I’ve avoided writing a post on my thoughts on the portrayal of women in video games for a number of reasons. For one, I think it should be rather obvious; in general, it sucks. Improving, but still sucks. I also think most of what I could say has already been said. And finally, I don’t particularly feel like dealing with stupid, sexist comments because I had the audacity to threaten the gaming industry’s Boys Club mentality. But with all the attention this topic has been getting lately, I figured it was about time I weighed in on the matter.
First, let’s set some ground rules!
No leaving stupid, pointless comments. What qualifies as a pointless comment? Here are some examples:
- “Well the majority of gamers are male so…” Actually the divide is pretty even.
- “But most female gamers only play casual games…” Dismissing the casual market is a huge mistake. I’m sure Popcap has made millions. And what’s not to say someone who starts playing casual games won’t transition into other genres? Most gamers from my generation started on the Atari, & those were essentially casual games. I also know just as many guys as girls who play Facebook games.
- “Stop trying to ruin our fun!” I’m sorry that my desire to not be viewed as a walking pair of breasts is cutting in on your fun time. But let’s face facts, if the only enjoyment you were getting out of a game was watching a pair of breasts bounce across the screen, then you’re probably playing it for the wrong reasons.
- “Feminazi!” Yes, I will force you to treat me as a human being & not an object for your gratification. But I can’t get anyone on board with my plan to keep all the men in the world locked in cages until we need them for manual labor or reproduction.
- “The developers are just mirroring society…” True, but just because society can be sexist doesn’t mean you have to include it in your game.
- “Male characters can have the same problems…” True, most game characters are based on archetypes (the brooding loner, the noble hero), but male characters aren’t typically presented in a way meant solely to titillate.
- “I hope you get (insert random act of violence)!” I’m too old to be afraid of some random jerk barking threats at me across cyberspace.
Please check your comment before sending it & if it resembles one of these, please refrain from sending it. If I still get comments like these I’ll just write them off as being tools, trolls or idiots.
Alright then. Now that that’s clear, let’s get to the discussion proper.
I want to start by saying that I think it’s a good thing these issues keep getting discussed. It shows that video games are growing as a medium. Things that were taken for granted are now being called into question. I think if we continue to discuss how people are portrayed in games (not just women but men, minorities, homosexuals, etc.) it will only improve gaming as a whole if we can learn from it.
That being said, I don’t see every image of a female game character who shows some skin, is unnaturally buxom, or acts in a sexual manner as being sexist. As I mentioned in my post on Tomb Raider, to say that a woman can’t be attractive, well-endowed & capable is a sexist comment in itself. Also, I don’t think most developers intentionally set out to make sexist characters. I understand that when you’re designing a character you’re going to make something you like. And for most male developers designing female characters, that’ll probably mean being young & attractive. If I were a designer making a male character, I’d probably make something that I like.
I think at this point it’s important to distinguish between “design” & “portrayal.” Design is about the character’s appearance. Portrayal is the way a character is presented. It encompasses the character’s personality, their role in the game & how the character is advertised or presented to the market. It seems to me that where most people get in trouble is with the portrayal aspect, particularly when it comes to advertising. Going back to Lara Croft, despite being both designed & presented in the game as this sort of kick ass, independent heroine, her advertisements all focused on her breasts, making lame comments about “big guns” & whatnot that even as a child I understood. Check out this lovely magazine cover:
To quote Ben Croshaw, talk about sidestepping a pothole only to fall off a bridge.
But there are other missteps in portrayal. A big one is when the woman has no personality & seems to exist solely to be ogled at — either by the player or characters in the game. This includes when the woman is just a prize or end goal for the hero. The classic Damsel in Distress who has no purpose other than as motivation for the hero’s journey & probably only appears in the game in the beginning long enough to be kidnapped (or killed in some cases) & at the end for a happy reunion. If the developers are feeling generous, you may hear her cries for help at various times in the game. Or they could make a mistake in the opposite direction & make the woman all about sex. This can be just as bad. A character that flirts & teases but has no substance gets old quickly. As a general rule, if you’d like the pick up the character for a one-night stand but wouldn’t consider something more serious with her, she’s probably falls into this category. A character can be sexy & even sexual, but there needs to be a bit more to them.
There’s no easy way to decide if a character is “sexist” or designed purely to pander to the male gaze, but I have two criteria that I find useful to use. The first is “is there variety in the designs?”. The second is “does the design choice make sense?”.
If a game has multiple female characters, or the developers have made several games with prominent female characters, & there is variety to the design, then I mark a No is the sexist column. What I mean by this is do the women have unique designs. Are there some obscenely shapely but others who are more subdued? Do some dress like dominatrix but other are fully covered? When the answer is yes, then I can at least assume not all of the characters were someone’s wet dream. A game that fails this test would be the Dead or Alive series, where the women go from being large put possibly natural to breasts so large they could be flotation devices. Aside from some superficial differences like hair, they all look the same. But two games that I think demonstrate this are Skullgirls & Dragon Crown. Now I know this may sound odd if you know a bit about these games. Both have women in impractical clothing, & you’ve probably read posts decrying them as sexist. But take a look at their rosters as a whole.
Skullgirls has several attractive women with large chests & wearing impractically short skirts, but you’ve also got a little girl, a twelve-year-old who looks more like a monster than a girl, & a catgirl who is surprisingly realistically-proportioned. Dragon Crown’s Sorceress got a lot of attention, but you’ve also got a fully clothed Elf & the Amazon, who despite being half-dressed looks more like a bodybuilder (& scares me, to tell the truth). When I see variety like this, I think that the developers actually took the time to craft each character individually.
The second criteria is a little harder to pass, because in reality sexy clothing is only good for being sexy. It’s not practical. So instead I look at things from a perspective of whether it makes sense for the character. Going back to Dragon Crown, despite the Sorceress’ outfit being completely ridiculous (seriously, with that flimsy support the woman’s breasts would be down to her knees) I can sort of see the point. A magic caster isn’t going to be jumping around kicking stuff, so you could get away with wearing dresses & whatnot. Likewise, I would expect someone like the Amazon, who swings a giant axe around, to be really buff. Some of the Skullgirl girls don’t fare so well, as fighting in a skirt isn’t practical. But I guess it does allow for greater range of motion, & if you’re fighting other women you might not be that concerned about them seeing your underwear.
I want to pull in another game to look at how a game set in the “real world” fares. Warface is an online shooter that is actually what inspired me to write this post. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an online, military shooter developed by Crytek that has servers in several different countries. Recently Crytek released skins for female soldiers in Russia, & they’ve received some flack about it.
Personally, I kind of like the skins I’ve seen. They make each class look unique. But there are two problems. The first is that more attention has been given to making the skins attractive when you compare then to the male skins, which only have a few differences between the classes. The second problem is that no soldier, even in a PMC, would let themselves be that exposed. I’m pretty sure female soldiers wear the same uniform & armor as the male soldiers. The sniper in particular irks me because it looks like she forgot to zip up her uniform, conveniently leaving her heart exposed. It’s also impractical because, if she’s laying down in a prone position to line up her sights, she’d literally be falling out of her uniform. On a personal note, I wouldn’t like the thought that some dude was ogling my chest for a few minutes before he decided to shoot me. So while being cool designs, they don’t make sense.
I think that covers the basics of my own view of the portrayal of women in games. In a few days I’ll post my thoughts on how developers can improve further. Because I don’t like feeling embarrassed about playing a genuinely good game just because all the women in it look like they came from a strip club, & I hope you guys don’t like having to hide games from your girlfriend/mom/grandma.