Gender Stereotypes in Japanese Fighting Games:
effects on identification and immersion

Rachael Hutchinson (bio)
University of Delaware


This essay examines the effect of gender stereotypes on American undergraduate players of Japanese fighting games such as Soul Calibur, Tekken and Virtua Fighter. Player reactions to representations of gender are examined to discover whether stereotypes have any effect on processes of player-character identification and immersion in the game.  Gender stereotypes did have some negative effects on both identification and immersion, with players expressing objections to the hyper-sexualized and unrealistic bodies of characters. Where female players were concerned with the representation of women in patriarchal society, male players were more concerned with body image. However, when asked to identify game elements that enhanced or detracted from identification, the mechanics of the fighting game as a genre were seen as much more important than the appearance of characters.


Gender, stereotype, video games, fighting games, player-character identification, immersion


This essay examines the effect of gender stereotypes in Japanese videogames on processes of player-character identification and immersion. The main aim of this research is to find out whether stereotyped representations of characters have any effect on the player, and if so, whether that effect would be positive or negative – do stereotypes increase or decrease the player’s identification with the character they are controlling? Similarly, do stereotypes enhance or detract from the player’s immersion in the game? Much has been written on the effects of gender stereotyping on female players,[1] but what are the effects on male players?

Research on the representation of gender in videogames has taken two different approaches. Some scholars focus on single game texts or franchises in order to analyze specific cultural issues, such as gender performance in Tomb Raider (Schleiner 2001, Kennedy 2002). These studies tend to use action adventure games due to their strong narrative, heroic main characters, and one-to-one player-character identification. Other studies take a broader look at the games industry as a whole, analyzing the most popular games from a particular year to uncover race and gender representation in statistical terms. In these studies, the majority of primary characters have been found to be white males and the majority of supportive characters have been found to be female (Heintz-Knowles et al. 2001). This seems to hold true even when statistics are adjusted for the popularity of games and how many game texts are purchased and played (Williams et al. 2009). In the interest of broad inclusion and objectivity, these studies have used games from both Western and Asian developers, as well as games developed for a variety of platforms. However, using such a wide variety of games is problematic, in that character roles vary widely depending on the genre of game.

The differentiation of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ characters in these studies implies a game with an overarching narrative, with one main character and a host of supporting characters, a hero and a villain, and the chance for one character to save, rescue, injure or kill another. This kind of game structure appears in the role-playing game (RPG) and first-person shooter (FPS), but not in the binary combat game (BCG), otherwise known as the fighting game genre. In these games there is no immediately apparent narrative, hero or villain – rather, the player may choose from up to 30 different characters in order to fight short battles against an opposing character (either chosen by the computer or by a fellow player).[2] While characters can die and have harm inflicted upon them, the damage disappears at the end of every round. After the battle is over, the player once again returns to the character select screen to choose from exactly the same number of characters, all of whom are intact and ready to fight.
Further, the statistical representation of gender and race true to the industry as whole does not apply so easily to the fighting game. Looking at the character select screens of Soul Calibur, Tekken, Street Fighter and Virtua Fighter, we see large numbers of characters of both sexes, all of whom are constructed as strong and powerful fighters in their own way. Characters also come from many different nations, each representing a particular kind of fighting style (the Chinese kung-fu master, the Canadian boxer, the Japanese ninja and so on). Because no one character is privileged in terms of fighting ability, whether the character wins or loses depends entirely on the player. Slim, young Asian female characters like Talim from Soul Calibur II can easily defeat large, muscular, white male European characters like Nightmare by virtue of player skill. Even so, the representation of gender in these games is extreme, with hyper-sexualized women and hyper-muscularized men being the norm.

The Children Now study of 2001 concluded that such visual representations of gender are ‘unhealthy’, sending ‘strong negative messages to children’ (Heintz-Knowles et al. 2001: 27). Fighting games such as Tekken 3 and Tekken Tag Tournament were analyzed alongside roleplaying games like Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy IX, as well as racing games like Gran Turismo 2, simulations like Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2, and real-time strategy games such as Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2. Even though this study was completed over a decade ago, no new study has since emerged to analyze the fighting game on its own terms. I would argue that the representation of gender in the fighting game genre needs a study of its own, for two main reasons: the lack of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ characters in a structure where each character is weighted equally in terms of strength and fighting skill, and the outrageous body stereotypes that characterize the genre. This essay seeks to find a middle ground between individual case studies of particular games, and broad analyses of the industry as a whole, by focusing on the fighting game genre. That this genre is well known for its stereotyped images of gender makes it an excellent testing ground for claims that players are negatively affected by such imagery.

I would further argue that the study should focus on games developed in one area of the world – comparing Japanese and Western games together raises more questions than it answers. Japanese fighting games are dominant in the BCG market, and form a coherent discursive structure that may be analyzed as a distinctive cultural product. This study focuses on the well-known Japanese fighting game series Tekken, Soul Calibur and Virtua Fighter. Budgetary restrictions limited the study to three series, otherwise I would have also included the famed Street Fighter series by Capcom. However, Street Fighter shares many features with Tekken, where characters fight without weapons in a martial arts tournament, focusing on punching and kicking as well as combo attacks. Soul Calibur is distinct as a weapons-based fighting game, where players control the character’s vertical and horizontal weapon attacks as well as kicking and blocking. Virtua Fighter is also distinct as the first fighting game to employ a 3D environment. For these reasons the chosen game series may be seen as representative of the Japanese fighting game genre.


