by Magdalen O’Reilly
Video games are quickly become as ubiquitous as television and radio. Indeed, an entire gaming culture has sprung up in the last 20 years with game companies reaching successes never thought possible. There has been a lot of controversy over the years about violence in video games. The fighting game Mortal Kombat in the early 90’s for its graphic death scenes, and more recently the Grand Theft: Auto series came under fire for its game play involving stealing cars, running over pedestrians and soliciting prostitutes. But the argument stands that these games are for adults and are not made for kids. This is true and I don’t believe in censoring video games.
That being said, there is a disturbing trend in gaming that is more insidious than violence. And it has to do with the way we portray gender. Now, it’s very easy to look at gaming culture and see how over sexualized female characters are. While a man may be decked out in full body armor, women often fend off hordes of enemies in what amounts to a chainmail bikini. It doesn’t stop at clothing either; character models for women are usually beyond out of proportion, with breasts to waist measurements that would make any chiropractor cringe. Some companies defend these objectifying designs by saying that their target audience is predominantly male. But recent studies have shown that women are playing video games more than ever before. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) 40% of gamers were women as of 2008. And that number is thought to be on the rise.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The problem with gender stereotyping runs deeper than just bikinis and unreal cleavage. Equality is sometimes attempted but often not achieved. And what we usually end up with is a problem I like to call “The Badass Ideal”. In an attempt to make games more accessible to women, developers will include female characters, which is admirable. But a strong, independent woman in games often translates to an aggressive, gun-toting Amazon. In trying to make a strong, independent female the developers end up filtering out any attributes associated with femininity. To be fair, what is considered a male or female attribute is debatable. But the problem is that in a game that’s almost completely male-dominated, these female characters could be switched to male and lose absolutely nothing in the process. Traditional American values admire aggressiveness, stoicism and fearlessness- all traits associated with masculinity. Passivity, emotional vulnerability and non violence are often interpreted as cowardice and just so happen to be traditional female identified traits. When all this is considered, it’s no wonder gaming has such a problem with gender stereotyping. And it’s not just women either.
Men are also confined by a checklist of do’s and don’ts. Female characters are objectified by their bodies and lack of female character traits. Males, I would argue, are just as objectified but in a different way. Like with “The Badass Ideal”, males in gaming are trapped in what educator Tony Porter calls “The Man Box”. He spoke at the TED conferences about The Man Box in 2011. “Growing up as a boy, we were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating — no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger – and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not…” he remarked during his lecture “A Call to Men”. The Man Box, in short, is too small. Only certain attributes are allowed, and ultimately no real man could ever fit inside it.
Gaming utilizes the Man Box archetype in the vast majority of its male characters. And this is what I mean when I say that gender stereotyping is more insidious and destructive than the graphic violence. It’s easy to shoot a guy in the face in game and realize, “You’re not supposed to do that in real life.” but more subtle messages are easier to absorb without even realizing it. On top of that, gender stereotyping spans all ages of gaming, not just games for adults.
So what’s the solution? Do we call for a ban on sexist imagery in video games? No. Censorship is never the answer. However awareness is the first step in making a difference, and some companies have already made efforts to take gaming in a positive direction. Game developer Bioware, makers of the popular game Dragon Age, allow the player to choose their gender. The player is free to dress their character however they like and are not rigidly confined to overly sexual costumes. And in an unprecedented decision, the game also allows the player to choose their sexuality. Homosexuality is almost completely ignored in gaming culture unless it’s for comedic effect, and this was a bold move for Bioware that caused more than its fair share of controversy. In March 2011, a venomous complaint was lodged by a fan about the option for homosexual encounters in the game. Game Designer David Gaider responded by saying, “The romances in the game are not for “the straight male gamer”. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention…” and Gaider was met with uproarious support from Dragon Age fans as well as the LGBT community.
This kind of situation is challenging the gaming community to look outside the normal constructs of what we’ve thought gaming should or should not be. It’s extremely encouraging to see game developers looking at their impact on society and not just their profit margin. But this is a drop in the bucket compared to the continuous usage of the old archetypes; the Badass Ideal and the Man Box. It’s my hope that more companies begin to put these tired old characters to rest, and meet the rest of us in the 21st century.