Realism, Gender, and Gameplay: Where do we draw the line in making fictional universes seem real?

Where does realism come into play in the games that we play? With VR technology creating a more immersive reality and gaming graphics being better than ever, video games are definitely progressing to a more real gameplay experience.

I come across articles talking about the place of realism in video games quite often, but usually they are about some game mechanic that would be really annoying if you had to do it like it would be done in real life, like reloading a gun for instance. Would the player in an online game of Call of Duty want the time to reload his/her gun to be as long as it would take in reality? What if the player could only reload their gun once they had used up a full clip of bullets? Most players would be absolutely frustrated by these realistic game mechanics since they inhibit performance in the game. In other words, realism does not always have a place in video games.

In the process of collecting data for my project on gender differences in video games, I have often thought about a realism that takes another form, through the perpetuity of social structures, specifically with regards to gender.

Many video games take place in an alternative universe that may or may not be based loosely off of our own reality. Dragon Age: Origins, for example, takes place in the fictional nation of Ferelden where there are elves, magi, ogres, and more mythical beings, but the culture of the land is like that of the Middle Ages with knights and nobility. While the game is obviously fantasy, at its core it resembles many of the social traits of our reality, including issues surrounding class, race, sexual orientation, and, the subject of my project, gender.

Just the other day I was explaining my project to a visiting family member and they said, “Well of course there are going to be differences in gender!” because that’s just the way the world works, right? The idea that men and women are inherently difference is an old idea and a common one in our society today. This strong belief in gender difference, however, is what creates oppressive gender stereotypes where women are weak and helpless and men are strong and capable, for example. These stereotypes pervade all areas of our society and in video games where female characters tend to play the role of damsel while the male character is the hero.

These games that I am looking at should be an exception though since the main character can be either male or female depending on your character customization choice. If the female character can be the hero like the male character, then she should, in theory, be treated like he would be. However, my experiences playing these games thus far has made it clear that our society’s ideas about gender still live even in fictional universes. Even in the these games where both men and women can be the hero, they are not treated the same.

One would think, from a business perspective, that creating a game in which the female and male protagonists were treated exactly the same would be more cost effective–time and money are saved when you don’t have to write, record, and animate game differences. Sande Chen, a video game writer, disagrees, saying that making a game where the “choice of gender was as meaningless as the selection of eye color” takes away the fun of character customization. Chen even goes as far as to say that a game where there were no differences in gender would leave the player feeling “cheated”.

Speaking solely for myself as a gamer, I will rarely, if ever, choose to play as a male character when I have the option to play as a female character. Even now as I am collecting data from these games, I try to get through the first playthrough as a male character as quickly as possible so that I can get to the second playthrough when I play as a female character. Playing a character with the same gender as I am is far more enjoyable to me than playing as a male character.

I am not the only female gamer who must feel this way since a recent study of World of Warcraft players found that men are three times as likely as women to gender-switch with their characters. If male gamers are more likely to play as women than women are to play as men, isn’t the whole purpose of gender differences in video games to appeal to men players rather than all players? Female characters are most likely being designed by male developers (as the industry is dominated by males), so it would make sense that female characters and their slightly different storyline may be designed by men for men.

Either way, it is also important to note what these differences are in gameplay based on the gender of your character. While a lot of the obvious differences that arise have to do with romance options, a topic that deserves a post all on its own, there are many not so obvious differences based on gender. One of these differences that I have found is if you plan on playing as a female character, you better be prepared to be sexually objectified and hit on at least once in the game.

Sexual objectification and sexual harassment are common occurrences that women have to deal with on a daily basis. One would think that women would not want to deal with being objectified and harassed in a fictional world either– I definitely do not. Maybe it is because I am playing these games back to back, but it is frustrating to play as a male character who does not get objectified or harassed one week and then play as a female character who does get objectified the next week. This difference in treatment of men and women in video games is a reflection of the reality of our society, but it is an unnecessary one.

