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Objectification of Women in Video Games

Objectification of Women in Video Games

Are we taking it seriously enough?

I remember once reading a fantastic article in a mainstream gaming magazine (here in the UK) about how women in video games are often seen in nothing but sexual terms and that their objectification was a damaging part of the industry. I was impressed and happy to see that they were giving the time of day to an issue that still spoils the image of gaming. I then turned the page and was so struck by the irony of what I saw that I nearly laughed my drink out of my nose. On the next three pages were reams upon reams of scantily clad women in suggestive poses offering their phone sex services; the variety was staggering, from ‘busty virgin school girls’ to ‘desperate MILFs’. I recognise the need for advertising but they could have at least moved the position of that women article so that the effect wasn’t so jarring. It managed to undermine everything good about the previous article and just made me think that actually, this issue wasn’t really important to them at all, they were just covering it in their magazine because it was considered the done thing.

First off, let me stress that I am not a feminist in the way it has come to be seen today, in fact, I wouldn’t describe myself as a feminist because I don’t see the need when all I desire is the basic human courtesy of fairness and equality. Sadly, feminism has unpleasant connotations of being the label attached to groups of irate, men-hating bra-burners who think they’re better than men and deserve more. That’s just ridiculous; for women to desire to be above men is blindingly hypocritical. What the majority of women want and what everyone should want is equality; that’s the zenith of achievement.

I see the gaming industry as quite unique in that it doesn’t seem to discriminate against women, it just doesn’t have as many women who actually want to be there. It is unequivocally a male dominated environment and for reasons I’ll go into at another point, women don’t seem to want to be a part of it. This doesn’t make the industry discriminatory, just lacking in diversity. However, this history of little diversity has resulted in games being made by men for men. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; both sexes generally have their unique past times that the other wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. You may then go onto argue that the portrayal of women in video games isn’t a problem because it’s just men animating their desires in order to appeal to other men.

I do think, however, that this portrayal only helps to reinforce male hegemony, cultural stereotypes and the role of females as objects of desirability to men and little else. And that is socially harmful to both men and women. I’m not going to get all preachy because I strongly believe that the gaming industry is one of the least damaging aspects of a society often geared towards objectifying and sexualising women; there are many other far worse offenders, such as pornography, the fashion industry and advertising, all of which make me incredibly proud of the industry and community which I so fervently support. But, just because it’s not as bad doesn’t mean it should be able to get away with it. The gaming industry especially should have a vested interest in appealing to women, because even now they still constitute only a very small part of the overall consumer pool.

The issue is that for many years, women in video games have merely been a walking pair of breasts with ‘jiggle physics’ abound; flat and insipid characters, merely there to appeal to men. It’s just incredibly gratuitous. Sexy clothes are fine in certain situations but when your warrior is running around the mountains in nothing but a pair of chainmail knickers, thigh high heeled boots and what basically amounts to metal nipple tassels, it just looks ridiculous and the required amount of disbelief suspension is too grating. How are we expected to believe that she’s sufficiently protected? We’re not because she isn’t. It’s just gratuitous nakedness that damages the overall feel of the game, giving it less gravitas and making it seem more puerile, as well as strengthening the idea that women are just around to be sexy. To that end, it gives male gamers the wrong idea and just exasperates female gamers.

5 Comments

  1. First off, great article and it’s one I strongly agree with. Women are more than eye candy…in fact, it’s because of that which so many women who are the best in the world feel so miserable about themselves because of a slight flaw that you don’t even notice until pointed out (such as the hair doesn’t part perfectly down the middle…so what? or Hair color is brunette instead of blonde? That’s not so bad…I actually prefer that anyways ;D ). One of my best friends constantly suffers from the aftermath of the objectification and thinks of herself as the type of “nobody would ever want to marry me”-type even though she really is the best person to be around and spend time with that I’ve ever met. Not only that but I still think she looks great (in fact, one of my favorite pictures of her would make one think it is a cover of a magazine before the text is added to the picture). Sure it is probably more a fault of the industries you have mentioned but gaming is still adding to the problem a little. This barrier of “women are pretty objects…the details can be filled in later in the players’ fantasies” needs to be taken down. Not only do I find it unappealing (what good is the eye candy if there is nothing inside?) but it isn’t realistic at all. Every person has a personality with depth (sure there are those who are more hollow or transparent than others) and that detail right there makes “pretty girl with no personality” unappealing. Also, another thing I’ve noticed of myself and in comments here and there is that the “expectation to even be interesting visual” continues to go up because almost every woman in every one of these games tries to be the beauty queen fantasy (loosely speaking and I’ll admit Samus is an exception to the rule too). It is that Theory of Relativity kicking into play of a “normal looking girl” by IRL standards would be considered a “ghastly abhorrid, disgusting freak” and Miss Universe would enter the game world and become just another pretty face. Game designers (especially directors) should learn to work this to an art instead of a gimp against the industry. You can make “___ a beauty queen while ____ is just normal” and it begins to trigger better into the player’s head and really triggers in the mind (and then, even better since video games are the only interactive entertainment, you can have both female characters act according to these details and now you’re diversifying and giving depth to both while making the context hit closer to home the way you want to). As a game designer personally speaking, I am trying to make baby steps into the direction you are trying to guide us to of “being more than just a pretty toy”. In fact, for the project I am working on, I only have two that are “intentionally pretty” and one character plays on that as a flirt while the other makes a career of it (and I’ll admit neither of them are my personal favorite according to personal growth/depth. My personal favorite is the one who walks around covered in dirt because of her style and the way she presents herself). Surprisingly, I’ve also found the voice actors, especially in the outtakes, really having fun and wanting to play on this context and left me with many notes for the sequal. I’ll admit that beyond learning to better a better developer that the main reason of doing this choice for the female characters is to go beyond those stereotypes so that I can reach out to the female audience (and if they are interested, not only do I have a fan and sale but, hopefully, someone who is happy with the difference enough to tell another person and repeat the process). I’ll admit I’m not ready enough to make a huge wave with the female audience, but I’m hoping to help make another baby step in the right direction towards the goal you have written about and I strongly support.

