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Feminist Theory and Video Games: An Examination of Gender in Earthbound

*Please note that this work was written for an audience that is not familiar with video games.

I. Introduction

During the early 1990’s, marketing for video games began its sharp shift from the idea of “family fun,” embodied largely in puzzle games such as Tetris, to games made specifically for males. Various developers began to mass-produce masculine-oriented games aimed directly at males aged 13-25, leaving a large portion of the gaming community – females – unaddressed.[1] Some notable examples include the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series, and a slew of first-person shooters, starting with Doom.[2] With much difficulty, publishing companies such as Her Interactive started releasing what they called “video games for girls.”[3] These games, such as Barbie Fashion Designer and Cosmo Virtual Makeover presented the masculine-dominated game market with a variety of titles specifically aimed at female (or feminine) youths.[4] However, dividing the video game market into two unequal parts in a way that mirrored patriarchal societal beliefs concerning gender norms seemed to create and perpetuate a distinct gender binary within the content of video games, with masculine traits such as violence and action directed at males, and feminine attributes such as beauty and passivity at females. While games structured around “family fun,” those that were abstract and thus largely gender-neutral, were still being produced, more often than not a published game was aimed at one of these two gendered markets, and mostly toward males.

Coinciding with the perpetuation of a distinct gendered binary in video game content was the rise of the console-driven visual role-playing game pioneered by the publishing company Square Soft and their hit game, Final Fantasy. Many games followed in the footsteps of Final Fantasy, such as the two popular titles Chrono Trigger and Secret of Mana, and of course, many other titles in the Final Fantasy series.[5] These games presented the player with an avatar to control and complete tasks with in a fantasy-driven virtual environment. These tasks, such as fighting enemies, would most often culminate in a serious and complicated quest in which the avatar and his or her friends would end up changing the (fantasy) world in some dramatic way, ultimately serving as heroes.[6] The avatar functions as an agent for the player, and allows the player to create a self to identify with in his or her manipulation of the avatar’s actions.[7]

Since the avatar and the world of the role-playing game is represented in a visual and interactive manner, the representation of the avatar and its actions combined with the elements of escapism that a fantasy realm offer may also serve as agents for gender socialization in the creation of a virtual self. Gender socialization, the process through which the values and normative behaviors associated with particular genders (usually a gendered binary: male and female) in a society are learned, is no stranger to the realm of video games. Video games function as gendered play spaces, and distinct genres of games have developed and are marketed according to the previously-mentioned gendered binary. Alongside the division of masculine and feminine amongst game genres, games marketed toward males are generally linear and goal-driven, whereas games marketed toward females are typically non-linear and exploratory.[8]

A vast majority of the more popular role-playing video games are marketed to males and feature a core concept that is masculine-driven, focusing on violence, action, and heroism. These games also marginalize and sexualize women in both representation and concept, offering to the player a hyper-masculine avatar to create a self through. Combined with a game’s ability to draw a player into immersion through interactivity and fantasy elements (escapism), the creation of a self becomes problematic as heteronormative values are perpetuated. However, there may be an exception, which I will propose as the basis for my thesis. The video game Earthbound provides mechanics, an interface, and an urban setting that parody most fantasy narratives and role-playing games, creating a world in which immersion and escapism are challenged and conceptualized in the forefront of the gaming experience. This creates an outlet through which the fiction of the gender binary is made present in the creation of the self. I will argue that all of these factors allow Earthbound to highlight the construction and instability of normative gender values, even while it appears to, on the surface, promote them.

