Video games have long been subject to criticism on many bases, most frequently in regards to the psychological effects they may have on consumers, many of whom are young boys. While the claims that violent video games lead consumers to develop violent tendencies have gained traction on both sides of the argument, another equally important issue remains in its shadow: the representation and propagation of harmful gender stereotypes through video game characters, and their roles in concretizing said stereotypes into societal norms. Specifically, many video games convey homogenous and derogatory portrayals of women in power, which reflect stereotypes surrounding high-achieving men and further biases against successful women. The negative representation of women in video games and its impact often remain subliminal, thus increasing consumers’ risk of internalizing these ideologies which spread under the veil of perceived progress.
This paper will address the issue in the context of Apex Legends, a first-person shooter game in which sixty players are separated into two- to three-person squads and look to eliminate all opposing teams within a shrinking play area. Published in 2019 by EA Games, the game fits into the “Battle Royale” genre, one of the most popular in gaming at the time of writing the present essay. Additionally, Apex represents a fairly progressive example of gender norms within the gaming industry, straying away from the typical sexist tendencies of significantly unbalanced male-to-female character ratios, the oversexualization or general belittling of female characters, etc. However, its pertinence to this issue resides in the more subliminal stereotypes villainizing successful women that are promoted through the game’s characters.
Apex Legends seems to offer a diverse character cast and, in many ways, it actually does. Of the twenty currently playable characters, ten are female, nine are male, and at least one, Bloodhound, is non-binary, as confirmed by the game’s official Twitter account (Apex Legends [@PlayApex]). Additionally, the game showcases a varied set of backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. For instance, based on appearance and voice lines, players have determined that the characters originate from places comparable to North America, South America, Western Europe, East Asia, South Asia, Oceania, and the Pacific. Finally, in regards to sexual orientation, at least one instance of a non-heterosexual relationship appears between two female characters, Loba and Valkyrie, who actively flirt with each other in-game. For example, players can trigger a voice line to thank a teammate for giving them an item that changes based on the characters used by each player and triggering this interaction between Valkyrie and Loba leads the former to ask whether they should “watch a movie tonight? Get a little cozy?” while the latter chuckles before responding, “At your place or mine?” These three elements alone make Apex Legends a very progressive title relative to the rest of the video games industry, to the point where articles have been written explicitly analyzing the game’s progressive nature, such as Hawreliak and Lemieux’s work on social justice issues in video games (Hawreliak).
In many regards, of course, pursuing diversity in itself leads to its own issues of misrepresentation and stereotyping. For instance, critics will likely find issues with the way the game portrays different ethnicities or sexualities. However, similarly to what EA Games has already done with this title, developers will likely continue the cycle towards a more accepting and representative industry free of overt misrepresentation. A more important cause for concern lies within stereotypes that elude the public and are thus never subjected to the necessary changes. While Apex Legends illustrates issues that developers either already have or will likely soon resolve, it also hides some of the equally harmful representations which go undetected. Specifically, these include the negative portrayal of successful female characters in comparison to equally successful males.
In order to fully understand how the game portrays women, we must first establish the context in which they exist in this fictional setting. Apex Legends revolves around the Apex Games in which fighters, or “Legends,” battle for money, fame, and glory after earning their spots in the games. This idea that each character has earned their spot and is thus on equal footing with the rest serves as the basis for this discussion; essentially, each female character has achieved at least as much as their male counterparts to now compete with the best of the best, implying that they specifically portray successful women in the context of these games. However, these characters appear to have few positive qualities beyond their success.
First and foremost, while the game’s developers have almost entirely removed explicitly sexist content, the only remaining characters perpetrating these norms are women. For instance, a character known as Bangalore mocks her opponents by declaring that there is “no such thing as auto-aim, ladies,” while another named Mad Maggie tells them to not “get your knickers in a knot, I’m only killing you.” Referring to her adversaries as “ladies” directly after mocking their ability to aim and to compete more generally, Bangalore associates their alleged lack of skill with gender and particularly the female gender, promoting the ideology that women are unable to stand their own in a competitive setting. Similarly, by using the slang term “knickers” used to specifically describe women’s underwear, Mad Maggie conveys the notion that those who fall to her and thus fail in these games are women. Though both voice lines depict women in positions of success as they vanquish their enemies, they simultaneously portray these powerful female characters as having internalized sexist norms to the extent that they perpetuate them in their language. Not only do these examples explicitly promote notions of masculine superiority, but they also characterize the idea that women who do attain success must also accept, internalize, and promote sexist ideologies.
