The inevitable sexism rant.

I’ve been holding back this post for some time, because I didn’t want to start things off with a big feminist harangue. I guess the time has come.

Women Like to Play Games, Too

A lot of hay is made about the so-called difficulties of courting women gamers. And I think that’s mostly bullshit. It isn’t hard to get women interested in games, it’s just that the big game publishers are addicted to the kinds of games that appeal to their traditional market: men in their 20s and 30s.

They’ve been targeting that demographic since the first Playstation came out, and they really know how to do it. Making a serious effort to include more potential players is a risk they aren’t willing to take, even if it means sacrificing some potential theoretical profit.

I think that’s a mistake, because there isn’t any trick to getting women interested in so-called hardcore video gaming. Women want to play games as much as men do, but gaming has been so trenchantly sexist for so long that it’s hard for some people to imagine a world in which it isn’t. The Wii has proven that lots of people outside the traditional demographic are interested in playing games. But far more needs to be done.

Side note to game designers: Reaching out to women does not mean putting pink butterflies on the package.

I’m not even an expert on my own tastes, let alone anyone else’s. But I have some ideas, not that anybody is interested.

We Have Several Different Kinds of Sexy Bitch In Our Games

Women in games today are depicted as:

  • Almond-eyed Fucktoys with Attitude.
  • Ugly Bitches.
  • Sexy Bitches.
  • Brainless Sexy Bitches.
  • Brainless Ugly Bitches.

Regardless, they are all in the game to be had, either metaphorically or literally. Yes, yes, I know that there are exceptions and that you can go through your game library and glean a measly few semi-evenhanded treatments of women. But it’s hard to deny that this is an enormous trend.

When a designer decides to make a female protagonist sexier… they aren’t doing it for women. They aren’t doing it because women are interested in being Almond-Eyed Fucktoys with Attitude. They are doing it because men want them to be.

The Myth of the Powerful Lady

Occasionally gamers will trot this one out. They’ll offer up one of the various Almond-Eyed Fucktoys with Attitude as an example of a “Powerful Woman” who somehow breaks gender barriers with her sheer bitchy ass-kicking boobalishousness. But, ladies and gentleman, Lara Croft isn’t really breaking any gender barriers and we all know it. She’s there for the boys, and she represents a gender-role fantasy that has been carefully calculated to appeal to us.

Editorial Addition: In fact, this particular phenomenon is even worse for the potential female gamer. The message these so called “Powerful Women” send is: “No matter how bad ass you are, no matter many guns you have, no matter how strong, intelligent, or independent you are — you will still be measured by the size of your tits and ass. So you better bring the Double-D cup and the booty if you want to participate in our make-believe world.”

Men Are Sexy Too

“But, games usually depict the male protagonist as having an ideal physique.” So goes another common argument. And you know, I’m not so sure that’s true. I can toss out counterexamples all day (and it’s telling that most of the games with ugly protagonists still feature sexed-up ladies), but there’s more to it than that:

When you are a man, being leered at is never a threat.

When you are male, the situations where being slobbered over might represent a threat are statistically irrelevant. You’re a man! You’ve got the power, baby! The obvious corollary here is:

When you are a woman, being leered at is often a threat.

Look, fellow males. How many times have you walked into a darkened bar, caught the eyes of several people wandering over your chest and ass, and thought to yourself… “Maybe I should have a drink someplace more well-lit.” How many times have you thought that it might be a good idea to call up a friend to escort you to your car from a late night class?

When you are an adult male, the possibility of rape in the everyday world is basically nonexistent. When you are a woman, it’s a fact of life. Statistics vary widely, but most estimates put the number of women who have been victims of a sexual assault at around 15-20%. Some put it as high as 30%.

Chew on that statistic for a second, and think about how much gaming culture must look exactly like a creepy bar where the lights are just a little too dark. I think a lot of women take one look inside and choose to entertain themselves elsewhere.

I Like The Sexy Ladies, Really!

Let it not be said that I’m against sex in games. I’m not. I’m not even against pornography in games. I’m okay with a gaming world in which there are both seedy bars and places that are clean and well-lit.

But right now, the gaming world looks like one giant red-light district. And I’m tired of listening to people in the game industry act as if there is some mysterious trick to writing games that women will like — all while painting the nipple cups onto the latest Sexy Bitch With Attitude.

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11 Responses to “The inevitable sexism rant.”

  1. If you can rattle off examples all day of unattractive or normal-bodied male heroes, it is only because there are far more male heroes not because they aren’t an extreme minority in a gaming world primarily made up of fantasy, science fiction, sports, adventure, and military plots.

    I say that, mostly to have something to say to a good post. Even if normal-looking men dominated game play, we would still have the problem of the sexified-woman role.

