Women in Video Games

A sister post with https://dimezzogaming.wordpress.com.

I love video games, and I always have. I’ve been playing video games since before I could walk. I hate saying it now because the film Grandma’s Boy so pervaded the public consciousness that people think I’m ripping it off, but I did beat The Legend of Zelda at an early age–not before I could walk, but I had beaten it before kindergarten. I’ve been playing video games my entire life, and the last thing that I want is to promote something that would damage the hobby.

Hell, I even make a partial career out of reviewing video games for the aggregated website Cubed3. Everything I say about video games, I say because I want them to improve.

However, white men in the United States have an unusual amount of fear toward… pretty much everything that isn’t a straight white man. I don’t know whether this is typical in other parts of the world, but I do know that the average American white man is absolutely terrified that “everyone else” is trying to take his toys, freedom, and power away. Speaking historically, I understand where they’re coming from. White men have a long, thousands-of-years-long, history of enjoying power over and oppressing everyone else. Women, blacks, Asians, natives, homosexuals–the list is really all inclusive. I say this as a former white man, and with a family full of people with that exact mentality. I’m not trying to rip on white men for what they’ve done; these are just facts.

So on the one hand, if women, blacks, gays, and Muslims gain more rights, then white men do lose some of their power–of necessity. If we think of a society’s power as a percentage, then it becomes clear that one can only have power at the expense of rights. In fact, this is an idea I advocate and is one of the reasons that I am an anarchist: power comes only at the expense of others, because the universe is built around scarcity and because nothing exists in infinite supply. But I don’t intend to get into all of that right now.

By the same token, though, I believe white men are deeply afraid that these groups they’ve disenfranchised and oppressed, often for literally thousands of years, will abuse their power in the same way that the white men did. In my experience, this was the main issue that people had with President Obama: they were terrified that white people were going to be treated the way that white people had treated black people for decades, if not centuries. These fears came to nothing, but that has done little to mitigate the long-running, overarching fear the straight white Christian man has for everyone who isn’t a straight white Christian man. From one boogeyman to another the white man turns, all the while lamenting how society is falling, moral standards no longer exist, and homogenization for the sake of Social Justice Warriors will destroy everything they hold dear.

This is the typical reply when gamers ask for more inclusiveness in their video games: for some bizarre reason, it is alleged that this will harm creativity. I fail to see how being able to play as a gay Inquisitor in Dragon Age: Inquisition harmed creativity. If anything, it gave us something new and something that has not been explored much in the gaming world; this is anything but stifling creativity. Saints Row allows players to play as male, female, or trans characters, and, again, this has done nothing to hinder the creativity of the people behind the Saints Row games. Yes, this game where you can beat people to death with an oversized dildo is more tolerant, open, and inclusive than Grand Theft Auto V, a game that gave us not one, not two, but three white men to play as.

The ubiquity of straight white men in video games is not to be understated, but you’ll have a hard time getting a straight white male gamer to admit this. When they do admit it, they turn around and, in the same breath, say that it’s not a bad thing, that it’s “just the way it is,” and that it’s perfectly acceptable that if you grab a random game off a game shelf, you can safely bet that the protagonist is a straight white male. In many ways, it reminds me of the people at Fox News who made the argument that there is no racism in America because “At almost any company, there are private emails between employees that are racist in tone…” Jon Stewart called them out on this ridiculous failure to think–that because something is so common it is ubiquitous and therefore stops existing or stops being a problem is the height of stupidity.

Sexism exists in video games. It does. Accept it, come to terms with it, I don’t care, but do not deny it. If you are fine with the sexism that exists, that is one thing. I can even respect that. I don’t like it, and I think you’re wrong, but I can respect that you at least acknowledge its existence. But denying the existence of sexism in video games is aggressively absurd, fully equivalent to how many Americans deny that there is racism in America.