This study asked 55 undergraduate students to play Japanese videogames and respond to two worksheets, the first titled ‘Stereotype’ and the second titled ‘Player-character identification in the Binary Combat Genre’. Players came from two classes on Japanese Visual Culture at the University of Delaware. The first group, with 20 first-year students, yielded 19 respondents: 10 women and 9 men. The second group, with 35 upper-class students, yielded 30 respondents: 14 women and 16 men. Overall, there were 24 female and 25 male respondents, 49 people in total.[3] In terms of other demographics, the first-year group was homogeneous in terms of age (17-19 years) while the upper-class group was more diverse (19-35 years).[4] Out of 49 respondents, 36 were Caucasian (approximately 73%), followed by five Asian (10%), four African-American (8%), three Indian (6%) and one Middle Eastern (2%). Most students were avid consumers of Japanese visual culture products such as anime, manga and videogames, although about 10% of the group had little to no experience of these media before entering the class.

Students were divided into groups of four to complete their worksheets in the Games Lab, a dedicated space in the university library media center holding one PlayStation 2 and one PlayStation 3 console. Two students would play the game while two observed and filled in the worksheet, after which time the students would swap roles. All students were therefore able to experience the games as player and observer. In the role of player, students gained a first-hand feel for gameplay dynamics, player-character identification and immersion. As observer, students could be more analytical about the visual representation of the characters and background settings. Because the worksheets were filled in as class assignments, students were primed to give thoughtful and detailed answers, although the length of responses varied widely. Many students filled in the one-page worksheet without adding any extra commentary, while others expanded the sheet to fill two or three pages (one student gave his answers in the form of an essay). All students had access to one academic article on stereotype in the BCG (Hutchinson 2007) as well as an academic essay on immersion (McMahan 2003), both of which were discussed in class time. Responses on the worksheets were thus a mixture of academic analysis and personal reactions to the material, ranging from drily objective to extremely subjective in tone. This study is a qualitative rather than quantitative study, analyzing the prose text of the student responses.

Worksheet I: Stereotype

For this worksheet, students were free to choose any game from the syllabus for their study.[5] Most students chose a fighting game for the analysis, as the genre is well known for its stereotyped characters.[6] The first two questions addressed gender: ‘How are gender stereotypes constructed in this game?’ and ‘Do you think that stereotype influences gameplay? How?’ The worksheet also included a question about racial and national stereotypes, which will be discussed elsewhere, and a final open-ended question inviting further comment: ‘Note any other thoughts or observations on stereotype in this game.’

In analyzing student responses, I was most interested in how stereotypes affect the player-character identification process. More specifically, did gender stereotypes make it easier or harder for players to identify with characters? I did not ask this directly on the worksheet, so as not to make students feel uncomfortable or have to assess themselves and their own attitudes directly. I wanted to see if any students felt strongly enough, after reflecting on the stereotype construction in a critical exercise, to comment on the effect of these stereotypes on them personally. Results showed that in some cases, gender stereotypes in the game did affect the player’s identification with the character. In general, students thought that stereotype did influence gameplay, although their reasoning differed widely.

In response to the question ‘Do you think that stereotype influences gameplay? How?’, most students answered in the affirmative, using words like ‘definitely’, ‘certainly’, ‘absolutely’, ‘a very great impact’ or ‘an enormous impact’. Out of 49 respondents, only two (4%) said that stereotype did not influence gameplay at all. 33 students (67%) who responded positively explained that the female characters were quick, agile and better at close combat, while male characters were powerful, slower and better at distance combat. These tendencies would therefore affect the player’s choice of character, depending on what kind of fighting style they wanted to use. Three other students said that stereotype affects the player’s choice of character because they want to play ‘cool’ or ‘ridiculous’ characters to try them out. 8 students (16%) noted the assumptions behind player perceptions of gender roles, saying that the common player expectation that male characters will be strong and females weak is often proved false through gameplay experience. Other students took psychology into account, thinking of the binary combat game as a competition between players: one student said that stereotype allows the player to intimidate his opponent by choosing a big, muscular character, while two explained that they could use a quick and agile female character to defeat their opponent, going against the opponent’s expectation that the female characters would be weak. Three other students said that characters should be chosen for their distracting qualities, particularly the large breasts of female characters and the ability of clothing to become disarrayed or lost during fight sequences in Soul Calibur IV. Three other comments linked stereotype to player enjoyment, in terms of exotic or erotic spectacle.

Gameplay mechanics and customization options attracted students’ notice, especially the player’s option of customizing characters in Soul Calibur III and IV. Students noted that this option was significant in two main ways. First, the player can change the stereotyped character to be different to the original character design, for example by giving a female character a lower voice and more masculine traits, thus minimizing or limiting the assumed gender stereotype. A male student said that this option ‘offers up many ways to challenge traditional stereotypes’. Second, as noted by a female student, ‘players can program in stereotypes’ of their own, for example by increasing the size of female characters’ breasts. A disparity was noted here, in that players could change the physique of the male character in a number of ways (‘more muscular or stockier or fatter’) but the physique of the female character could only be changed in terms of breast size.

