Sex and Sexism in Games Part 1: The Women in the Game

Well, I think the title says it well enough. What I am going to present today is the first of a three part series on Sex and Sexism in Video Games. Obviously, this is a weighty topic that has a lot behind it, especially since the industry is still very young.

In many other industries, standards have been set (or slowly adjusted) for quite some time. For example, everyone is used to the amount of Romance novels for sale. The exact percentage of sales numbers (to the best of my knowledge) have not changed over the last ten years to any great degree. In most of the entertainment industry, fluctuation aside, the industry remains very level and balance with its varying degrees of topic matter.

The video games industry is an exception to this general rule, mainly due to youth, although it is moving into it at a steady pace, settling itself as a medium and establishing a clear template for other games to follow.

One area that the industry has yet to directly address is the issue of Sex and sexism in video games. For the most part, games have been fairly free of too much absurd nudity or sex, but the fact remains that eventually someone will try to set a standard. It is up to us, the consumers, to determine and influence were that standard should lie.

This week we will be starting our discussion by looking into views on the Portrayal of Women in Video games. The results detailed in this article are based on opinions I gathered performing both personal interviews with women and an anonymous online forum which asked the same questions. The questions which I posed were:
Do you feel that women in games are objectified? What about men?
What do you think of the "save the princess" situation (women must be rescued)?
Do you think that the portrayal of women in games is fair? Are they acting/reacting/behaving in a realistic manner?
Does this determine the games that you buy?
Does this problem lie with the developers of the game or the consumer?
Any other thoughts you may have on this topic?

I was surprised by the results. I had guessed that women would have issues with this topics, what I did not expect was the strength of these responses! Both online and off, the women who responded on the majority that they felt very strongly that women were objectified by video games. Numerous character examples from popular games were brought up, such as Ivy of the Soul Caliber series and Lara Croft from Tomb Raider among others. The most common comment in this area was in regards to their clothing and their figures. Most women felt that the clothing was designed only to, as one put it, to display certain areas of the body, and draw attention to their overdone figures as opposed to actually serving a useful purpose. As several women pointed out, if you really thought about it a lot of the outfits worn by women in games were completely impractical and would probably be the worst thing that you would want to wear in their situation. However, they are only dressed that way for direct sex appeal, hence objectification.

Of course, as already stated, many women had a large issue with the women figures as well. One well spoken individual made the statement:

"I'm honestly quite annoyed with having to play as female nymphos who look like they're taking straight out of a magazine. Why can't I just be allowed to play with an average woman, with reasonable breast-size, and who aren't "drop dead gorgeous", as people say.Oh, and I would cry with joy if they did away with the "Less armor means better protection!" thing."

This statement was back up by dozens of other responders who echoed with a voice of dislike towards the game industry's unrealistic portrayal of women. One commenter summed up her concern with the apt statement of "Girls are often shown with huge clevage, tiny torso, huge hips and tiny legs. they often look as though if you blew on them, they would fall over."

However, a large amount of these same women also declared men in games to be objectified as well, although not as heavily as women. However, the consensus was maintained that men in games tended to be more 'tough', aggressive and heavily muscled. Several mentioned that the objectification on both genders seemed to stem from the idea of what a stereotypical male wanted, leading to aggressive and muscular men and skimpy, over-endowed women.

The next question that was posed to each was in regards to the 'save the princess' game type, a style of game in which the woman character must be rescued by the player, who is a male character. The majority of women seemed to be okay with this idea, expressing the opinion that it supported the idea of chivalry and respect. However, most every interviewer agreed that it was not such a common trend anymore because it had become somewhat tiring. A few expressed the concern that it conveyed the idea that the women must be rescued by someone with large muscles (again, an objective stereotype) and one in particular was very outspoken against it. However, for the most part, women seemed fine with this particular play style, although one mentioned that she felt that the women in question needed to serve a purpose in story and needed her own character development, otherwise she could be seen as a detriment to the player, simply an 'object' to be escorted from point to point.

The question of how women in games behave stirred a number of responses, most of which agreed that inside the game itself, most women behave in an unrealistic manner, being either to calm, to free with themselves or too aggressive and tough. Some made the point that perhaps this was more acceptable as after all, a video game is made to cater towards entertainment, and realism may harm that mold, however others had something different to say. One made the point that "I'm not some cute weak girl, and i'm not some bad*** chick. i'm neither, so according to the media, no guy will ever love me?". Although referring to the media in a general sense, the concept is applicable here. One interesting point made by one interviewee was that quite often the woman's personalities are not consistent with their character, breaking their 'intended' personality type for looks, actions or surrounding events that seem at conflict with the character.

A separate interviewer did bring up and interesting point. She felt that a good depiction of women in a game living up to their character was the women in the series Halo. In particular, she singled out the female AI Cortana as a model character for both personality and emotion, bringing up the bond between her and the main character, Master Chief-Spartan 117. She made the point that through Cortana and Chief's interaction, you can sense love and caring, but that it is an emotional connection that involves care, not a physical element.

When asked if these element influenced whether or not they would purchase the game, the majority of women said that yes it would, some stating that they would rather purchase the better game with better women while some stated that they would avoid the game altogether. A second, middle ground group made the statement that while it bothered them, they bought it anyway because they felt that they had no other choice, that was just the way it was. The final, smallest group did not let it influence their purchase.

