical that the females are used as sexual stimulus, since that’s an old fashioned tradition from the past and the industry still relies on the stereotype that action games are more for males than females (Hoffswell 2011). There’s also a huge stereotype with heterosexuality, it assumes that male gamers will enjoy the male gaze due to them being straight, that the female gamers will enjoy the handsome protagonist due to them being straight, and that the protagonists are usually heterosexual due to appealing to mass homophobic audiences.

A major element of video game sexualization comes in the form of the ‘Male Gaze’ theory, first introduced by Laura Mulvey that has become well established and often noted by critics across media platforms. Mulvey argued that platforms of the media enforce a Male Gaze where mainly female characters are sexually objectified, whether discretely by a few camera shots with focus on female body parts, or more evidently where women are literally stripped to near to nothing to appeal the view of a heterosexual male. Gaze, as an analytical term, refers to the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. The one who gazes, the viewer, is generally looking at the viewed object (or being) with some desire or fantasy projection – why else would it be a gaze, not a glance? The theory goes that when one is gazed at, the person being viewed loses some sense of autonomy (Hoffswell 2011). You realize you are the subject of scrutiny, and it makes you self-conscious, or at least more self-aware. Mulvey argues that the attention on the female form puts the viewer in the eyes of a male and reduces the role of a female character into two function; an erotic object for the characters within the narrative to view or an erotic object for the spectators within the cinema to view (Hoffswell 2011).

Male Gaze, then, has to do with the relationship between a heterosexual male viewer, and a female that is being viewed. The theory poses that in media like film, photography, and games, when a heterosexual male is in charge of the viewing of a female, the resulting media necessarily reflects that male’s gaze. In the case of games, this may be more of a collective gaze. For the ‘camera’ to follow the curve of a woman’s body or pan down to focus on her cleavage is a conscious choice made by the developers, designers and the animators when creating these games (Hoffswell 2011). Characters in games, predominantly female characters, cannot choose what the audience is viewing, cannot choose whether or not people are looking at their cleavage, that decision is made for them, and perhaps these sexual fantasies are not particularly significant to some people, however, these views reinforce the misogyny in the gaming culture and thus have the potential to be transferred onto real life women (Hoffswell 2011). Hoffswell (2011) argues that being these creators are largely male, largely heterosexual, and aiming these games at other heterosexual males means the process and therefore the outcomes are inherently limiting, ensuring and magnifying the vicious cycle. These shots are planned carefully – there aren’t a lot of accidents in large-scale productions. If the camera says “I want you to be able to see her cleavage” versus “I do not want you to be able to see her cleavage,” this makes subtle, but undeniable statements to the player. And it is certain that this statement is being made by males, generally for other males (Glaubke 2001).

This is not to say that sexual attraction and sexualization (sexual objectification) are the same concept. They are not. Hoffswell (2011) argues sexualization and the ‘Male Gaze’ lie in the framing and the context not the attractiveness of a character, they are about choice, or lack thereof. Men are presented as targets of identification or rivalry, presented as the player’s peer, with power and autonomy. The audience is expected to either want to be him or defeat him. Females on the other hand, are presented as targets of desire, no longer a peer but a prize. The audience is expected to want to possess her. Positioning a character in such a way, undermines her autonomy no matter how well she may be written. In short, the goal of the player is to ‘become’ the male hero, and ‘help’ the female hero (Hoffswell 2011).

The “idealized hero form” is something that’s existed long before video games, originating in modern pop culture in the form of comic books. It’s a type of anatomy that represents the epitome of human perfection, and extends far beyond what any flesh and blood human is capable of (Richard & Zaremba 2005). This concept has been adopted into the gaming industry. Outside of create-a-character titles (Sims, World of Warcraft, Saints Row, etc), player won’t find many heroes of either gender with a less than ideal body. There are “idealized forms” of each sex and yet most of the time only one of them is sexualized. Soul Calibur, a game often critiqued for its oversexualized women also present scantily-clad men with muscles to make every women swoon. The difference between Ivy, the pirate’s daughter whose chest seems to enlarge with every installment and Misturugi, the shirtless Samurai warrior is not their genetic mutations, but rather the fact that men simply are not viewed as sexual objects in games. Due to the implementation of the male gaze and the positioning of characters, the same sexualization placed onto females cannot be transferred onto males without it come off as comedic. Dressing men in a thong and accentuating their ‘package’ is hilarious, not sexy (Richard & Zaremba 2005).