Apart from these instances of overt sexism, Apex Legends offers negative portrayals of its female characters in a more generalized manner as well. Namely, many of them appear as cold, arrogant, and distasteful in regard to their opponents, fueling this not only derogatory but homogenous portrayal. In addition to the two examples above, this negative characterization applies to many other female characters as well. For instance, the characters Wraith and Ash appear to be completely emotionless, devoid of any feelings or emotions as illustrated through their voice lines. While Wraith claims that “Pain… Death… Nothing phases [her],” also telling her adversaries that she does not “fear anything,” Ash reciprocates this sentiment by stating that she “stopped being afraid a long time ago,” adding that her opponents “should give it a try.” Through their language, these characters not only portray themselves as fearless but go so far as to explicitly suggest following their example in order to achieve their level of success. While promoting fearlessness may not seem problematic, especially as the ability to remain unfazed in intense situations constitutes a strength for anyone regardless of gender, these portrayals exemplify an unrealistic, unnatural, and overall harmful expectation that women should repress their emotions in order to succeed. While one will most likely never face death itself on their road to success, the term’s use in Wraith’s voice line depicts a notion that nothing below this extreme warrants an emotional response, suggesting that pursuing success leaves no room for emotions.
Moreover, these same characters simultaneously promote repressing emotions in the face of others, as Ash describes that she “had to claw [her] way to the top,” before rhetorically asking: “you thought I was going to let you stop me?” While the use of the verb “claw” portrays primitive, animal-like violence explicitly directed at harming others as necessary to reach the “top,” furthering the notion of a required heartlessness within success, this quote’s main significance lies in the subsequent question. The statement’s form as a rhetorical question presents it as not only truthful but obvious, as though her competition should expect her to defeat them mercilessly, justified solely by a longing for success. This depiction of cold-heartedness as evident reinforces this behavior and its role in regard to success as a seemingly self-evident truth, perpetuating the notion that violence and coldness are a woman’s only option if she wants to succeed.
While these examples only focus on a select few of them, every female character’s portrayal in the game reflects some type of negative characteristic. Nearly all of the game’s successful women share arrogance as a key trait. The character known as Rampart exemplifies this best as she states, “I’m not one for bragging, but I’m probably the best legend to ever set foot in these games.” While not as explicitly cruel as previous examples, this line epitomizes the seemingly inherent arrogance and contempt which plague every one of these characters’ interactions.
Many of the behaviors portrayed and promoted by these characters reflect common stereotypes surrounding high-achieving men, and the main difference lies in the ideology that this behavior’s harmful characteristics disguise themselves as “manliness,” allowing their normalization. It is true that people of any gender have every right to attain success in the same manners that men traditionally (or at least stereotypically) do. However, the characters within Apex Legends portray this behavior as an expectation instead of an option. Promoting the idea that women must behave in these damaging manners simultaneously forces toxic behavior upon well-intentioned people and deprives them of qualities such as empathy or humility which they misguidedly try to suppress.
Assuredly, many of the characteristics described above are arguably justified by the nature of the environment in which women characters interact, as they actively compete in a literal blood sport, pitted against each other in a fight to the death. However, this argument only holds up as long as all characters, regardless of gender, share a similarly abrasive and heartless characterization. A holistic analysis of the playable characters reveals this discrepancy, as the male characters showcase a much more diverse and overall amiable set of personalities. Pathfinder, for instance, a robot that the game’s community wiki recognizes as male, exemplifies positivity through his over-the-top friendliness. While still subject to the same competitive and deadly environment, he always remains lighthearted, only referring to his competitors as “friends,” and even demonstrating empathy for them as he says, “That was exciting, I hope you had fun” after winning a battle. While Pathfinder’s lovable character tends toward the extreme, Bloodhound, despite their name, represents a more moderate, yet equally respectful and positive example, which resonates with a few of the male characters as well. Many of Bloodhound’s lines focus on giving their opponents legitimate advice and ensuring that they learn from their interaction, with reminders such as “your mind and spirit is the strongest weapon you have,” or “you are no coward, remember that.” The presence of male and non-binary characters who display far more varied personalities, including friendly and even empathetic tendencies, contrasts with the homogeneous and overall negative portrayal of female characters. This distinction between women and all other characters singles them out enough to highlight the existence of these norms in the game, even if only perceived subconsciously.
While Apex Legends clearly demonstrates an issue in the way game developers portray successful female characters, few people, from consumers to critics, even recognize its existence in the first place. For one, the predominant issue surrounding video games over the last ten to fifteen years at least revolves around legitimizing violent tendencies which their consumers supposedly replicate in real life (Dill; Shao). Especially considering that first-person shooter games like Apex are marred by their inherent violence, critiques often focus on this issue, which leads many to simply ignore other potential problems.
