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Thinking Thursday: Gaming Culture Part 1 – Sexism in Character Portrayals

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(Photo: Flickr user Mustafa Sayed)

Gaming and gamers as a society, have come under fire recently in blogs everywhere for intolerance. The charges cover everything from the depiction of women, to gamers' cliquishness, to the gaming environment's hostility to the uninitiated and to minority groups. How much of this is true? How did it get this way? Today I will look at whether there is a difference in how women and men are portrayed in games. Because gender and gaming is such a loaded conversation this in multiple parts – including why differences in portrayals are bad over the next few weeks I will discuss this in multiple parts throughout the next few weeks.

Portrayal of Women

First, let's look at how women are portrayed in our medium. Think really hard for a moment of the most iconic female game characters out there. Who comes to mind? Lara Croft? Princess Peach? Zelda? How about any of the characters from fighting games like Chun Li, Ivy, or Kasumi? Almost all of these women have been incredibly sexualized, and if not sexualized, they take on an incredibly passive role in just about every game. Women in games are treated pretty much as eye candy or as objectives to save.

There are typically two defenses to this accusation: the market and the fact that men are also presented in impossible physical standards.

First: many gamers tout that average the audience for gaming is white, young adult men. Sexualization is what attracts them to play a specific game much the same way Megan Fox is the only reason The Transformers sold tickets. Unfortunately, this defense rings false: it shows the awareness of why something exists, but not the desire to change it or rise above. Further, it is based on primarily false information. 42% of gamers are women over the age of 18. If you think that they aren't hardcore or aren't in the game you're in it's because they wear what reddit user GumboVision refers to as an electronic burka. Women are afraid to show any gender identity for the responses of being immediately villified, berated, or fawned over as an ideal instead of a person. Yes, being fawned over is just as bad, if not worse. 

We need to grow up a little and recognize there is a strong fan base out there besides young men. I'm not saying these portrayals shouldn't exist all together. It's obviously a niche product that sells, but it shouldn't be the primary focus of every darned game. As our audience matures, so should we. Over-sexed, bland portrayals of women should be outliers instead of the norm.

The second defense is demonstrable. In gaming, men are often proportioned just as outrageously as women. Just look at Kratos or any of the men in Gears of War. They have 10-pack abs. They decided to forget six, went for a baker's dozen, then shotgunned two of them while smashing the cans on their huge heads just to show how goddamn manly they are. Unfortunately, though, that's about as far as this defense goes. In games, men are generally the ones with the more fleshed out personalities, and generally have more clothes on. Their appearance also tells great stories about the character. Just how Marcus Fenix stands and carries himself tells us of the great personal burden he has been through as well as his no-nonsense personality. If you get in his way he -will- kill you.

Or even look at a comparison of two characters in the same game. Ken's outfit shows us someone who is disciplined, yet left that to go walk the world. His clothes are frayed at the edges from his rough journey and his hair is ragged from not being groomed. Now look at Cammy. We can figure out that she is probably British, hails from a military background, and never learned the advantage of pants or a shirt. Her stance conveys to us that she has a particularly nice posterior that she enjoys showing off. It becomes obvious that men are there for the fighting while women are there to show off. It's a strange dichotomy in the treatment of the characters.

That isn't to say the gaming industry hasn't taken great strides in its representation of women, however. Just look at the latest character model of Lara Croft. She is proportioned like a human and her clothes certainly cover more flesh. And she will kill you. Holy hell, just by looking at the trailers and the media, she will survive a shipwreck, bandage herself up, then she will First Blood you until you're dead. That's exactly what her stance and her appearance conveys.

Other notable examples of positive portrayal of women are Chell from Portal, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, and Alyx Vance from Half Life 2. So it's not all bad, and developers are even getting comfortable enough to be self aware of how women are portrayed in the form of Bayonetta. It's taking a while as we haven't quite seen the gaming equivalent of a Jane Austen yet, but it's definitely something that is being worked upon. Immediately.

Despite the way we portray portray women in games, do we treat them any better when they are our peers? Next week I will be taking a look at how we treat women gamers. Do you have thoughts or comments about these discussions? Feel free to share either in the comments or send me an email at stephen@thearmedgamer.com if you have your own perspective you would like to share.

Gaming Culture Part 2

Gaming Culture Part 3

Gaming Culture Part 4

About Stephen Crane

Stephen was hooked by the NES at a very young age and never looked back. He games on a daily basis and is currently trying to climb his way up the ranked ladder on League of Legends! Outside of the video game world he actually likes running and owns a rapidly growing collection of toed shoes. Stephen Crane is the owner of Armed Gamer.

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