Sunday, June 12, 2011

Thoughts on Women In Video Games

Surveys have shown that up to 40% of women in American play video games and 25% of the online gaming community is female. So why are women in video games still dressed like strippers, even when we’re the hero? I tweeted the short version of this question and got several fascinating responses. They went something like this:

You Feminists are too sensitive! Heaven forbid a female should be comfortable with her sexuality.

Of course I’ve heard things like this before. I’ve heard a lot of arguments defending the hyper-sexualized female video game characters. After all I worked at a video game store for 4 or 5 years and it was my favorite talking point. Sexism was just part of my day at this job. Not only was it hung up on the walls, but it was fairly common for a customer to ask for a male employee because he had a hard question. Often he was sent right back to me because I knew the answer.

In addition, we were regularly trained on how to sell to female customers (Quick! Take her to the WII section or she will be frightened!) and featured several Games For Girls sections. Usually these contained cooking games or games about ponies. I like ponies. I do. I also like Call of Duty.

But that is neither here nor there. The fact is that women are marginalized in all aspects of the video game industry, and I don’t get why. So let me take a moment to address some of the arguments I’ve heard. If I am missing some please let me know and I will amend the list.

1) That’s not true / I don’t know what you’re talking about

A few people have told me that, while there are some egregious examples, an actual pattern of hyper-sexualized-objectified female characters doesn’t exist.

To disprove this, let’s look at some random female characters from a random selection of games. To make it sporting I will only use images released for games coming out in 2012. I am certain, however, that you all know where this is going.

Batman Arkham City

Infamous 2

Pandora’s Tower

The Secret World


Soul Caliber V

Dragon’s Crown (WHAT I DON’T EVEN)

I could not find any titles with a fully clothed female protagonist…or antagonist.

For History’s sake, let’s not forget our old friends Lara, Bayonetta, Nariko, Ivy Valentine, Mass Effect’s Jack and Miranda, Everything in Dead or Alive, Every female in Tekken…and Street FighterI’m sorry I can’t do this list…. It will take forever. I am sure this surprises no one. It’s a well-known pattern.

2) It doesn’t cause any harm

This argument assumes that alienating and objectifying an entire group of people is fine so long as it does not cause any harm. In the same way calling your mom a slut is not harmful because there is no measurable damage. Like racial slurs don’t do anything.

This is actually a false arguement. Even if it does not do actual physical harm it is an example of lazy writing/craft/artistry that brings the entire industry down. It’s cheap and needs to be called out simply because it’s tacky. Well done! You made Female Character A. She wears a bikini and talks tough and flirts with the main character. Or Female Character B who is shy and has to be saved from a tower-dragon-dungeon. We are all terribly impressed. Also bored.

The problem is not that I feel that I have to be a sex object because Lara is…though I’m sick of being asked to cosplay as her…. The problem is that, in video games, these sexy, big-busted women are what women ARE. Women are like chairs or guard dogs or Natzis. We are stock, nearly naked and in charge of our bodies only by revealing them.

The problem is not that women do not like the characters the gaming industry has created, but that they are not characters. Not real, round, unique, and complex characters like their male counterparts. Even if it doesn’t alienate and frustrate women and men alike, it’s sloppy.

Not to mention the fact that a problem doesn’t need to be fixed only if it is actively making someone bleed.

3) Majority Rules

This argument generally states that female gamers are a minority and the needs and wants of the majority should overrule that of the minority. After all, this is America.

There’s actually a bunch of things wrong with this argument.

While it is true that the majority rules in matters of voting another tenant of America is that the minority still have rights and privileges. They also get to speak out about perceived injustice and don’t have to shut up because someone points out there aren’t that many of them. That’s why the civil rights movement worked, and women’s suffrage. That’s why America is awesome. Also, while it makes sense, economically, to sell to the largest group, it is also ill-advised to alienate a portion of your audience – especially a growing portion.

What is implied by this argument is that all men want in games is sex appeal. This seems enormously unfair to all men everywhere. While I assume they exist, I’ve never met a man who purchased games for the boobies, not even the ass-holes who wanted to speak to my manager because I had one too man X chromosomes. Actually they usually wanted fighters.

It’s also wrong. If it were true Dead or Alive would be on top of the list of best selling 360 games instead of Call of Duty, Halo, Gears of War, Fable, etc. Why are these at the top? Because they are #$#!$ing solid, clean, well made games that know their genre. Their lack of breasts and thighs don’t seem to deter the apparently sexually insatiable gamers.

