The virtual census: gender and ethnic representation in internet casual videogames (Wohn, 2011)

Flo (Diner Dash, a casual videogame)

People who only play casual videogames do not necessarily and sufficiently have the gaming capital to call themselves gamers, I call them casual gamers. But, the label is to strictly differentiate from the proper gamer. I play casual videogames, mostly on Kongregate and the specials on Steam. However, I have some gaming capital that makes me a gamer: I can hold a discussion about videogames’ processes, mechanics, narrative, literary and artistic merit. I read videogame blogs, I know names of some videogame designers, I have some expectations of upcoming videogames, I have opinions about videogame companies and I can talk at length about videogame characters, like why Tali of Mass Effect is my favourite character or the fine points of strategy in many sort of videogames.

Donghee Yvette Wohn (Michigan State University) has published a content analysis of casual videogame characters in Sex Roles. I would point to the preceding paragraphs for the uninitiated why Wohn would conduct such analysis.

Abstract

This paper examines gender and race representation in casual games through content analysis. Study 1 looks at gender and race representation in a random sample (N = 200) of casual games retrieved from the websites of the largest five casual game distributors. Study 2 looks at the most popular games on websites of the same five multinational distributors (N = 54) and analyzes how primary characters are portrayed in terms of appearance and personality. Females are overly represented as primary characters but chi-square analyses indicate no significant differences between sexes in terms of how they are portrayed: of note, neither males nor females are depicted in a sexual manner. These results conflict with previous studies of gender representation in game characters: this paper suggests that sampling methodology and the relatively new trend of casual games excluded this subset of games from prior research. Implications are discussed using a social cognitive framework.

I must say that her paper was the catalyst for my current content analysis project.

Wohn pointed out that the definition of a casual videogame is rather unclear. She enumerated several characteristics:

  • Simple interface.
  • Mainly played on web browsers, mobile devices or PC (IMO as a small file, probably no larger than 20mb).
  • Mostly free or comparatively cheaper (no more than 25$) than the conventional videogame (no less than 40$).
  • Less time commitment
  • Shorter with a gentle learning curve

Here are my additions on my musing about casual gaming:

  • A clear repetitious gaming processes, you are playing the same thing over and over
  • Simplistic or lack of depth in terms of content, graphics, characters and narrative
  •  “Innocent”, “inoffensive”, “cookiesque”, “cute” or “childlike” tone or look

Besides these differences in videogame design philosophy, Wohn indicated that casual videogames cater to a different demographic: women and individuals who prefer positive and pleasing narratives. I should add young children (younger than 7 year olds) as well since they might be attracted to videogames that are easy to master with pleasing characters like Teletubbies, Dora the Explorer or whatever kids watch these days.

Study 1

Since casual videogames studies are rare, this is the first study to survey the demographics of videogame characters in the casual domain. So, she will conduct a survey on the gender and ethnic representation of the primary characters in casual videogames.

Method and results

A random selection of 200 casual videogames from the top five online distributors as of 2009: Big Fish games, Shockwave, Pogo, Yahoo! Games, and MSN Games. (What about PopCap?) On the second week of January 2010, a total of 1946 games were available to play. The 200 selected are included in the study’s appendix. I’ve played Aveyond, Diner Dash series, Luxor series, Tasty Planet, and Tradewinds. I should also add Cute Knight, but that was years ago.

The author and a helper coded the 200 games by playing each game for 20 minutes and determined the gender and ethnicity of the primary character. This is a very simple procedure. Animal and non-human characters were excluded from the analysis. But what if the character was a cat girl or a sexy vampire? I’m interested in knowing that demographic!

Wohn and her helper have found that 130 games have humans as the primary character. 84 (42%) are female, 25 (12.5%) are male and 20 (10%) have two primary characters (male and female). 8 (4%) have animals as primary characters while 62 (31%) don’t have primary characters. As for ethnic representation, only 8 (6%) have non-white primary characters. So much for diversity, but hey there are more female protagonists! Although I have a feeling someone out there will be interpret this as evidence of masculine dominance  that female characters are relegated to the lower rungs of the videogame hierarchy of some kind. These videogames are serving a lowly demographic, the overrepresentation of female primary characters was set to reinforce that women can only play simple videogames or some argument promoting female inferiority and are overshadowed by male characters in more prominent places of videogame lore.

