Disclaimer: I want to note that it's pretty much impossible to word this kind of article in a way that won't piss off anyone, because someone will ALWAYS be pissed off, when it comes to this. I couldn't even word it this way in german (and I simply have to ask of you to remember that english isn't my native language, so I might have worded things not well sometimes, although I used a dictionary and a thesaurus). Please consider that I simply can't put every detail, example and exception into this text, neither can I put in every extreme as an example of how to not do it. I tried to cover all the important corners, however. I don't want to piss on somebody with this, I want to encourage to think about this.
I won't say sorry for it, but if something on here bothers you, you may feel yourself invited to simply ask about it, instead of trying to take the piss out of me right away. If you think I simply want to blame a certain group with this, you completly misunderstood everything I wrote here and should read it all again. Slowly. Cool? Cool.
So, it feels like an eternity, but if I don't remember it wrong this whole sexism debate about video games started just somewhat a year ago, when Anita Sarkeesian started her Tropes vs. Women Kickstarter. I won't write about that thing here, her lies were exposed multiple times. But ever since then, neither the blogs nor the pundits, it seemed, were able to put a stop to that topic. Suddenly there was a problem for the whole of females and stories of inappropiate things poured over the scene from all corners. But the question that I came up, for myself at some point, was: what about the men?
What about them, right?
That is most likely the reaction I would get from many people. Destructoid's own Jim Sterling did a whole episode
of his weekly column "Jimquisition" on this topic, arguing that men don't have to suffer the same kind of objectification that women do (and putting the fact that there are problems with male characters too basically into one sidesentence). The basic jist of it, and this seems to be a prevalent idea, is that male characters have it simply better. That males have it better.
Now I agree on the fact that male characters are not objectified in the same way female characters often are. That is completly correct. I agree with Sterling here that male leads are often idealized. But let's look at the possible effects of that, shall we? Because, as we all know by know, almost 50% of gamers are female.
The usual male lead character is nothing ugly. Even old or grizzled characters, like Old Snake or Marcus Fenix, are still not ugly. They might not be male model handsome, but they are pretty nice to look at. And this is something that goes through all the games. Nathan Drake in Uncharted
, Altair or Ezio in Assasin's Creed
, even Joel in The Last Of Us
, a man who basically lives on a junkyard of civilization... the list can go on forever. As with female characters like Lara Croft, the male characters aren't ugly. They never are. They are not overweight guys. Not men that are balding in their mid twenties. They don't have a body(type) that most of society would not find attractive or desirable, depending from which way you approach it. The last superhero that was ugly, as far as I can remember it, was Boogerman. And that was 1994. Even Mario, with his round belly, still doesn't look fat or even really overweight. So the notion that only male characters are granted to be "ugly" is simply not true. To say it with some biting cynicism: nobody wants to play something ugly for +8 hours.
Now one can argue that Marcus Fenix isn't sexy and any woman can be my guest in stating she wouldn't give Nathan Drake some of the old "in out, in out" even if he was the last man on earth. But this boils down to personal taste, to subjective preference. I for once wouldn't want to hump any one of the Dead or Alive
girls, but that doesn't mean they are not dollfaces with huge breats. But the thing is: the male leads are very much good looking, even if they are near retirement age or walking around in a fat space marine suit.
Of Haves and Wants
Now a point that was made was that the females are objectified and the males are idealized. The female characters are something like treasures, the player is supposed to want to have them. I find this already somewhat disturbing, since I never had a game where I was supposed to HAVE "the girl" in the end. Even in Super Mario Bros.
, one of the most simple games out there, the goal is to free the princess. The motivation is not "I wanna GET her", the motivation is "I wanna FREE her (and kill Bowser)". This was pretty much with all of the games I played and know of - some obscure stuff from Japan I'd rather not talk about aside.
I'd rather say that women are idealized pretty much too. Because even so often critisized DoA
girls are not somewhat pretty, but also very much capable of kicking ass. They are assasins and ninjas, they beat people through houses, if they must. The female side characters from Uncharted fall into the same category. They look beautiful, but are also not above popping a bullet into a bad guys head if needed. I might miss something here, but these aren't what I would call negative traits. Or did it become a negative trait to be what society deems pretty and be capable in whatever you are doing? Sure, they stand back behind the lead character... but that's because it's the LEAD character. Of course the lead will take the spotlight.
