Sexism and Games: Representation

Sexism is everywhere; it informs almost every aspect of Western culture: language, media, industry, politics, religion – the list goes on and on.

The games industry has done an astounding job of flying its unique brand of sexism™ under the radar for years. This has largely been enabled by the overwhelming belief that games are solely the domain of boys; a mode of thinking which dictated that audience considerations need only extend as far as the male experience. Indeed at one point a fair case may have been made for this approach, with the educational and financial requirements for participation in early forms of video-games being severely limiting factors in terms of accessibility, but with the advent of affordable console gaming in the mid 1980s, these limitations were essentially removed.

Modern market research into gaming demographics shows that the gender divide in gaming is not nearly as large as most people – inside and outside of the games industry and gaming culture – might reckon. Both my sisters enjoyed Super Mario 3 as much as the next guy, so why are modern games companies primarily making games for me and not them? I mean, when white, middle-class, heterosexual men are starting to realise that something is truly amiss then the gig is probably up, right?

However, despite the evidence to support a broader definition of audience, gaming developers and publishers stubbornly refuse to move away from the incredibly sexist dogma that permeates the industry. It’s important to clarify at this point that I don’t believe that the majority of game developers are consciously and unashamedly sexist (though some absolutely are) but that their attention to gender issues is lacking, which unintentionally leads to some atrocious instances of misrepresentation and, predominantly, objectification. The reason for this is fairly obvious: the educational requirements of a career in games development, coupled with the general perception of games as a medium targeted only at men, does not lend itself to an influx of female developers. Poor representation in the industry leads to poor representation in the culture.

You really don’t have to go far to find examples. The ‘Damsel in Distress’ is a staple trope of video-gaming; the conventionally attractive, meek, defenseless female abductee, unable by any means to liberate herself, must wait for the powerful male protagonist to save her. This trope has been lazily trotted out time after time throughout gaming history, and has become a defining characteristic of the medium. In fact, several publishers have such an aversion to female protagonists that if developers feature them in their games the chances of those games being published falls dramatically. There have been several instances in which publishers have demanded protagonists be changed to male from female, or even that the role of damsel and protagonist be switched. So why is it that publishers are so fearful of strong, independent female characters? Because they challenge the values of a society built on gender inequality, and challenging society tends to reduce sales. So instead they go the other way; they rely on damaging stereotypes, further reinforcing the already rampant sexism that exists in Western culture. Bravo, guys.

Perhaps the most vexing of characteristics in modern games is the objectification of women. Of course, similar to the ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope, this issue isn’t limited to games; it has a long-standing history, most prominently in TV, cinema and advertising. The issue here probably can’t be simplified, but that won’t stop me from doing a horrible job of trying. The objectification of women has two main facets: firstly, it negates the value of personality, turning them into mere ‘objects’ of only superficial worth; a dehumanising process. Secondly, specifically with regards to women, this process strips the worth of their emotional and intellectual capabilities, reducing them to an object of desire: a sex object. As a result, their entire value is judged on the basis of attractiveness. Objectification is the reason why Wimbledon champions are criticised for… winning at Wimbledon. In games, due to decades of unabashed objectification, this has manifested in some pretty despicable ways, not the least of which is the hyper-[un]realistic breast physics of the popular ‘Dead or Alive’ series of fighting games.

By releasing games with such glaring gender inequality issues, publishers and developers are negatively contributing to a society already fraught with widespread institutional sexism and sexual objectification. They have ample opportunity to help, but choose to mess it up some more instead, because money. Excellent work. Gold star.

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