Research: Courage to explore video games from many angles heals society

Shot from the indie game
Shot from the indie game "Gris." The game explores the themes of depression and anxiety through the eyes of a female protagonist.

Over 2.5 billion people worldwide played video games in 2019, making them an increasingly popular form of media. At the same time, male-centrist biases and criticism continue to plague the gaming industry. A doctoral research from the University of Tartu explores gender in video games and demonstrates that there are multiple ways to understand games.

"I believe that video games will continue to be the most profitable entertainment market in the world," said Marie-Luise Meier, a PhD student in Literary and Media Studies at the University of Tartu. However, video games are still stigmatized for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are not recognized an art form in many cultures. There is a generational divide in the understanding of games, and the media is full of misconceptions about them.

While the portrayal of gender, race and identity in video games is considered as uniform, scholars often lack the necessary tools to investigate games in greater depth. Meier's research explores how gender is constructed in video games and proposes an analysis methodology.

Healing ambient light

Marie-Luise Meier said that whether a video game is considered mass media or a new form of literature is determined by the player's understanding of the game and the game's design.

"Publishing is also an industry," she says, adding that "many of the best-known novels with international distribution follow a trend or mood of the year."
Because there has been a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction for young adults recently, games and books on this theme will be available from both large and independent publishers.

From the game "Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice". The game was praised enormously for its depiction of psychosis. It features a female lead. Source: Marie-Luise Meier

"Games definitely borrow heavily from other media," Meier says. Some games resemble an interactive film, while others borrow dramatic structure, aesthetics and genre from literature. It's critical to understand that games are not games because of their narrative aspects, but because of their playful aspects," she said.

Meier feels that a separate subject of game studies is needed because video games are a unique form of media that is distinct from all other forms of art.
She suggests integrating literary studies, game design, sociology, psychology, film studies

The more the games are brought to the attention of both the general public and academics, the more they are acknowledged as a unique cultural form.

"Recognition also means that it is increasingly difficult to disseminate problematic values via video games," Meier emphasized.

In her approach, researchers can determine, for example, whether a game degrades a group of people or whether it helps the player cope with the stresses of daily life. "For example, many people said that games such as the peaceful farm simulator 'Stardew Valley' helped them to survive the pandemic. They didn't feel so isolated or depressed then," Meier said.

Video games have long been perceived as a pastime for just boys and young men. In part, she argues, the anxiety stems from the industry itself, in which women and transgender individuals have historically had a tough time achieving success. "There is also concern about the games themselves, which come from a male-centric industry and frequently feature a male protagonist and/or derogatory depictions of women and transgender people," she continued.

Nonetheless, Meier said, that attitudes are changing. In most countries, the average player is in theirn20s or 30s, so the idea that video games are intended merely for youngsters is gradually fading away, she said. Meier also said there are now more female e-sports players, professional video gamers, and game producers as well as game protagonists. "The games are growing increasingly diverse, due in part to the interest of academics, critics and the general public," she said.

Screenshot from triple-A title "Fallout 4." Meier finds the game uses harmful stereotypes and in places praises militarism as a masculine value. Source: Marie-Luise Meier

How diverse is the space of possibilities?

As games borrow from literature and movies, they could well be examined from either angle. Meier believes that video games should be treated in a highly interdisciplinary way. However, they are still games first and foremost, which implies that the player's role must always be prioritized.

"I propose a methodological approach that investigates gender not only at the level of story-telling or stereotypes, but also in the structures of games and in the representations specific to games," she explained.

In older role-playing games, for instance, female and male characters may have separate skill sets. "Male characters can be stronger fighters, while female characters are better healers or supporters." Also the animated movements of male and female characters can be seen as representing their distinct gender roles. In other words, Meier said, the story of the game may suggest that anything is possible for all genders, but the actual gameplay reveals the limitations of the options.

She proposes a two-step approach to analyzing examples of this kind. First, she employs the concept of "possibility space" to determine all the viable options in a given portion of the game. "For example, you want to determine whether a character's appearance is sexualized," Meier explains. In this situation, the researcher may want to examine the available body types, clothing and equipment for character creation.

By comparing the design choices of a female and male character, for example, it is possible to determine whether or not they perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

"If your male character's clothes emphasize muscle and brute strength, but cover the body in general, whereas your female character only has the option of wearing high heels, you may already be referring to stereotypes," she said.

For example, she has seen such stereotypes in current popular video games such as The Witcher 3.

Princess Peach from the Super Mario series depicts a typical female trope in video games: a damsel in distress awaiting rescue. Autor/allikas: Ben & Jena Edwards/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

How does the game's design influence the player?

Meier examined the alternatives available to the characters only as a preliminary step; she thinks that this alone is insufficient. "Games are fascinating because, to a certain extent, they allow one to self-relate, choose between options and do what one wants," Meier said, "in contrast to movies in which the information is passively observed."

This is where her second step, the concept of "preferential gaming," comes in. "Preferential gaming is the most likely method a game will be played," she explaines. Herein lies the role of nudging, or the implicit targeting of choices.

Meier said that video games often encourage players to make a certain decision; for example, a reward, a level's shape or even the game world's topography might steer a character along a particular path. "Let's put it out there so we can find a path you're likely to see in your game."

Screenshot from "Hunie Pop." A dating game where the player tries to convince various women to engage in sexual intercourse with them. Even though the players found it was a lot of fun, Meier says it promotes some highly problematic stereotypes. Source: Marie-Luise Meier

Once the design decisions of the characters and the most likely direction of the game become evident, the games can be explored from a variety of gender viewpoints. Meier adapted some of the existing theoretical concepts, such as film theorist Laura Mulvey's concept of the "male gaze," to the realm of video games.

"It is the viewer's, the camera's and the male protagonist's voyeuristic [objectifying, -ed.] perspective of sexy female characters, but in the context game, the camera doesn't generally function in the same way as it does in Hollywood films," she said. In several games, players can select to view the game world through their character's eyes or from behind their character's back, with only the latter option having a voyeuristic impact.

The novelty of Meier's approach lies in the notion of "preferred gaming" and the combination of many different disciplines helpful to the understanding of video games. "I feel that these methodologies could impact the discourse surrounding video games by giving both researchers and the general public better tools to avoid generalizations and misinterpretations while thinking about video games," she said.

Marie-Luise Meier will defend her PhD thesis "Gender in games - methodology and analysis" on 14 November at the University of Tartu. The work was supervised by Professor of English Studies Raili Marling and Associate Professor of Media Studies Maria Murumaa-Mengel.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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