An examination of how Earthbound highlights the construction and perpetuation of gender norms and the resistance of gender socialization through the interactive medium of video games may also present an interesting and largely underrepresented field of study. Video games are a type of interactive media that convey symbolic messages about gender roles and social reality through both the physical depiction of females and the occupation of certain roles by female characters. Studies have shown that the video games which have gained the most popularity among consumers most often focus on violence and portray femininity with negative representations, with female characters shown as hyper-sexualized with exaggerated feminine features and scant clothing, often also playing a passive or supportive role such as a submissive or victimized character.[9] The absence of female characters combined with overly negative portrayals of females in video games which promote violence reinforce gender stereotypes such as the valuation of beauty over intellect. These concepts discourage females from playing video games as they struggle to identify with these characters. This further perpetuates the idea that the market for video games should be aimed toward males.[10] By working through the methods that Earthbound has used to both highlight and break down these constructions, perhaps a basis for the awareness of the gender divide and how gender socialization functions within video games may be developed. This game provides a potential model for changing both the gendered content of video games and the marketing decisions of the industry that produces them, ultimately leading to a deconstruction of the stark gender division.

II. Feminism and Video Game Gender Theories

An overview of both Judith Butler’s feminist theories and video game gender theories will lay the groundwork for this argument. Butler argues that gender, sexuality, and the body are all constructs defined by the heteronormative systems of power, systems that put constraints on what is perceived as viable in our society.[11] She states that gender is not inherent or automatic. It involves doing and performing, even if within sets of boundaries. Most of this performing occurs for something or someone outside of oneself, just as the constraints and terms defining gender performativity also exist outside of oneself.[12] The qualifications for the subject of gender, that which traditionally and stereotypically designates one either a man or a woman, are the products of social systems and unstable. Some have theorized that the totality of the systems represent an inherently masculine and oppressive normative value through which everything else (such as femininity and women) is judged against. However, to vertically combine all of these systems is to unnecessarily designate a linear and universal path that contributes to the identification of gender.[13]

There is no primary cause for the polarized gender binary that seems to influence every aspect of our social spheres, but rather, many causes that are influenced and perpetuated by gender socialization. The practices which regulate gender formation and difference contribute to the creation of an identity. However, these practices also have largely succumbed to the values which constitute heteronormativity, making it culturally impossible for certain identities to exist, such as those which do not fall into the oppositions of male and female, or more specifically, feminine and masculine.[14] Video games as gendered play spaces, or agents of gender socialization, serve as interactive representations of such systems, practices, and causes, and as such, may either perpetuate or push against the normative values of a particular society concerning sex and gender. Semiotics may be utilized to understand further how video games present gendered ideologies and values. Like any other media which presents visual images, video games offer a construction based on symbolic association. Certain signifiers may become associated with various values that promote and perpetuate a gender binary associated with biological sex. Semiotics and video game gender theory conclude that promoting the ideas that uphold a gender binary based on masculinity and femininity limit societal roles, and also the imagination of humans.[15]

How might video games like Earthbound resist the promotion of a gendered binary through interactivity and socialization? The answer may be in its blatant portrayal of the binary through both character representations and actions, which will be returned to at a later point. Most analyses of the relationships between video games and gender focus on two main concepts: the dominance of what are considered masculine game themes, and the representation of a gender (predominantly that which is considered female) within games. For the second issue, combined with a general lack of character presence, females in games are most often represented within narrow stereotypes, such as the damsel in distress or subjects for the male gaze. These characters are also linked to what are considered feminine attributes or characteristics, such as passivity in the face of male action or caretaker/supportive roles.[16]

Sexuality must also be taken into account. Most often in video games, heterosexuality functions as a normative social value, and strongly affects how characters develop and how storylines are formed. A multilevel approach must be taken when studying sexuality in games, and how represented sexuality plays out in the depiction and reception of the concept of gender. Character representation – appearance, mannerisms, dialogue, and situations – must be taken into account, as well as game-play performativity, or the experience of manipulating a character and performing actions under a given sexual identity or gender.[17]

