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The Portrayal of Women in Gaming [Game Overview]
January 1st, 2010 by Dan

Despite the growing number of female gamers and older gamers, the larger audience in gaming does lie within the 18-35 (or whatever the range is supposed to be), male demographic, which means that games are made primarily for that audience (fortunately (for publishers), most 14-17 year-olds respond to the same marketing techniques). It follows that what comes out of the industry revolves around heavy action and sex appeal. For every indie game that attempts to take a mature look at female sexuality like The Path, there are at least five games where women are two-dimensional characters wearing ridiculous apparel meant to emphasize their unnaturally oversized assets.

Again, it’s not that surprising, right? Sex sells. It starts getting strange when you look at the results of a recent study by Carrie Lynn Reinhard (Hypersexualized Females in Digital Games: Do Men Want Them, Do Women Want to Be Them?). The results of the study showed that men prefer to play as more realistically proportioned women when they play games. They’re also more likely to recommend the game to a female friend if the avatar is more realistic. Meanwhile, women are more likely to enjoy playing as hyper-sexualized avatars and more likely to recommend these games to their male friends. It’s definitely not what I’d expect, but it makes sense given the cultural assault on women to be hyper-sexual and the empowerment the might feel, while it seems that playing as a hyper-sexualized female makes a man feel emasculated.

I guess I can kind of support those conclusions, at least with the way that I see other people play online. My entire character selection strategy is primarily geared toward emasculating and embarrassing my opponents. In almost every game where such a choice is available, I will always make my avatar either pink or female (or both) for the simple reason that it riles up the competition when they lose. I think that perfectly sums up most of the gaming landscape: sexist and immature.

Leigh Alexander is fond of saying that the immaturity of the gaming landscape is mostly due to the immaturity of the men who run it. In article she wrote titled “Bang Bang, Is Creativity Dead?” she quotes:

“There is a cycle in game development. People making games usually make games that appeal to themselves, and choose from a narrow set of inspirations — Star Wars, Aliens, Blade Runner, Tolkien, World War II, super-hero comics, and a few more. Then, those games appeal to a certain set of fans, and some of those fans will eventually grow up to make games themselves, and those games end up looking like the previous generation, because they were made to please a similar bunch of people. That loop just repeats and stays the same size forever.”

-Tim Schafer

This concept has appeared many times in her work when talking about mature games versus “mature” games. Something like the upcoming Dante’s Inferno game is rated mature because it contains gobs of bloody gore and bare breasts. A game like Mother 3, which is outwardly cartoony in appearance, is actually mature because of the way it deals with death, family, and its themes of community and isolation.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for immaturity in art, but when it’s all your work has to offer, it’s almost insulting to me as an adult gamer. Take Team Ninja’s Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, released on the Xbox back in 2003. Never mind that calling it “xtreme” is already ridiculous, but the game itself is pandering to an extreme degree. The most clear cut goal in the game is to raise the friendship levels of the beach volleyball teams so that you can give your partner as revealing a bathing suit as possible to wear. I was 17 when this game came out and even then I was too old to be amused by such obvious attempts to catch my attention.

The first great hope that we were making progress came in Valve’s 2004 epic, Half-Life 2. Not only was Alyx Vance a smart, capable sidekick to the mute Gordon Freeman, she was realistically proportioned, wore jeans, only barely showed her midriff, had no cleavage showing, and donned a jacket that covered her arms to her elbows. To this day Valve continues to render its female characters in a realistic fashion. Chell, of Portal fame, was also not sexualized and Zoey and Rochelle, the two female leads in Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2, respectively, are also both modestly attired and realistically proportioned, but Valve is in the minority in this industry.