Students had some interesting comments on diversity and representation in the binary combat genre as a whole. One student was ‘surprised to find an old character in Virtua Fighter’, as she was used to fighting games with younger characters. Another female student noted that in Virtua Fighter 5, ‘all of the women are very youthful, while the men have a much broader range of age. Thinking now, I don’t think there are many old women EVER in games, especially in binary combat games’.[7] Other students also noticed that the depiction of male characters in Virtua Fighter and Soul Calibur ‘showed much more deviation from the norm’ than female characters, and that female characters were depicted in more standardized fashion: ‘Most of the female stereotypes apply to almost all female characters, but male characters are a more diverse group that do not all fit the stereotypes’. Students also took pains to note that not all characters fit any stereotype at all, as Soul Calibur included monsters and other non-human beings.

Representations of gender: player response

Media Studies research has demonstrated that unrealistic body images in the media can affect the body image of the consumer, particularly in regards to representations of the female figure. Marsha Kinder (1991) argued that social values and stereotypes embedded in films, TV, toys and videogames can have a strong impact on children’s thinking, while the Children Now study concluded:

Video games also reinforce unhealthy gender stereotypes and messages… Even when the female characters break out of the role of the helpless victim, their powers and strengths can be overshadowed by their hyper-sexualized bodies and attire. Further, while male characters significantly outnumber their female counterparts, they, too, are often cast in stereotypical roles and given unrealistic hyper-muscularized bodies. These types of portrayals send strong negative messages to children that there are certain ways that males and females are supposed to look and act (2001: 27).

Examining student responses on the worksheets, gender stereotype provoked strong reactions, especially when discussing attributes of the female characters. One male student was discomfited by the ‘excessive sex appeal of the characters’ in Soul Calibur IV, saying ‘Ivy is perhaps the most egregious example’. Suggesting that this kind of representation detracts from the player’s immersion in the game, he argued that the stereotype is ‘jarring because the characters are supposed to be fighters; the majority of them are far from appropriately dressed’.

Figure 1. Isabella Valentine (Ivy), from Soul Calibur IV

Figure 2. Sophitia from Soul Calibur IV

Many other students also commented that the female characters’ costumes were unsuitable for fighting, being either too tight and restrictive of movement, or loose and flowing, which might get in the way of their weapons. Preoccupation with ‘real-world’ effects of particular costumes seems to have disrupted immersion as well as player-character identification in some cases. It is notable that the female character Ivy in particular attracted many comments on the sexualization of her body and costume, with one male student calling her ‘slutty’ and a ‘sexual deviant’. Normalized male characters showing a lot of skin (Yun-seong, Kilik, etc) were not disparaged in the same way, although the strange and macabre Voldo was also described as a masochist or sexual deviant.[8]

Figure 3. Yun-seong from Soul Calibur IV

Figure 4. Voldo from Soul Calibur II

Perhaps unsurprisingly, female students had the strongest reactions to the representation of female characters:

They all have large breasts, big butts, and slim waists. They’re all in tight, uncomfortable clothing. Their stature is tall and they are in good shape. Along with their unrealistic fighting outfits, they wear high heels. Although I am in no way a feminist, these traits seem to demean women to a certain degree (female playing Tekken 5).

The writer disavows ‘feminism’, constructing herself as an average person and not particularly invested in gender equality. But this disavowal serves to strengthen the force of her opinion, that the representation ‘demeans’ women. Some female players blamed patriarchal society in general for this kind of depiction, saying that ‘females are typically looked at as dainty and pretty people that love to dress up in “girly” attire. At least, this is the stereotype that society and men have put onto women’ (female playing SCIV). Another female student playing Tekken 5 said: ‘This image I believe is wrong and women should be portrayed as more realistic’.

The strongest reaction came from a female student in the first year group playing Soul Calibur IV:

The women all look pretty ridiculous; I’m not sure how it’s possible to move in such tight clothing, let alone fight. Why are they all wearing (tiny) skirts? And how is it possible that they can wear such tiny amounts of clothing? It’s kind of gross and it makes me angry that the female body can be used like that. It’s like they only expect teenage boys to be playing this game and this is part of how they lure them in. What about female players? How come scantily clad female [characters] are allowed, but all the guys are allowed to be big, beefy, and decently clothed? I don’t want to see some video game chick’s breasts hanging out and bouncing all over the place. Ew.

… The only way I can think to describe the women in these games is the term “video game chicks”. The blatant sexualization of them kind of fits with the term “chick”, which I find to be kind of rude when used to refer to a woman.

Interestingly, this was one of the few students to refer to the game developers, here in terms of target audience expectations and the use of the female body to attract players. This player was critically aware of her own reaction to the game and how it made her feel about the industry as a whole:

Despite how annoyed I am at the stereotypes and the blatant sexualization of the women and ridiculous musculature of the men, I almost expect this from a video game, which means that I’m stereotyping the game… But I am very surprised – almost disturbed – by how normal it seems to me that video games do this. I can’t decide what that says about our culture, if this blatant sexualization of women / giant beefy men is normal in a video game.