At the end of the day, game play is what is most important for everyone. For instance, even though it’s one of my examples, I am going to play Arkham City because the first one was a fluid, beautiful, action filled, joy-ride of extreme extremeness. Also Batman. Still, I will hurt a little inside every time Harley or Catwoman are on screen. Really? We had to make Harley sexier? She wore full-body spandex!

4) Men are objectified too

This argument is generally used to point out the trend of traditionally masculine, muscle-bound hero, which sets an unrealistic standard for men.

… like Mario.

Or Link, Ico, Megaman, Cloud Strife, Markus Fenix, Nathan Drake, Gordon Freeman

While the stereotypical male ideals of strength are important to some of these characters, few are concerned with sexual potency or women in general, (as opposed to females who are often defined by their sexuality). They are generally driven by such unbelievable concepts as doing the right thing. Their strength comes from their morality, intelligence, ingenuity, courage, etc etc. Even Master Chief’s strength came from discipline, training, and an awesome power suit. We never even got to see his actual physique.

In other words, they are actual, 3-dimensional characters. In this case it’s sort of a mixed message. If I may look backwards a moment to the “majority rules” argument, I suppose we are to believe that real life guys only want to see boobies and that game designers should appease them, while their in-game heroes are actually interested in complex problems in their world. Also truth and justice and stuff.

The fact is that it’s safe to bet that a girl in a video game fits one mold, while that is not true of male characters.

There’s also the fact that, by and large, men get to be clothed. Usually they are dressed in a way that makes some sort of sense for their job/adventure/role. Women, on the other hand, are generally in something revealing and un-safe, with all sorts of slits and openings to invite critical hits. I cannot conceive of a positive reason for this.

5) These women are actually in charge of their sexuality

While it is awesome to allow a character to draw strength from their sexuality, the derth of sexualized female characters suggests a belief that women can only draw strength from their sexuality.

Master Chief didn’t draw his strength from sexuality. He drew it from intelligence, strength, character and training. These made him a complex character. He didn’t also need to be sexy. Most female heroes are inherently sexy and then have other characteristics tacked on. Oh also she has a smart mouth. And likes shotguns…or whatever.

This seems to imply that sexuality is an innate quality of a woman, like noses or ears. These characters are not in control of her sexuality because they must either deny it completely or use it as a weapon. There is no middleground, unlike male characters who can even have sex in game (I’m looking at you Grand Theft Auto) and yet not be sexualized. Their physicality is only an element of their experience rather than a defining characteristic.

What I want to make clear is that mentioning a woman and sex in the same instance is not sexist. In fact, a complex, strong female character could have sex RIGHT THERE IN THE GAME and it doesn’t become magically sexist, or even objectify her.

The problem occurs with bad writing and character design, when her sex, her body, and her relations to the gaze of the viewer define the character. If the only way you can think to make a female character strong is to make her sexy and proud of it, you are a bad writer. Also an idiot.

6) Other people did it first

A lot of media sucks as far as sexism goes. Music, movies, and comic books all objectify women.

Well, if Sucker Punch jumps off a bridge are you going to do it too? Seriously, comparing yourself to other failures in civil rights doesn’t help your case.

Not to mention the fact that there are other things in these media. Even comic books, which have a terrible history of portraying women in Barbie doll proportions. The thing is, there are other genres under these larger umbrellas. There are huge portions of movies, music, and comics that avoid sexism completely!

That is not really the case with video games. If I want to play a first person shooter I will probably be playing a guy, or a girl in a tube top. If I want to play a fighting game…well I’m just screwed. The point is, if I want to play video games, I just have to digest this version of women. I can’t go to another artist or director.

7) There are some good girls!

I do have girl heroes! But I actually had to think really hard to come up with them, unlike male heroes, which took me all of half a second. I spent a lot of time growing up pretending that Link or Ash were girls regardless of the male pronouns. I am thrilled whenever a new rpg allows me to make a female character! Here are a few of my favorites:

Yuna is surprisingly one of my heroes. Although she is shy and soft spoken she is totally calling the shots in that party. This actually makes her even more complex. Even the main male character is just following her around. She is set up to sacrifice her life for the planet and she faces it with poise and courage, if a few tears.

Portal Girl is awesome. She escapes the grips of a torturous robot through her own ingenuity. Of course this is one of those cases where you are playing behind a disembodied gun, but still. It’s a she, and she rocks.

Faith: Mirror’s Edge. She was tough and capable in very unique and interesting ways, including the ability to jump between roofs and fistfight machine gun-toting baddies. She also wore clothes!

However, the fact that these examples exist does not negate the overall pattern of sexism within the industry. I don’t think it’s absurd to ask for good writing or to be acknowledged as a member of the gender stuffed in chain mail bikinis with our hips akimbo. I am a girl gamer, dammit, and there are more where I come from!