Study 2

This study was set to examine how these characters are depicted according to gender and racial stereotypes. The second study examined the primary characters’ physical characteristics in terms of body type, and personality in terms of femininity and masculinity.

Method

The sampling method is different from the first study. The videogames are selected from the same five websites, based on their popularity, operationalized as download counts, and in each genre (e.g. adventure, time management, simulation, etc.) The top five videogames in each genre were selected. Some games were featured in other websites, so a total of 54 videogames were coded.

Each game was played for 20 minutes and the primary character(s) was coded by two male undergraduate who were described as expert gamers.

Coding

The primary characters were coded as either human male, human female, both and non-human. “Both” where there are two primary characters of both genders.

Physical attributes were coded on three categories: “thin”, “normal” or “heavy”. Sexual portrayals were coded on three categories: “not revealing”, “somewhat revealing”, or “very revealing”. Femininity and masculinity were coded based on the Bem Sex Role inventory. The coders coded the primary characters’ personality on the basis of the presence or absence of a trait. Some example feminine traits include sympathetic, compassionate, and gentle. Some example masculine traits include aggressive, assertive, and independent.

Results

Chi-square analyses were used for solo primary characters. Take a look at this table.

 

The results revealed that both female and male characters were not depicted in a physically sexual manner. Female were not revealing 72.4% versus 27.6% who were somewhat revealing whereas none of the male characters were sexually revealing. Most female characters displayed feminine personality whereas most male characters displayed masculine personality. What is interesting is that female characters also displayed more masculine personality. It makes me think that these female characters are somewhat androgynous. In terms of body type, there were no statistical differences.

With these statistics, Wohn has found some convincing evidence that casual videogames are qualitatively different from the more hardcode videogame. Wohn argued quite effectively that the causal videogame market caters more towards women and that game genre is more important than female representation. In a similar reactive thought, I think causal videogame designers have a simpler design philosophy that emphasize on simplicity and reaching a broad audience, therefore there are less emphasis on narrative, characterization and graphics quality. Second, these videogames were hosted on popular websites to children, I believe this would also preclude any sexually suggestive depictions, lest the webhost receive a torrent of complaints from parents.

Recette (Recettear, a not-so-casual videogame)

The author warned that this study does not explain why women play casual videogames. She also cautioned that this study used expert game players. But I hardly think that’s a limitation. A more relevant limitation is that the videogames in the study were created and distributed by Western companies. She cautioned that Eastern-based videogames are different from the Western counterpart (Challenge accepted). She suggested, given the non-stereotypical depiction of the primary characters, that there might be differences in cognitive schemas between casuals and hardcores. She entertained the thought that casuals might be more open-minded about gender differences and less stereotypical attitudes about gender. What I want to know from this content analysis is the age of the characters, how many look like children, teenagers, young adults, adults or elderly. I bet most of them look like young adults or teens.

Another consideration is the difference between videogame developers’ creative freedom.  Videogame creators (i.e. artists, storyteller, level designer, etc.) in a large company might have the resources to create a wonderfully polished product, but they would not have much creative freedom as their corporate executives intervene in the process in order to ensure that the resources would have a sizable return. This might lead to copying previous successes, and from a character’ creation standpoint, this leads to replicating stereotypes and tropes. In contrast, a casual videogame is relatively cheap to produce and the financial rewards are smaller, but the risks are smaller as well.

One final limitation is that the content analysis concerns browser videogames. Casual videogames on the console or PC (i.e. those in Steam) might differ in terms of gender and ethnic representations. But, I took a quick look around in the Steamstore and it’s suggestive that this study might generalize to other platforms.

Wohn, D. (2011). Gender and race representation in casual games. Sex Roles , 65 (3), 198-207. doi:  10.1007/s11199-011-0007-4

One thought on “The virtual census: gender and ethnic representation in internet casual videogames (Wohn, 2011)

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