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Gender Representation in Video Games

Analysis of "The Legend of Zelda"-Franchise

Seminararbeit 2021 16 Seiten

Geschlechterstudien / Gender Studies

Leseprobe

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Theoretical Framework
2.1 Gender Studies
2.2 Gender Representation in Video Games

3 Game Studies
3.1 Story
3.2 Picture
3.3 Characters

4 The Legend of Zelda
4.1 Story Analysis
4.2 Character and Picture analysis
4.2.1 Male Main Character: Link
4.2.2 Female Main Character: Zelda, Sheik, and Tetra

5 Conclusion

6 Primary Sources / Games

7 References

1 Introduction

Over the past fifty years, video games have taken over a substantial part of the media entertainment industry, with approximately 5,3 million Austrians playing; 90 % of the most active age group, the ten-to-fifteen-year olds, are playing more than once a month. However, the average Austrian gamer is 54 % male and 46 % female, 35 years old, and spends an average of 11,5 hours per week playing (OVÜS, 2019). Video games, as well as any other form of mass entertainment media, can influence players’ perceptions and expectations around gender identity and gender roles. The stereotypical portrayal of masculinity and femininity, which was a common occurrence in the early history of video games, is especially problematic in reaffirming gender stereotypes. This materialised in a pattern of white, male, heterosexual player characters being sent on a heroic journey, while female characters were often oversexualised while playing a passive role as a love interest for the main character. In this regard, video game heroes and characters, as well as their narrative, were not different from popular cultural movies, comics, and books of the late 20th century (Yao, Mahood, & Linz, 2010).

Over the past 25 years, the video game industry has grown substantially, public opinion on the portrayal of gender roles in contemporary texts have changed, and the ratio of females playing video games has increased (Bryce & Rutter, 2003). Therefore, it seems plausible that video game publishers may have reacted to these changes by reducing the display of stereotypical gender roles in their games in an effort to appeal to a broader audience.

This paper aims to examine in how far the portrayal of stereotypical gender roles in video games has changed. For this purpose, one of the oldest and most popular video game franchises – The Legend of Zelda – is analysed using a theoretical framework of both game studies and gender studies. The paper aims to give a game overview of three key aspects – story, picture, and characters – focusing on the portrayal of gender norms, and stereotypes.

2 Theoretical Framework

2.1 Gender Studies

Gender Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study examining gender representation and gender identity. Due to the diversity and vastness of this field of research, only the most fundamental aspects and terms necessary to analyse and describe gender representation in video games will be discussed in this paper (Cranny-Francis, Waring, Stavropoulos, & Kirkby, 2003).

Especially in video games, sex, gender, and doing gender are highly relevant topics of analysis due to the fact that video game characters are created from scratch by video game developers without any pre-existing or pre-determined characteristics. Sex refers to biological characteristics that define men and women such as the anatomy of the reproductive system and secondary sex characteristics (Prince, 2005). Gender, on the other hand, is a construct that describes the social dimension and attributions of the sexes and “divides humans into two categories: male and female” (Cranny-Francis et al., 2003, p.1). Specifically, it describes roles, expectations, values, and power dynamics that are linked to either of the sexes throughout history and in diverse cultural contexts. Opitz-Belakhal (2018, p. 61-62) describes gender as an interplay of situation-specific roles and expectations linked to one’s biological sex. Consequently, manhood and womanhood are products of socialisation, which is highly variable. This binary system, however, oversimplifies the reality of gender by neglecting highly influential factors of gender identity such as socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, and skin colour. Therefore, the concept of gender is understood to be a spectrum that is not limited to the concepts of male and female. “People who do not fit in the historic definition of gender can be described as gender diverse, gender fluid, gender creative, gender non-conforming, and/or gender nonbinary” (Bass, Gonzalez, Colip, Sharon, & Conklin, 2018, p.1821).

