So, as if the title wasn't a giveaway, then yeah, I want to talk about sexism.
"But Titus, all anyone does anymore is talk about sexism and gaming! Why don.t you just, like, get over it?"
Because believe it or not, sexism is still a very big part of the gaming industry. And it's not going to go away until we've dragged it out and shown it under the cold light of day to be what it is.
I want to get something out of the way right from the off, something which I think isn't made clear enough in these debates: women make up a huge part of the gaming audience now. In fact, studies have regularly pinned female gamers at making up between 40-50% of the total gaming audience. That's around half of all gamers out there. Despite all the jokes and memes, female gamers are no longer a rare thing. I've met plenty of girls myself who openly admitted to enjoying games. Some preferred Nintendo games like Super Mario, others were committed 'core' gamers who bought games like COD and Halo Reach on launch day.
It's important to stress this point, simply because of a lot of the arguments which get brought up in discussions around sexism and gaming. Namely, that the industry can get away with a lot of its more... problematic portrayals of women, by virtue of the fact that this is still largely seen by many gamers as a boy's hobby. Quite frankly, this is bollocks. This isn't the Eighties anymore, and gamers aren't the weird D&D nerds who used to give everyone else the heebie jeebies. Gaming has arrived as a mainstream, mass-appeal medium. I think we can all agree with that. With that mass appeal comes an increase in the number of demographics it reaches. It's only logical to assume that, with an increase in the number of gamers by hundreds of millions, more and more of those gamers are women. And this is what the studies have borne out.
Again, half. Half of gamers now are women.
Here's something to put it in even more perspective- the number of women over 18 playing videogames is larger than the number of guys under 18 playing games. You know that teenage male demographic that the industry likes to court with titillating character design, brosplosions and interesting new uses for the word 'fuck'? They're now a minority demographic compared to women gamers.
So, what's my issue? My issue is this. Not only does the industry seem reluctant to try and change its structure and its games to be more accommodating to women, but many gamers still seem hostile to this idea that women might want to play their games as well. It's a mindset I'm sure many of you have witnessed first-hand. It's the idea that any attempt to address sexism is an attempt by the feminists, or even the feminazis, to try and actively take our games away. That we won't be able to play Call of Brosplosionfield anymore because those damn horrible feminists won't let us have any fun.
It's a fucking stupid mindset. And I mean the stupidest of the stupid.
Firstly, this mindset tries to paint as one united group a movement which has diverged, splintered and fractured more than any other. There are no 'the' feminists, just as there aren't 'the' racists, or 'the' conservatives. There are a number of different groups, ideologies and arguments that exist under the umbrella term of 'Feminism', and they all differ from each other in important, sometimes profound ways. Believe it or not, but not every feminist subscribes to the Political Lesbian Separatism movement, or the Virginia Wolfe Navel Gazing movement. This idea that feminism as a whole is some united force that's trying to impinge on our right to play videogames is just farcicle, but I keep seeing it get brought up time and time again. Apparently 'the feminists' are trying to infringe on so-and-so's right to play the games he enjoys, or are trying to stop such-and-such from getting to play that hot new shooter that's coming out next month.
This is an argument that I'm seeing more and more, and that worries me, because it's an argument which strives to shut down argument and debate, rather than engage in it. Rather than looking at issues, we see gamers trying to ignore them by claiming them as the whinging of 'the feminists', as if that somehow makes them comparable to people who claim to have seen Bigfoot, or been abducted by aliens, or who've heard a good Coldplay song. These issues aren't fairy stories or conspiracy theories. These issues are real. You only need talk to ANY random female 360 player, and chances are at some point she'll have been harrassed over Live because of her gender. This sort of thing is endemic, and we need to start looking to fix it pronto.
Secondly, it's a mindset which tries to stop people from calling out developers when they make legitimate fuck-ups. I don't think I'll be surprising anyone when I say that many gamers, possibly even the majority, can exhibit rather worrying mild signs of addiction when it comes to certain game franchises they love. We're certainly not a medium of crackheads, and I'm not trying to imply that, but there's this apparent trend among many gamers where a game will be forgiven a multitude of seemingly great sins simply because it's the latest in 'X' franchise, or the newest game from 'Y' developer. It's that idea of needing to get a certain fix, and being able to overlook some rather worrying issues in order to get it from a beloved franchise or developer.