It should be noted here that one female student argued for the representation of the female figure in Japanese fighting games as positive and even awe-inspiring. As part of an all-female group playing Soul Calibur IV, she reported being ‘a little awed by how perfect in both physique and martial arts skills they were. It is inspiring to watch some of the female avatars in battle’. This mirrors some female audience reaction to Lara Croft, hailed as a feminist icon by some gamers even though her hyper-sexualized body lessens her subjectivity in many ways.[9]

Contrary to my expectation, female students did not tend to focus on body image or body dysmorphia resulting from playing such games. Rather, they blamed patriarchal society, male game developers, or the projected male target audience for the overly sexualized depiction of the female body. The hyper-sexualized female body made both female and male players uncomfortable. However, only one female student commented directly on body image: ‘Girls have to be somewhat cute or beautiful. You do not see ugly female characters. They are mostly shown in supermodel-type bodies. This may affect our standards of beauty in women. The same goes for male characters with muscles, rugged physiques and handsome face’ (female playing Tekken 5). Notably, the comment was gender balanced, taking into account the similar effect on male body image. In the worksheets, then, there were no responses that focused solely on female body image.

Figure 6. Jin Kazama from Tekken 5

In contrast, male players of the Soul Calibur series and Tekken 5 in particular commented on the psychological effect created by the visual representation of the ‘perfect’ male body in these games. One male student playing SCII commented:

Kilik is depicted as a kind of ‘pretty-boy’ with a staff, who is not the huge
manifestation of muscle that I would expect in a binary combat game. In contrast to Kilik, Astaroth is the embodiment of my BCG-type expectations… He is the giant representation of body building strength and power that leads many young adults in their disillusionment of muscle dysmorphia.

The strongest reaction to the male characters’ bodies came from a male body-builder in the upper class group. This student was already predisposed to thinking about his body in extremely physical terms, being a body-builder himself, but his comments are significant:

If you’re a boy with body issues, then you are going to love Tekken 5. And by love of course I mean cry and eat cookie dough because you feel so bad about your gross, lumpy body.[10]
I am into weight lifting, and in all honesty I don’t know how these guys do it. Seriously, these guys would put some of the top body builders to shame. Craig Marduk is the first offender here. This guy is huge. … On top of this, he also somehow has a six pack, a very difficult feat if you think about how hard it is to keep body fat down at a weight that high. And look at that hairy, tan chest. That is all kinds of manly, and it sure as heck isn’t what most guys see every day in the mirror. The second man is Jin Kazama. Are they kidding? He is unbelievably cut up (a term used to describe someone who has literally so little body fat that you can see the individual strands of his muscle).[11] Looking at this guy makes me feel like giving up, because he is an alien, and it’s not fair he gets to look that ripped…

Notable here is the relationship drawn between the physical features of the figures on screen and the real-world body-building terminology. The student discusses the physiques of the characters as if they were in a body-building tournament themselves, using terms like ‘six pack’, ‘cut up’ and ‘ripped’. Although he knows logically and rationally that these men are characters in a videogame, he cannot help draw comparisons as if he himself were in competition with them, with the result that he feels ‘like giving up’. Interestingly, Jin Kazama is described as an ‘alien’ – not as a virtual reality character or computer-generated human, but as something completely out of reach. This comparison acknowledges the utterly inhuman nature of Jin Kazama’s perfect body, and yet the student still complains that Kazama’s attainment of perfection is ‘not fair’.

Similarly, another male student said: ‘Games like Tekken 5 that show male and female characters with unobtainable features is bad for gaming. It may be giving people playing this game, especially impressionable children, [the message] that they should look this way even though it may be impossible’. This student shows concern for both male and female gamers being affected by images of ‘unobtainable’ physical features. A male student playing SCIII had similar comments:

The body image of these characters and what they look like is what society tells us we should look or act like, with men being more aggressive and women being more dainty… The stereotypes take people out of the real world and place them in the gaming world, but the gaming world still has the same images and messages as the real world. The stereotypes reinforce the ideas of gender division and association…
It’s also kind of alarming about how the women are portrayed in the game. Yes it is just a game, but they are very ‘sexified’ and shown in a demeaning light… the fact that they are not as strong as their men counterparts was also a bit disturbing. … More emphasis should be placed on their abilities, not their bodies.

The core of this student’s concern with the hyper-sexualized body imagery in Soul Calibur seems to hang on the relationship between the ‘gaming world’ and the real world. The game world, being a construct developed and created by people with specific social attitudes, naturally betrays those attitudes through its imagery, social structures, and gender dynamics. A game developed by feminists with a view to popularizing a feminist message would most likely employ a more thoughtful and critically aware set of images, social structures and gender dynamics. However, as many studies have shown, the game industry is dominated by males – not chauvinists or misogynists but normal male persons who have grown up in society as we know it. That the representations of women in games are skewed towards hyper-sexualized bodies tells us more about our own societies than about individual game developers. In this case, it is perhaps no surprise that Japanese games reflect the male-dominated hierarchies of contemporary Japanese society.[12] However, it was notable that students did not focus specifically on Japanese society in their responses, seeing the games more as a global consumer product than a product issuing from Japanese culture. This is surprising in the sense that the study was conducted in the context of a class on Japanese games and visual culture. However, it also supports recent research by Jérémie Pelletier-Gagnon (2011) arguing that these games are seen more as transnational global products than specifically Japanese ones. In any case, it is clear from the data that both male and female players can find stereotyped gender representation off-putting. While stereotype is used for specific purposes in the binary combat genre, and can aid immersion and player-character identification, it can also detract from the playing experience.

Stereotypes and player-character identification

A common attitude was that the player and character should look similar in order to maximize the identification process. The large number of characters available to choose from the select screen in the BCG was seen as an aid to player-character identification.