But is it really true that the female characters all get the "Want to have" stamp on their forehead and they males the "Want to be" one? I doubt that somehow. If I imagine I'd be a female player, having a handsome male lead dancing around in front of me for the whole game, I somewhat doubt the thoughts won't shift over to "I'd like to have a piece o' dat
" (heck, I'd hump old Ezio ANY day) at some point for a brief moment. As I said before, the critisized male (lead) characters are very much a nice sight to behold and if apparently no man is above thinking of wanting so simply HAVE one of the women in a game, I dare to say that the same goes the other way around. Because this is how equality works. Women want men just as much as the other way around, it's not a man only thing (IF it's considered a thing). We're not the only ones with a sexual drive or desire for certain things. Besides I'd like to add one little fact for those who are somewhat away from reality: even if the ads want to tell you otherweise, men are as much or less sitting in front of TV, staring at the sixaxis controlled breast physics, as females are looking at the realistically animated butt movements of any other character.
But wait. That would mean that female players get more to "see" than male players? I mean, sure, Ayane shows up every now and then in Ninja Gaiden
- but you can enjoy the steeled body of Mr. Hayabusa for the whole game. I can try to sneak a peek into one of the females characters decoltee during Uncharted 2
in the cutscenes, but the perfect ass of Mr. Drake is on screen for HOURS. You might see my train of thought here. As I said I refuse to believe one group of humans to be "better" in any way per se, which leaves us with the conclusion that a female gamer also has a quite a bit to look at and to desire, in terms of graphically being on screen maybe even more so than the other way around.
Another argument states that the female characters are often rarely more than background noise, a collection of tropes and onedimensional characters. I might ask: how this is in any way different with the male counterparts? I think the last time I found a character to be really profoundly written was with Planescape: Torment - and in that game, EVERY character was done that way. Princess Zelda is often listed as being a simple tool to progress the story. I won't go into talking about her triforce-role or anything canonical, but I simply would like to state that I play Zelda games since the SNES and still couldn't say anything about Link's personality. He is as onedimensional as a character can be, following every order someone barks at him without questioning or talking back. In fact, thinking about it, I know more about Zelda than about Link in terms of personality, because at least she has one. And don't give me that "You are supposed to project yourself onto Link" excuse for lazy writing.
series is just one franchise of course. In Mario I would say Peach and Mario are equally flat designed, but the series was never meant to have deep personalities. It was always pretty much about simple jump n run fun, not more and not less, with a King Kong type story - just without the morale at the end. Is Princess Peach really some bad, unfair portrait of a woman, when she was never supposed to be any more complex than the guy who tries to save her?
Effect and cause
While it's perfectly true that female characters are "sold" on a different level to the audience, I would argue that - IF some damage is even done at all (I'll get to that later) - the damage done on the male side might be even larger. Let's take a look at the prime example, Dead or Alive
. It's pretty much plasticy doll-females with highly unrealistic proportions. Because, as a little depressing funfact, many women with large breasts have actually back problems. The female Dead or Alive
cast would pretty much crippled like the hunchback with age 30.
Then on the other hand we have Nathan Drake, which I would dare to say is one of the prettiest male leads we had in some time. Nate is neither especially muscular or anything. He has a well trained body, he is fit, he knows how to deal with bad guys in a fashionable manner and has always a wisecrack on his lips. The difference here is that characters like Nathan Drake are not too unrealistic. They don't have any bodily features that are unachievable in real life. And this is where it gets critical in my opinion. Because if someone is really that demented that the person would expect something from a videogame to be true, things like "Have the body of Nate from Uncharted" are achievable. A man can't just ask of his girlfiend to suddenly get 10 pound breasts. Even with surgery, it's simply pretty much unrealistic to have a body like Kasumi & Co. because humans aren't plastic dolls (and even if some people try to look like them, it doesn't really work). However, getting in shape to have a well trained body like Nate Drake is not that hard. It requires a bit of training and bit of discipline, of course some time too. But it is very achievable. It is something that can be asked, without throwing up the question if the person is really that stupid to demand it.
Now I already put a big "if" over the whole "damage" thing. This is due to a thing many don't even seem to realize. That we are still talking about videogames. Works of fiction with fictional characters. Just because a gamer sees a certain type of characters, it won't change his view on the real world. These are two things most of us can very clearly seperate and those who can't do this, have certainly far more grave problems, than asking for big breats on women. You see, this reminds me of the whole "killer games" debate, whenever someone runs amok and the mass media finds out he played videogames. It is the same principle, but on a different sector. Instead of violence, it has to do with sex this time.