Moreover, many who do pay attention to the issue of gender may simply consider it resolved. As demonstrated previously, Apex Legends offers a representative example of the gaming industry’s trend toward more diverse and less explicitly discriminatory content. When comparing current titles to the likes of 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V, which mainly portrays women as either cheating housewives or prostitutes, many would agree that video games have and should continue making progress in regards to gender portrayals (Grand Theft Auto V). Thus, especially when considering a particularly progressive example like Apex Legends, fans and critics alike feel they have no reason to focus on a seemingly resolved issue.
Finally, a contributing factor to many seeing the problem as fixed lies in the problem’s implicit and subconscious nature. For instance, highlighting the issue within Apex requires an in-depth analysis of the characters and their voice lines to uncover these portrayals that otherwise may go unnoticed at first glance. Especially as game developers have already identified and eliminated the most overtly discriminatory elements in their games, neither they nor their consumers feel a need to dig deeper into an issue that has already been addressed. This aspect of harmful portrayals in gaming makes the issue significantly more important than it may otherwise appear.
Before discussing the role of these implicit portrayals specifically, some might justifiably dispute whether video games can have any concrete impact on their consumers’ perceptions and behavior in the first place. Thankfully, researchers have already established that video games do in fact carry a psychological impact on their consumers. Specifically, they have asserted that there exists a clear link between exposure to video games and sexism, comparable to that with exposure to significant and well-studied sources of sexism such as religiosity (Bègue). While the research does not specify the causes for the increase in sexist tendencies, it likely stems from the portrayal of women in the games that subjects were exposed to. Additionally, separate studies have established that children internalize notions learned from media as part of their socialization and apply these inherited ideas when judging, interacting with, and creating expectations for others (Solbes-Canales). As reports declare that over 90 percent of American children play video games, this study highlights the risk young consumers face when exposed to media such as Apex Legends and other games promoting negative gender stereotypes.
The largest factor contributing to this issue’s potential harm, however, lies in its implicit nature. Especially as researchers begin to recognize video games’ psychological impacts and report this information to consumers, it is possible older players especially may start actively recognizing the presence of negative stereotypes as fictive. This distinction between fiction and reality would allow gamers to enjoy the content and the stereotypes it portrays while realizing that these portrayals do not apply to the real world. Even without scientific research to call these stereotypes out explicitly, most mature consumers with developed critical thinking skills could identify overt discrimination and recognize it as different from reality. While it may seem insubstantial, this differentiation would make the difference between someone simply observing these negative portrayals and actually internalizing them.
However, examples such as Apex Legends pose a much greater issue. As explained previously, the contrast between Apex’s subtle sexism and much more explicit examples in other games stops most consumers from realizing that Apex might still promote harmful stereotypes. These stereotypes do clearly exist, though, as a fairly straightforward analysis of the game’s characters highlights them clearly. As even older and more mature gamers fail to recognize the presence of these homogenous portrayals, they become increasingly subject to internalizing them, since they skip the process of active differentiation described above. Therefore, implicit stereotypes in games such as Apex Legends can play an important role in forming a consumer’s perception of others—in this case, successful women—regardless of their age.
Specifically for older male gamers, exposure to such portrayals can lead them to subconsciously value characteristics like coldness or arrogance in their female colleagues. This can lead to male colleagues and even executives promoting toxic behavior among workers who strive for success. As for female gamers, the impact might be doubled as these portrayals could shape how they believe they should act in order to attain success.
As video games become increasingly progressive, we as consumers must ensure that we actively interrogate the appearance of progress so as to not fall victim to its hidden impacts. While some of the conclusions drawn in this paper do not yet rely on a concrete and proven psychological base, the hypotheses proposed herein will hopefully motivate researchers who have the resources to conduct such studies to delve into this overlooked issue. This paper also contributes to the more general discussion about whether women should have to demonstrate qualities such as arrogance and violence in order to succeed in a professional setting. As for those who may not care for video games, remember that these same conclusions apply to the media as a whole, as well as any other part of our lives that tends towards progress. We must avoid falling victim to our own subconscious if we hope to actually make the progress that we so desire.
Apex Legends [@PlayApex]. “Bloodhound is non-binary.” Twitter, 01/23/21, https://twitter.com/PlayApex/status/1353065485181480960?s=20&t=rfWfTPVkJyii6vAfwkcQ4g.
Apex Legends. Xbox Version, Electronic Arts, 2019.
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Shao, Rong, and Yunqiang Wang. “The Relation of Violent Video Games to Adolescent Aggression: An Examination of Moderated Mediation Effect.” Frontiers in Psychology, 21 Feb. 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00384/full.
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About the Author
Baptiste Louat spent his first year studying Marketing at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business and now plans to major in Political Economy. Originally from France and Washington, DC, he lived in Hong Kong and Casablanca before enjoying life in Manhattan. Some of his interests include basketball, snowboarding, travel, and video games, the latter of which inspired the writing of this essay.