Also in the minority in the industry are women with positions of power. Video game development is unsurprisingly male-dominated (I say unsurprisingly because, in my experience, most computer scientists are men), but there are a few relatively famous women with positions of power. The first really famous woman I can think of is Jade Raymond of Ubisoft. I know I’m about to be super unfair, but Jade Raymond is known more for being hot than for her roles at Ubisoft. I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed, so I can’t really speak to its quality, but, despite her role as producer of the game, I couldn’t help but feel that Ubisoft was using Jade Raymond as the face of the game for more insidious purposes. I know that almost every video I saw where she was talking about the game was filled with immature comments by viewers about how good looking she is. Again, my statements are not saying anything about how good she is at her job. She’s clearly great at it, since she’s been named president of Ubisoft Toronto,but the immaturity of the medium has prevented some from really taking her seriously.

The other famous woman I can think of (probably because I’m such a fan of her work) is Amy Henning, the Creative Director at Naughty Dog. It makes sense that Jade Raymond has a wiki page, but Amy Hennig doesn’t, yet I feel that Amy Hennig has done way more for women’s portrayal in gaming than Jade Raymond has simply because of the characters that Amy Hennig has created for the Uncharted series.

Like Valve, Naughty Dog’s female characters are strong, confident, and able to take care of themselves. Nathan Drake, the star of the series, does have to rescue them from time to time, but both Chloe and Elena are more than able to handle themselves in the face of danger and both have saved Drake a fair number of times as well. While it is true that Chloe is a more sexualized character thanElena, she’s neither a ridiculous piece of eye candy nor a woman who trades exclusively on her sex appeal to get what she needs. It’s almost incidental that she’s hotter than Elena and, no doubt, a creative choice meant to emphasize Drake’s character arc in the second game as he is forced to choose between being selfish or doing the right thing.

It’s clear through the many interviews and videos of Amy Hennig I’ve heard/seen that she was the driving force behind forcing the moderate and respectful portrayal of women in the Uncharted series. No longer content to continue to watch women being objectified and marginalized in her medium, she was a vocal supporter of the idea that people will still like these games and characters even if they’re not all T&A. To her credit, I’ve never heard anything but praise for the characters of the Uncharted world. T&A or no, I still get hits on my blog on a daily basis looking for dirty pictures of Elena and Chloe. Could it be that men are just as happy with women who are real too? Does everything about a video game have to be a ridiculous empowerment fantasy?

I’m hopeful that the maturation of the field will yield more Zoeys and Elenas and fewer Lara Crofts and Bayonettas (new game set to come out this year focused entirely on the lead character’s sex appeal). It’s not that every game has to have realistic characters, I mean the men of Gears of War are no more realistic than Lara Croft in their own way,not to mention that even popular, respected, mature mediums feature plenty of shallow characters, but it would be nice to start seeing real people in our games.


4 Responses  
  • Min writes:
    January 1st, 20107:05at

    I have to wonder if there is any concrete evidence that having disproportionally endowed women in the game actually boost sales numbers. I just can’t imagine a lot of people willing to fork out $40-60 bucks solely to see digital women in somewhat skippy outfits. It seems like there’s more than enough of that free on the internet, and if that’s really what you’re in to, certain Japanese developers can probably do a much better job of addressing your needs.

    Personally, I’ve found that kind of stuff doesn’t influence my buying decisions, but then again, aesthetics in general never really affect me. I’d play an 8-bit game if the mechanic and story is good.

    • Dan writes:
      January 2nd, 201010:38at

      I’m sure it has some effect, but probably not as drastic an effect as they think it does. All it really seems to do (to me) is alienate plenty of mature adults

    • Eric Mesa writes:
      January 4th, 20109:01at

      Perhaps it’s not so much about sex sells as the fact that the directors are creating their own fantasy worlds and then using “sex sells” rather than “I like women with large breasts” as the reason to allow it.

      • Dan writes:
        January 4th, 20109:08at

        Which ties into what I was saying (poorly) about the immaturity of the people who make games being the reason games are still immature. We need to start hiring real writers to write our narratives if we want interesting narratives.


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