I have heard so many times on social media that video games act as an escape for many players, and that is true for me as well. After a long day of classes, there’s nothing I love more than to grab my controller and take on the persona of my female assassin character in Skyrim and raid some dungeons or defeat a dragon. Why would I want to escape to a fictional universe where I am treated the exact same way as I am in real life because of my gender?

Others may not think that eliminating gender difference is a good idea, and that is fine, but I would encourage game developers to think critically about the differences they are including in these games, and what they convey about gender. These are fictional universes that do not need to abide by the gender structures of our reality. This is one area where realism does not benefit gameplay experience, in my opinion.

And honestly, would it be so bad to immerse yourself in a universe where gender is as insignificant as eye color?

Links to the articles referred to in this blog are below:

What if ‘he’ and ‘she’ were interchangable in a game’s story by Samit Sarkar —

The Surprisingly Unsurprising Reason Why Men Choose Female Avatars in World of Warcraft by Nick Yee —


  1. This is so interesting! It’s unbelievable that the differences in portrayal of gender in video games (and all other aspects of entertainment and life) are overlooked by most people. We are so desensitized to gender disparities that even stark contrasts in ads, movies, games, etc. are perceived as normal. I like your perspective at the end – that if game developers can’t create games in which genders are represented equally then games without gender could be an alternative. In a perfect world we would seek out better, less sexualized representation of women. It’s unfortunate that the gaming industry (and essentially every other industry) is dominated by men who decide how women are designed and treated in the games. It seems doubtful that those in control will allow themselves to be more equalized to appease the controlled.

  2. aekelley says:

    When I saw your first post, I was so excited that someone was exploring the idea of gender in video games. I am a girl and would consider myself a casual gamer, and it is surprising to me that with so much attention nowadays on gender equality in our society in our real world that there is not more progress in this area in the video game field, especially with the number of female players and therefore market on the rise. Another area that would be interesting to look into would be the way lead characters who are not white are treated in games vs protagonists who are, because it seems to me that racial diversity is another area which the video game field tends to overlook. It would certainly make for an interesting project. I look forward to seeing the outcome of your work.

  3. John Nguyen says:

    I was scrolling through the summer blog posts for something to catch my eye, and this definitely did. I work in the Social Cognition lab, so I’m personally interested in the constructs of gender, race, sexual orientation, and other social identities. I also really like video games and writing, two realms in which discussions about the place of realism in fiction are relevant.

    The first video game you cited, Dragon Age: Origins, is an interesting one in that I have seen discussions surrounding its depiction of social issues in a medieval setting. For example, I have read people say that it isn’t “realistic” that a game set in the middle ages is so progressive in regards to gender roles and sexual orientation, as the world of Dragon Age allows for women to be in positions of power and sexual minorities aren’t as persecuted as they were in our own medieval period. It’s a weird argument, in my opinion, and says more about the person making it than anything (as they seem to imply we are inherently or inevitably sexist or heteronormative).

    I agree that game designers seem to view it as a challenge to even include female characters as an option, let alone portray women realistically and sensitively. I remember the controversy this summer over the company Ubisoft not including a female character option in their new Assassins Creed game, despite animating four different male character options. They, in fact, said it would’ve been too cumbersome and expensive to do so. It was a poor excuse not to provide representation, I think. Women compose more and more of the gamer population, and I believe the oft-quoted statistic is that women represent the majority of gamers now. To which people will say “women only play mobile and ‘casual’ games,” but even if that were true, perhaps if games included women more and represented female characters better, that would change.

    In regards to the survey stating the men playing World of Warcraft are more likely to play as characters of another gender, it may have to do with the sexualization of female characters. As you mentioned, female characters tend to be visually designed by men for men, and I’ve read comments that some guys will play female characters just for the “eye candy.”

    It’s interesting to me the double standards that people have about “realism” in these games. Apparently, one’s suspension of disbelief may cover anything from dragons to magic to aliens, but with regards to matters such as gender, realism has to be strictly enforced. We have to be reminded, as you mentioned, of the sexual objectification and harassment that women have to struggle with. Especially for role-playing games, it feels as if the emphasis on player choice and the ability to be who you want to be would override that concern of “realism.”

