Why Sexism in Gaming is Not OK

I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit over the last couple of weeks and decided to make it the subject of a blog post.  I’m a heterosexual white guy living in Western Europe, and I know that means that in general I have life set to easy mode.  Male privilege, that’s what that means, and Video gaming ably demonstrates how years of male privilege can have a detrimental effect on our relatively new art form.

Sexism is rife within games.  I don’t think anyone would really sensibly argue with that.  There are very few games with female central characters;  those that do have a central female character can fall into the trap of her being a male fantasy type, and using her as eye-candy. Bayonetta I’m looking at you.

An alternative way of looking at this perceived skewing of stereotypes within games could be down to games simply presenting both genders with a version of both sexes intended to be idealistic within our society.  Men are either the muscular heroes who can kick anyone’s ass that they idealise themselves as, or they’re perhaps a more balanced heroic man that women would love to be swept off their feet by.  Women are either the strong but sexy type ready to quip a sarcastic comment in any man’s direction (Lara Croft, Rubi Malone,  Ivy), or they’re the beautiful idealisations of men.

The thing is, while there is some argument that an attractive yet able central character could be viewed as a positive role model by many, there  is a very subjective and very fine line between sexy and sexist, and like the line between burlesque dancers feeling empowered and strippers being exploited it can sometimes be difficult at first to spot where that line is.. Alas, it’s one that many games dance over completely.

Some could argue that male characters in game can share a similar fate, however this bring me back to the point I brought up earlier – Male privilege.  Men in games are often stereotyped and occasionally Conan-style in both appearance and dress, however in this the important point is that this is a male idealisation and not an objectified fantasy done by a woman.  An objectified male character would be exceptionally rare indeed within gaming.  The only examples I can think of are used in a comedic homoerotic sense (a bit like Mr. Slave in South Park), which is a whole other blog post.

Some of it comes down to context (or in some cases, lack of context).  Demonstrating the character behind a character’s outfit, the reason behind a smile or a grin, or in some cases showing complete control over a situation can allow a character to come across as a strong woman.  Conversely, standing meekly by or requiring rescuing by a male player character only serves to emphasize a characters weakness, and when female characters can be zoomed in upon or have clothing in varying states of undress for no readily apparent reason, things become worse still.

Thankfully there are now a number of games that allow women to simply be women, and not be eye-candy, or victims, but that does not mean that those that objectify women are ok.  They’re insulting to the men they’re aimed at and the women they stereotype.  They’re insulting to the intelligence of everyone concerned.

The larger problem than this is the attitude towards women that the gaming industry seems to have in general.  I play Eve and frequently see very disturbing comments levelled at people who identify themselves as women.  Thankfully Eve has a relatively mature audience and most of the time rampant sexism gets slammed down.. possibly mainly because as an ER DJ I moderate the channels I spend most of the time in.

When women are insulted simply for being women, for venturing an opinion, for being a woman working within the gaming industry.. those are the points when feminists need to stand up for themselves and say no.  When men like myself need to stand up and show our support for women.

5 thoughts on “Why Sexism in Gaming is Not OK

  1. I do wonder if it isn’t as much stereotypes as it is simply portrayal. For instance, lara croft and drake from drakes fortune are almost identical characters. Very much the cheeky rascal rogue.

    Although in one game the focus is on delivering cheeky one-liners while jumping off some cliff into a lake, and the other one meticulously portraying the hero coming out of said lake while no doubt showing the shaking of the hair in slow motion while the water drips … well no matter let’s not end this in fan/fic.

    I think it’s quite possible to have a lara croft game be essentially the same as a drake’s fortune one with the gender swapped.

    I do remember reading they are going to make a new lara game with less sexism, but unfortunately they chose to go the gritty reality route, instead of just taking the sexism out. Oh well.

  2. I think any game that uses stereotypes too strongly will likely fall into the trap of being sexist, simply because the majority of stereotypes are sexist. Stereotypes serve to point out the differences after all, and in western society that means differences from “straight white male”.

    Also, looking at portrayal rather than simply stereotypes, a convincing argument could be made that in society as a whole the most commonly held male ideals about women are physical, and objectify, whereas the most commonly held female ideals about men are mental or emotional, and specifically do not objectify.

    I am actually relatively comfortable with what I’ve seen of the portrayal of Lara in the new Tomb Raider, though I admit I’m less happy with a lot of the discussion and the way the producer has spoken about things.

  3. I’m not trying to nitpick here on the use of words and terms. I’m just typing out my thoughts as I get them.

    But I view stereotypes more as empty templates. They define expected attributes of a character.
    For instance, I would define the canonical rogue as being limited in a follow way.

    - a rogueish character is more likely to be young then old.
    - a rogueish character is more likely to be agile and thin.
    - a rogueish character is more likely to have a sharp wit.
    that kind of thing.

    But I’d refute it also means a character should be skimpily clothed or automatically default to sexuality or seduction when female. Even though that does often happen in media. The obvious scene in which the female thief is caught stealing by guards and says some seductive line before jumping out of the window, that kind of thing.

    But I don’t think it detracts from the stereotype if that behavior is left out.

    Perhaps there is something to be said for specific stereotypes vs. generic ones. i.e. the scantly clad seductive rogue vs. the rogue.

  4. You do have a point, however I would say “canonical rogue” is more of an *archetype* rather than a stereotype.

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