Sexism in the gaming industry
First posted on 25 April 2007. Last updated on 30 April 2010.
About the author
When not busy defending the opposite sex, Julian Seale is a teenage male gamer who enjoys writing prose and poetry. He has had the luxury of living and moving overseas his whole life. He will be heading into his junior year in school next year. He writes because it gives him an opportunity to express his opinions and hopefully benefit from others' opinions as well. He has a strong view against materialism. He currently lives in Thailand.
Take your sister out to buy a video game at your nearest game shop. Any game shop will do. When you get there, allow her to pick the video game of her choice. Is she done? After waiting for a full hour, she brushes pass the automatic doors. You arch your eyebrow. What's that you discover in her hands? Why, nothing at all! You rationalize this store just isn't the right place, but after traveling to a few other game stops of choice, you start to see a pattern. You find this very peculiar, so you decide to investigate. What can it be? Everything looks fine, there's tons of variety with different platforms and different genres. So what can possibly be the matter? What demon has possessed your sister to leave empty handed? You circle back and re-examine the shelves of not only your favorite games, but those that might appeal to your sister. And then it dawns on you. They're different varieties of the same character traits!
For years the video game industry has found new ways to appeal to the male market of society, and they are not alone. If you look deeper, you'll find that movies and the vast media are increasingly advertising more robust, exotic, and erotic stereotypes that turn men and women alike into products instead of people. What brainwashes the younger generation in particular is the blatant propaganda that women should be this way (sugar, spice, and everything busty) and men should be this way (cold, dominant, and immortal). Because no human being alive is perfect; there being a handful of individuals that actually meet on par with the media's ideal persona, the underlying tone of these stereotypes is emotionally crushing. How do you think your sister felt, when she was searching for a fun adventure game, only to find in its stead Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas or Tomb Raider's busty figure (Figure 1) devouring most of the front cover? What do you think this is telling her about the gaming industry? What do you think this is telling her about being female? Most importantly, coming out of the store, what is this telling her about herself?
The assumption that women do not like video games, who rather spend their time playing Textmix, electronic puzzles, or some form of chess, is simply a myth. Similarly, it was an illusion that women didn't possess the capacity to think a few centuries ago. History has been notorious for blotting out the prominent roles of women; in regards to video games, this also holds true. Not all girls' thumbs trip over game sticks, not all girls fumble maneuvering Master Chief in Halo. However, many women have been turned off by the female stereotypes of perfection which mirrors the anorexic waist, the unbalancing bust, and the trunk below that sets the stage for typical game play. What can be passed for entertainment turns into a model of media perfection; a character advancing the plot by her features rather than her intellect, compassion, and skills. While appearing sexy and charming is defiantly something both genders can appreciate, the media tends to add an overdose of what is usually tolerated, rendering game play as just plain silly. Do you ever ask yourself why it seems that the most crucial moment the female role seems to partake in is Follow the Leader? Isn't a bit farfetched that every chance there comes for dialog, the vast majority is contributed to males and not females? Do you find it a bit odd that your warrior princess character is climbing unkind terrain with only two-bit clothing on, blundering through relentless snow and icy weather?
The paradox of the modern era is that society worships the media's superwomen or men, yet they're all out for the relationship that's the real deal: women want a mate who can bring bread to the table, who's caring, who's loveable, and who won't walk out when a rainy day arrives. A guy wants a mate who isn't a total bimbo and can think on her toes, who sympathizes, and who understands him. However, regardless of this honest opinion, of its virtue, such only strengthens this paradox further which seems accustomed to repelling women. The ironic twist is that for video games, the truth is maltreated, thrown aside for something less authentic than itself, thus rendering it almost nonexistent. The male stereotype typically dominates the screen while women are thrown aside as secondary characters. In other words, they're a formula advancing the plot mainly for the purpose of the male's superhuman ego. In addition to the exaggeration of bloodlust, if a female character isn't enticing or enhancing the male protagonist, she's busy being portrayed as the useless damsel in distress (Figure 2). Perhaps you've heard of the quotation that behind every great man there's a woman rolling her eyes? Well, behind any of such male (clichés) there exists a woman pulling out all her hair. Sexual reference is fine, but it shouldn't be a main theme. The slightest hint of a cliché should be shot on sight. Such clichés quickly find ways to manifest into stereotypes.