I'm going to potentially rustle a lot of feathers now and bring up Dragon's Crown, the latest game from 2D maestros Vanillaware. Now, I've got a huge amount of respect for Vanillaware. In an era where retro-16 bit 2D games are all the rage, Vanillaware buck the trend and show what's possible when you go all out with beautifully drawn hi-resolution art instead. Games like Odin Sphere and Muramasa are just stunning to look at. I have nothing but respect for Vanillaware's accomplishments within the 2D genre, which is why I feel so troubled over, well...
See, here's the thing. Dragon's Crown is an undoubtedly stylised game. All the characters have a certain over-the-top style to them. Personally I feel from an aesthetic view that Dragon's Crown is much weaker than previous Vanillaware games. The other characters like the Amazon and Dwarf are a mess of steroid-fuelled muscles that play into power fantasy archetypes, but which just look unappealing and messy. But the Sorceress is my real point of contention. Partly because of her design, but partly as well because of how we've reacted to her.
See, from a design perspective, there's almost nothing to her but sexualisation. Look at that above picture. Really look at it. What are the highlighted design features we see here? Clearly not her face. Not only is it comparatively tiny, but it's half-concealed by her hat, and overshadowed by her hair. The most prominent design elements are, quite simply, her tits and her arse. Not only is she doing the classic impossible-spinal-twist to show both those elements off, while bending over, no less, but both assets have been inflated to extreme degrees. Her boobs aren't just large, they're ridiculously so. That behind isn't just prominent, it's the literal centrepiece of the design as portrayed in the picture. The entire rest of the picture revolves around the centre that is her bottom. Not only that, but she's taking the skull from a skeleton (I imagine due to being a necromancer), and shoving it up into her ridiculously low cut cleavage.
This picture is, quite literally, of a pneumatically titted woman motorboating a skull while waving her arse at the viewer.
The only other emphasised feature here is the miles and miles of leg on display through that generous slit in the side of her skirt. Again, not exactly subtle here.
I would hope that I'm not alone here in concluding that the character design shown here is rather strongly focused on sexualisation. I mean, she's riding her staff up the crack of her behind like it's some sort of Anne Summers toy she's modelling, so I really don't think I'm reaching. But even if I'm wrong, there's something which disturbs me even moreso than this.
Whenever I've seen this issue get brought up on forums, both here and at sites like Neogaf, the people raising concern are shouted down by those who think there's nothing to worry about. Now, I have no problem with people disagreeing with me if there is room for us both to debate an issue. What I have a problem with is people even refusing to look at an issue, because it doesn't conform to their notions of what's going on. Even worse are when people admit there is an issue, but claim that as a member of a privileged group (in this case, hetero male), they should be free to enjoy that privileged, and damn what anyone else thinks. "Well I'm a male and I enjoy looking at titties, so what's the problem?"
If you like looking at tittles, either get a girlfriend or go watch some porn. When a mainstream level game is pushing ridiculous boobage like this for cheap titillation, it makes me wonder just what he developers think of their audience. Are they being cynical by cashing in on such cheap objectification, or do they actively enjoy and encourage such portrayals of women?
I'm going to bring that claim from the beginning back again: half. Half of all gamers now are women. Half the people going out and buying games, reading reviews, playing Angry Birds on the bus and pwning noobs online are female.
Now, there is a certain understanding when you work on anything other than the most indie of indie games that when bringing stuff to market, you should try and avoid stuff that's deliberately offensive or belittling to certain demographics or minorities. You couldn't justify a game with a homophobic main character, for instance, by claiming that the majority of your players are straight. Likewise, you couldn't justify having a character go black-face by claiming the majority of your audience is white. Regardless of who your game is aimed at, there's an assumption that you should treat the general public with respect.