The second Games Lab worksheet ‘Player-character Identification in the Binary Combat Genre’ asked players which elements of the game enhanced or detracted from identification. Not one student mentioned racial representation in this context, although many commented on the ‘unrealistic’ body proportions of characters. This result demonstrates that students were more concerned about gender representation than the representation of race.[13]

Although the genre conventions of the BCG provide some rationale for the existence of racial stereotypes, the exaggerated sexualization of gender stereotypes has little basis in the narrative or gameplay dynamic. Many students found that gender stereotypes in the BCG reduced both immersion and identification. Players could not take the characters seriously, or found the lack of realism distracting. Discomfort with Soul Calibur IV’s overly sexualized representations seemed equal between men and women. This discomfort was undoubtedly heightened because the game was played in the context of a class assignment, performed as group work with classmates (rather than friends).[14] A female player of SCIV noted that the thong underwear worn by female characters and the ability of the player to pan the camera around and zoom in for a closer look was ‘distracting for both men and women. Men because of the obvious sexual display and women because of the unrealistic depiction of their gender.’ This game also offered an interesting aspect of play where characters could be made to lose their clothing as part of damage during a fight. One student reported that gameplay degenerated into a competition to see how fast the characters could be made to lose their clothing. This was described as an element reducing immersion in gameplay, although it may be seen more specifically as a change in immersion from one aspect of the gameplay (fighting) to another (attempting to disrobe the characters).

The difference or similarity between the player and the character in terms of physical appearance was seen as an important factor in the identification process. Most students who commented on gender and identification argued that player and character should be of the same gender for maximum identification, saying for example that ‘People tend to naturally identify with characters of the same gender’ (female playing Virtua Fighter 5). A male student playing Soul Calibur II had a more complex response:

I think stereotype can definitely influence game play, for instance I’m a guy, I usually try to go for male characters. People generally feel more comfortable placing their mind into the same gender rather than the opposite for something like a fighting game where you can really get into it.

This player begins with the assumption that guys like himself would usually or normally choose male characters. The choice is made on the basis of player ‘comfort’, suggesting a certain amount of discomfort associated with choosing a character of the opposite sex. The comfort or discomfort of the player is directly linked to both the immersive process and the genre of fighting games. Fighting games are singled out as a genre with a high degree of immersive potential, however it is suggested that the potential could easily be derailed by an unsuitable character choice on the part of the player. For a game like this with deep immersion, in other words, the player needs the most ‘comfortable’ avatar possible in order to maximize the immersive experience. This view accords with that of other students who argued that players and characters should look similar or ‘be familiar’ in some way. However, what makes this comment stand out is the metaphorical imagery of the player ‘placing their mind into’ the character. The identification process here is seen as the transfer of the player’s mind into the body of the character on screen. If the male mind is ‘placed into’ a female body, discord will result.

Other players, both male and female, saw gender-swapping as positive:

Players may relate to a character that is like them… There is also the opposite effect in which players will pick a character because it is different than what they are, in order to experience what it is like to be or play as the opposite sex (male player of SCIII).

In this student’s view, any discord or disjunction encountered by ‘placing his mind into’ an avatar of the opposite gender is an experience in itself, something to be seen as an adventure. Through character choice, we can find out what it might be like to ‘be or play as the opposite sex’. A female student playing SCIV argued for this kind of identification as a form of escapism: ‘The player could be so used to acting a certain way that choosing a character deviating from them internally and externally could help the player see things through another person’s view’. Another female student playing SCIV argued for the creation of a new alter-ego through the choice of different characters. Without stereotyped characters, she argued, ‘the game world would not be popular since the characters would be harder to identify with. The stereotypes allow people to identify with their bloodthirsty avatar, and be someone else.’

One female student playing Tekken 5 rationalized the idea of ‘gender-swapping’ by distinguishing between the sex of the character and their skill set being used by the player:

Although the player is choosing different character[s] each turn the level of identification remains the same, however, it changes if a male player chooses a female character or a female player chooses a male character. In this case, the players don’t identify with the character but rather separate themselves from the character and only identify with the character’s skills. For example, ‘She is so gonna kick your butt’… ‘Kick’ is the skill that the player is identifying with.’

Another female student playing Tekken 5 found the idea of gender-swapping to be very natural, using it to counteract the negative effects of gender stereotyping in the game: ‘I feel that when you pick a female character it is harder to identify with her as a strong individual in most cases because her persona is gentle and sly rather than aggressive and fighter-like.’ This student identified more easily with the powerful and aggressive male characters ‘because I am strong’. Note that this student did not distinguish the ‘I’ in this comment to clarify whether she was speaking about herself in the real world or on screen. In either case, her own sense of strength made it more difficult to identify with the female characters in the game, because she perceived them as weaker than the males. This brings to mind Richard and Zaremba’s argument that ‘the oversexualized representation of the figures… can be perceived as another, though less obvious strategy toward the weakening of female strength. The potential threat of the fighting female body is neutralized by an overemphasis on the feminine body parts’ (2005: 295). However, in this case, it is the persona rather than the oversexualized body that inhibits identification.

