Pixels and Politics: Representation in Video Games

By Christine Tomlinson

To read Tom Boellstorff’s introduction to this book reviews series, head over to The Book Review as Conversation.

T. L. Taylor. 2006. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Pp. 197. $31.95.

Adrienne Shaw. 2014. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press. Pp. 317. $25.00.


Although many video game players and enthusiasts may not typically think of their hobby in political terms, a great deal of time has been spent by scholars, politicians, and the media addressing video games from exactly this angle. From the topic of violence, to the issue of video games in educational contexts, to problems with hostility toward women, commentators and researchers from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines have given a great deal of attention to video games (Ivory 2006; Kuzenkoff & Rose 2012; Shaw 2014; Thornham 2011; Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory 2009). The amount of literature dedicated to these issues may seem unnecessary, considering the enduring stereotype of the audience for video games, and to an extent virtual worlds and computers in general, as limited to an overwhelmingly male audience and, more specifically, a narrow demographic of white teenage boys (for critiques of such stereotypes, see Boellstorff 2008; Ivory 2006; Kimmel 2008; Kuzenkoff & Rose 2012; Shaw 2014; Taylor 2006; Thornham 2011; Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory 2009).

When we consider the statistics, however, the average gamer begins to look quite different. For example, recent figures show that video games are played by over half of Americans, with the average gamer being 31-years-old, and nearly half of the gaming audience – both players and purchasers – comprised of women (ESA 2014). Despite the nearly even representation between men and women as consumers, the industry and the games it produces have considerably less diversity. In terms of gender, women make up only about eleven percent of developers and appear as characters in only fifteen percent of video games (Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory 2009). Race in this context has received less attention from scholars, but the available information has shown that members of minority groups often spend more money on games than white consumers and while there are more black characters available than female characters, they also suffer from poor and limited characterization (Higgin 2008).

Considering the wide and diverse audience for video games, and the limited diversity of characters in many games on the market, representation has become an area of particular interest for many scholars and a topic for an increasing number of online video game commentators and critics (Shaw 2014). With the disjuncture between commonly called upon stereotypes and the reality of the community, it is not surprising that many researchers have taken up this issue, notably with concerns that undesirable portrayals of various marginalized groups in video games are not only sending negative messages, but also potentially alienating large portions of the audience (Shaw 2014; Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory 2009). With interest in video games seeming to be consistently increasing – among consumers and researchers alike – it seems appropriate for more attention to be granted to understanding video games and their potential implications.

While there is a large breadth of information available, this review focuses on two approaches to contextualizing and understanding representation in video games. Shaw (2014) points out that many of the discussions about this topic use a taken-for-granted approach, focusing on the idea that representation of marginalized groups in video games is important simply because it is. T. L. Taylor and Adrienne Shaw, however, directly take into account the opinions and feelings of those playing the games. These authors approach a similar question to varying degrees, taking different paths in their discussions and investigations and drawing different conclusions about the importance of – and the audience’s desire for – representation in this context.

Play Between Worlds

Play Between Worlds T. L. TaylorT. L. Taylor looks at a wider variety of topics and issues than Shaw, aiming to understand more aspects of the industry, and thus spending significantly less time on the issue of representation. Although representation is only a small piece of this book, there are interesting implications in this discussion, particularly when considered in comparison to Shaw. Taylor notes that the number of female gamers has been steadily been climbing since 2001, but the stereotypical image of the gamer endures (93). Despite a large and growing proportion of female gamers, the relationship of women with games remains complicated and many problematic gender dynamics persist in gaming culture. Although this appears to be the case, Taylor also notes that games can alter traditional social structures of power, allowing people different opportunities for leadership and expertise that may not be available to them outside of games, but adds that they also tend to reinforce gendered understandings of leadership, recreating some of the gender divisions that we see offline (56, 107).

Despite a tendency toward a recreation of offline gender dynamics in these spaces, much of the experience of women involved with gaming also seems to challenge other stereotypes about motivations based on gender. For example, women are concerned with mastery and displaying status, earning their place as gamers to be taken seriously:

This competitive game orientation (either against others or via one’s own set goals) is often overlooked as a powerful motivation for women…. Obtaining epic weapons or more generally owning impressive equipment (weapons, armor, robes, rare items – especially when won from a fight and not bought) all become artifacts of mastery and signal to both the user and the server community their skill at the game. (102-103)

Women often also choose powerful characters when playing in groups, ensuring that they have an important role in team playing (107). This may lead them away from characters that they might otherwise choose, seeking to feel empowered while navigating the constraints often present in character creation (108). Still, many are left in situations where these outcomes may be more difficult. Supporting findings by Yee and Bailenson (2007), it appears that the way that a character looks seems to matter in terms of player interactions, causing women to temper their expectations with an understanding that the appearance of their character might result in different treatment from other players (110). Even virtual bodies can compel people to change their actions in-game or alter other player’s perceptions of and interactions with them.

