Box art is an important part of marketing a video game. It’s meant to communicate the contents of the game to anyone who may happen to pass by it on a store shelf. Looking at the top games from 2018, the box art is abundantly masculine. For a long time, the popular theory has been that video games are a masculine hobby, and so companies should market to men. However, in 2017 Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz introduced her study of race and gender in game advertising by saying “women and racial/ethnic minorities account for a growing percentage of video game players in the USA. The economic future of the video game industry may, in part, depend on the industry’s ability to adapt marketing efforts to appeal to the growing female and racial/ethnic markets” (Behm-Morawitz, 2017). This study, released a year before the games we examine in our essay, predicts that reflecting a more diverse array of gender and racial identities will benefit game marketing. Behm-Morowitz goes on to state that “According to industry statistics, 45% of game players are now female,” however she later argues that “content analyses indicate that women and girls appear infrequently in popular video games as well as game advertisements and are often sexualized in appearance” (Behm-Morowitz, 2017). Xeniya Kondrat takes this a step further by saying “Video games are one of the largest media outlets today. They appear to have a strong influence on the players and their perception of the world. According to various research, it seems like some of video games provide wrong and negative ideas about how the female gender should look, feel and be treated” (Kondrat, 2015). Looking at a very specific aspect of video game production and marketing, namely box art, we see how the industry continues to ignore 45% of its audience.
God of War was Game of The Year in 2018. It focuses on Kratos, the god of war, who has historically been representative of very hegemonic ideals of masculinity. He is very strong, and obviously very violent. On the box art, he is sailing with his son, Atreus. Kratos stands tall on the boat and looks ahead, projecting power and dominance, while his son stands beside him and looks off. His son is more hunched and looks weaker. Additionally, Kratos holds a giant axe as long as his arm, while his son holds a more delicate bow. The box art portrays only men, although they are of different ages. It positions Kratos as powerful, but Atreus’ presence suggests a game that may defy traditional hegemonic masculinity as Kratos journeys with his child. Kratos’ portrayal as a caregiver throws a wrench in what audiences have come to expect from God of War games.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was released as a prequel to the first Red Dead Redemption game. It was able to feed off of a current market of players who loved the first game, but still had to appeal to new players. On the cover, we see the game’s protagonist, Arthur Morgan. He is dressed like a generic cowboy, complete with pistol and bandolier. He showcases ideas of idealized masculinity in the Western genre with his grisled features and powerful stare. Below him, we see his gang (which is made up of men) and the stars from the American flag. This box appeals very directly to people’s ideas of masculinity and power, promising players a real wild west experience.
The box art for Insomniac Games’ Spider-Man is relatively simple and it delivers on its premise. Spider-Man is front and center, swinging somewhere out of frame. He is depicted as very lean, but strong, with a lot of detail in his leg muscles. One of the interesting things about Spider-Man is that he has no defining racial features, so he is able to represent men of any background. However, he is still representative of idealized masculinity in his body type.
The box art for Detroit: Become Human majorly misleads consumers on the overall structure of the game’s plot by depicting a single ‘mandroid’ on the cover. By showing this solo closeup, similar to the other games on this list, the image alludes to the idea that he is both the main and only player character, despite the fact that players will assume the role of three separate characters, one of whom is a woman. This important game play mechanic is overlooked because whoever is the focus of the box art is seen as the main character no matter the subject of the game. While this allows the designers to give a feel for the character before the game even starts, in this case, following that trope hides an important game play mechanic as well as the major female character.
Unlike the preceding games on this list, in which the player is forced to play as a man, Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey lets players choose whether to play as the male protagonist, Alexios, or the female protagonist, Kassandra for the entirety of the game. Reflecting this player choice, the game comes with reversible box art. Alexios is on one side, and Kassandra is on the other. They are drawn in the exact same position, wearing almost the exact same armor. This defies traditional representation of women in games as sexualized or less powerful. However, the default box art will be of Alexios. Players must buy the game and flip the cover over themselves if they want Kassandra to be on the front. This reflects the idea that Alexios is the ‘canon’ protagonist of the game, and Kassandra is the secondary choice.
Where Assassins Creed includes a female option for its cover given it’s game mechanic to choose the gender of the player character, Tomb Raider is one of the few mainstream series that has a consistent female lead. However, where most women on box art, if depicted at all, are used to draw players with sexual or romantic appeal, here Lara Croft is depicted similarly to the style of males on action adventure types of games. For example, God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2 both have their lead holding a weapon, looking ready for action. Lara Croft is also seen with a weapon in a position that portrays the action of preparing to strike at an enemy below. These parallels show that while having a female lead on a top game is atypical, they counter this by having her style closely match the types of games that are seen as most successful.
As a counterpoint to Tomb Raider, here we have one of the most well known video game franchises of the 21st century – Super Mario. While the main character, Mario, is front and center, the leading woman, Peach, is not as prominent. On a positive note, we know that Peach is not the main character, but having her depicted at least gives a level of visibility most women in games do not have. This can be seen in juxtaposition to Detroit: Become Human, as was discussed above. On the other hand, her position behind Mario, with a somewhat vapid look that she directs at him, characterizes her as second rate. This creates an imbalance between the presentations of gender and falls into the dangerous stereotypes of hegemonic masculinity and idolized femininity,as is seen with most depictions of women on box art.
Following Super Mario, we have the mashup game Super Smash Brothers which has a similar representation of its female characters. Of the various characters on the front, only two are depicted as obviously female – the inkling girl and Peach – and the other two are more of a ‘need to know the franchise’ context – Samus and Nana (the pink Ice Climber). However, not only is there a low percentage of female characters, but they are smaller and or in the back of the image, barely as prominent as the males. Moving on, there are more non-human characters with non-obvious genders on the box art than there are women. Between the four pokemon, Kirby, and Yoshi, who are all typically described as male or known to be male, they still have a higher representation percentage than the woman. Sadly this accurately represents the game itself. Of the 78 playable characters in Smash Brother’s Ultimate only 16 are female, making up a total of 20.513%.
To lay out some final numbers: only 20.513% of Smash Brothers’ playable characters are female, of the games that we just showed, only 37.5% have women on their covers (or 43.75% if you count half of Assassin’s Creed box’s as having women), and 45% of people who play video games are women. So the takeaway here is that the visibility of women on box art almost accurately reflects the number of women playing games, but if you take into account the visual styles that follow idolized femininity and hegemonic masculinity, as well as the body language and connotations behind specific layouts, and the overall importance of the women to the game, the representation of women in the video game industry is severely lacking and the box art of some of 2018’s top games helps illustrate this point.
Behm-Morawitz, E. (2017). Examining the intersection of race and gender in video game advertising. Journal of Marketing Communications, 23(3), 220–239. Retrieved from https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1080/13527266.2014.914562
Kondrat, X. (2015). Gender and video games: How is female gender generally represented in various genres of video games?. Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology. Retrieved from https://doaj.org/article/e2225400008f4b1dae70b35416b9ba8a