video game feminism

I’m a huge fan of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. Although I highly recommend them to anyone with a serious interest in pop culture or video games, the series is quite long. Since this post involves many of its core ideas, I’ll provide my summary of Sarkeesian’s most important observations.

Video games and the industry surrounding them are extremely male-dominated. Games aren’t just being marketed exclusively towards men — games themselves are designed around the assumption that the players are male. They overwhelmingly cater to this group to such an extent that it is actively alienating the players that do not match this target demographic.

A huge number of regressive attitudes and stereotypes are being actively perpetuated as a result. Here are some of the trends that Sarkeesian identifies:

  • The main playable character in most games is male. If an option for a female character exists, she almost never has a different personality or any unique characteristics. In almost all cases, the male version was designed first, and the female is only a slight mutation of the male.
  • The majority of secondary characters, enemies, villains, and NPCs are male. For the few females that do appear, they usually draw from a small subset of inaccurate and simplistic stereotypes — pink, ribbons, flowers, hearts, big boobs, and short skirts. Female body types rarely deviate from the norms of thin, athletic, curvy, and symmetrical, while male body types can be seen in great variety — from emaciated to obese, beautiful to grotesque, to the deformed, lopsided, bizarre, and fantastical.
  • Whether they’re active characters or just background, women often only enter a game’s narrative as barely more than plot devices, sex objects, and emotional triggers. Casual depictions of rape and abuse are disturbingly frequent, existing not to examine or explore the reality of those experiences, but as cheap ways to add an emotional edge to a story or character.
  • The kicker is that it’s not just a handful of games doing this. No, in fact, the majority of games are participants here. Sarkeesian uses an enormous number of examples from a wide variety of games to illustrate these points. It’s a series backed by endless amounts of research, and it demolishes the notion that these are just isolated incidents, outliers in an landscape that generally respects the full diversity of human experience and anatomy equally.

The universality of this pattern is what really demands focus. If it were only the case that a handful of games demonstrated this pattern, it might not be an issue at all. Everyone has their thing, and some people genuinely enjoy rescuing the damsel in distress, or find their heart wrenched every time the girlfriend is murdered by the villain. As a child, I certainly found these narratives compelling — I remember how distraught I was at age 8 when Ares died in Final Fantasy VII. Today I might find it lame and uncreative, but no more than BuzzFeed, reality TV, or an issue of Cosmo — and I’m not about to start making value judgments about the people that consume such media. The core problem is that it is truly pervasive to the point of excluding opportunities for alternative styles, expressions, and themes. For the majority of games to participate indicates a more fundamental truth about the culture surrounding video games.

Why does this matter?

I hate this question. It’s stupid that it has to be answered, but there are so many people that don’t get it that it has to be addressed before going on. Rather than adding another deconstruction of patriarchy to the Internet’s annals, let me provide a thought experiment that should help make the issue more self-evident to men who don’t see the problem. Reverse everything that’s just been described about gender in games. Do one massive find and replace for “male” with “female” and vice versa.

Brace yourself. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Imagine a young boy, nine or ten years of age, sitting down to play the newest critically-acclaimed AAA action game. The front cover of the game features the protagonist, a sleek and athletic woman, posed fiercely in a sharply-designed outfit with many layers. He loads the game and his only option is to play as a woman. In the opening cinematic of the game, we see the protagonist and her boyfriend walking along the beach together. Her boyfriend looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his mid 20’s and wears nothing but a banana hammock. The developers have gone to great lengths to achieve realistic schlong physics, and here we can see they have succeeded with splendor.

The first dialogue comes from the protagonist, a wistful reflection on her success as both an assassin as well as particle physicist. The camera switches to the boyfriend — the view is from the ground up, so half of the screen is consumed by the silhouette of the boyfriend’s junk, cradled by elastic fabric. The boyfriend responds by expressing his intense love for cars, and also guns. He requests that the protagonist should buy more cars and guns for him. As the boyfriend speaks, he flexes his biceps and begins to gyrate his hips, consuming even more of the screen with the gentle, well-animated sway of thinly veiled man-meat.

But before the boyfriend can even finish his sentence or any of us have learned his name, his young, hot body is plucked away effortlessly by the dastardly villain. The boyfriend is helpless and unable to fend for himself, and begs the protagonist to save him. The villain, an elderly woman with an extravagant character design and quirky personality, carts the boyfriend away to her secret lair. There we can see the villain has captured dozens, if not hundreds of male bodybuilders clad in banana hammocks. The framerate plunges as the game desperately tries to model the physics of this sausage factory.