To this point, Taylor notes that players may need to compartmentalize their experience because of the design limitations placed on the way that female characters look, many of whom are designed and incorporated into games in sexualized and objectified ways (110-111). This issue was salient for Taylor as a player during her research and she notes that her choice of character was influenced by the constraints she felt due to a tendency toward sexualized character design for some of the female options (13-14). Ultimately, and likely related to the restrictions placed on players during character selection, choice and agency become themes that are important to some female players (111). In addition to problems with character design and the influence this can have on player interactions, it is difficult in many ways for women to be seen as members of the community:

And rather than trying to understand how those women may tell us something about paths into gaming or how we might learn something for future design, they are seen as the oddballs, the nonmainstream, the exceptions…. This move, to marginalize women and to not imagine them as a core demographic, in turn helps enact design decisions and structural barriers that create the conditions for disenfranchisement. (113)

Based on Taylor’s work, the limited diversity and lack of variety in representation in many games likely has a connection with the marginalization that women experience in the community. Where female gamers are concerned, there also appears to be a desire for representation. Specifically, having better and more abundant representation of people like them in video games. Poor, stereotyped, or limited representation can affect gamers’ interactions and experiences, and for many respondents in this book, the possibilities available leave much to be desired. The women in this book were often disappointed or bothered by the options that were made available to them in the game’s design. This account, though limited to EverQuest, does seem to be a point in favor of the many arguments for incorporating more diversity and better representation into video game characters.

Gaming At The Edge

Gaming at the Edge Adrienne ShawAdrienne Shaw uses a more topical approach when seeking to understand identification and representation in video games as it relates directly to players and their desires. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture (2014) is concerned with issues of sexuality and gender. To get a sense for how identity and representation can interact for players, Shaw gathers information from a variety of examples and sources. As a result of having more video games in her sample, she also offers more points of comparison than Taylor. In terms of the book’s structure, we also see different topics being covered. Shaw begins with an introduction that contextualizes the recent growth in misogyny in gaming culture, tying it to external cultural norms and allowances, and also discussing the reactions against critiques of problematic aspects of video games. She also uses this introduction to begin a discussion about what needs to change in media studies, particularly regarding the way that we think about representation and diversity.

Shaw’s main goal in this book is to ask us to reconsider many of the assumptions that the discourse and research about representation in video games has been built on. Shaw goes much further with this debate and, discusses more recent hostilities aimed at women involved with the gaming industry to varying extents, in contrast to Taylor who notes a relative safety experienced by women who want to explore. This issue has grown since the publication of Shaw’s book, culminating with GamerGate and female gaming critics, journalists, and developers receiving a high volume of threats from video game players. Shaw also takes note of more issues under the umbrella of diversity and representation, considering gender, sexuality, and race.

She notes that in the available literature on this topic, there is an assumption of consumers’ desire for representation, with arguments stating that people want media to include characters “like them,” that having diversity will expand the perceptions of other players, and that incorporating more diversity presents players with more possibilities of social structuring in the physical world (41). Shaw notes that the issue of representation is often discussed in terms of limited diversity among video game characters as it relates to a lack of diverse developers and tends to lead to calls on marginalized groups to fix this problem for the industry (5). Shaw, however, establishes the idea that perhaps the games are not necessarily what need to change, but rather the discourse coming from both the industry and academia (15).

In contrast to Taylor, she finds that gamers are not necessarily overly concerned with this issue. For those who belong to typically underrepresented groups, when they do play games where they are represented – positively, at least – they find it to be a nice surprise. Gamers, however, do not consider it a requirement to have representation, as we can likely see with the growing number of female gamers and the fact that a large proportion of the gaming audience is not white, despite the majority of game characters being male and white (Higgin 2008; Williams, Martins, Consalvo, & Ivory 2009). With this information, Shaw provides us with an alternative possibility to much of the available literature, although it is difficult to say whether or not gamers truly do not desire more numerous and more positive representations in video games, or if they are merely confined to this preference by a lack of options, a possibility that Shaw notes herself:

Certainly, the on-screen body may have mattered to interviewees more than they were willing to admit. Perhaps, interviewees just did not want to acknowledge that they liked seeing only normative identities or that they wanted more people like them on-screen and reported being fine with having a bunny rabbit represent them merely as an alibi…. As most interviewees were marginalized in some way, they may be more skilled at putting up with mis- and underrepresentation than those in the majority would be. (144)

Ultimately, Shaw finds that players feel like they enjoy when there is good representation of people from groups that they identify with in their own lives, but that its inclusion is not necessary for them to be able to enjoy the game or even for them to be able to identify with a character (156). Observations and comments from players illustrating these points lead to Shaw’s conclusion that:

Rather than argue that games should include more diversity because it matters, producers should include it precisely because representation does not matter to players in many games…. The goal of those invested in diversity in games should not be to prove the importance of representation but rather to argue for the importance of representation in a way that does not dismiss the playfulness of gaming. (219)

While noting that representation may not be the necessity that it is often painted as, Shaw also suggests that if representation truly is not important to players, this provides even less of a justification to the industry to produce games that lack diverse characters. She also points out that if the current approaches to representation do not appear to be imposing many of the negative effects that scholars have expressed concerns about, perhaps the topic of representation should be discussed in less dire terms by researchers. If players are not experiencing harmful outcomes due to the limited diversity of video game characters, particularly when they seem to be able to identify with a range of characters, including those that are not even human, it may be more difficult to “prove” representation’s importance and it may be necessary to shift the discourse in another direction.