The final element involved was who was at fault? The developers of the game or the consumers of the game. Predictably, the blame falls in both areas. While the industry takes blame for sticking to an outdated stereotype, the consumer seems to do little to offset this standard, instead buying the games anyway and maintaining a silence about how they feel. While some of the problem lies with the developer, the interviews I conducted did show one thing. Women DON'T like the way they are displayed, objectified and treated in video games. Seeing as almost half of the gamers in America are women, this is a large issue that needs to be addressed immediately by the game industry. It does not seem to be an issue of what games are out there for women, but rather that the games available are not supporting a view which women gamers want supported. Rather, they want to see a realistic, accurate portrayal of women that does not view them as a sexual object of desire.

The thing is, I support them in this. It's not respectful of women at all to be portrayed in a negative light. Clearly they don't like it, it seems that what needs to happen now is for developers and male gamers to realize that they don't like it and adjust. Women can make themselves clearly heard, and I would bet that they would see results. If every woman gamer were to write Namco, for example, speaking out against the ridiculously portrayed women in that game (it has been singled out by many women), I am willing to bet that there would be a sudden shift in the next game. I find it highly unlikely that they would ignore thousands, if not millions of complaint letters requesting a more fair and accurate portrayal of women.

One last thing to finish off. Many women made mention of the fact that the industry itself seems to be producing teenage images of women. Well, in industry terms, the gaming industry is about the age of a teenager. The question is: Will it let itself grow up, mature, and be the respectable image that we want?

Comments on this sensitive issue are welcome and encouraged.

Games I'm currently Playing: Seiken Densetsu 3 (SNES), Castle Crashers (XLA), Resident Evil 4 (GC), Gears of War 2 (360), Sonic Adventure DX (GC)


Time Enforcer Anubis said...

Here's the thing: There needs to be a balance. I understand that women aren't happy with the portrayal of women and games, and the problem is rampant. However, I personally enjoy having eye candy in the games I play. Some of your interviewees might call me a pervert for this, but I probably would have never bought Dead or Alive 3 and 4 if not for the women and their large, bouncy breasts and thick thighs.

The problem's rampant, sure. What I don't want to happen is for game companies to begin pandering to people just because they think the content's offensive. I think it's been universally agreed upon that neither the Dead of Alive series or the Tomb Raider series would be as popular as they are without their curvaceous ladies. Might I also add that in both series, sexy leading ladies were a decision by the development house, not by the gamers.

I believe most development houses who create games with over-the-top women(Team Ninja[DoA], Core Design[Tomb Raider], the OpenArena team) do so fully understanding the fact that there might be objections. Those games are obviously not for everyone. While I respect women's views and agree that they should be better represented in video games, I don't believe we need to change the way the entire industry does business.

Again, there needs to be a balance. Women should be better represented in video games, however, it would be completely unfair to do so at the expense of eye candy. Again, some of your interviewees might call me a pervert, but I like what I like and, honestly, though "catgirls in skimpy outfits" was more of a joke than anything, OpenArena's female character models was a selling point for me, as I'm sure it was for much of OpenArena's playerbase. Not the main selling point, but a selling point nonetheless, and I'm sure much of the Dead or Alive playerbase found the women to be a selling point.

Pure and simple: It's fanservice. I don't think it's worth the big deal that's being made about it and, while women do deserve to be better represented in video games, those of us who enjoy our Dead or Alive and our OpenArena deserve to continue to have our eye candy, and both well-represented, upstanding female characters, and "less respectable" female characters can coexist in the gaming industry.

My big point is: Women should be better represented, but not at the cost of Dead or Alive and OpenArena.

Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Stephen said...

I think this is definitely a sensitive issue--but one that certainly needs attention. The television and movie industries have come under some pretty heavy fire for this in the past; while not suggesting that things are perfect there, I do think that the more representative and accurate portrayal of women has helped Hollywood and TV come out on top.

I think Anubis brings up a good point...we probably don't "need to change the way the entire industry does business." Too much change in this area would be tantamount to censorship, which is generally not a good thing. Also, some of the inaccurate depictions are probably just fine--huge, muscly guys and slender gals in a hand-to-hand combat game are just fine, and fit in well with the aim of the games.

However, there are plenty of areas in the gaming industry where a significant change in the depiction of women, I think, would not impact sales, story, or any other aspect of the gaming experience--and in some ways, it could enhance it. RPGs and other plot- and story-driven (as opposed to action-driven) games really have no need for sexist or caricatured depictions of women, because unlike Anubis' feelings about DOA or TR, it's unlikely that scantily clad women affect the sales or experience of the game.

For example, Aerith Gainsborough, from Final Fantasy 7 (one of the most popular of an immensely popular series), seemed to defy many of the norms for women in video games--she wore modest clothing, had a realistic figure, and played a prominent role in the game. Many gamers would probably consider Aerith's role in FF7 crucial to the game's great success.

The point of the Aerith anecdote is to illustrate my thesis (yes, I'm in school): The gaming industry, in many ways, has nothing to lose from more accurate depictions of women, and in many cases, much to gain.

Furthermore, as the post pointed out, with the advent of Wii and other less specialized or "hardcore" games, female gamers will be a significant source of revenue...and as gaming continues to lose its stigma as a medium for only D&D nerds, programmers, and extreme introverts, it will be important to make games more appealing to the growing user groups. Catering to these groups will help the industry to mature and establish a more diverse fanbase.

But increasing or just maintaining sales isn't the only reason for more accurate depictions of women. I'm assuming that most developers are interested in making games because gaming is a unique way to tell a story, involve the viewers, etc. Resorting to cheap tricks like huge cleavage and skimpy armor, I think, is a cop out, and just demeaning. I think there's better ways to create engaging gameplay.