The genre in which Earthbound functions is also important. The genre of fantasy role-playing games allows the playing of a character (either chosen, customizable, or fully pre-determined) which may often gain experience points for performing tasks or participating in battles. These games more often than not portray male heroes that encourage a player to explore a masculine role as they perform actions relevant to the game-play. Heroism, as presented in video games, reflects various cultural understandings of the roles of women and men when it comes to both fighting the bad and upholding the good in any given society. These presentations might reflect traditional gender roles or contradict them entirely.[18] Male action heroes are often presented as masculine, active, goal-oriented, and aggressive, using violence to fight enemies. Being young or handsome does not seem to matter for this role, but having the ability to captivate the women they are rescuing or assisting does. While male heroes may express sensitivity and warmth at given moments, they generally do not give into these feelings.[19] Female action heroes tend to offer a more mediated and negotiated gender representation. They often possess traditionally masculine attributes such as aggressiveness and strength, yet also reflect at the same time a type of hyper-femininity in their beauty, youth, and sexuality. They play masculine roles, and yet at the same time are expected to operate within traditionally-outlined structures that support male power and reinforce beauty, sexuality, and other feminine traits (patriarchal ideas of the feminine). Ultimately, female heroes are depicted as stronger, faster, and more aggressive than normal human beings, but also fitting within traditionally and stereotypically defined gender roles.[20]

While female characters as heroes are often present in role-playing games, they are outnumbered by the male characters and mostly serve to support the male characters through the storyline, their attributes, or pre-defined actions. Experience points that are gained through completing goals are spent in different ways on male and female characters to advance certain traits. Male characters are often given boosts in strength and agility, while female characters are more likely to be given magical boosts that enable them to support the male characters, such as magical spells which may grant a male character higher defense.[21]

III. Earthbound: Highlighting the Construction of Gender through Blatancy, Parody, and Resistance to Immersion

It is pertinent to apply these various theories and themes to Earthbound to present how both games within it exemplify and reject traditional modes of video game gender socialization in their structure and representation. Earthbound was created by a team headed by Shigesato Itoi in 1995, and is now supported by a large cult following.[22] In this game, the player may control an avatar represented by a young boy named Ness. The player also has partial control, essentially choosing battle actions, over three other characters, two more boys named Jeff and Poo, and a young girl named Paula.[23] Both Ness and Paula are visually represented as characters that would fit nicely into a typical 1950’s idyllic American (white) narrative. Ness is presented as an “average” young boy who wears a red and blue baseball cap, striped tee-shirt, and a backpack. Paula wears a pink dress and sports two red bows in her hair. Ness’s primary weapon is a baseball bat. Paula’s is a frying pan. The differences in gender traits are already becoming stark in the visual description of these two characters. Ness, while not given a blatant weapon such as a sword or gun, is nonetheless given a fighting object which is representative of a traditionally male and action-oriented sport. Paula, as a girl, is essentially given a kitchen tool to use in battle. While both characters possess magical abilities, Ness’s are the more powerful ones, whereas Paula is given element-oriented magic, connecting her psychic powers to nature.

Sprites depicting Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo

The addition of two other male characters to this duo heavily skews the team toward the masculine, as Paula becomes a minority in both sex and feminine traits. Jeff is marked as the most intelligent member of the team, and is the only character that is able to fix broken machines and construct weapons such as rocket launchers and chemical sprays. He wears glasses and what appears to be a male school uniform. Intelligence is clearly linked to the male in his case. Poo is a bit more complex. The player encounters Poo in Dalaam, a setting that is a mash-up of a variety of buildings and objects that are stereotypically thought of as Eastern. He wears what appears to be a Karate gi and has a shaved head with a topknot. Poo is revealed to be the crown prince of Dalaam, which is full of female characters that all seem to be enamored with him. He relies on martial arts and magic to fight, and can use many of the element-oriented magic spells that Paula is in possession of. While he is clearly marked as masculine in his abilities to attract female attention and use the strength of his body effectively, he is also curiously linked to the East and the spells which connect Paula, as a female, to nature. In these four characters we see a mirroring of Western heteronormative values reflected in the character representations that are exemplified by gendered attributes, sex, and race. The masculine attributes which constitute the concept of male in a Western society are dominant and powerful, while the feminine qualities are marginalized and also associated with the “otherness” of the East.[24] The player is essentially invited to play these characters and create a self in a fantasy world that reflects popular societal beliefs in the “real” world.