2.2 Gender Representation in Video Games

Video game characters are not born with reproductive systems or secondary sex characteristics, which means that they are by definition exempt from the concept of biological sex. However, they often display a wide range of gender features. Dickerman, Christensen, & Kerl-McClain (2008, p. 23) point out that many video games feature stereotypical stories of male heroes rescuing princesses from male villains. Examples include Starfox Adventures (2002), Kingdom Hearts (2002), Bioshock Infinite (2013), and the Double Dragon series. With, inter alia, eye patches, imposing muscular bodies, scars, and equipped with weapons such as swords and guns, the appearance of male heroes or villains often signals aggression, adventure, and violence. Such features are even added to video game characters with beastly, anthropomorphic, or machine-like bodies. Furthermore, the pre-defined playable main characters – especially in single-player games – are disproportionally more often male than female, claiming the active part in a game.

On the other hand, the princess is portrayed as a “damsel in distress” in need of rescuing. The prime example for this trope is the reoccurring plot of Super Mario games, first seen in Super Mario Bros (1985) where Princess Peach is kidnaped by Bowser, a turtle-like creature, setting off Mario’s quest to rescue her. Contrary to the male characters, she inherits a passive role and is portrayed as gorgeous, helpless, and inapt (Malkowski & Russworm, 2017, p. 92). Alongside the women as victims trope, there is a variety of similar negatively connotated gender stereotypes commonly found in video games, such as women as sex objects, women as prizes, or women in feminine roles. With revealing clothing and oversexualised body proportions, female video game characters are often significantly more prone to being portrayed as sex objects than male characters (Ferdig, 2009, p. 924).

For these phenomena, West & Zimmerman (1987, p. 137) introduced the term “doing gender” which describes accentuating or artificially constructing differences between men and women which are not biological or natural.

3 Game Studies

Game studies is a relatively young academic field, emerging in the late 1990s. This field of study examines and analyses different genres and types of electronic games as well as their impact on culture, society, and the economy. Thereby, game studies provide frameworks of analysis for aspects such as story, characters, spaces of the game, immersion, and social interaction (Beil, Hensel, & Rauscher, 2018). To analyse The Legend of Zelda franchise, a game overview consisting of three major game building blocks – story, picture, and characters – is given. The interpretative analysis aims to identify elements of gender representation over the course of time.

3.1 Story

Having a story or a narrative is not mandatory for computer games as the tile-matching video game Tetris (1989) proves. Some games entertain players by letting them solve puzzles or test their reaction time. One of the most popular video games, Minecraft (2009), throws player characters into a vast procedurally generated world without any storytelling elements but with several activities they can pursue. These so-called sandbox games rely on the imagination and creativity of the players to define their own goals and create their own stories, and the game itself acts as a toolkit to enable players to “work” in, or on their digital worlds (Ekaputra, Lim, & Eng, 2013, p. 237-238). If game developers choose to integrate a story into their games, there are two main approaches to do so. Similar to books and movies, video games may follow a linear story that cannot be changed or influenced by players. The player takes on the role of the protagonist, or multiple protagonists, and systematically progresses through a pre-determined storyline with no variations from start to finish. Alternatively, developers may choose the branching storyline approach, which is especially popular in adventure games and role-playing games. Thereby, players are either given active choices which alter the story, or it changes passively, due to the behaviour and actions the players take throughout the game. Therefore, each branching storyline has to be subject of analysis in this paper. However, video games are not bound to rely on one of these three general storytelling approaches; they are mixed and matched, creating even more depth and creative freedom (Beil et al., 2018).

3.2 Picture

The visual aspects of video games are not as one-dimensional as they are in photographs or paintings. Pictures in digital games have multiple interactive or reactive dimensions. They are not simply a scene but a space of action. Burke (1969, p. XX) describes “motives” as necessary aspects for any actions taken by characters in movies, such as agent, co-agent, counteragent, agency, act, purpose, and scene. “The hero (agent) with the help of a friend (co-agent) outwits the villain (counter-agent) by using a file (agency) that enables him to break his bonds (act) in order to escape (purpose) from the room where he has been confined (scene) (Burke, 1969).”