    PS,
    I admit I love Sailor Mercury because she was the intelligent one of the group (and they all looked basically the same anyways =P )

    • You’re very right, it doesn’t take much to shatter someone’s self image and confidence and girls shouldn’t need to feel inadequate because they can’t live up to already imaginary attributes (I think advertising is just the worst. People think they’re not good enough because they don’t look like something that is blatently unachievable; it’s airbrushed!)”what good is the eye candy if there is nothing inside?” You pretty much nailed my feelings with that comment. I can deal with a character running around half naked if she has substance as well. It also improves her as a character in general because flat characters stick out like a sore thumb and drag the story down with them.

      We mustn’t get to the point where a character can’t be pretty because it in some way undermines her legitimacy as a ‘deep’ character, but we just have to remember that women have to be represented as more than a pretty face. If they are just a pretty face, and that’s part of the story, then I can deal with that too, because that can be quite funny, like you said, you have a character that is intentionally pretty, and that’s part of the story, however, you can tell when a developer is just trying to bulk up the character numbers with half naked eye candy who they try and pass off as being multi dimensional when really they’re just boobs on a mesh.

      And you’re totally right, developers need to get this right for economic reasons. There’s huge market potential and if you can get the girls interested, you’ll likely have them hooked for life. Just take a look at the rabid Dragon Age fangirls for example :P The female DA fanbase is huge and will take anything bioware gives them. Bioware managed to draw them and now they’re keeping hold of them too. Da got it right for women because of the incredible customization on offer (you could re create yourself if you tried hard enough :P) and because of the fantastic characters which provided a lot of romancing options. I won’t boil women down to merely emotional or romantic creatures (because I like to consider myself a woman but am about as unemotional and unromantic as you can get) but these factors do appeal to many women (I had a lot of fun with them too, I’ll admit, I fricking loved Alistar. I romanced him until the cows came home) and DA nailed these, resulting in a huge female fanbase that felt provided for, appreciated and accepted. And they’ll be around for good now :)

      I’m very interested in your experiences as a developer in this area :) You know to turn to if you have any questions or things you wish to discuss ;)

      I’m sorry for this rather disjointed semi-essay, I just really enjoy discussing this topic :P

      • Yeah…I agree and think it’s a bad sign of how “obsessively perfect” they are getting when the top models have to be air brushed. I can understand the concept and logic behind it but even as a programmer I cannot support the “math behind the brains” on that detail. It also reaches a point where it will no longer even be real to us consumers. I remember a quote from Bicentenial Man where it was along the lines of the guy was asking the Robin Williams “What kind of imperfections do you want? Without these imperfections, you don’t look real and people will be able to tell you aren’t human.” (not the exact quote but trying to remember the key point of it) We all have our flaws…and from my experience, the beauty queen divas have a lot of inner-personal flaws that make demons feel like angels. I do agree that “okay, they’re running around half-naked and I can cope with that” has a time and place but throwing it in for “oooo…hey kids…look! It’s skin” is like selling out (and doing a bad job at it). Sure that may catch a few but the ones who you want to share their opinion if done poorly will only have a sour taste in their mouth about the memory (which doesn’t take a marketing genius to know that is a bad thing).

