Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sexism in Videogames

I’m a guy, let’s get that out the way from the get go. Sexism in video games seems to on the minds of everyone these days. As an oft-maligned media, we gamers always have made an art form out of trying to sanitize video games for the general public. Over the last year I’ve read probably a dozen articles from most of the major online websites lamenting sexism in video games.

Video games are an interesting form of entertainment. While the majority of gamers are in fact women; the more hardcore scene which is to say console games and PC games are dominated by men both on the game development side as well as the gamer side.

The problem with doing a real look at video games is that there are exceptions to the rules. Games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Uncharted, and Halo prove that gamers will play games that respect women. However, these games are top tier so in many ways they could be pointed out as the exceptions that prove the rule. For every Halo there is a God of War, or any number of smaller, low budget games with scantily clad women on the cover and in the game.

Let me say however, that video games are at times sexist, just like sometimes their racist and political. Games about War rarely talk about the effects of said war on the populace. Video games are primarily made by Asian and Western developers and as such rarely feature any minorities let alone as the heroes or heroines. The result of that is as obvious as it is tragic; considering the demographics of the respective countries involved it’s hardly surprising though. When I read articles about sexism in video games written by women and then those written by men, I’m struck by the fundamental disconnect between genders on what they view as sexism. Men tend to focus on the physical while women tend to dig deeper when they feel that a game has overstepped itself.

The argument could be made that sexism in video games is not the issue at all; rather the issue is more accurately ‘Beauty in Video Games’. The perception of the industry is that of a male dominated group. Video games like every other form of entertainment stick to societies views of beauty. The men are tall and muscular, and the women are lean or curvaceous. Even beyond the physical the men fit the hero archetypes that western society has been using since ancient Greece. The men are taciturn even when deeply hurt by personal loss a la Gears of War which uses every single archetype. There is the leader that commands the respect of his men in Marcus. There is the second in command trying to find and then get over the loss of his wife in Dom. There is the wise-cracking seemingly without a care in the world, Baird who in fact cares deeply. And lastly is the Heracles with a heart of gold, as played by Cole Train. The women tend to fall into three broad categories. One, is the sexy and feisty and usually rather dangerous side kick, an example is Uncharted 2’s Chloe. Two, they are the secretive but still sexy loner that joins the hero’s quest, of which Neir is a perfect example. The third category is the stand by your man types, more recently played by Anya in Gears of War and Elena in Uncharted. There’s a saying that possession is nine-tenths of the law. In video games the saying is more accurately perception. Video games are at times perceived to be sexist based on either the way women are dressed or their level of attractiveness.

And by which we come full circle. Sexism in video games is primarily the perception of what is physically beautiful in women. While the same standards apply to men in video games, the fact is that we do not care about men in video games. The fact that they could for the most part all pass as male models is irrelevant. We focus on the physical because it is easy and obvious. It is my contention that the sexism in video games is in large part completely unrelated to the physical and that what is desperately needed is more and better written female heroines as lead characters rather than drastic changes in wardrobe. The contention that video games treat women like sex objects will always be misguided as long as it focuses on the physical. We want to play beautiful people, that’s a given; the real question is whether or not we want to play realistically written ones.

Addendum: After I had finished writing most of this piece I came across a rather well written dialogue between two female journalists. You can check it out here.

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