Women represent half of the world’s video game players, but gender bias remains alive and well in an industry that is the largest in the entertainment sector, having overtaken music and cinema. There are fewer female characters in video games compared to male ones, they are more sexualized, and they tend to have more minor roles; their representation serves to reinforce well-known stereotypes. Now, a new study has thrown further light on this state of affairs, by demonstrating that female characters not only appear less frequently in video games, but talk less and are involved in less important dialogues.
The research, published today in the journal Royal Society Open Science, has analyzed six million words spoken by over 13,000 characters in 50 role-playing video games whose storyline depends on conversations being held. According to the authors of the study, it is the first time that gender representation has been measured on a large scale in video-game dialogue. The results show that there is only half as much dialogue featuring female characters as there is involving male characters. That is partly due to a lack of female characters, but is also a consequence of gender imbalances in terms of what they say and who they talk to. In general, they are given dialogues of a lesser importance and there is a tendency for them to interact less with other characters of the same gender.
Although dialogues in video games can also vary depending on the game player’s preferences and the choices they make, the results of the study indicate that these decisions don’t tend to have a major impact on gender representation. Of the sample of games studied by the researchers, 11 allow gamers to pick the gender of their player character. Of these titles, only two — the Mass Effect trilogy and Dragon Age 2 — have over 50% female dialogue when the player chooses a woman.
In 24 games, moreover, the researchers had access to the algorithm that determines the dialogue tree. They simulated an omniscient player who sought to maximize dialogue from one gender. When they tried to maximize female dialogue, they managed to do so 36% of the time, with females speaking 10.2 more words than males on average. When the researchers sought to maximize male dialogue, though, 65% of their attempts were successful, with an average of 33 words more. “This suggests that the bias against female dialogue cannot be easily avoided by players,” the study’s authors say.
Progress has been made: the Royal Society paper also analyzes the evolution of video games over the past 50 years, and finds that the number of dialogues involving female characters has risen by 6% per decade. At that pace, however, the gender gap won’t be breached until 2036. Stephanie Rennick, a research associate in the University of Glasgow’s department of philosophy, and the study’s chief author, explains that the quickest way to reach parity would be for more female characters to be added to video games. “While men spoke twice as much as women overall, we didn’t find that the average man spoke more than the average woman,” Rennick told EL PAÍS in an email. “Instead, there were far fewer female characters than male characters.”
Simply raising the number of female characters won’t solve all the biases that were identified in the study, though. The researchers also found a marginalization of characters who had a non-binary gender identity or represented other minorities. To address these problems, Rennick explains, there needs to be more supervision of gender distribution in characters and dialogues, as well as a greater diversification of characters and subversion of gender roles.
One of the study’s recommendations is to use what’s known as gender flipping: a character is created belonging to one gender, but that gender is then changed before release, without altering other facets of the character, such as their relationships and personality traits. “It can be a helpful way of identifying bias or stereotypes — these become more vivid after the flip,” Rennick says. “For example, the Royal Shakespeare Company did a production of Cymbeline a few years ago where Cymbeline was gender flipped to be a queen, and the formerly wicked stepmother was now a wicked stepfather (this is different to the cross-cast role, very common in Shakespeare, where a character is played by an actor of a different gender). The characters were no longer types, but individuals.”
It’s important that companies don’t only focus on the main characters, but also those that have minor roles. In some cases, Rennick reveals, gender bias is even more evident when it comes to supporting characters. “Several games in the corpus had one or more women protagonists and still had less than 50% female dialogue overall. Also, pernicious stereotypes can easily creep in with background characters, such as making all guards men.”
The Royal Society study shows that gender bias is frequently embedded in the algorithms used in games’ developmental stages. In Daggerfall, for example, the distribution of male and female minor characters is determined at random. However, before the characters are assigned a gender, they are first given a role. If they are guards, they are men by default. Were it not for this stipulation, the determination of characters’ gender could be more balanced.
The paper’s authors indicate that future research should focus on identifying narrative tropes that lead to gender imbalances in dialogue. The damsel in distress or the knight in shining armor, for example, can serve to reinforce problematic stereotypes. “I’m particularly interested in how a better understanding of tropes can help us tell new stories: if we know what patterns we keep perpetuating, we can decide whether to subvert or avert them,” Rennick concludes.
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