And this is the reason why I believe that there is actually no damage done by tropes. On both genders. Tropes do certainly exist, I think no one can seriously deny that, but they exist in fiction. Nobody expects someone to live out a trope in the real world, because it wouldn't even be possible on a base level for most cases. I dare to say, however, that IF we were in a society that carries expectations from gamers over to real people, men would have the bigger problems, simply because the idealizations that are presented wouldn't fail at reality. But we fought ever since mass media started shootings at videogames to be recognized at people who can seperate fiction and reality quite well. We demonstrated with teeth and nails for being treated as humans, not as potential killing machines who trained mass murders in our free time. Which brings me to the question: why does everybody agree that violence in videogames doesn't turn us in killers, but apparently some people believe tropes turn us into sexists? I can't understand the train of thought behind this.
The fact that woman are often wearing skimpy clothes, almost none at all, while men are usually fully dressed is often critizised too. Just like other things I already mentioned, I think nobody can really deny that. Women are often not only portrayed as handsome but also as sexy, which I rarely saw with male characters. But I might have an explanation for that, which I can boil down to a single word: breasts. I'd say that most of the sexualization that happens to female characters, happens through their breasts. The reasoning behind this is pretty much simple, I think: it can be shown without any "danger" and it's easy to be done in a somehwat logical way. To the first part, I think it's known that many countries are somewhat itchy about nudity, let alone full frontal nudity. I still remmber how Janet Jackson had to formally apologize for accidently showing a nipple. But showing a decoltee is fairly unproblematic. As for the logic I'd like to go back to Uncharted once more. The game plays in pretty warm regions, so it's fairly normal to wear a light shirt with some open buttons. It makes sense in the setting. And voila. There you have a sidecharacter which is showing off the goods. On the other hand are we living in a society that is pretty much sexualized. Not only is our brain hardwired to screw most of the time anyway, Sex is slapped in our faces almost daily. Even if we don't really actively pursue it, we are pretty much fixated on it. Seeing a cleavage, many don't even consider the context of the game - it's straight to the "OMG boobs!"-part of the brain. But like I said, full nudity is somewhat problematic and since the anatomy of the males is as it is, it gets somewhat problematic to show the equivalent here.
Now, of course there are the stupid examples too. While the aforementioned example from Uncharted
made sense, when I see for example Ivy
from Soul Calibur
, I have to wonder. One can't deny that there ARE designs that are clearly only there to serve some sort of mild fetish, pure fanservice (everyone who took one glance at Neon Genesis Evangelion
merchandise knows exactly what I mean). And it's very hard to draw a line here. Is the outfit supposed to signal that the character wearing it is so self confident, that the character thinks it's fitting? Is it something the designer got off to? Was it designed so the audience will get off to it? We can't really tell in most cases. I would think that the usual thought process is "What will look cool and appealing to the audience we want to get?" and they roll with the results - but that is just my opinion. Only certain designers will be able to tell that.
As I said in an earlier blog entry
, I just doubt that the whole industry (including gamers) is sexist, but of course there are people in it that are. I'm also pretty sure that there are individuals that are racists, drug addicts, alcoholics and a lot of other negative things. Those people DO exist and it's fair and just to call them out on their behaviour, if they show it. But that doesn't make "the industry" a big evil monster. Having a side character being not as well/deep written as the lead is just in the nature of the thing.
But videogames usually don't want teach us something. They are entertainment, not education (at least most of them). Just as much as Stephen King's IT
doesn't want to teach us to fuck children. And as much as I'm sure that no one will expect a real person to look like a Dead or Alive
girl, I doubt any player will seriously take a lesson about how to treat the other gender - or ANYone for that matter - from a game. Which leads me to something I broke my head over...
So what is exactly the problem here?
It might seem silly to you, I bet many even laughed tauntingly. But the thing is: I've read and heard so much about the industry having a problem, this HUGE problem that HAS to be solved, better yesterday than today, and that is simply intolerable anymore. But I ask you... what problem exactly? No one ever really put it in one simple sentence and the same goes for a solution. As established before I pretty much think both genders are portrayed in certain tropes and with certain goals. And as I hopefully made it clear, I'm pretty sure it has the same effect on reality for both genders. The portrayal may differ in detail, but the result in the end stays the same. I guess many never considered this side even, because, why would you, right? After all women were supressed so long, now it's their turn! Yeah, allright, but if it's equality that is demanded, it doesn't work like this. Equality has to be a pendulum that swings both ways or it is something else. And I for one completly refuse to take some guilt for something generations before me did. That didn't work with the Third Reich (and by god it was tried already, more than once) and it won't work here. You are completly free to measure me by the things I do and say and if you think I am really wrong, I even ask you to call me out on it. But you simply can't hold me responsible for the things [u]other[/u] people did. You can't hold the fact up to me that women were oppressed for so long and demand I do something because of that. You can't do it for the same reason you can't blame todays australians for their forefathers being criminals. So if you are angry about the writing of certain characters, consider the whole picture and direct your anger correctly.