    Anyway, this comment is getting rather long. I enjoyed reading this post. I hope your research went well this summer.

  4. mvpolizzi says:

    This is a very interesting issue and something that can be even more complex due to different types of games. You can look at the same issue from the perspective of an RPG that is not online versus a MMO game. From the RPG perspective the game can be more controlled from the video game designer perspective, but the MMO experience can’t be as controlled as real player interactions do occur. With that being said I do feel like certain game designers are doing a better job about keeping these issues in mind when designing characters within RPGs, but that is only from my own limited experience. The one games series that comes to mind with this improvement is MassEffect, but even they do have certain issues still.

  5. I personally am not a game player. I consider myself a person lack of self control when it comes to games and whatever forms of entartainment. So I tried to keep myself away from falling for games. But I’ve never really come across a particular game that intrigued me very much – I almost had this impression that almost all the games with big budget are designed for males.
    But I do question myself sometimes: if I feel that the games are designed for males, am I acknowledging the difference between two genders? Just like my family members do (as well),

    Anyway, I am impressed by how you digged in the video games and questioned the stereotypes out loud! Maybe there are a number of game developers out there who have never even bothered to think about the way they treat female roles. And they never realized what effect video games can have on players – other than entertainment.

  6. I am so glad that you’re looking into this! I’m repeatedly blown away by how much the female characters are objectified in games. I played Fallout 3 and New Vegas over the summer, and I noticed that most of the dialogue options created by the Black Widow perk just give female players the opportunity to get information or discounts in exchange for sex with male characters. Most female players will simply go along with that since they’re getting something out of it, but no one really thinks about the implications.

  7. I’ve been reading your blog posts for a while, and I really like your research. It’s really fascinating how video games are used as tools to fashion identities and are, as you’ve cleverly noted, constructions. That elements in a game are purposeful and coded, and they have to be because they take time to program. What we often don’t realize are the invisible assumptions that we inflect upon these worlds that are at once a projection of both our realities and fantasies.

    I’m curious, do you think that gender should have an impact in the narrative or gameplay mechanics? I do agree that it becomes problematic when we start to assign and associate stereotypes with a particular gender (coming from a fighting game background, I tend to choose female characters because they are quick-paced but deal less damage). However, I think that Sande Chen’s statement invites a lot of possibilities in how we treat gender and how we tell stories. Player choices should effect the story, and perhaps it’s these choices that make us re-evaluate our perspectives on society.

    Furthermore, do you have opinions on how they treated the dual-gendered Shepard in the Mass Effect series? Particularly since gender -and eventually sexuality- doesn’t affect narrative, and yet they consistently promote the male version on official appearances. Or perhaps any opinions on how strong female characters are argued to be strong because they incorporate male characteristics as their defining trope? How would you, as a designer, make a strong female character? Or is the issue more of how to make a strong character, period?

    Also, do you have opinions on the Bayonetta series? People often cite her overt sexuality and overall design as a giant fan service for male fulfillment. Yet they fail to realize that the main characters are female, most of the men are incompetent or comedic falls, and the ultimate interpretation of God is female. (You can kind of see my biased gushing coming through). Great job with your work! I really enjoyed reading your posts.

  8. “Why would I want to escape to a fictional universe where I am treated the exact same way as I am in real life because of my gender?” Yes! That was a really great line and definitely reflects my feelings about this subject. The Fallout series is my game of choice, and one of the reasons why I love Fallout: New Vegas so much is that my female Courier is very much in charge and is not objectified, and she has enough agency to choose when she would like to use femme fatale-esque tactics towards either gender. It’s very empowering to feel as though your character can do every bit the same thing as its male counterpart while not being identical. My complaint with the series, and many other video game series that thrive in making the protagonists interesting and respected in either gender, is that the non-player characters are not necessarily created as immune to stereotype. There are far more female characters to sleep with, for charge or not. There are far more female characters who are strippers, or prostitutes. Things like that upset me because they feed into the idea that these are the roles only women can be expected to fulfill in any world.