Moments of ‘admiration’ of the female form send a message that the game isn’t for people who don’t want to stare at women’s bodies. Those people are not the target audience. They are not welcome. It doesn’t matter if everything else about the game appeals to them. There are a lot of complex reasons why women don’t play games the way men do. But moments of blatant male gaze definitely play a role. Frequently coming across jarring images of sexualization are constant reminders that they are wandering into territory not meant for them (Richard & Zaremba 2005). This kind of barrier is completely unnecessary. The Sims drew a huge female audience. World of Warcraft did the same thing. Neither of these games was designed specifically for women. These games simply didn’t exclude women. These games were made for people. Even recent games that, at face value seem to be promoting female protagonists still fall into old stereotypes. Some argue that because female characters are strong, kill lots of men, they are, therefore, positive characters. But more often than not their power is stripped away; their primary function, the reason they were created, is to be sexy for a male gaze, to draw males to stare at them (Glaubke 2001). Their image is reduced from “strong women” to “hot chick”.

The Tomb Raider franchise is best know for its protagonist Lara Croft, a comically buxomed adventurer who makes a habit of stealing from tombs and murdering any endangered species that get in her way. Since her debut in 1996, Croft has been most every adolescent boy’s dream and every grown woman’s nightmare (Ryanalexanderhunt 2012). While the past two Tomb Raider games were critically well received and sold reasonably well, its current incarnation breaks from many of the gameplay and story tropes of the series in a hope to present a ‘grittier’ and more ‘realistic’ depiction of a younger Lara Croft (Ryanalexanderhunt 2012).

Just in the trailer, Croft is burned, impaled, beaten, and abused. One of her female companions is crucified and another is kidnapped at knife point. At one point in the trailer Croft is sexually assaulted by a man in a scene that clearly implies the threat of rape (Crystal Dynamics has since attempted to back away from this description). Fan and press reaction to this trailer were mixed with some feeling it crossed a line into exploitation, while others felt that there was nothing wrong with it, accusing those who found fault in it of “reactionary feminism” (Ryanalexanderhunt 2012). However the problem is not that Lara is subjected to violence but how she subjected to violence. Throughout the game when Croft is injured she does not react with screams of agony, or any sounds that reflect true pain. Instead she responds with moans and whimpers, labeled “torture porn”. The game underplays the harsh realities of violence and pain, presenting a fantasized depiction of pain where women react with sex-like moan instead of actual human suffering (Ryanalexanderhunt 2012). When executive producer Ron Rosenberg spoke about Lara, he said, “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her….’” In other words, the developers at Crystal Dynamics feel that male gamers would never play a female hero, so they had to make her sexually vulnerable in order for them to identify with her (Ryanalexanderhunt 2012). The game itself takes a rather uncomplicated look at female power. Lara may be a resilient, resourceful, intelligent, women but there are a lot of other ways, better ways to establish her strength without confronting her with sexual violence, especially given the fact that it is not treated as a life altering event, but rather a story beat.

Male developers catering to their male audience is not an uncommon concept, in fact, many recent games include element, even entire plot lines that rely on engaging male gamers (Glaubke’s 2001). If the controversial Hitman Absolution trailer that caused significant waves upon its release, proves anything it’s that despite working in on of the biggest entertainment industries in the world with a userbase demographic equally varied as that of film and music, video game marketers are still obsessed with titillating teenage boys (Schreier 2012). The Hitman franchise, in which the ‘protagonist’ is a deadly assassin, Agent 47, is a violent game, and so it goes without saying that its trailer will feature violent elements. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that in and of itself as long as the audience exposed is of the requisite age, however the Hitman Absolution trailer takes it more than one step further. Square Enix decided that it wasn’t enough to showcase their game’s graphics or gameplay, they tried to entice gamers with a scene featuring Agent 47 slaughtering his way through a squad of sexily-clad nuns (Schreier 2012).

When publisher Square Enix released the “Attack of the Saints” trailer, people immediately took to social media to condemn it, saying it perpetuates sexist and offensive ideas. Kotaku Australia’s Mark Serrels wrote: “If this is what works, if this is what genuinely sells video games, I just don’t want any part of it.” Agent 47’s massacre of these women is not what’s being questioned but rather the portrayal of these women (Schreier 2012). “Let’s have none of the ooh-sexy-empowered women talk here,” Sarah Ditum argued in CVG, “these ladies rocked up to be knocked down, and because some videogame developers still have the mentality of a frightened prepubescent when faced with an actual female person, the best way to make them seem threatening was to make them look crazy sexy.” Despite being in it’s fourth decade, the gaming industry is still, comparatively, in its infancy yet developers demand to be taken seriously (Schreier 2012). They want video games to be legitimized as art, to be viewed on a plane with cinema, however, it is scenes like the one from Hitman Absolution that only confirm stereotypes about the industry and by extension gamers themselves.

