The video gaming world is notorious for objectifying women, whether they’re players, creators, experts, or characters. But a comprehensive study by principal author Teresa Lynch and her team of researchers at Indiana University turned up some surprising good news. Published last month in the Journal of Communications, Lynch’s report “Sexy, Strong, and Secondary” charts the representation of 571 lead female characters in video games between 1989 and 2014, tracking instances of nakedness, exaggerated breast size, unnaturally thin waists, and other gratuitous physical details.
The study finds that such instances peaked in the mid-nineties. Lynch writes that, “We attribute this decline to an increasing female interest in gaming coupled with the heightened criticism levied at the industry’s arguably male [dominance].”
Elijah Blythe, a full-time gamer and freelance researcher of artificial intelligence in the United Kingdon, agrees. “One of the biggest barriers to constructive conversations within the industry is the perception that games are played primarily by teenage boys,” he says. “This has affected not only those who are making games, those who want to play games, but also if someone wants to get involved in the industry as a whole… Spend some time looking into who actually plays computer games and who actually buys them, and you quickly come to the conclusion that in reality, there are just as many women as men.”
A 2014 study from the Internet Advertising Bureau found that 52 percent of the gaming audience are girls and women. Which might be one reason that characters like Lara Croft, the star of the Tomb Raider series and arguably the most popular and recognizable female character in the history of video games, have evolved so much over the years. Conceptualized by a group a male developers, Lara’s tiny waist, skimpy outfit, and huge bust (rumor has it, those breasts are three times larger than anticipated thanks to a game developer’s “slip of the mouse”) have turned her into an icon, as has Angelina Jolie’s turn as the character in the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
But Lara’s since had a makeover. In 2013, Rise of the Tomb Raider turned into less of a sex object and more of an athletic badass who could fight as well—oftentimes better—than any man.
Still, the gaming industry has a long way to go. Lynch’s study finds that though female characters in video games are becoming more well-rounded and less sexualized, there are fewer women in lead roles than ever before—when they’re present, they’re more likely to be secondary characters. And that means, as Tech Insider notes, side characters like the prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto weren’t part of Lynch’s analysis at all.
“Women don’t like to be seen as sex objects,” Lynch told PBS. “When they don’t feel like game content positively reflects [their sex], they’re not interested… The game industry has been very receptive in trying to involve more women. It’s having more open conversations [about sexism] than ever before.”