This character isn't respectful to women. I would be embarrassed to play this game in front of any woman I know. This character presents such a hyper-sexualised portrayal of women, it feels like it belongs more in a fantasy Hentai than it does a follow up to something as good as Muramasa. Even if Vanillaware wanted to specifically target young, horny male gamers with their new game (even though as mentioned, that's now a minority demographic), there's no reason they couldn't have done that without also presenting a rather outdated portrayal of a woman that patronises half the gaming community out there.
What particularly riles me up is that we haven't been afraid to raise a stink about this before. I'm sure many gamers will remember when Namco were working on Soul Calibur IV, and their character designs for Ivy looked like this:
And of course, there was the promotion art which looked like this:
...and gamers raised a stink about it. We recognised that this was a rather shameless piece of objectification, and we got onto Namco about it. We told them it was cheap, tacky, and utterly sleazy. It didn't change the game itself, of course, but it at least got them to dress Ivy moderately more sensibly in Soul Calibur V, and to stop with the gratuitous boob adverts.
People have been getting onto Team Ninja for years about this exact same issue regarding the Dead or Alive series, to the point where it's all the series is practically known for- counter based combat, and titties. I remember when DoA3 came out, and the trailer included on my OXM demo disc had a rather shameless gratuitous shot of a pair of breasts attached to a girl suspended in a giant test tube. Now, from what I can tell, Team Ninja have seriously started to haul back on the gratuitous jiggle physics, but it's still all anyone talks about, and not exactly in glowing terms.
Why is it, then, that in those instances we were so ready to call out some rather dodgy portrayals of women, yet in this case we seem so reluctant to? I mean, the Dragon's Crown example doesn't seem all that different- there's a ludicrous focus on tits and ass, to the exclusion of almost everything else about the character. Is it a fear of being called a 'White Knight', that term which seems to have been created to shut down discussions of sexism before they even begin? Do we just not care all that much any more? Is it really not that big of a deal?
I think it is. Again, gaming is now made up of more women-folk than it ever has been before, and I think we should try and ensure that it's as welcome and open a community as possible. There's room for different niches and demographics, sure, but I'd like to think there's a way to go around making games without deliberately objectifying women. Maybe that idea of a welcoming community is where I'm wrong though. As a culture, the 'hardcore' gaming community seems to define itself based on all the people it tries to exclude. We've seen this time and time again with the way 'hardcore' gamers refer to 'casual' gaming as some sort of slur. We see it in the way PC gamers look down on console gamers, and vice versa. The way 360 owners look down on PS3 owners, and both look down on Wii or Wii U owners.
Despite 30 years of advancement, gaming still seems to be a community of warring tribes, like the Italy represented in the Aeneid, and perhaps that's why these problems haven't disappeared yet. In order to overcome any sort of -ism, be it sexism, racism or what-have-you, you need to have an overriding desire amongst the community to overcome such divisions and build bridges. And sad as it is, but maybe the gaming community, with its fractured install bases constantly squabbling with each other, simply isn't minded towards building bridges. Maybe that 40-50% of the total gaming audience is always going to have to view things from the outside, from the recieving end of Xbox Live insults, sleazy advertising, booth babe culture and terrible character design.
I really hope not. I'd really love to think that one day we as a gaming community could not just openly embrace all the women who want to join in, and all the different feminists along with them, but any sort of minority or demographic. Anyone who wants to play games, no matter how casual or hardcore, whether they're male, female, straight, gay, black or white, it'd be an open invitation for everyone to come join in the interactive fun. A community united by the love of the medium. But I think we'd need some pretty drastic changes first. Not just in the industry itself, and the way developers and publishers make and market their games, but in the way we as gamers view the medium, and the community that surrounds it.
I'm going to make an addendum here, and recommend that before the comments devolve further into tirades of "Men are sexualised too!" "What's wrong with games for men!" and all that other crap that always appears in these debates, readers of this blog take the time to read thesearticles on Nerd culture and the male gaze from the Doctor Nerdlove page.
These articles cover the idea of sexism/male privilege in nerd culture in a staggering amount of detail, and point out all the ways that the male gaze in geek culture, but particularly in gaming, as a topic needs to be addressed. Pointing out that the majority of gamers are male, or that Kratos and Batman are ludicrously muscley, doesn't address the actual topic at hand, it's just deflection from the real issue here.