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The Portrayal of Women in Gaming [Game Overview]
Jan 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.

Embedded Reporter/Game Overview: Daniel Floyd on Sex in Videogames + Editorial
Jun 2nd, 2008 by Dan

Deep from the trenches, it’s time for your Monday video feature: Embedded Reporter.

Here’s a pretty interesting lecture about sex in videogames. Enjoy!

It’s sad that we have to deal with the gratuitously stupid brand of sexual immaturity that game developers just love to throw our way, but I don’t see it all disappearing, even with the supposed maturing of the medium. Think about it for a second, did you see, for example, Transformers? It’s never quite as blatant as Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, but remember that scene with Megan Fox where they’re working on Shia LaBeouf’s car? While you didn’t hear me complaining at all in the theater the night I saw that movie, I always know when I’m being pandered to and I find it mildly insulting.

The real problem with video game maturity levels is that video games have yet to be accepted as mainstream media. A good number of people I know consider them to be children’s toys and think that the day that I stop playing video games will be the day that I “grow up.” It’s no wonder then that a video game that is no more or less exploiting sex to sell copies (I’m not talking about DOA Xtreme here) than any episode of Grey’s Anatomy (how about that Super Bowl episode?) should be looked upon with greater scorn than the exact same thing, or worse, taking place on network television.

It’s just plain frustrating to me to have to deal with sexual immaturity when playing video games. Take a game like Dead or Alive 4. Dead or Alive pioneered breast physics, that’s no secret, so you can probably guess what is most highlighted about Dead or Alive 4. Hidden deep beneath the bouncing DD cups does live a fighting game that I actually enjoy playing for once. It’s not quite as technical as Tekken, doesn’t use weapons like Soulcalibur, and is faster paced than just about every other true fighter I’ve ever played. I love the fluid combos and the reversal system, and I’ll even go out and say that I do actually like the character designs too. So what’s the big deal? Well the immaturity is a bit on the embarrassing side. I think just about everyone I know who I’ve corralled into playing DoA 4 with me recalls the game the same way “The one with the big, bouncy boobs” and anyone who is just watching the game only sees the bouncing boobs and the panty shots and just doesn’t get how well the game controls and plays. It’s still fun, don’t get me wrong, it just (and maybe this is the American-raised Puritan in me) makes me feel stupid to own and play in front of people.

Daniel Floyd highlights the sexual maturity of Mass Effect and its relationship-based consensual sex being an example of the right way to go to bring sex to games. I mostly agree with that and a quick look at the game tells you that he’s mostly right. The female characters, aside from being “anatomically perfect,” are all dressed in no more a revealing fashion than anyone else is. Full-body armor is the norm. There’s no cleavage and no blatant sexuality (kind of…I mean, the armor’s cut to fit a woman, but the male armor is cut to fit a man…I’d put it in the “barely qualifies as blatant sexuality” category. I guess the “lesbian” sex with the asexual, but female in appearance, alien race does kind of qualify though…). Still though, the relationship system that everyone thinks is so amazing…it’s just not that hard to figure out. All you really have to do is be nice and flirt with whomever the game allows you to sleep with whenever the game allows you to further you dialog trees. That’s literally it. Complete goal A, get reward B. Heck, you even get achievement points for completing a romantic sidequest.

If you think about it, that’s how most non-scripted video game relationships work. In Final Fantasy VII, your date at the Golden Saucer was dependent on a point system generated through your responses to Tifa, Aeris, and Yuffie up to that point. Harvest Moon games have you “earn” your wife by giving her gifts and talking to her daily. Surely it must be that easy in real life, you just talk to someone and give them stuff and over the course of a year you’ll be able to give them a blue feather and marry them, right?

Yet while I complain about this, it becomes clear that relationships in movies and TV shows aren’t really that much more complicated than in Mass Effect, you just don’t get to choose your responses in a TV show. In Mass Effect, you either choose the “nice” options or the snappy/witty “flirting” options to go down the romance path. A TV show will typically have the characters do about the same thing. Exchange witty banter, maybe give or do something for the other person (a la Harvest Moon) or maybe even just save that person’s life (SPOILER ALERT: a la Mass Effect /SPOILER ALERT). So maybe video games are on the right path, it just feels cheaper, to me, when a relationship is boiled down to a counter variable and a conditional statement (if love >= cockblock) romanticsidequest = true;

In that sense, I think I can conceivably only be satisfied by the (well-)scripted love story rather than the life simulator. The ultimate life sim, The Sims, boils love down to just talking to a person and successful social interaction, culminating in WooHoo (cue Jason Lee: “You mean fucking?”) and, if you’re me, frustration afterwards as you try to maintain a high enough score to keep the “friendship” to get a promotion, but try to keep them away from your other conquests to increase your job performance.

It’s not the best example, but think of the tortured soul of Locke and his love of Rachel and Celes. It’s clear why he cares so much for Celes and why he tries so hard to protect her and once he’s able to let go of Rachel, we understand why him and Celes are together. It doesn’t feel cheap and it doesn’t feel like a cop-out to the story. It’s not like the movies where the main character gets the main girl at the end and then, all of a sudden, the supporting characters discover they too love each other and begin to kiss as well, having found love. It’s certainly eons beyond the James Bond brand of sexual immaturity, but I’d say most video games only aspire to that degree of maturity in their relationships (see Goldeneye (just kidding, I know that’s trivial, like saying x = x)).

So will Dan ever feel that any video game sexual relationship he was directly in charge of made any real degree of sense? I’d say that the game would have to do a damn good job of concealing the fact that I was filling up a counter variable. The problem is that if they concealed it too well and I randomly ended up with said reward at the end, it would feel cheap. Also not so fun: if you came on to a character and they totally burned you. Us nerds are fragile enough creatures who experience enough rejection on a day to day basis. To have a video game burn us…well it might shatter what’s left of our egos. In all seriousness, why wouldn’t that be a bad idea? It’d be a bit more realistic. If you threw in a couple of random number generators where some of your actions could have unintentional negative results, hell, you’d have just about the same degree of fickleness as a real woman…but I digress. In the end, we’ve still got a long ways to go for interactive relationships, but at least we’re fine on the pre-scripted variety.

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