In recent years game developers that have created some of the best (unsexualized) representations of women protagonists, in what can only be labeled an attempt to increase sales, have abandoned their previous convictions and yielded to industry stereotypes. One of the most prominent elements of Final Fantasy heroines is that, generally speaking, they’ve tended to be characters that haven’t relied on fan service. Until now, that is. When asked “is it true that Lightning went from a C cup to a D cup?”, one of Lightning Return: Final Fantasy XIII’s designers, Nobuhiro Goto replied, “Toriyama (Lightning Return’s director) said, ‘I want to make them bigger… so'”( Usher 2013). He also revealed that her chest moves depending on what she wears and with over 80 different costumes, many of which feature a generous amount of skin, players are sure to experience the highly publicized ‘boob jiggle’. Critics of this feature find it disconcerting that, as a popular gaming franchise with many elements and enhancements with each installment what is being focused on, what is being discussed is Lightning’s boob job, as if it were an obvious change (Usher 2013). The probability that players would have noticed had it not been specified are slim to none, however, developers promoting it turns it into the major issue it has become. Lightning is not the only longtime female protagonist to have a makeover.

The Metroid series has always been deeply embedded in discussions of video games and gender but the reinvention of Samus’ body in the latest game has sparked considerable debate over the sexualization of one of Nintendo’s strongest female protagonist. Every version of the Metroid series has, in some form, presented Samus’ identity as a female bounty hunter as more of an afterthought than a defining feature. Indeed, Samus’ gender is never made apparent and is, in fact, kept from the player throughout the game (Williams 2010). Samus is only revealed as a woman upon completion of the game and only earned as a reward for completing it within a certain amount of time. There are five endings presented, the final two of which reveal Samus’ gender in a dramatically more sexual manner. In the fourth ending, Samus’s suit dissolves and leaves a victorious Samus in a long sleeved leotard, however, in the fifth ending, the dissolve results in an image of Samus in a bikini. Once again, the revelation of Samus being a strong female protagonist is present, but these final two endings also put Samus’s body on display as a kind of visual reward for playing well (Williams 2010). Whether intended or not, the progression of achievement in Metroid resembles a kind of virtual striptease. Playing well results in seeing more flesh. Modern gamers may not think much of a bikini clad 8-bit image of a woman, but this was probably the first foray into mainstreaming sexuality in console gaming and may have opened the door for the idea of providing provocative visual rewards for good play (Williams 2010).

The latest sexism controversy revolving the Metroid series comes by way of the new model for Zero Suit Samus who is now sporting a larger pair of boobs, slimmer waist, and most importantly, stiletto rocket heels. The skintight bodysuit, although the target of much criticism, can be explained by the simple fact that Samus is a bounty hunter, and therefore needs to be protected but also needs to be agile and a lightweight outfit achieves both of these things (Williams 2010). However the high heels have no such excuse. Heels are innately sexual and carry certain stigmas facilitated by popular culture, and so rocket or not, they sexualize her image even further. There are a number of ways the designers could have given Samus rocket propulsion without strapping her in stilettos, but once again game developers send the message that the player should be admiring the female form. Along with her physical makeover, Samus’ personality also had a major overhaul. Her abilities as a kickass bounty hunter are negated by the fact that “Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man” (Williams 2010). Having a strong seemingly self-sufficient women being controlled and commanded by a man reinforces the mentality that women in games are only relevant when propping up or under the influence of a male.

Despite the fact that they account for almost half of all gamers, women make up only a fraction of the industry, just 11% of designers, 3% of programmers (Beasley & Standley 2002). While it is true there are women in positions of power within the industry, they are few and far between and, like their subsidiaries, are often thought of separately from their male coworkers. Female programmers are, on average, paid $10 000 less, designers $12 000 less, and animators $26 000 less than their male counterparts and professional gamers aren’t fairing any better. The difference in the monetary value of male versus female players is substantial with the highest paid female professional gamer, Katherine ‘Mystik’ Gunn, earning $US122 000, while the highest paid male professional gamer, Lee ‘Jaedong’ Jae Dong, earned almost $US400 000 more (Hamilton 2012). Women workers and gamers alike experience anger directed towards them when they challenge the gaming culture by speaking up about gender issues. Professional gamer Miranda “Super_Yan” Pakozki while participating in a Cross Assault tournament, threw a match after her coach made some jaw-dropping remarks concerning sexual harassment.