The situational backgrounds of both Ness and Paula reflect a heteronormative, gendered binary as well. Ness lives in a suburban house with his mother and sister who both fulfill supportive roles for him. His mother will cook for him upon demand (replenishing his health), and his sister will store items not in use for later retrieval. His father is able to be contacted via the telephone, but is absent from the home throughout the entire span of the game, whereas his mother and sister never leave the house. Ness may obtain money from his father, however, by calling him. If Ness has beaten enough enemies, his father will deposit money into his ATM account. This reinforces the notion of the normal Western family where the women serve as caretakers within the home and the men are away from the home working and earning money for the family.[25] The player is put in the situation of the enterprising male youth, who freely ventures throughout the world with both types of support from his parents.

Paula’s gendered identity as a female is reinforced through two tropes, that of the female-as-caretaker/supporter and the damsel-in-distress.[26] Paula’s home is also a pre-school, where she and her mother serve as caretakers to the children that attend. To obtain Paula within the player’s controlled team, the player (as Ness) must first rescue her from Mr. Carpainter, the leader of a bizarre blue-worshipping cult. He must then deliver her back to her mother and the pre-school, who grants Paula permission to travel under the supervision of Ness. It is implicit that Paula’s role to the children of the pre-school is motherly in nature, and that her position as a female does not grant her the same sort of freedom that Ness is granted. As a sidenote, both Poo and Jeff are granted explicit freedom to travel on their own, Jeff sneaking out of a boarding school right in front of his supervisor, and Poo charged with the important mission of helping Ness, leaving from his palace with the blessing of his father and mentor.

The other characters that the team of Ness, Paula, Jeff, and Poo interact with give the player an overall sense that the forces that have influence over the world are all male-gendered. A representative sampling of characters from Onett, the first town that Ness must complete tasks in, brings up no females that have a significant impact on Ness’s actions or the completion of goals within the game. There are female characters which populate the town, but none of these characters provide meaningful interactions which produce an impact on in-game events or add insightful information to the storyline. Ness must interact with the mayor of the town, the police chief and his force, and the local gang leader, all of whom are male, violence or leadership oriented, and also serve as key checkpoints for the completion of goals within the game. This trend follows throughout the rest of the game as well.

An examination of minor (non-player) characters, such as those who populate the towns and other locations but have little to no bearing on the completion of any tasks or goals provide some interesting differences in representation. Doctors, healers, officers, bodyguards, and salesmen are depicted as male, whereas nurses and fast-food workers are female. There are disproportionate amounts of males and females represented in general, with males outweighing females significantly.[27] There are also strange differences in depiction between males and female. There are a set of sprites for females that feature an almost grotesque smile reminiscent of lipstick being smeared across a face. None of the male sprites feature such bizarre facial characteristics, but are represented with simple lines that denote facial features such the eyes and mouth. The “otherness” of women may be seen in this difference, or at the least, these depictions of females differ greatly in appearance from the majority of other characters, which are male.[28]

Female Sprites

So far, Earthbound seems to fall completely in line with both the theories of Butler concerning heteronormative values and the gendered binary within the content of video games. The characters, their attributes, and the settings surrounding them present a masculine-oriented game based on action with male dominance in character representation. However, this begins to break down with the introduction of Mr. Saturn, an interesting character that fails to present a clearly-defined gender based on socio-normative values. Mr. Saturn, or rather, the multitudes of Mr. Saturn[29] that occupy a village that is pivotal to the storyline of Earthbound present a figure reminiscent of a human with conflicting attributes. Mr. Saturn is visually depicted as a round, flesh-colored figure with a face that dominates its figure. Its appendages include a large nose, feet, and whiskers. It has one hair with a large red bow attached protruding from the top of its figure. Eyebrows and two small dots for eyes complete the figure of Mr. Saturn. All of Mr. Saturn’s characteristics seem to mimic human features, but do not coalesce into an actual human figure. Previous to the introduction of Mr. Saturn, a player was presented with human figures that were clearly gendered as well as a multitude of male characters whose roles in the game were defined as both masculine and influential.

