Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender
Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media
Karen E. Dill
Kathryn P. Thill
Published online: 17 October 2007
Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2007
Abstract Video game characters are icons in youth popular
culture, but research on their role in gender socialization is
rare. A content analysis of images of video game characters
from top-selling American gaming magazines showed male
characters (83%) are more likely than female characters
(62%) to be portrayed as aggressive. Female characters are
more likely than male characters to be portrayed as
sexualized (60% versus 1%), scantily clad (39% versus
8%) and as showing a mix of sex and aggression (39 versus
1%). A survey of teens confirmed that stereotypes of male
characters as aggressive and female characters as sexually
objectified physical specimens are held even by non-
gamers. Studies are discussed in terms of the role media
plays in socializing sexism.
Keywords Video game
Both the content of video games and the role of video games
in popular culture have changed profoundly since the first
games appeared on the market in the 1970s. In this paper, we
investigate sexist portrayals of video game characters and
young people’s schemas about male and female characters.
Video game content is linked to advancements in technology,
with more compelling and lifelike portrayals becoming
possible with each passing year, so research must keep pace
with these technological advancements.
In the early years, gender representations in video games
were limited to graphically unsophisticated characters such
as Ms. Pac-Man, the hungry yellow orb whose only
indication of gender was her pixilated hair bow. Ms.
Pac-Man was a variation of the original Pac-Man game
(which accounts for her gender-confused moniker) and was
designed to attract female players to what was already a
male-dominated market (Ms. Pac-Man 2007). From the
beginning, females were underrepresented in video games.
Even computerized voices in early video games were almost
exclusively male (Braun and Giroux 1989). When female
characters were present, they were likely to be damsels in
distress (Dietz 1998), such as Princess Toadstool in the
Mario Brothers games. By the mid to late 1990s, video
games had morphed into a persistent, and in terms of gender
stereotypes, blatant element in youth popular culture. Tomb
Raider’s Lara Croft, now an icon among female game
characters, arrived on the scene to spark debate about the
merits and demerits of a butt-kicking, buxom video game
star who was at once agent and object (Mikula 2003).
Current Popularity of Gaming and Gaming Magazines
How popular is gaming and who plays video games?
Currently, gaming is the top online activity of kids
[Magazine Publishers of America (MPA) 2004]. Price
Waterhouse Coopers reports that 63% of Americans 6 years
and older play video games and that video games will be
the fastest growing entertainment segment in the next
5 years, with global video game spending reaching $55.6
billion in 2008 (Game Informer 2005). Most kids (84.2%)
aged 6 to 11 played a video game in the last month (89.3%
Sex Roles (2007) 57:851–864
Karen E. Dill and Kathryn P. Thill (formerly Kathryn L. Phillips),
School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Lenoir-Rhyne College.
K. E. Dill (*)
K. P. Thill
P.O. Box 7335, Hickory, NC 28603, USA