In video games, all of those motives may be present at the same time while potentially being subject to real-time change by actions or interactions of the player character (agent) with all of the other motives.

Since gender stereotypes are often embedded in either the visual representation of player-characters and non-player-characters (NPCs) or interactions of the agent with other motives, this aspect is highly relevant for the analysis of The Legend of Zelda franchise.

3.3 Characters

Video game characters are protagonists in their respective game worlds, some of them – Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario, Lara Croft – have become brands worth millions of euros and enjoy cult status. However, most video game characters are not as memorable, especially NPCs. For instance, soldiers of real-time strategy games (RTS) may be exact copies of one another without a background story or unique features. However, especially in role-playing games, NPCs may be intricately designed with a variety of character traits, ambitions, and emotions. Furthermore, they may interact with their environment and the player character in such a believable way that they may be better described as digital beings than just characters (Fujii, Sato, Wakama, Kazai, & Katayose, 2013, p. 61-62)

Most games, especially action, adventure, and platform games, feature elaborate player-characters which are designed to create an emotional bond with players and act as a representative that players identify with (Hefner, Klimmt, & Vorderer, 2007). Both player characters and NPCs are often not just characters, but important gameplay elements with a variety of functions and ways to interact with other video game elements. Another form of player-character – mostly found in role-playing games – is created using a character creator. These tools allow players to create a unique player character with, inter alia, selectable body features, abilities, and backstories. As characters are one of the most important elements of video games, analysing how they are represented in terms of gender is highly relevant (Soutter & Hitchens, 2016).

4 The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda is a high fantasy video game franchise first introduced in 1986 with the release of The Legend of Zelda (1986). Since then, publisher Nintendo has released over 25 The Legend of Zelda games and will continue to do so, as indicated by a trailer foreshadowing the release of a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild sequel, expected to come out in December 2021 (Nintendo, 2019). Especially technological advances over the past 35 years have led to major changes in graphics design, game design, character design, and storytelling (Riederer, 2020). Therefore, this paper will analyse major The Legend of Zelda titles to find out if, or how gender representation has changed over time.

4.1 Story Analysis

Most The Legend of Zelda games are based on exploring a game world, fighting a range of enemies, and solving riddles and puzzles to obtain Items. These items give the player character – Link – new abilities which are needed to progress the game’s story. Except for Zelda: Breath of the Wild, The Legend of Zelda games follow a linear storyline (Beil et al., 2018).

The plot of The Legend of Zelda (1986) is a prime example of the “damsel in distress” scenario described in chapter 2.2. The world is threatened by the evil forces of the male villain Ganon, also called Ganondorf, who kidnaps Princess Zelda. Link, the male hero sets out on a quest to rescue her. In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998), Zelda has a passive role throughout the game, giving Link quests and items to aid him on his journey, until she is chased and kidnapped by Ganon again. This theme is repeated in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002) where Link’s sister and Zelda are both kidnapped by Ganon (Riederer, 2020). Hence, the damsel in distress trope is a common theme in The Legend of Zelda games. Link plays the active part, and the narrative revolves around him and his deeds. However, Zelda’s passive role is less and less pronounced throughout the game’s titles. In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002), Zelda appears as one of her incarnations – Tetra – who has an active role as captain of a pirate ship, aiding Link’s efforts to rescue his sister. Towards the end of the game, Tetra changes back into her original form and, as mentioned, gets kidnapped by Ganon. However, during Link’s rescue attempt, the recently transformed Zelda partakes in the fight against Ganon by shooting lightning arrows at him. In The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (2017), Zelda is not helpless or a Damsel, but an active key figure to the plot. At one point in the story, she defeats a number of enemies that threaten to kill Link who is badly injured (Riederer, 2020). Hence, Zelda escapes her passive role as a helpless damsel and takes on the role of an active heroine.

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Titel: Gender Representation in Video Games