Super Smash Bros. Playable Character Gender Analysis
Welcome to my computational media project Super Smash Bros: Playable Character Gender Analysis. Here I will be exploring if Nintendo has become more inclusive to non-male characters in the Super Smash Bros series over time.
A Little Background
The Super Smash Bros (SSB) video game series was created by Masahiro Sakurai and published by Nintendo. While SSB is known to have many playable characters, none of these characters are unique to only SSB games. SSB is actually a conglomerate of major characters from many other popular games. The object of SSB is to fight characters (either played by other people or controlled by the computer) to complete challenges and work through stories. SSB has five games in the series and is playable on seven different consoles. Today, tens of millions of copies of SSB have been sold worldwide and there is a large competitive community dedicated to the game.
A game of such a massive, enthusiastic fandom should be a game built to feel welcoming to everyone. However, it is clear that there is a bias toward male characters in SSB, as they come in far greater numbers than female characters. Male-dominated video games are nothing new, especially for Nintendo. Jesse Divnich, the vice president of insights and analysis for Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, said “The Nintendo Entertainment System was targeted toward boys under 10. If you look at the Super NES five years later, it starts targeting boys ages 10-15.” The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was one of Nintendo’s first gaming systems. The Super NES was released in 1990 alongside a console literally named the Gameboy, as if the Nintendo target audience was not clear enough. At the time, Nintendo ran TV ads targeted at young boys by featuring young boys playing games with masculine characters.
In her article, “Writing 'Gamers': The Gendered Construction of Gamer Identity in Nintendo Power” Amanda Cote offers an explanation for how Nintendo might have contributed to how “gamers” became decidedly male-only. “A detailed content analysis of Nintendo Power issues published from 1994-1999 shows that mainstream companies largely ignored the girls’ games movement, instead targeting male audiences through player representations, sexualized female characters, magazine covers featuring men, and predominantly male authors,” she wrote (Cote, p. 479). This lack of representation in the press ultimately affected a girl’s ability to identify as a gamer, as this was never seen within the gaming community.
Whether or not someone identifies as a gamer shouldn’t matter, but studies have shown that it does. In his article “Self-identification as a “gamer” among college students,” Jeffrey Stone writes that his results “indicate that males were significantly more likely to identify as a gamer than females, thus aligning with prior research findings” (Stone, p. 2616). Further, Stone found that people who identify as a gamer spend significantly more time playing video games than people who do not. Identifying as a gamer is self-perpetuating in that it helps people be more involved in the community, play more games, and improve their gameplay.
Fortunately, things have changed in the gaming universe since 1990. In 2016, Nintendo released their newest console — the Nintendo Switch. Advertisements for the Switch feature boys and girls of various ages and races playing a variety of games, making for a much broader target audience than early Nintendo ads. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, released for the Switch in 2018 as the latest edition of the SSB series, also has advertisements showing a great level of diversity in players. It is safe to say Nintendo is no longer only targeting young boys in their advertisements, but what can be said for the content of the games?
Why does any of this matter?
I’ll save you the sugar-coating and cut to the chase — sexual harassment is rampant video game culture. It’s not just bad, it’s horribly, uncontrollably bad. It’s female-gamers-are-quitting-their-careers-because-they-fear-for-their-safety bad.
At a Street Fighter live-streamed gaming competition, Miranda Pakozdi (one of only two female competitors) was increasingly heckled and harassed during gameplay by competitive fighting gamer Aris Bakhtanians. Aris asked her why she wasn’t wearing a skirt, offering to buy her one so he could see her in it, and urged her to take her shirt off. She was called a distraction for having “girl parts.” Aris leaned up against her, smelling her and commenting on her scent. He asked her to say her bra size, and then demanded that she learned how to play the game just as well while being continuously harassed. She ended up throwing her match and tweeting that she’d have left immediately if she were not contractually obligated to stay. Later, Aris was asked in an interview, “Can I get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment?” He responded with, “You can’t. You can’t because they are one and the same thing. This is a community that’s, you know, 15 or 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture.”
Unfortunately, Miranda’s experience isn’t unique or anywhere near as bad as the sexual harassment gets. Her story and dozens of others are covered in the 2015 gender in gaming documentary GTFO: Get The Fuck Out. Todd Harper, author of “The Culture of Digital Fighting Games,” explains that the root of the harassment problem is that, for decades, video games were a boys-only space. Men are making the games, testing the games, playing the games and selling the games. “It’s a self-perpetuating cycle,” he says. “Who’s buying games? Straight white men in their 20’s. So we’re going to make a game targeted toward straight white men in their 20’s. Amazingly, that means more straight white men in their 20’s are going to buy your game.”