        True, I didn’t mean we should only use it once in awhile but we do have to cut back. If everyone “in the (game) universe is beautiful” then it ends up no particular one of them sticks into the mind as “beautiful” (aside from personal preference of an usually “unique” feature such as purple hair or weapon choice). In fact, I can recall a specific example of an anime I am finishing up (that is definitely a 5-star piece IMO) called “Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae wo Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai”. To carefully avoid spoiling anything, there are two girls Menma and Anjou (are their nicknames and used more often in the story than birth names) and Anjou asks Jintan (the main male character) if he loves Menma because Anjou feels inferior physically (and feels her glasses make her even more inferior). In his 6 year old boastfulness, he shouts out “Who would love an ugly girl like that?” (as boys commonly do in that “girls are yucky” phase of their youth) and then realizes what he said and after a quick glance at Menma (who is trying to hold a big smile as tears sneak out of her eyes), Jintan runs off in shame of what he said in front of Menma. This triggers Menma to run off and follow after Jintan (and during this chase leads to the main premise of the anime’s story)…but more importantly for my point, you see: Anjou feel even more crushed because she felt even more inferior about her appearance, Jintan’s emphasis on physical appearance as well, and Anjou is crushed about clearly bringing something up in front of Menma that hurts Menma on the inside. All of this, while understanding it, made me also want to question (after the episode was over), “Why does she feel so badly about her appearnace? Either character for that matter. They both look pretty good for anime child standards.” Thus while watching it, there is this fence standing between me and the anime of “I have to remember she is not supposed to be attractive.” This takes me out of the anime as much as a story of “they are pretty eye candy with no substance” because I have to keep reminding myself of an outside element that doesn’t agree with what I see. As you indirectly mention (that literature teachers always push into our heads through the literature classes), EVERYTHING has a purpose and a meaning (or at least it is supposed to). If a character starts going from “gothic all-black” clothing to “happy, cheeful” clothing then it means something. If a character is strong, intelligent, courageous or especially “sexy”, let their actions show it because appearance doesn’t relay the message as well. Afterall, “sexy”, as you mentioned in the article, can be done without being naked (just ask anyone who has a nurse or maid fetish. The outfit and how they play the outfit can do so much more than nudity could for them). True, women aren’t “just romance and emotions” but as a whole they do prefer it more than guys. Not only that, but some guys like and a few are inspired by these romantic things of their favorite characters. I’m sure even yourself and other female gamers of the community would prefer romanced in a gaming tone because it feels “closer to home/comfort” (and makes a great thing for a romantic couple to do together…well…I don’t know about Thousand Arms though XD).

        Yeah…I’m unfortunately late enough into the current project that changes are becoming more and more limited but am working on how to handle problems and still taking notes so I don’t repeat my mistakes. I even admit guilty to having more females working in my project than males to help make sure that I’m reaching out correctly (afterall, asking a female is more likely to get the right results for reaching out to the female community, right?). I’m sure that at release we won’t hit it as perfectly as DA did since this is the first project for the majority of the team, but trying to reach that goal is a prize worth setting our eyes on. Afterall, women make up half of the population of the world (actually slighltly more than half last I heard), so that is enough to be considered “a market worth the effort to go the extra mile to make happy”. But I will at least be coming to inquire your experience on my next project when this one is done before I start the next one. At the beginning is the best place to ask and talk as it allows ideas to be very flexible…and you can call me old-fashioned or stuck in the past if you want but true woman gamers are still a “rare gem that gets my attention anyways” ;)

        I definitely enjoy this long response (especially since recently on other communities I’m starting to get used to “no answer” replies such as “I agree” or “good point” or “well spoken” that doesn’t really create or expand on the discussion). it really gives some meat to the conversation (and with these long responses, it really gives one a lot to think about and it encourages the memory to really remember the subject even better :D

  2. It’s a bit ironic that the flattest female characters tend to be the least “flat” if you catch my drift.

    But in all seriousness, women in video games is definitely a big issue that needs more discussion. I enjoyed how Commander Shepherd in Mass Effect wore body armor. The same thing was true with the female version of Hawke in Dragon Age II. I played as a female warrior, and was really happy to see that her armor was just as covering and bulky (almost ridiculously so) as the male version of that character.

    I think Trip from Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is another good example. Yes she’s slightly scantily clad, but she has brains. She thinks ahead and enslaves Monkey with the slave headband because she knows she has a better chance of surviving with a partner watching her back than by herself. By the end of the game I really cared for her. I didn’t rush over to save her if she got into trouble because I had to (otherwise the game would end) but because I wanted to.

    Great first article.

    • Haha, very true, not that we want to get to the point of condeming women for actually having boobs, because they can’t help that :P

      As for needing more discussion, ‘Girl Gamer’ and every aspect that that encompasses is my friday feature so you’ll hear a lot more about it! If you have any specific issues you’d think would make an interesting article, please tweet away :)I haven’t played DA 2 but I’m really glad that’s the case, I’d expect nothing less from Bioware, they really cater to their female fanbase. It just makes sense; why would the woman need any less protection than the man?! I mean, heck, I know we’re awesome but we’re still as susceptible to a passing pointy object!

      Enslaved is next on my ‘To Play’ list, I’ve heard so many great things about it. And yes, this is another important point, there’s nothing really wrong with being scantily clad providing there’s more to you than just that! I think I’ll like Enslaved, judging by what you’ve said :D Thank you once again for your comment.

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