It was notable that some female students made assumptions about the character choices of male players, and vice versa. Two females assumed that males would want to play ‘the big, strong male character’, while three others assumed that male players enjoyed the visual and erotic spectacle of highly sexualized female characters. One student assumed that the male players ‘would not want to be a feminine character’. Conversely, a male player of SCII reported that all members of his all-male Games Lab group enjoyed playing as Nightmare because he is ‘a stereotypically male character’, while ‘a girl might have a tendency to like Taki, a strong female character and have a tendency to stray from an ugly character like Necrid.’ These assumptions, for the most part, are not supported by the data. However, the unwillingness to play as a monster character such as Necrid was seen in both male and female respondents. A male player of SCIV said: ‘I think the main thing is if the character is the same sex as you with generally the same body type… If the character is some type of monster creature it is very hard to relate. It would be easier to relate to the opposite sex than a monster character.’

The idea of ‘unrelatability’ did not prevent players from choosing strange or monster characters. Many students reported Voldo as a popular character choice, even though his strangeness of appearance and movement made for a clear sense of disjunction and non-identification between player and character. Students reported choosing Inferno, Charade, Lizardman and other non-human characters ‘because they were so ridiculous’, the over-the-top spectacle of strangeness being enjoyed for its own sake. On the other hand, some students did experience a sense of disjunction when playing as a character of the opposite sex, although these comments were a small minority. Interestingly, one male player of Soul Calibur IV reported a feeling of unease when two female characters were on screen, as he found it ‘invokes the feeling of “I don’t want to hit a girl”.’ Even though he was controlling a strong and powerful female character, his own masculine gender performance of chivalry extended to the in-game actions of his character.

Figure 7. Lizardman, a monster character from Soul Calibur IV

In short, the range of responses was diverse. While the majority of students found player-character similarity to be important in the identification process, others found it unimportant or irrelevant. Two students argued that gender differences had absolutely no effect on identification. One male player of Tekken 5 said he could not see any player-character identification taking place during his gameplay session, arguing that immersion came rather from ‘success in beating the other player, not the character on screen’. In this case, there was no sense of doubled performance in the game world and real world, but only real-world competition between the two players.[16] The diversity of responses here may stem from the nature of the binary combat game and the ability to choose one’s character, focusing player attention on their own agency in choosing (or customizing) an avatar. This ability of the player to control their own subject-positioning challenges ideas of player subjectivity as something to be constructed and manipulated by game developers and marketing departments.[16] While research has uncovered strategies used by children (Gailey 1993; Ito 2009) and black gamers (Everett 2005: 317) in re-coding and re-interpreting dominant game discourses to suit their own individual subjectivities and visions of the self, perhaps no such strategy is needed in the binary combat genre. While the many different subjectivities and subject-positionings afforded by player-character identification have been explored by scholars, there is a tendency to examine the FPS or RPG genre with a one-to-one relationship between player and character. Introducing the element of character choice gives the player a vastly expanded set of possible subjectivities, occupying many positions on the spectrum of ‘same as me’ through to ‘different from me’. The impact of character choice on player-character identification has yet to be thoroughly explored, but it seems to afford many avenues of research.[17]

Stereotype and the Binary Combat Genre

Despite some strong reactions to the stereotyped depictions of gender in the BCG, the majority of women respondents did not find the stereotypes to be positive, negative or offensive, rather finding them to be a natural product of the game and its need to use stereotyped characters. It is possible that the students’ access to a critical essay on the uses of stereotype in the binary combat genre (Hutchinson 2007) may have made them more sanguine about the representation. A typical comment relating the stereotype to its uses in gameplay is as follows:

While it is easy to become offended by stereotypes in most forms of media, it didn’t really bother me here. If stereotypes and exaggeration weren’t used, the characters would look more similar to each other. This would make it harder to tell them apart… the exaggerations make game play more interesting, since when you choose a new character it feels like you need to learn an entirely new way of fighting (female playing SCIV).

The same student said elsewhere on her worksheet: ‘Since there isn’t much back story to the characters, players have to depend on visuals alone when choosing their character. If these visuals are exaggerated, it makes it easier for the players to connect and choose a character’. In this case, then, the simplified and exaggerated nature of the characters provides a way for players to connect with the image on screen. This student is talking about a point very early in the gameplay process when the player must first choose a character from the select screen without the benefit of prior experience with the game. In order to make a choice, the player must first feel a sense of connection with one of the characters.

One female player of Soul Calibur IV placed the identification process even earlier, in terms of mental state and suggestibility: ‘I think that the player’s perception of the character and their feeling on whether or not they are “cool” influences the player’s willingness to identify and makes it easier to slip into the character role’ (italics in original). Similarly, a male player of the same game said ‘Character identification, then, occurs almost as a choice… [a player] may want to play as Ivy but it is up to him or her to put on the leather and strike the whip in their imagination’. These comments stand out in their emphasis on the role-playing aspects of the binary combat genre. These students recognize the importance of player performance and suspension of disbelief to the success of immersion and identification in the game. A male player of Tekken 5 applied this idea to the genre as a whole, saying that the BCG needs more imaginative input from the player than an RPG where the story and character development are all easily accessible to the player. Overall, identification processes in the BCG were seen as different to those of the role-playing or first-person game.

Worksheet II: Player-character identification in the Binary Combat Genre

The comments and answers above were all found on the ‘Stereotype’ worksheet, where students added their own comments on how stereotype influences gameplay, as well as their free observations on stereotype in the game. For the second worksheet, students were instructed to use games from the Soul Calibur, Tekken or Virtua Fighter franchises to answer questions on identification processes. Although the worksheet did not mention stereotype, two questions were directly relevant to the main research question of whether stereotyped characters affect player-character identification: ‘What elements of the game enhance the player’s identification with the character (feeling like they ‘are’ the character)?’ and ‘What elements of the game detract from the player’s identification with the character (disrupting the feeling that they ‘are’ the character)?’