Then again, many people thing being pissed gives them certain rights. I think it was some comedian that said something along the lines of that already, but simply being offended doesn't give anyone any rights. It's a statement about how you feel, but somebody will always be offended by something. Some people are offended by videogames that contain violence and the reaction we gamers give them usually is that we tell them they don't have to watch them, they don't have to play them, that there is more to videogames than gore and that games don't turn us into killers. This statement might offend you (no pun intended), but it's something people need to realize. Simply being offended by the fact that Ivy wears almost no clothes and stating that, will neither solve the problem nor do ANYTHING at all. Crying and screaming and insulting won't get you anywhere. And as already said, someone will always be offended. You can't please everybody, it's not possible.
But besides that, let's get back to the initial question: what is exactly this problem the industry is supposed to have? The only thing I could come up with is an imbalance of gender. It's certainly true that I can, at least from the top of my head (correct me if I'm wrong, please), recall far more male leads than female ones. That is not to say that there are no strong, well done female characters at all, but as I said before: sidecharacters are usually not written out too much, because they are sidecharacters. The most characterization, be it well done or not, is given to the lead. If the lead is a male, you see to what result this leads. And when it comes to maincharacters, I think the male characters outweigh the females.
Even considering the imbalance being the problem... what is exactly the problem with that? Sure, I can understand if one wants to see more female leads. In fact, I myself would wish there are more female main characters, simply because it feels like it is done so rarely and I like variety. It felt somewhat fresh to play Tomb Raider (2013)
, actually. But I would consider this a wish, not a problem, as a problem has tu have some negative effect. The only negative effect I actually can observe is, that it upsets some people. I also remember a Mass Effect infographic
that stated that only 18% of all players played as a female shephard, although they had total freedom of choice without any repercussions for choosing any gender. Considering that half of the Mass Effect players are supposedly females, it seems not even them want to necessarily have more female leads (which would prove the point I made earlier, that female players may in fact like to see a male lead that they find attractive as much as a male player possibly likes to see a female character that is attractive). This imbalance might not be fair, quite literally spoken, but then again... is it really hurting anyone? Has anyone lost anything, because it's Marcus Fenix and not Marcia Fenix? Because it's Serious Sam and not Serious Samantha? Because it's Super Mario and not Super Marianna? I somewhat doubt it.
Now it might be that you are simply unhappy with the chosen tropes for one gender and you are well within your rights to feel that way. But that doesn't make the tropes of the other gender any less existent. It doesn't make those tropes any better, just because you, as a person, think that you would feel more comfortable with them. You may feel uncomfortable with them, but as with being offended, that doesn't automatically give you any more rights. It's a subjective opinion. I mentioned Ivy from Soul Calibur
before, as she is often named as a prime example. And just to give an example of how opinions can differ here: my very own girlfriend, as someone who likes Soul Caliber
, has stated that she found Ivy pretty much hot and that she would cosplay that outfit any given day, if she had the body for it. I myself made similiar statements about some male characters. This is how opinions can go apart and it's not a bad thing. But it's also not a proof something being actually wrong. And if you really feel your self-esteem hurt because a videogame character fullfills an unrealistic ideal of beauty, get that complex sorted out. I don't even mean that insulting or patronizing, but as serious as I can get. A work of fiction should get nobody worked up about how the person looks in real life and if you feel a game has this effect on you, try to work on that, because this will become only a bigger and bigger problem, ruining a perfectly fine hobby. I think it has been made clear that I think nobody should or can expect tropes from a videogame to become reality, but the very last person that should expect this is the gamer.
