December 23, 2016

Kaeleigh Evans Bares All On Representation of Sex Workers in Video Games at ReFIG Conference

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By Alisha Pillay

Sexism in video gaming is a growing topic of discussion, yet one that has little academic research to draw on. Fourth-year Communication student, Kaeleigh Evans, is changing this. She presented her findings ‘Pay to Play: Depictions of Sex Workers in Video Games’ at the Refiguring Innovation in Games (ReFig) Conference – contributing valuable research to the emergent field of feminist game studies.

Evans, along with friend Emma Tarver (UBC Psychology), examined eight video game titles featuring sex worker characters. Their findings revealed that women in games depicting sex worker characteristics were always featured in relation to violence. “Whether they are developed characters integral to the plot or just background decorations, sex workers are always coming under institutions of violence.”

Their research also found that most sex worker characters were found in low-class, industrial areas in the games, and were overwhelmingly female. Protagonist and playable characters were almost always male. They realized that “women didn’t have very much agency, and didn’t do things on their own volition.”

Feminism in gaming is breaking ground. “People get really outraged about the sex worker component in video games. Any time there is an element of sexuality, it automatically comes under more fire. We’re used to violence, but it’s the sexual aspect that really gets people,” Evans explains. ReFig agrees: “games are increasingly subject to serious critique for this lack of diversity in terms of story and characters, on which often leans on tropes of disempowered feminity and the creation of experiences that, essentially, satisfy misogynist power fantasies.”

This was Evans first presentation at a conference and her enthusiasm was palpable:

“This was a super experience. I presented alongside accomplished scholars, networked with my peers, and was able to meet Helen Kennedy – a writer known for her influential research on Lara Croft from Tomb Raider crafting one of the first papers to discuss feminism within video games.”

Evans advice for other undergraduate students: “don’t be afraid to work your interests in to your course work. My paper in one class inadvertently connected me with Dr. Milena Droumeva as her Research Assistant, and this completely changed my academic trajectory. I wouldn’t have applied to this conference if Milena hadn’t encouraged me.”

Evans is about to enter her final semester at SFU. She is considering a career in law.