For most gamers, the academic study of video games seems a bit ridiculous. “Common sense” is what I often hear when people talk about the results of studies. “This stuff is obvious” is also pretty common to hear. Still, we know that there is an imbalance within video games though it is often ridiculed out of existence. This makes me question the comments about common sense because, if it was common and it did make sense, then it would not be so furiously debated - of course, I am referring to gender and video games.
A recently published study in the academic journal – Sex Roles examined video game box art in conjuction with video game sales. The reseacher's goal was to try and confirm or deny that the presence of hypersexualized females in non-central roles had an impact on video game sales. In other words, does having a non-sexualized woman in your game (and on your game's box) make it less likely that people will buy it?
This study, using content analysis finds that games portraying “aggressive” male characters in a central role on the box tend to sell better than those without a male character on the box. Sexualized, non-central, female characters (e.g. Cortana in Halo) on game boxes also tend to sell better than those game boxes that feature non-sexualized female characters. From the previous research done on consumer patterns of games, the researcher concludes that non-sexualized, central female character signals to consumers that this game is probably not for the “traditional” core market – teen to young adult males. This market continues to remain at the core because the sexualized females or even aggressive males on a box will nearly always sell more often than not.
The rest of this article is devoted to detail and discussion about this article so read on if you like!
A Note on Common Sense:
Most people reading this study will brush it off as some part of “common sense” or violently dispute the way the study was conducted, its conclusions, or even attack liberal arts or academic inquiry as a proper means to ascertain any sort of information. This is all well and good but the staggering amount of studies that consistently confirm this exact point, a point that remains outside common sense, is of particular interest to nearly everyone given the current fiscal state of the game industry. It seems as though every model of game making is failing miserably and so, common sense may not be the most rational train of thought.
Now, it could be said that it is common sense when you refer to video game space as a masculine area; that sex sells and we all fall into consuming media that was created because the formula sold well in the paste, also sometimes known as the Baywatch effect (when a formula does well, it is reproduced ad nauseam until it is no longer fiscally viable).
It should come as no surprise that most video games fall into a "male gaze." It should come as no surprise because the overrepresentation of male figures in games; masculine content like war or sports; and hegemonic masculine identities like the muscle bound, stoic war hero leave little doubt that video games are made for and by boys, males, or men. So why study something so easy to notice? Well, it is because this topic really isn’t that easy to understand.
Gender and video games has been central to the academic inquiry of video gaming for quite some time. In fact, the earliest study I know of comes from an examination of gender within the crowds of video game arcades in 1982 - only 5 years after the release of the first home console and the year that games like Donkey Kong were released. The only other topic that could be said to be as popular is the traditionally psychological work about the impact of video game violence on the aggression levels of children.
With that in mind, let us consider this study, "Selling Gender: Associations of Box Art Representation of Female Characters with Sales for Teen - and Mature - rated Video Games." You can see an abstract for this study here: http://www.springerlink.com/content/a82m178418400214/ or contact someone at a University for access.
This study was sampled from a core of 6400 games that had at least 10,000 games sold between the years 2005 and 2010. Game sales data was collected from VGChartz (the only tool available that contains sales data that is accessible for anyone). The researcher took into account: game genre, system it was produced for, and over-represented publishers (EA, Nintendo, etc). Each of the categories that the box art sample (399 games total) took into account was derived from 1 of 4 research questions. Those questions were:
1. Presence of female characters in box art (i.e. absent other characters, either male or non-human) is negatively associated with game sales.
2. In box art that includes female characters, centrality of female characters is negatively associated with game sales.
3. In box art that includes female characters, centrality of female characters is positively associated with game sales
4. In box art that includes female characters, portrayal of female characters as non-central and sexualized is positively associated with game sales.
The sample also needed to have a score on MetaCritic and be rated Teen or Mature. Duplicate copies of games were excluded unless the box art different between consoles. They then performed a content analysis using male and female coders to maximize accuracy.
The games broke down according to the categories generated by the research questions like this (sample size equaled 399):
As you can see from the chart above, about 40% of all game sampled had a male on the cover. 27% of the games sampled had males and females whereas only 7% had only a woman on the cover.
Each category (based on the research questions below) was tested in a binomial regression model. The results of the regression analysis concluded that male figures on game boxes seem to influence the sale of games whereas a female character on a game box often negatively impacted sales of the game she appeared on the box for. Additionally, sexualized female characters positively influenced sales as long as they were not central to the box art.
The author concludes,
“Hypersexualized and objectified women, aggressive men, and signs relating to violence or war are effectively symptoms of a masculine-coded space or cultural object, not just content that this audience desires for its own sake; in other words, a masculine-coded space signals potential buyers that the game will meet the cultural norms for this type of game space. In contrast, central female characters and any signs that might code the game or space as feminine contradict audience expectations and desires. The higher sales of games rated Mature lends further credence to this idea—these games received a higher ESRB rating than games rated Teen because they had more violent, sexual, and/or drug-related content, all of which are generally coded as masculine. While it is possible that potential consumers seeking masculine games note the ESRB rating in making purchasing decisions (since ESRB ratings are listed on the box front), it seems likely that potential buyers also detect cues of masculine coding in box art.”
The researcher’s conclusions based on the data they collected are sound and do back up the myriad conclusions others have made for the past 30 years of studies about video games. I was impressed with the author’s use of metacritic and sales data to help select their sample and I was equally pleased with their use of genre or game type, publisher, and system.
The central criticism I would offer for this piece is a general idea that box art and sales may have something of a spurious relationship. Still, there is something to be said for the strength of the data this researcher collected.
Another criticism I had for this particular study was that it did not take into account Japanese box art vs American box art but this in itselfis unique given that most Japanese games do not use their box art when a game is released in America so this point may be a but moot. However, I would have really liked to have seen some mention of the differences in norms between Japanese games and American games. Still, in terms of using sales as a selection criteria, even this factor is mostly controlled.
Box art, as it stands now, is heading away as digital distribution takes over so studies like this will become a little more difficult to do unless a researcher takes the time to hunt game art down on sites like xbox.com or PlayStation’s store. But this is a criticism of future studies, not this one.
In all, I enjoyed this piece and am happy to see people using more complicated data than usual. It is still unfortunate that places like Moby games do not collect gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic factors present within video games. It is also unfortunate that retailers don’t release that data for people who buy in their stores.
In the future, I hope the statistics we keep do allow us to conduct an accurate, comprehensive, and reliable study about video games and video gamers.