Aris Bakhtanians, during the footage shot on February 23, shouts some lewd remarks incuding, “rape the bitch!”, before taking control of the camera and focuses it on Pakozki’s breasts and thighs, shooing away anyone who blocks his view.
In an interview with Twitch.TV’s Community, when asked by Justin Rae “can I get my street fighter without the sexual harassment?” Bakhtanians responded, “You can’t, you can’t because they’re one and the same thing (Hamilton 2012). This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of that culture. If you remove that from the fighting-game community, it’s not the fighting-game community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years” (Hamilton 2012). The mentality that as a male gamer, he has the right to sexually harass anyone continues to define the gaming industry and perpetuates the stereotype that females are not as competent, and therefore not as welcome, in the technological fields and the preconception that technology is for males (Hamilton 2012). The cultural and social perception that technology is strictly a male domain is a significant factor in dissuading women from participating in all aspects of the industry.

Anita Sakeesian and her kickstarter campaign “Tropes vs Women in Video Games”, although receiving support through the form of donations, also received much criticism and even more hate. It is this blatant form of misogyny, easily breed in the gaming environment that becomes an obstacle for women truly being accepted into the industry (Vanderwerff 2014). When these men feel as if their domain is being threatened their knee-jerk reaction is to lash out. The three most common paths of insults directed from men to women over gaming services, both consoles and pcs, are “fat, ugly, and slutty” with many women experiencing elements of sexual violence and threat of rape (Vanderwerff 2014). Kotaku Australia’s Katie Williams experienced a different form of misogyny at E3 2012. As a self-professed gamer, Williams attended the event with the hope of playing and reporting on the most anticipated games of the year, what she got, however, was steered towards the Facebook games and a chaperone who insisted “I think I’d better play it for you” (Vanderwerff 2014). Incase her apparent lack of knowledge sucked their product into the blackhole of inaccurate female-penned games journalism. All this achieved was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course her ‘first-hand’ account wouldn’t be completely accurate when her hands were batted away so someone more ‘capable’ could take point. When Williams took to the Internet to vent her frustrations, she was once again criticized for not standing up and taking back control. However within the gaming culture there is a double standard in this regard. Confrontation is often the first step… for men. A man who fails to defend himself is branded a wimp but a woman who does stand up for herself is labeled a bitch; “ignore the hysterical bitch, she’s just hormonal” (Vanderwerff 2014).

A fundamental role in the spread of online misogyny is social media and a controversial movement, which ostensibly started over concerns about the ethical corruption of video game journalism. Supporters say they want to address conflicts of interest between the people that make games and the people that support them. In reality, Gamergate has been hijacked by a group of gamers in an attempt to destroy the women who have invaded their clubhouse (Vanderwerff 2014). The movement itself is not a new one. Anita Sarkeesian faced a new wave of harassment after first starting her campaign, when Gamergate members threatened to rape and kill her, forcing her to flee her home. The movement reached fever pitch when a jilted former lover of indie game developer Zoe Quinn published transcripts of her life online. Allegations arose that Quinn’s game Depression Quest had received favourable reviews due to an alleged romantic relationship with a journalist for the video game new site Kotaku, including death threats that also prompted Quinn to flee (Vanderwerff 2014). Although these allegations were unfounded, no such review was ever written, the fact that Gamergate member who claimed to be maintaining journalistic ethics seized the opportunity to shame and terrify Quinn instead of the journalist speaks volumes about the shift in nature of the movement.

The issue of female sexualization and gender inequality in video games, and by extension the gaming industry, is one that has been debated by academics spanning decades and continents. The influence of ‘the male gaze’ as well as the difference between male and female character sexualization fuel the mentality both within and outside of the gaming culture, that the technological field is a male domain and women are welcome because games are simply not ‘for’ them. Perspectives of women in the industry and female gamers reinforce the idea that ‘hard-core’ games are produced by males for males, sustaining the vicious cycle that is not likely to be broken anytime soon. Comically hypersexualized female characters are usually written off as marketing tools to pander to a younger audience, and because nobody is seemingly hurt in the process, it often is deemed OK. However it is when these ideas leak into real life, as seen in personal testimonies, and are transferred onto real women that it these ideas cross from innocent to destructive.


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