To stop the harassment, the cycle needs to be broken. Today, 50% of people who play games are female, yet only 21% of game developers are women. Targeting girls and women in advertising isn’t going to be enough. In her book “Gaming Representation: Race Gender and Sexuality in Video Games,” Jennifer Malkowski explains that there is no one fix to females being “aggressively disrespected” in multiplayer gaming, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope. “Obviously, creating games that feature femmes fatales will not dismantle this formidable web of gender trouble in the video game industry,” Malkowski wrote, referring to the women with “smarts, sex appeal, ambition,” and other admirable traits who are so often and easily portrayed in contemporary cinema. “But many who are working to alleviate these problems do advocate for increasing the number of nuanced, powerful, and playable female characters in games as one core strategy” (Malkowski, p. 20). One of the points she continues to touch on is the problem of sexualizing the few females characters that are in video games. It seems women and sex are always paired in video game contexts. In his article “Keeping Abreast Hypersexuality: A Video Game Character Content Analysis,” Edward Downs conducted a character gender analysis somewhat similar (but far more extensive and complex) to mine. He found that “In comparison to male characters, females were significantly more likely to be shown partially nude, featured with an unrealistic body image, and depicted wearing sexually revealing clothing and inappropriate attire” (Downs, p. 721). For the scope of this project, I cannot cover this topic entirely, but nonetheless found it important to note that the appearance of the female characters was contributing to the problem.
In “Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies,” Noah Wardrip-Fruin explains why games may not be taken as merely games. Games simulate reality, and that can perpetuate problems intentionally or unintentionally as he says that “all simulations are political” (Wardrip-Fruin, p. 303). Super Smash Bros. is simulating a rough-and-tough competition, and by creating a space void of female characters, the game perpetuates the idea that women are not tough, competitive, or capable of fighting their own battles.
What better game to display a powerful nuanced playable non-sexualized female character than the most popular fighting game of all time, Super Smash Bros?
A Few Notes and Terminology
Before I get started on my timeline and analysis, there are two things I would like you to know. The first is that the gender of characters is not always clear. I will go over how I determined the genders of the characters shortly, but it is important to realize that these characters are fictional and not always intended to take on qualities such as gender, race or sexuality. The second is that I love Nintendo and I love the Super Smash Bros series. It is with the utmost respect and adoration that I choose this game for my analysis. Now onto the gender categories I am using for this project.
In an effort to make my analysis as simple yet accurate as possible, I have broken it down to four categories:
Male: For characters that have been identified by their franchise as male.
Female: For characters that have been identified by their franchise as female.
Both: For characters that could be male or female depending on the choice of the player.
Ambiguous: For genderless characters, or characters who have genders but the gender is not specified. For example, Pokemon are often gendered in the Pokemon series, but whether the player is using a female or a male Pikachu (for example), is not specified in SSB. Ambiguous was also assigned to teams of characters where there was a mix of male and female characters or characters with unclear genders. For example, there is one female and one male Ice Climber. The Ice Climbers were marked as ambiguous because these characters are used together, as a “one character” unit. Further, the "lead" Ice Climber is male and the "sidekick" is female, altogether making the gender of this single character unclear.
I would like to quickly review some other terminology before I continue.
Playable character: These are characters that the player can control during regular gameplay. This is opposed to NPCs, or non-playable characters who cannot be controlled by the player.
DLC: Stands for DownLoadable Content. This is extra content that was not included in the purchase of the original game. In the SSB series, players have to pay for DLC, but it is not a reoccurring subscription. Characters are added to the SSB games through DLC. The DLC characters available as of October 13, 2019 ARE counted in my gender analysis.
That’s enough preamble. On to the good stuff.
Timeline of Super Smash Bros. Games and TV Commercials
Now let's check out the results.
I created a Google Sheets document to make the following data more transparent. The sheet shows how I marked each character within each of the four gender categories and which games in the SSB series each character appears in. This document can be viewed by clicking here.
The first interactive chart I created shows the number of characters by gender in each SSB game. The names of the games have been abbreviated in the chart image, but “SSB” stands for the original Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64.
With only the chart displayed above, it is difficult to determine whether or not Nintendo successfully diversified the genders of their playable characters over time. Because of this, I made a second interactive chart to show the percentage of each gender category.
Nintendo has steadily improved the gender ratio of the SSB playable characters, and this chart may not give justice to how dramatic of an improvement has been made.