  2. Men may be depicted as attractive or strong in games. But women are *hyper* sexualized. I think there’s a big difference.

    Also, point take that there are more men then women in the protoganist role of video games. But female characters aren’t an extreme minority in any genre, by a long shot. Loads and loads of current games feature women as either protagonists or prominent main characters. And they are almost always hyper-sexualized.

    They are present in all genres… any fighting game that you can pull off the shelf will have half a roster of hyper-sexualized female characters to bounce around on the screen for our pleasure. And there are plenty of first person shooters, over-the-shoulder action games, fantasy role playing games, etc. that feature women as main characters.

    My favorite example, though, because it’s the clearest, are the many games with cartoonish characters. Cartoonish male characters are likely to over-emphasize physical oddities – they can be portrayed as goofy, big-jawed, pudgy, wimpy, bowlegged, etc. Cartoonist female characters are far more likely to have over-emphasized sexual characteristics like – big breasts, swinging hips, stiletto heels, pouting lips, etc.

    Men are displayed as powerful (not necessarily sexy), because men want to see (or “be”) powerful male characters. Women are displayed as sexy, again because that’s what *men* want to see. What women want to see in main characters has little or nothing to do with it, because these games aren’t being written for them.

    And I’m not against that, per se. I think people should be able to make things as they want to see them… I just don’t like the way the industry gets to pretend that it’s just some kind of mysterious accident that women don’t like modern video games very much.

  3. It bears noting how much casual almost-rape goes on in games as well.

    I see these games over the MCP’s shoulder when I’m in the room doing homework, and there’s quite a good number of scenes (in-game or cut-scenes) in which some stripper or otherwise half-naked bimbo whines and cries while her bit-part abusive boyfriend drags her off stage left.

    You aren’t asked to approve, but you aren’t asked to save her either. It’s just a background issue that you’re expected to ignore while you go off in the other direction and shoot unrelated bad guys.

  4. What, really? Which games are these? The only game I can think of that features a scene along those lines is “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories,” which its abused-bimbo sub-plot – and it’s only a few missions into that storyline before you give her husband a revenge beatdown and killing. Not exactly high art, but at least it comes down on the anti-abuse side of the fence.

    I do think games are very sexist, but I am not familiar with any games that advocate (directly or in an implied manner) rape. I’m sure they exist on the fringe, but in the mainstream titles I’m coming up empty-handed. What say you, mcp?

    This also brings me to a tangential point, which is this: can we be OK with games that present murder for entertainment (namely, almost all of them) but find any similar depiction of rape or abuse creepy and morally wrong? Isn’t that a bit weird? I realize the thought process behind it – that sexism is an insidious societal ill we need to work to correct, and any leering, perverted pro-rape game or movie or book should be accordingly slapped down. But why are we (as young, pro-freedom of speech liberals) generally OK with ultra-violence and generally not OK with sexual violence? Along the same lines, why would almost all of us consider it worse for a game to have a markedly racist agenda than for it to allow us to throw pixelated old ladies down a well? I remember being shocked when I first saw someone play “Grand Theft Auto 3” but my next reaction was “I gotta buy this!” – not “holy crap, this is going to ruin society.” Which, I’m pretty sure, is what all of us would think if we saw a game where someone was raping black women and telling them they deserve it.

    So what is the distinction? Is it because sexism and racism victimize entire classes of people, and arbitrary violence only victimizes individuals, and does so with perceived equality? Inquiring minds want to know. I admit that these things make me more uncomfortable than almost any game or movie, no matter how violent. But I don’t know why I have this knee-jerk reaction against these things being used for entertainment in the same way that arterial sprays and beheadings are.

  5. I’ve said before that I think out-and-out depictions of literal rape are very rare to nonexistent. But implied sexual coercion and violence against women is common. It’s all those not-quite-spelled-out-but-still-there implications that make games seem like unwelcome territory to some women.

    Both old west games I’ve played recently (Red Dead Revolver and Gun) featured sexual coercion exactly as Shae described. In the oft-mentioned (terrible) Spiderman 3, there’s a whole gang of sexy goth girls that you get to beat the shit out of. They are dressed in lingerie, and they are clearly only present so that they player can enjoy the visceral thrill of beating the crap out of girls in their underwear.

    I guess that isn’t rape – but there’s such a sexual component to that violence, and the subtext is so clear, that it might as well be. There are situations like this in many, many games. No actual rape, but the power dynamic is so about who has the penis…. er… I mean sword… er… I mean shotgun.

    As for the rape vs. violence thing… violence can happen to anybody. Rape mostly just happens to women and children. It is a very targeted exploitation of physical weakness.

    Most people can admit that there are situations in which violence is the answer. Most people will agree that there are no situations in which rape is justified. So, even when games dish up violence for which the justification is tenuous to nonexistent, we are more willing to accept it.