As to the reason why there are more male leads (in games where you can't choose a gender), well, I wouldn't call it sexism. More wrong assumptions, really. Remember the dilemma of there being no female focus testers for The Last Of Us
? Or that Elizabeth was edited out of the frontside of the cover from Bioshock Infinite
? Now, I can really understand how someone can actually see sexism here at work. Honestly, I do. Maybe it even was the case. Maybe the person who was to decide who got into those focus testing groups for The Last Of Us
was a sexist. The thing is: we don't [u]know[/u]. And at least where I come from, accusing someone of sexism is not a petty thing, so I wouldn't want to accuse someone of it on blind assumption. I wouldn't want to deny the option either, of course, for the very same reasons. I don't believe that people are inherintly good beings, so I would never deny the option of someone doing something not nice per se. As I said earlier however, I don't see the industry as a whole being sexist and I think it's far more realistic setting, that someone simply didn't consider females for the focus testing group, because that person isn't up to date with the scene. If you really believe that games are mainly played by men, you would want men in the focus testing group, because those are the audience you want to reach. So the crux seems to be more that someone is out of touch, not good at his job or simply made a mistake (and that happens to all of us).
Might that be "the problem"? That the industry, the people who make the decisions, simply are out of touch? Looking at the things going on, I have to say I find that more and more realistically. If I want to get the points for the online store that are attached to certain 3DS games, I have to fill out a long survey. Each and every time I want to redeem a code, again and again, the same survey. It's incredibly annoying and I wonder how no one at Nintendo figured, that the customer might do this once, but every time after that will simply click on any answer to get through the survey as fast as possible. You need a credit card for the PSN store, while PayPal is as widespread as it gets and many people who don't have a creditcard have Paypal, or can at least get it very easily and without any cost. But apparently Sony doesn't want that money. And let's not get started with Microsoft, after their X-Box One desaster. They showed how close they are to their customers. Companies that don't want female lead characters because they think it won't work with audiences, companies that think females in focus testing groups are not necessary, companies that think pushing a female main character to the back of the box is something nobody cares about... consider all the things and it draws a sad picture.
It shows that the industry we chose to be our favorite pasttime is old, and dusty, and can't keep up with modern times. They are stuck in their ways, with their heads still in those times, when gaming was dominated by men and those women who played didn't voice their opinion about that. Consider this for a moment, think about it, and I think you might see it too: the industry doesn't know us anymore. It didn't notice the changes, it didn't notice the increase of female players, and thus it sticks to it's old ways and routines. While designing females to look like a Conan illustration doesn't effectively hurt anyone, doing stuff like with the focus groups will make people angry - and rightfully so. Because it's stuff like that, that will make you look like you are sexist to the outside. It will make it look like you don't care about female gamers, that you don't even know they exist.
I think I figured out what the problem is here...
So what now?
You know what? I won't tell you to vocalize yourself, if something strikes you as odd or wrong. If you bring up the spirit to truly fight for a cause that seems important to you - more power to you. Far too many people just step back, being afraid of any kind of conflict. But let me ask something of you, allright? If you stand up for a cause, consider all the angles. Think about what you are really angry about. Don't shout, don't insult, don't neglect the portrayal of other groups than the one you have interest in, because you simply think it's not worth looking into that group. Because that might be exactly the thought process of those people, who didn't deem female gamers important enough for a focus testing group. And also prepare your argument and do it well. Whenever you state something publicly you will be called out on it by someone. Be ready to face those people with a well laid out argumentation.
But also consider if what you are angry about actually does have any effects. When we, as gamers, argument that violent games won't turn us into a danger to society, how can we, in the same breath, state that a fighting game character in skimpy clothing harm the picture of women?
It took me a lot of time to write this down and get these thoughts sorted out, biggest reason for that being that I don't care about the gender of my characters. I, as a gamer, care about the game. I want to be entertained, want to play a good video game. But thinking about it for a while, especially after reading a blog of Elsa
, showed a side I had never considered - that tropes go both ways here (although Elsa's blog was about pretty despicable real life incidents). Different tropes, mostly, but tropes nonetheless. And yet, in the end, those tropes don't really affect reality. We are thinking human beings after all, not Zombies that go "Durr, seen in game, want in real life". Neither the men nor the women. It ends at the same spot where it started for both genders. Consider what the real effects are, before spewing poison in all directions with ridicoulus overstatements. Because like this, barely anyone will take you seriously.
But like I said, if that imbalance of male to female characters is something that annoys you, voice your opinion. Just do it civilized and balanced. Because if enough people will call for female leads, for stuff like the Bioshock Infinite cover drama and stuff like that not to happen again, companies will have no choice but to hear it. We, all of us, are the people that keep them alive. It's our money they want and it's bad publicity they fear. And if anything has been proven, then that this industry will listen to us, if the voice our opinion clearly enough. As a customer, you have a certain power - use it, but with responsibility.
Thanks and Salida.
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