Continuing the role reversal a little further with some follow-up questions:

  • How should the young boy feel if, in every single game, he was forced to play as a woman, where all of the men were depicted as shallow, homogeneously attractive, helpless morons, and the badass, witty, and unique characters were all women?
  • What should he conclude about his own self-image, the person that he should be, when the only representations of his gender are nothing like him?
  • What should girls conclude about their relationship to boys? What part of these games would do anything but reinforce the notion that they are more important, if not outright superior to boys?
  • Would he continue playing games at all, given that they were so clearly designed for girls rather than boys?

It’s this last question that really haunts me. How many people have turned away from gaming because they felt unrepresented and unwanted? We’ll never know, and that’s a tragedy.

It’s important to understand how little this exaggerates the current state of many video games. Again, the problem is not that this game exists, but that the majority of games participate in this kind of one-dimensional and childish portrayal of gender.

Why does this happen?

The first thing that demands mentioning is that the video games industry, particularly where development is concerned, is very male-dominated, even in contrast to the technology sector as a whole (which already trends male). When human beings create, they draw first from their own knowledge and experiences, and that means male perspectives and priorities are going to be favored. While a more diverse workforce would no doubt contribute to a better awareness of these trends, this gives us very little perspective on why, in the end, games contain these biases.

This is where I start to part ways with Sarkeesian a bit. She describes the problem in terms of patriarchy and power fantasies. While I agree that these factors are real, the vocabulary of sociology and feminism are functionally useless to the people that most need to understand what’s going on. I also think she tends to attribute to malice (sexism) what can be more easily explained by neglect.

The issue must be approached from the most practical angle possible: how video games are created. Specifically, we need to examine the way video games are written —not the code, but the universe, themes, stories, plot, characters, and dialogue. But the fact is that writing is among the lowest of concerns when it comes to video game development. Games are one of the most difficult and complex systems to create. Early games, in particular, which were often written purely in assembly or other primitive languages, were incredible technical achievements. Even today, to create interactive software that runs smoothly, never crashing or glitching, with rich color and sound, unique level design, and pixel-perfect mechanics? This is, first and foremost, a task that requires talented engineers — people who may or may not have any skill or experience whatsoever in creative story-telling.

In movies, we can frequently see trade-offs between technical complexity and quality narrative. I find Michael Bay to be a useful comparison here. His vision and desire for movies is fairly straight-forward, as one such quote of his might illustrate:

“I love doing big movies. It’s awesome! You have all these toys. The thing I like about this movie is, like they always say, directors have the biggest train sets!”

The characters in the movies Michael Bay directs are one-dimensional. The plots are abysmal and mind-numbingly predictable. The dialogue rarely surpasses the level of skin-deep tropes and knee-jerk reactions. But no one can ever argue that his movies have poor special effects. The explosions are grand and numerous, the animation is fluid and expressive. That’s where the focus is placed — not on the writing, but on the visuals.

No one buys a ticket to a Michael Bay movie expecting anything different. Or rather, if they do, it’s their own fault when they discover that the plot is uncompelling and the relationships are simplistic and barely recognizable as anything we might find in real life. They exist only to provide the minimum connection necessary to string together the cataclysmic events where the visual awe can resume. This is very much like how video games are currently constructed.

Even with many of the technological barriers and limitations of early consoles eliminated, games remain a very difficult engineering challenge. Historically, the people responsible for creating games have been reliant on simplistic narratives to lend their game some form of meaning and motivation beyond numbers. This trend continues today because developers are not writers — nor should they be. It’s hard enough to make a game that’s fun, looks good, runs well, and meets deadlines. Telling a meaningful story or developing characters at all has been a luxury.

But for games to evolve, this needs to change. Part of that means addressing how video games are designed, but there is a cultural issue to deal with first.

#gamergate must be dissolved

If you’re unfamiliar with #gamergate, here are two decent mainstream summaries. There can be no meaningful discussion about progressing video game culture until this miserable shitstorm is over. It is part of my impetus for writing this article.

When it first began, I figured it was just a flash in the pan, the momentary lashing out of the internet’s moodier denizens as I’ve seen happen over and over again. But as it continues to exist and its participants seem no less dissuaded in the righteous nature of their cause as they harass and abuse important members of the online community, I have come to see #gamergate as the stubborn tantrum of a (very malevolent) child that fails to see the larger picture.

Some of #gamergate’s participants maintain that it’s about ethics in journalism. And there’s a part of me that sympathizes with the hatred for Gawker. I stopped reading Gawker years ago, specifically after they released the identity of the Apple employee that lost the iPhone prototype. I saw an organization hell-bent on collecting the clicks wherever possible, and no longer felt comfortable supporting an organization whose ethics were so clearly missing.