Mr. Saturn

Mr. Saturn breaks down those clear boundaries and presents the player with a figure which is both important, yet unclear with regards to gender. Its prefix is “Mr.” which denotes male, yet it wears the red bow that Paula also bears. Mr. Saturn is gentle and generous, serving at times as a caretaker for the team, yet it is also intelligent, providing Ness with information and insight that is unable to be garnered elsewhere. Even the text through which Mr. Saturn speaks is different from the text providing the rest of the speech and narrative for the game, depicted in strange, almost child-like scribble. Mr. Saturn is highly influential and becomes important to Ness’s team at two points in the game, one of which determines the outcome for the most important battle. The village offers Ness and his team items that are unparalleled, granting immense health boosts and powerful weapons. Mr. Saturn, with its undecipherable gender and strange circumstances, brings to the forefront the issue of gender instability in this constructed fantasy world.

In addition to presenting the confusing figure of Mr. Saturn to the player, Earthbound also resists immersion and the acceptance of heteronormative values through its elements of parody.[30] Rather than providing to the player a high-fantasy landscape with potential for the creation of a masculine self that is able to play out grand dreams of heroism and adventure, Earthbound gives its players characters and settings which seem to parody American culture and beliefs as well as the traditional model for fantasy role-playing games.[31] While recognizing aspects of parody, or even that the game itself is a parody, may be tricky for those who are not thoughtful or mindful of such attributes, it is still insightful to note what the game presents as attributes of parody that attempt to subvert the overt themes of gender distinction.

Earthbound takes place in the world of Eagleland, a continent not composed of magical kingdoms, enchanted forests, or expansive mines, but full of urban cities, small towns, department stores, and highways. Ness does not embark on adventures to fight dragons and warlocks, attracting the attention of beautiful princesses along the way, but encounters enemies such as the “annoying old party man,” “abstract art,” and “the third strongest mole.” The actuality of death and violence when fighting these enemies is also suppressed, as it is explicit that Ness does not actually kill anything he fights, but rather bashes it until it “comes back to its senses.” Fight scenes are also not animated, and “bashing” or the casting of magical spells on enemies does not provide any realistic visuals to the player.

Taking into account the elements which create a parody of the aspects of traditional role-playing games and American urban life, the blatant depiction of a gender binary in which the concept of male is the normative value is brought into stark relief. Ness is a male, and must complete masculine-oriented action-based goals, but he also lives in a land that is itself a parody, with funny and bizarre enemies, and tasks that result in a mundane outcome. For instance, one of his first tasks to complete involves convincing some police officers to remove a roadblock. The officers manning the roadblock make it clear that they are not sure why the roadblock is necessary, nor do they seem to consult reason when faced with someone who wishes to cross it. It is these quirky tasks which parody the experiences that a player might have in reality that resist the immersion into a fantasy world, and also bring the fiction and instability of the gender difference the game constructs into the forefront.

There are also times when the game reveals its awareness of the player to the player, essentially breaking down any walls of immersion between the player and the game.[32] It is these moments in which the player is reminded of the fact that he or she is a player and not a character within the game. There are instances in which the game pauses its fiction to ask the player questions, such as when character action is halted and the game itself asks the player what his or her name is. There is also a point in which one of the characters receives a phone call which is intended for the player to respond to in which another character asks the player a question. The game itself is mentioned within the game, such as a billboard that announces a meeting for the developers of Earthbound 2 (which does not exist) and a sign that reads, “I sense that you have a controller in your hands.” This happens so often that the player’s immersion and creation of a self is constantly being disrupted, or at the very least challenged. It is almost as if the game does not want the player to relate to its constructed world, genders, and narrative in the creation of a self, but rather wants the player to remain aware of his or her status as a player, the game’s status as simply a game, and gender and societal values as constructs.