The original SSB game was 75% male, and the most recent SSB game is roughly 58% male. That’s a 22.6% decrease, which is impressive considering Nintendo mainly has male-dominated franchises to pick from. Nintendo can’t necessarily solve the problem by removing male characters– only by adding female character options and diluting the pool. I also support Nintendo’s decision to add more “both” characters to the game. Instead of adding only females, Nintendo is giving everyone more options to find characters they identify with by having multiple genders (even non-binary options) available as alternative forms of the same character.
When I originally completed this project, I stopped at this point and determined that Nintendo was making an honest effort to include more non-male characters in Super Smash Bros. However, I decided that this painted an incomplete picture of the progress made on this subject.
There's More Than What Meets The Eye
Although there are technically more non-male playable characters included in SSB, I couldn't help but feel that the character roster still looked overwhelmingly masculine. This prompted the next step in this project: determining if Nintendo had successfully included more playable characters that appeared non-male.
Admittedly, I used a less scientific process than when I was figuring out how many characters were definitively male, female, or neither. Whether or not a character looks like a male is largely an opinion and often relies on stereotypes. However it is through the lens of these stereotypes and preconceived notions that people make determinations about others such as their age, gender, socioeconomic status, and so on. I won't spend 10,000 words proving this point -- those who wish to read more on this subject I will happily refer to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink.
I judged whether or not a character looked like a male, female or ambiguous based on a few visual features:
Color: Characters who were or had clothes in more pastel colors, pinks and purples were considered more likely to be female. Blues, reds and greens were considered to be more masculine colors, and some colors such as yellow, white and black were considered neutral.
Clothing: Characters wearing dresses, skirts, lace or frills were considered to look female. Characters who wore pants but no shirt, or heavily-clad armor were considered to look male. Most other clothing was considered neutral.
Bodily features: Without getting too explicit, characters were considered female if they appeared to have female body parts, facial features typically associated with female faces, or long hair. Characters were considered male if they appeared to have a body structure associated with males (such as extremely bulky muscles or a V-shaped figure), facial features typically associated with male faces, or short hair.
Name: Every character in SSB has a name listed under their picture. Names known to be assigned to males in Western culture were considered to be male, and vise versa for females.
I marked each character as appearing male, female, or ambiguous on the same spreadsheet mentioned previously. I did my best to mark as few characters as possible as ambiguous based on my criteria. This was an imperfect process and there were some characters I struggled to label. However I made my decisions in the most unbiased and scientific way I could by following the above criteria. The following interactive charts display the results of my efforts.
The first chart displays the raw numbers of playable characters as the gender they appear to be in each series.
Again, it is difficult to tell from this graph if there was an improvement in Nintendo adding female-appearing characters over time. I created a second graph to show the same data by percentage to make the results more clear.
While there are more characters that are identified by their franchise as female, the Super Smash Bros. playable character roster is still an incredibly masculine-looking space. There has been only a very small improvement over time, with the original SSB appearing 75% male and the most recent edition of the game appearing 71.6% male. Whether or not this difference is significant enough to be noticeable to players is debatable.
With such a noticeable difference in Nintendo advertising over time, I was hoping to see a more significant change in the characters. I will note that pairing all four graphs together does suggest that Nintendo is being more inclusive to non-male characters by making somewhat masculine or androgynous female characters. For the scope of this project, I will not discuss whether or not this is a bad thing for the female gaming community. However I will end on this question -- is making a more gender-inclusive video game environment a struggle to invite women into gaming more actively, or a struggle to make men accept that women are already there?
Sun-Higginson, Shannon, director. GTFO: Get The Fuck Out. 2015.
Wardrip-Fruin, Noah. “Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies.” Literary and Linguistic Computing, vol. 26, no. 4, 2011, pp. 299-352., doi:10.1093/llc/fqr035.
Malkowski, Jennifer, and TreaAndrea M. Russworm. Gaming Representation Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Video Games. Indiana University Press, 2017.
Stone, Jeffrey A. “Self-Identification as a ‘Gamer’ among College Students: Influencing Factors and Perceived Characteristics.” New Media & Society, vol. 21, no. 11-12, 2019, pp. 2607–2627., doi:10.1177/1461444819854733.
Downs, Edward, and Stacy L. Smith. “Keeping Abreast of Hypersexuality: A Video Game Character Content Analysis.” Sex Roles, vol. 62, no. 11-12, 2009, pp. 721–733., doi:10.1007/s11199-009-9637-1.
Cote, Amanda C. “Writing ‘Gamers.’” Games and Culture, vol. 13, no. 5, 2015, pp. 479–503., doi:10.1177/1555412015624742.