But I feel gross even musing with the idea that #gamergate is really about ethics at all. Why is Sarkeesian the target of such hate when her videos are so dispassionate and thoroughly researched — is this not an outstanding model for ethical journalism? Why should Felicia Day be doxed for a reasonable and fair contribution on the topic? There simply is no justification. It’s a cultural turf war, the expression of child-minded individuals who cannot handle the suggestion that video games can and should be something different than what we’ve seen so far.

Games are not just for straight men. They’re for women and LGBTs. They’re for children as well as adults. They’re for black and hispanic Americans. They’re for the Peruvians and Brazilians, Chinese, Vietnamese, South Africans, Australians, Italians, and Egyptians. They’re for every community you can imagine. To stay relevant, games must adapt to reflect this diversity of human experience. The gaming community needs to rally against #gamergate and demonstrate that video game culture will not be controlled by a misanthropic and small-minded hate group. At this point, I genuinely believe that if #gamergate goes on much longer, (more) permanent damage will be done to the future of video games as brilliant, creative, and brave women are chased out of the industry.

Depending on the longevity of the movement I may write more about the nature of #gamergate in the future, but for now, I think it’s just important to motivate action by people outside the group.

Advancing game design

The important thing to understand about video games is their variety. By their very nature, not all games can tell a coherent story at all. Some games are completely abstract explorations of color and shape without any definable characters. Others are too absurd and bizarre in real-world terms to merit narrative depth. There’s very few generalizations that can be made about video games as a whole.

For example, what possible plot can you give to Mario? No one wants Mario to speak, nor should Nintendo add cutscenes between levels. Bowser is not a villain that needs explaining. He’s just evil. No explanation required. Go jump on some goombas. The game is good as it is. As it happens, the damsel in distress is actually a reasonably appropriate shtick for the game, because there’s not much else you can do within that space outside of adding an option to play as a female. But that’s actually an important first step.

1: Strive for equal representation of men and women as the protagonist, enemies, NPCs, and supporting characters.

This is something that all games can do. There’s just no reason not to. It’s a simple way to acknowledge that players might not be male. It creates a more accurate representation of the real world, where men and women are present in equal quantities.

2: Avoid stereotyping based on gender or ethnicity

It feels almost unfair to criticize games for this when movies regularly fail to do this, but I don’t see that as an excuse to hold video games to a lower standard. Moreover, games tend to engage in stereotyping to a far more extreme extent. In the real world, most women do not feel pink is their favorite color, nor do they keep ribbons in their hair at all times, nor do they consider flowers a fundamental representation of their identity. Most women do not have a sleek, athletic build with large (but not too large) breasts and a huge butt. Most women do not live solely for the existence of their husbands and children, but lead rich, fulfilling, independent lives. So when are games going to include female characters that represent this reality? We’re doing it for men, so it’s clearly not a limitation of designer creativity.

I haven’t touched much on ethnic diversity in this article, but it’s important to point out that many of the same problems are present when you consider racial representation in video games. There are very few black, hispanic, or asian protagonists, and supporting characters tend to be little more than crude caricatures of stereotypes. Again, movies are equally guilty in this department, but games have less of an excuse — these are worlds where the only limit is our imagination. Why are we only imagining straight, white males?

As a final note, I was tempted to say that all stereotyping should be avoided — but as in Mario, I believe that simple tropes and stereotypes have utility for games where human relationships and stories aren’t really relevant or useful. Games should just avoid cliches that carry normative implications.

3: Imagine worlds truly different than our own

At times, the sexism we see in video games is far more than an indication of the attitudes of the creators, but a representation of broader cultural issues. Some games actively strive to emulate the fallen nature of humanity, in all its bigotry and hate. That’s good. We need games that do that, even if they’re dark and offensive. But even more, we need games that show us how different things could be. We cherish books, movies, and music for giving us glimpses into alternate realities where society is not bound by archaic and regressive attitudes. Where are the games that allow us to experience a different kind of human world?

We have games that take us into space, into ancient history, into alternate universes, where swords and sorcery are commonplace, where dragons and super-intelligent AI rule the lands, where aliens of all shapes, sizes, and colors exist. Why are we so incapable of seeing our own world as being a little bit different? Where women are not helpless and boring, but unique, powerful, and interesting? Where the color of skin is irrelevant, or means something completely different than what we know?

It is not a limitation of our imagination. Incredible sci-fi and fantasy worlds have been crafted with exquisite creativity and detail. It is time to use that same power to imagine the world we know as the place it ought to be.