The range of answers to these questions was extremely diverse. There were 34 different answers to question 1, and 37 different answers to question 2. Most students listed more than one element of the game that enhanced or detracted from identification. Some answers appeared on both lists, for example if a character was wearing a mask, one student found this increased identification because it gave a sense of intrigue, while another student found the inability to see the character’s face detracted from his feeling of connection with the character. The top ten answers to both questions were as follows:


Elements enhancing identification

Number of responses (%)


Winning with the character

18 (37%)


Control of the character, through direct action input

15 (31%)


Increase in player skill with, and familiarity with, one particular character over time

13 (27%)


Choosing a character similar to oneself

10 (20%)


Tension of competition

 7 (14%)


Knowing the characters from manga or anime

 5 (10%)


Specialty combos and damage

 5 (10%)


Realism (graphics, voices, sound effects)

 5 (10%)


Becoming accustomed to controls and interface

 5 (10%)


Fast pace and adrenalin

 4 (8%)



 4 (8%)

Table 1. Game elements seen as enhancing player-character identification


Elements detracting from identification

Number of responses (%)


Losing with the character

13 (27%)


Interface problems (not understanding controls, awareness of using controls, distraction of status bars on screen)

13 (27%)


Having to revert to the character select screen

11 (22%)



10 (20%)


Genre as a whole (not an RPG)

 7 (14%)


Unrealistic/sexualized costumes

 7 (14%)


Use of character’s name rather than the player’s
(e.g. “Voldo wins!)

 6 (12%)


No storyline

 6 (12%)


Silly dialogue before a fight

 5 (10%)


Annoying voices

 5 (10%)

Table 2. Game elements seen as detracting from player-character identification

The top answers in both tables, ‘Winning’ and ‘Losing’, relate to the competitive nature of the binary combat genre. Most elements reported as enhancing identification had to do with the player’s mastery of the character controls in order to inflict damage on the opponent and win the game. Only two responses had to do with character appearance or the representation of the character onscreen, suggesting that the stereotyped characters in and of themselves did not affect identification. Choosing a character that looks like oneself in terms of race, gender or other characteristics (strength, attractiveness and so on), was the 4th most popular response. While the assumption in current research seems to be that the character should physically reflect the player for maximum identification, the fact that player skill, control of the character and winning with the character are more important in the BCG challenges this assumption for this genre at least.

Similarly, the top four responses on elements that detracted from identification were related to the mechanics of the BCG as a genre – losing with the character, feelings of frustration, problems with the interface and constantly being forced to choose a new character from the select screen at the completion of each round. Two students said of losing and frustration that ‘you feel that your character isn’t listening’, and unresponsiveness of the character to player’s commands was a significant complaint (5%). The hyper-sexualized appearance of characters did detract from identification, so in this case stereotype had a negative effect. However, it is notable that this response was ranked 5th – equal with the idea that the genre as a whole was not very immersive and did not provide as high a level of player-character identification as the RPG. This response was echoed by the complaint that the BCG lacks storyline, again in comparison with other genres.


Objections to gender stereotyping and representation of the body were found in the responses of both males and females. Females seemed more concerned about the images as proof of male-dominated society and a male-dominated games industry, while males seemed more concerned about the effect of ‘perfect’ images of the body on their own self-confidence. Race and gender stereotypes had some positive effect on player-character identification, with 20% students reporting the ability to choose a character who looked like themselves as an element of gameplay that enhanced identification. While it is significant that 14% of students listed unrealistic and sexualized bodies as an element detracting from identification, it is also notable that gameplay mechanics specific to the BCG were seen as more important. I would conclude that stereotypes can certainly have a negative effect on player-character identification, as well as the self-image of players. However, players also enjoy the visual spectacle, physical attractiveness, and strength of characters in the binary combat genre, regardless of their own race, nationality or gender. It seems that the effect of stereotype on players is much more complex and multilayered than has generally been assumed.

Author Bio

Rachael Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies in the Game Studies Research Group at the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Delaware

Works Cited

Atkins, Barry (2003). >More than a Game: The computer game as fictional form.
Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Bandai Namco Entertainment (2015), Project Soul: Soul Calibur archive, Last accessed 1 May 2015.

Bandai Namco Games Inc. (2014) Tekken Official Site,!/en/home Last accessed 1 May, 2015.

Bryce, Jo and Jason Rutter (2005). Gendered Gaming in Gendered Space. In Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.301-310.

Cassell, Justine and Henry Jenkins (1998). Chess for Girls? Feminism and Computer Games. In From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, ed. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2-45.

Everett, Anna (2005). Serious Play: Playing with Race in Contemporary Gaming Culture. In Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.311-125.

Gailey, Christine Ward (1993). Mediated Messages: Gender, Class and Cosmos in Home Video Games. Journal of Popular Culture, 27(1), 81-97.

Heintz-Knowles, Katharine, Jennifer Henderon, Christina Glaubke, Patti Miller, McCrae A. Parker and Eileen Espejo (2001). Fair Play? Violence, Gender and Race in Videogames. Oakland CA: Children Now.