The Representation Game

Both Taylor and Shaw present compelling arguments about the way that players themselves may regard and understand representation in video games. It is interesting that, while taking similar approaches, they have tapped into opposite opinions from players. The goal of this review is not to declare one account more accurate or useful than the other, but to suggest that perhaps these accounts should be used as a starting point for continuing the conversation about representation in video games. Perhaps it is necessary to explore this issue further to discover when and to whom representation becomes important. Are there particular games, for instance? Shaw indicates that this may be the case, with representation and direct identification with characters possibly more important in role playing games similar to the one studied by Taylor. It may also be necessary to consider when and if players feel compelled, either due to their typical experience or gaming culture as a whole, to say that they feel a certain way about this topic.

As noted above, Shaw offers the possibly that those she interviewed for the project had adapted to being marginalized in ways that players who are regularly represented would not need to (144). In fact, some of the people in her study did find that representation was not ultimately important to them because it was so rarely done and often poorly executed (168). It may be necessary moving forward to understand more of the nuances within gaming culture and between gamers drawn to different genres and types of play. The problem of representation, while seemingly unimportant or unnecessary to some, is an issue potentially obscured by the status of being marginalized and hedged in an industry that seems to believe that paying attention to representation may be going too far beyond a color-blind (or gender-blind) approach (Taylor 2006). Based on these possibilities, and the findings presented in these books, it seems that perhaps representation should be approached in a more complex way by those seeking to understand its place and implications in video games and its broader impacts in media and society as a whole.


Christine Tomlinson is a California native pursuing a Sociology PhD at the University of California, Irvine. Previous research has been both qualitative and quantitative and has focused on women in STEM fields and gender, race, and social problems in television. Current work has started to move closer to Christine’s non-academic interests and consists of assembling a dissertation project investigating issues related to gender and video games. You can contact Christine at ctomlins@uci.edu.


Works Cited

Boellstorff, Tom. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Higgin, Tanner. 2008. “Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games.” Games and Culture 4(1):3–26.

Ivory, James D. 2006. “Still a Man’s Game: Gender Representation in Online Reviews of Video Games.” Mass Communication & Society 9(1):103-114.

Kimmel, Michael. 2008. Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. NY: Harper.

Kuzenkoff, Jeffrey H. and Lindsey M. Rose. 2012. “Communication in multiplayer gaming: Examining player responses to gender cues.” New Media Society 15(4):541-556.

Shaw, Adrienne. 2014. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press. Pp. 317.

Thornham, Helen. 2011. Ethnographies of the Videogame: Gender, Narrative and Praxis. Surrey, England: Ashgate.

Taylor, T. L.. 2006. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. Pp. 197.

Williams, Dmitri, Nicole Martins, Mia Consalvo and James D. Ivory. 2009. “The Virtual Census: Representations of Gender, Race and Age in Video Games.” New Media Society 11(5):815-834.

Yee, Nick and Jeremy Bailenson. 2007. “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior.” Human Communication Research 33(3):271–290.


About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

There are 4 comments

  1. Ben Herman: In My Not So Humble Opinion

    I just do not get all of this hostility towards having more diverse product in the video game industry. Seriously, all of the people who are screaming bloody murder over efforts to create games that appeal to women and people of other ethnic backgrounds seem to think that this is going to result in the type of games they like suddenly no longer being made. It’s crazy, because that is NOT going to happen. Instead, you will just have a wider range of games to choose from.

    Since I hardly ever play video games, I cannot help but look at this through the perspective of a comic book fan. I’ve been reading comic books for a long time. And, you know, having a diverse pool of creators can only benefit the industry, and result in more interesting, exciting stories.

    I immediately think of Ann Nocenti, who was hired by Marvel Comics in the early 1980s. Nocenti was NOT a comic book fan. Because of this, she brought a completely different, outside perspective to her writing and editing. The result was that she was responsible for many innovative, offbeat comic books.

    Or take a look at Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez. You have two Hispanic-American brothers from California who created the absolutely groundbreaking Love and Rockets series. They both has such unique sensibilities that they bring to their work, and we are all the richer for it.

    But it’s like there’s this paranoid siege mentality among a small bot extremely vocal segment of fandom. There is this genuine paranoia that if more women and homosexuals and people of color and of different religions start working in comic books, and begin creating characters who have their backgrounds, then suddenly Batman is no longer going to be published. Seriously, they seem to think women are going to take Batman away from them. It’s insane.

    Sometimes I feel like I’m dealing with people who eat chocolate ice cream every day, and when you suggest that it would be nice if the ice cream parlor also had vanilla and strawberry, they are outraged and start acting like you are trying to stop them from eating chocolate ever again. It’s that stupid.

    Sorry to ramble on for so long. I should write about this on my own blog.


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