IV. Conclusion

To summarize, Earthbound presents an interesting model for a game that both blatantly portrays and deconstructs a performed gender binary. Through its character development, the motivation for the completion of goals through gendered acts, and narrative, Earthbound presents to a player a clear representation of gender roles filtered through a heteronormative value system. However, the creation of a virtual self through this interactive medium is disrupted through the inclusion of the Mr. Saturn characters, elements of parody of both the genre of role-playing games and American society, and the game’s reluctance to allow a player to become immersed within a fantasy realm.

Even if the elements of parody are lost on a less-thoughtful player, leading to heteronormative (and oppressive) values being reinforced throughout the performative aspects of game-play that lead to the creation of a self, Earthbound nonetheless provides an interesting example of how gender roles may be constructed (and deconstructed) within video games. Earthbound highlights the power that video games have with regards to the manipulation of gendered values, and ultimately, the factors through which gender socialization functions within this medium. Perhaps the content of non-abstract video games does not have to fall in line with normative gender values which may limit both the roles and imagination of those who play them.

1 Sheri Graner Ray, Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market (Hingham: Charles River Media Inc., 2004), xiii.

2 Steven L. Kent, The Ultimate History of Video Games (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001), xv.

3 Yasmin B. Kafai et al., “Preface: Pink, Purple, Casual, or Mainstream Games: Moving Beyond the Gender Divide,” in Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming, ed. Yasmin B. Kafai et al. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), xi-xii.

4 Ray, xiii-xv.

5 Kent, 539-541.

6 Zach Waggoner, My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role Playing Games (Jefferson: McFarland, 2009), 8-9.

7 Waggoner, 11.

8 Carolyn Corrado, “Gender Identities and Socialization,” in Encyclopedia of Gender and Society, ed. Jodi O’Brien (London: Sage Publications, 2009), 356-363.

9 Carolyn Cunningham, “Video Games: Representations of Femininity,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 407.

10 Cunningham, 408.

11 Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (New York: Routledge, 1993), 1-16.

12 Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 1-4.

13 Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 2-14.

14 Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 16-17.

15 Amy M. Corey, “Semiotics and Gender Studies,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 326.
16 Jo Bryce and Jason Rutter, “Gendered Gaming in Gendered Space,” in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 303.

17 Mia Consalvo, “Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Video Games,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 172-173.

18 Melissa Camacho, “Heroes: Action and Super Heroes,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 161.

19 Camacho, 161.

20 Camacho, 162.

21 Robin Johnson, “Video Games: Representations of Masculinity,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 411.

22 Anna Anthropy, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art (New York: Seven Stories, 2012), 44.

23 At one point Ness’s dog joins his team, as well as his neighbors Pokey and Pickey, but only for a minimal amount of time.

24 Iver B. Neumann, Uses of the Other: “The East” in European Identity Formation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 2-7.

25 David Popenoe, Disturbing the Nest: Family Change and Decline in Modern Societies (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1988), 58.

26 J. Meryl Krieger, “Tropes,” in Encyclopedia of Gender in Media, ed. Mary Kosut (London: Sage Publications, 2012), 399-401.

27 A count based on minor non-player characters who serve no role in task completion brings up a 5:2 ratio in favor of male.

28 Lyndsey Moon, Counselling Ideologies: *** Challenges to Heteronormativity (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010), 3-4.

29 Mr. Saturn is both the name of their race and each of their individual names.

30 Helene A. Shugart, “Mediating Modalities: Practicing Popular Politics,” in Public Modalities: Rhetoric, Culture, Media and the Shape of Public Life, ed. Daniel C. Brouwer and Robert Asen (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2010), 186-187.

31 Anthropy, 45.

32 Grant Tavinor, The Art of Video Games (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 57.[img]
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