In a 2005 study, it was revealed that more than 80% of women in video games were sexualized. And before anyone dares reply “Games sexualize men, too,” I want to remind you of a few things. First, predominantly men make video games, and if they want to sexualize themselves, then that is their prerogative. There are female developers as well, but as we’ve frequently learned in the past few years, it’s not just video games as a product that are sexist but the gaming industry as a whole, with LoL coaches demanding to see players’ breasts, workplace discrimination being commonplace, and the like.

Nor is sexism unique to video games. There is sexualization of women everywhere, but Hollywood at least must be given the credit it deserves. For one, Hollywood predominantly uses actual actors. If a female character is beautiful and sexy, then it’s because the actress is beautiful and sexy. Video games do not have this luxury. If a woman is beautiful and sexy in a video game, it is because she was specifically designed to be, not because the actress is beautiful and sexy. There is certainly a tendency of Hollywood to prefer the beautiful over the less-beautiful, but Hollywood does have room for the unattractive, and Hollywood sexualizes both men and women. Women do receive it worse, often with vicious rape scenes serving to act as softcore porn and gratuitous nudity that, for whatever reason, isn’t turned onto men–such as Saw 2 and the Hostel films.

It would be much like if Grand Theft Auto had one black guy on their team who “okayed” the constant use of “nigga” in their games. How would we react to that? How would the gaming public react to learning that Rockstar hires only one black guy, and then said that it’s okay for them to say “nigga” constantly because they hire a black guy and because they use “cracker” too? We wouldn’t react very well to that. Indeed, that’s part of the reason that the Assassin’s Creed series has its own disclaimer before the game begins.

Whether we like it or not, it’s simply true that if you want to do something offensive toward someone, you need to do something offensive toward yourself, and you need to let them in on the joke. This is the part where sexism diverges from the use of racial slurs in Grand Theft Auto. Because black Americans generally speaking are in on the joke of Grand Theft Auto. Grand Theft Auto is taking shots at everyone, and the majority of its criminals are white men; it would be a different matter altogether if Grand Theft Auto was focused on the Crips and Bloods, rioting and inflicting self-destructive violence onto their communities, as a game made almost entirely by white people.

On the subject of sexism, women generally aren’t in on the joke, because there’s no joke to be in on. It’s just a case of men liking asses, boobs, and revealing outfits on hot chicks. Rather than being inclusive, that’s outright insulting to women who don’t have nice asses, boobs, and revealing outfits. It’s no surprise that Zero Suit Samus is the 4th most played character in Super Smash Bros. 4, while her unrevealing, clothed form is number 31. This isn’t a great example because there are some major differences between Samus and Zero Suit Samus, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that not only are the revealing outfits a large part of it, but the most chosen outfits for ZSS are the blue or orange booty shorts and halter top.

And don’t get me started on Other M, the Metroid game that reduced the heroine to a bumbling, weak, emotional crybaby with daddy issues–a legendary bounty hunter with unrequited love for her father-figure so wrapped around his finger that she’d let herself die rather than disobeying him. Don’t get me started on how the prudish, haughty Yuna was reduced to a JPop fanservice singer by Final Fantasy X-2, either. Even Venetica, which at first bucked so many trends by giving us a charming, likable female protagonist who was out to avenge the death of her boyfriend, ended up ultimately being a game about collecting a certain dress.

I gave Mortal Kombat 9 a glowing recommendation, it’s worth mentioning at this point. And I said “It’s a game about beautiful, scantily-clad women cutting people’s heads off.” And it is. But it also has plenty of fanservice and objectification of men, and that’s always been my argument in favor of the Mortal Kombat series. Is Kitana fighting in what amounts to a bathing suit? Sure, but so is Johnny Cage. I’ve no interest in counting them up to see if the Mortal Kombat series objectifies women more than it does men, or men more than it does women, because the very fact that it does it to both indicates that it’s not really objectifying anyone. And I applaud it for that. The Mortal Kombat series knows exactly what it is.

Jim Sterling made a video a few years ago where he basically asked for a character who met these conditions:

  1. was female. Obviously.
  2. was not conventionally attractive.
  3. was not sexualized.
  4. was not the primary villain.
  5. was strong and determined, but did not have to endure a load of bullshit to become strong and determined.
  6. was not a player-made character.