Women are tired of being saved, and rather prefer to partake in the rescuing. In search for an adventure, what may possibly be a sanctuary quickly turns into a living nightmare as women make failing attempts to buy a video game stereotype free. Every year, the market produces an abundant amount of video games that try to satisfy the insatiable carnage craving, sexual raving, and superficial beast that is man, which is like a big neon sign telling women to keep out. The wish to be with the program is there, but the attention isn't granted. Only when the industry begins to realize half the population it's missing out on will more women seek refuge in the gaming universe. Fortunately, in recent years game producers have made an attempt at fairness between the sexes. Producers have gloriously realized women can maneuver guns, maps, and complex situations other than limiting their imagination to Barbie dolls. Unfortunately, it's all the attention they've gotten.
The protagonists Zoë Castillo and April Ryan (Figure 3) in Dreamfall: The Longest Journey are by far perfect examples of females with a heart and a mind. Zoë and April aren't back seat drivers, they're leaders. Zoë is hot. She's also smart, caring, and charismatic. Zoë possesses the type of background and storyline that not just women can relate, but both sexes can. The same goes for April. Yet, why do these qualities set them head and shoulders above ordinary characters in other games? Why are they so special? Why do they deserve recognition? Because the burden of their character, problem, and environment depend ultimately on what they choose to do; much like reality, they have to stick with it. They're actions supply consequences that not only affect them, but intervene with other characters in the long run, and finally coincide with their future. This creates the illusion that everyone is in the same boat, thus making both characters equally believable. Like a good story, you follow them every step of the way. Now why can't producers create video games where male and female roles are equal?
Adventure games like Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, Metroid Prime (Figure 4), and Dino Crisis are particularly attractive because they give the player an opportunity to break away and immerse in someone else's creativity. Women may find the adventure genre more appealing than hardcore, first person shooter games that set linear boundaries where the protagonist has only a limited journey. Similarly, whom they will interact with or why is almost pointless when certain characters monopolize others. It is imperative to note here that women do not want the role of playing the lost herd of sheep. Moreover, the mechanical feeling of being systematically told what to do is intimidating, even more so when you feel you have no choice in the matter. It's like a kid reading a story and smelling a moral a mile away. Once they realize where all this is heading, game play looks tedious, arduous, and above all else unimportant. Adventure games provide the antidote to the well being of the individual. It should be informative in its history, persuasive in its creativity, and entertaining through and through. Of course, the inverse is those sexist games that convey to women what they should be like and what they should do; the moral of the story instructs the child how to behave and what to do. This is a different scenario with the same gist: conveying through any piece of entertainment with an underlying instruction manual of how you should be, and a sexist view will more than likely lead to disaster.
There is a final point that simply must be identified. For the individual who is in an environment where material is everything, where the latest fashion statement is holy, and where cliques are essential for survival, such a person will suffer the most from the media's discretion of choosing one gender over the other. Some may find it difficult to imagine these people are so wound up in this way of life that merits happiness for the moment, but they are there. It's not very hard for people to set downward spirals for themselves. Haven't we all been there at some point of our lives? Some may not even have had a choice, for those who are left behind are permanently left behind in the dust. For these individuals, it's not even their fault; they haven't asked for this. This is precisely what some video games are attempting to do, intentionally or accidentally: incarnate the media into video games. It's very easy to sell your soul to the media, and it can make men as well as women become very depressed or lonely so that feelings of inferiority are sure to kick in. However, this doesn't have to happen. There's no reason why books always have to be the best source for an adventure. Stereotypes are just silly. It is sad that people, especially people that are blessed with the ability to reach into the void and make something creative, turn it into a mediocre perception of reality solely to make easy cash. This degrades the reputation of video games to a joke, and I doubt your sister will ever want a video game for her birthday ever again. I couldn't blame her.
This brings me to my conclusion. Producers need to provide more gaming characters like Zoë and April. For both genders, I don't believe in whichever task you motivate yourself towards do you finish half the battle and then publish it. You must tell a story from beginning, middle, to end. Every character you make must have character, regardless of how trivial the role may be. Women are not puppets on strings: they are not weak defenseless rabbits, and they were not born without creativity and ambitions. Discard the myth that women can't play video games; they can, really. Adventure games are a way to relieve the heart of reality for an hour or so. Certainly, no one can say games like Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, or Halo reeks of sexism, can they? Humans are social beings, and as sociable beings we like to explore absolutely everything there is to see and experience. Regardless of the dogma the media has developed towards both sexes, there shouldn't be any toleration for that in the gaming world. As a final note, let's open a bright and promising path for these explorers, young and old. Make your sister a happy camper, before she gets too old and overlooks the luxury she may be missing out.