    Same argument holds for racism, really.

  6. Personally I do think a lot of the games go way over the top with ultra violence and I find it distastful. I cannot watch Manhunt, for instance, for this very reason. It’s violence for the sake of violence, and gory, nasty, horrific violence at that.

    The problem I have with the sexism inherent in games is that I think on some level it is perpetuating an attitude toward women. In Vice City and the other GTA games there is a level of sexual violence that has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. I don’t have a problem, for instance with the fact there are prostitutes in the game. Heck, a girl’s got to make a living. What I find disturbing is that the main character can have sex with a prostitute, which is a way to increase his health, pay her and then beat her up and take his money back. I realize the main characters are mobsters, and a lot of their missions are violent, but come on. This is sexual violence for no other reason than sexual violence.

    Indiscriminate violence in games isn’t quite as distasteful to me. I think it’s because murder is not something I face every day in life. However, sexist attitudes are. I think if I didn’t encounter men on a near daily basis who talked down to me, oogled me, or referred to me as “honey” and “sweetie” while they were condescending to me, it wouldn’t be nearly as disturbing. The fact of the matter is that sexism is rampant in daily life and I think that is what makes the overt sexism in these games so ridiculous. Why perpetuate it?

    I’ll admit, I don’t play video games because they are not at all appealing to me. Even those “bad ass” heroines are annoying to me because they are so top heavy they should topple over every time they walk, not be able to swan dive off cliffs to escape lions.

  7. Note to beetqueen: “The Sims” is a video game.

    I have to comment on this GTA thing real quick. I don’t consider the infamous prostitute-beatdown thing to be sexual violence, or at least not deliberately so. The fact that the media has fixated on it is kind of weird and disturbing, but as an actual game mechanic it’s way overstated. The game lets you take a prostitute to any dark corner and have sex with her (via a jokey car-rocking animation – nothing’s happening inside it). And the game lets you beat up or kill the prostitute afterward, if you want – in the exact same way it lets you beat up or kill EVERY OTHER PERSON IN THE GAME. This is an important point. You’re not especially encouraged (or discouraged) from beating up the prostitute after you have sex with her – you’re just allowed to do it. And notably, you don’t even get “your” money back from her – you get a random amount of money, the same as every other pedestrian in the game drops when you whomp their innocent asses. You can have sex with a prostitute, then kill her and get no money back – because the two actions aren’t related in how the game is written.

    So, yeah. I think Rockstar has plausible deniability here. What is more bothersome to me is how every single person who ever talks about this game in the media (from the angle of introducing the game to people who have never played it) focuses on this one thing, which is not exactly true and is at best a sort of Easter egg in the game rather than a core function or objective. It doesn’t concern me too much that Rockstar lets you have sex with prostitutes and/or beat them down, but it concerns me rather more than the cult of GTA has put these two things together and decided it’s the single coolest/funniest/most noteworthy aspect of a game which was at one time actually quite revolutionary, and would have been with one-quarter as much violence and immature innuendo.

  8. I think it would be awesome/hilarious if the prostitutes in the next GTA were equipped with pepper spray or tasers. Imagine being the first guy to pop in the disc and try that old trick only to be met with a nasty, debilitating surprise.

    “Don’t taze me, ho!”

    errr. Sorry about that, it slipped out.

  9. in all seriousity, i agree with most of what dale sez. i also think gta actually more vanilla than most people give it credit for.

    the real sexism in GTA is in the fact that the female characters are FAR more cardboard than their male counterparts.

    in a universe where everybody has to be bad it’s no surprise that the women are bad too. but women in GTA are near uniformly either mouthy bitches or psycho hoebags.

    there’s so many other ways to be bad (evidenced clearly by all the different kinds of bad men in the game).

    unfortunately GTA has so far lacked the imagination to let women explore any of them. which i think is a legitimate failure on their part. women can be bad too. they can be powerful, evil, murderous, etc. but in the man’s world of GTA they are there to have sex with, take your money, or get on your nerves with their irritating shrillness.

    and oh yeah,

    i agree that the prostitute thing is really not a core part of the game, and could be chalked up to players just doing what they want in the gta universe…. BUT

    if message board traffic is any indicator, many players get a kick out of the idea of having sex with prostitutes and then murdering them. can you hold rockstar accountable for everything players do in their game? nope.

    you can hold the phenomenon up as an awesome example of why gaming culture is perceived by many women as being… unwelcoming.

    and really, you don’t get much money back from the prostitute… by the middle of the game, the money you get is a drop in the bucket in your wallet. which makes the act even more troubling, because it’s hard to think that there’s any reason to do it other than for some kind of creepy thrill.

  10. Off subject for this post, but on subject for this blog: http://www.slate.com/id/2179398/entry/0/

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