The only character he found who met all the criteria was a dinosaur from the Primal Rage games. And, as he said, the very fact that it sounds like he’s joking shows us how bad the gaming industry really is in its treatment of women. This has not changed since the video was made. And while the criteria may seem quite arbitrary, just think about it for a moment. How many male protagonists meet the requirements? How many battle-hardened, ugly-as-sin soldiers in 3rd person shooters are there?

And rest assured that number 5 is important. Because it seems the only way developers know how to create a strong female character is to inflict ridiculous degrees of pain and suffering onto her. Just play Tomb Raider 2013 if you want to see what I mean. The idea that a female could be strong without some traumatizing shit making her strong is a totally foreign one to game developers. You want to talk about stifling creativity, how about that? How about the fact that they always jump to the same things to present a strong female character?

It’s better than television, movies, and that horrible mess called Game of Thrones, because these always jump to freaking rape as the hardship the woman must endure in order to become strong, but being better able to say “At least we only beat the shit out of women, instead of raping them” isn’t really a good thing. And not to derail too much, but fuck Game of Thrones and fuck that lazy hack named George R. R. Martin. I’ve seen some pretty tasteless writers in my day, but Martin trumps them all. Evidently the only way Martin knows to give a woman hardship is to have her be raped.

And we wonder why Cosmopolitan even has to write articles about how many women claim to be raped when they never were… That’s the biggest problem with this frequent use of rape in fiction. It creates the impression that a woman is strongest when she recovers from sexual abuse. So, for some women, if they want to make you believe they’re strong, they will say they’ve been raped. My ex-wife did exactly that, claiming that she had been molested when she was a teenager. As she continued telling me the story, it became clearer and clearer that at best the sexual advances were unwanted, but first the only thing that occurred was a bit of fondling and second she never told the guy to stop and third she didn’t try to extricate herself from the situation. And that whole conversation began with her saying that she’d once been raped. I’m not saying every woman who claims to have been raped is lying, but it does happen, and I blame the tendency of fiction to use rape as a vehicle for “giving” women strength.

Of course, Tomb Raider 2013 played with this on purpose, intentionally using a scene that looked an awful lot like it was about to get rapey, when it didn’t. Don’t bullshit us, Crystal Dynamics. You know goddamned well you did that shit on purpose, that you had the actress panting and moaning like that on purpose so that you could then stand back and say, “No, it’s not our fault! We didn’t make rape so common in fiction–you jumped to that conclusion, not us!”

Bullshit, Crystal Dynamics. You staged it to look like that intentionally. And considering you spent the first 25% of the game beating the ever-loving hell out of Lara Croft, you don’t get to claim the high road here anyway, because you still fell into that same exact mindset–you just didn’t sink as low as George Martin. *Golfclap* You didn’t sink as low as the lowest fiction writer alive. Bravo. *Golfclap*

There is the real possibility that the sexualization of women in video games, and the overall sexist bent of that, is simply so common that people can’t see it. I’ve dealt with that before. I’m an atheist–do you have any idea how pervasive theism really is in American society? It’s literally everywhere. Just spend one week listening, really listening, to how many times people mention a god, an afterlife, or souls. It’s everywhere. It’s so common, so ubiquitous, and so pervasive that the average American has no idea it’s even there. The same is true for racism in the United States: it’s so common and so ubiquitous that many Americans have no idea that it’s there, even as they openly admit that it’s there. Sexism in video games is the same way.

I want to stress that I have nothing against straight white Christian men, or any other white man of any description. I generally don’t even think in such terms. And the gaming industry itself needs sexism eliminated from it; once that is done, it will go a long way toward eliminating sexism from the games. Because, yes, if more women designed games then the games would, ipso facto, become more inclusive of women. The sexism we see in games is largely a byproduct of the people making the games, not the byproduct of the players. But it’s something that needs to be taken care of, because it’s pretty pathetic that the best example we can do if a strong female character is a fucking dinosaur. We’re better than that.

Share your thoughts...