Hutchinson, Rachael (2007). Performing the Self: Subverting the Binary in Combat Games. Games and Culture, 2(4), 283-299.

Hutchinson, Rachael (2016). Virtual Colonialism: Japanese representations of identity in Soul Calibur. In Video Games in East Asia, ed. Alexis Pulos and Austin Lee. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan [pages tbc].

Ito, Mizuko (2009). Engineering Play: A Cultural History of Children’s Software. Cambridge MA and London: MIT Press.

Kennedy, Helen W. (2002). Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? On the limits of textual analysis. Game Studies 2(2), n.p.

Kinder, Marsha (1993). Playing with Power in Movies, Television and Video Games: from Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley: University of California Press.

McMahan, Alison (2003). Immersion, Engagement, and Presence: A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games. In The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron, New York and London: Routledge, 67-86.

Murray, Janet (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: Free Press.

Nitsche, Michael, with Maureen Thomas (2003). Stepping Back: players as active participators. In Proceedings of the first international digital games research conference: Level Up! ’03. Utrecht, The Netherlands: Utrecht University/DiGRA Digital Library.

Pelletier-Gagnon, Jérémie (2011). Video Games and Japaneseness: An Analysis of Localization and Circulation of Japanese Video Games in North America. Unpublished MA thesis, McGill University.

Richard, Birgit and Jutta Zaremba (2005). Gaming with Grrls: looking for sheroes in computer games. In Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.283-300.

Ruggill, Judd and Ken McAllister (2011). Gaming Matters: Art, Science, Magic, and the Computer Game Medium. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Schleiner, Anne-Marie. (2001). Does Lara Croft wear fake polygons? Gender and gender-role subversion in computer adventure games. Leonardo, 34(3), 221-226.

Turkle, Sherry (1995). Life on the Screen: identity in the age of the internet. New York
and London: Simon Schuster.

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 and Society 11(5), 815-834.


[1] See for example Richard and Zaremba (2005); Bryce and Rutter (2005).

[2] Although scholars have criticized the genre for its lack of narrative (Murray 1997: 51; Atkins 2003: 23), it is important to point out here that binary combat games do have very complex narrative structures that can be unlocked by the dedicated player. Piecing together the backstory of franchise games like Tekken and Soul Calibur provides narrative tension, deep immersion and enhanced player-character identification. However, brief periods of competitive play (particularly in arcade mode) would not give the same kind of character development and linear narrative offered by an RPG or FPS game in the same amount of time.

[3] All 55 students responded to the worksheets by completing the class assignments, but only 49 gave permission to use their responses via an informed consent form.

[4] The group included one mature-age student returning to university for further study, as well as some ‘super-seniors’ in their 5th or 6th year.

[5] These were Final Fantasy X, X-2 and XII, Katamari Damacy, Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, 3and 4, Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm, Naruto Ultimate Ninja 3, Soul Calibur II, III and IV, Tekken 5, and Virtua Fighter 5.

[6] See Hutchinson (2007: 286-7). A small minority of students chose Final Fantasy X or Metal Gear Solid for this worksheet.

[7] On timelessness and the lack of aging in games see Richard and Zaremba (2005: 294-6), although the characters of Soul Calibur and other games do age between episodes of the series.

[8] I argue elsewhere that Ivy’s supposed deviance ‘points to the endurance of social and cultural expectations regarding the female form’ (2007: 289).

[9[ Kennedy (2002) provides an excellent summary of the many views of Lara Croft; Richard and Zaremba (2005) argue forcefully that hyper-sexualization weakens the strength of female game characters.

[10] A comic strip was inserted here, with a caption ‘How playing Tekken 5 makes me feel about my body’. By Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, the three-panel strip first shows a boy saying ‘I think videogames have given me a poor body image’, while feeling his stomach. His friend points at the offending stomach saying ‘I think your disgusting body has given you a poor body image’. In the next panel the friend picks up the boy’s floppy arm, saying ‘Just look at this vile husk. Flabby in some places, lumpy in others, moist elsewhere…’ The boy interrupts, saying ‘It’s not that bad’, but the friend retorts ‘It’s ghoulish. You are a ghoul.’ The final panel shows the boy crying and eating cookie dough, alone in the dark. I include this description to show the similarity between its phrasing and the phrasing of my student’s comments. Despite the humor of both the comic strip and my student’s worksheet comments, he clearly related strongly to the feelings described in the comic.

[11] Bracketed definition in the original.

[12] On the male dominance in game production and design see Cassell and Jenkins (1998: 10-14).

[13] This is probably due to the nature of the binary combat genre, where players expect to find interesting and entertaining stereotyped figures from around the world. This factor of expectation and genre convention should be considered carefully when analyzing player response to racial stereotypes in videogames. On Asian stereotypes in the Soul Calibur series see Hutchinson (2016).

[14] The need to take account of the gendering of play space is emphasized by Bryce and Rutter (2005).

[15] On doubled performance see Hutchinson (2007: 295-6), also Nitsche with Thomas (2003).

[16] As Ruggill and McAllister point out, the subjectivity of the player is being engineered right from the time they read a review of the game or read its back cover, agreeing that ‘Yes, this sounds like me’ and going on to purchase and play the game (2011: 40-45).

[17] On multiple identification processes in the one-to-one player-character configuration see for example Schleiner (2001) and Turkle (1995). On the character select screen and identification processes see Hutchinson (2007).

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