Sexism in gaming: a one way street

I see many people trying to defend sexism in gaming, making excuses for developers or just dismissing any instance of sexism as overblown. They point to various characters in other games that do empower women, or sexualized male characters. I won’t argue that there are empowering female protagonists in games; I’ll get that out of the way now.  I think there are plenty of improvements being made in the gaming community towards game design and portrayal of women, especially amongst the thriving indie community, and people are too quick to focus on the negatives than look at the improvements. However, the second argument is inherently wrong.

Women in most games are generally designed for men, or at least to be slightly appealing. They are designed so that a man sees one of these characters and says “I want her.” That is not to say every man breaks down and falls in love with every cute pixel he sees, but if a designer has done his job then the character will on some basic level be appealing. Where behavior is concerned, there can be some leeway. The original Lara Croft killed everything that moved, including dinosaurs, and still managed to be a sex symbol. Oddly enough behavior seems to be the biggest controversy whenever a sexist female character is released (see: Metroid: Other M).

On the other hand, men in games are generally designed for men. The expression, “women want [him], men want to be [him]” applies here. Men in games are portrayed as alpha males, overly masculine, with biceps the size of small children. They are confident, aggressive, and can seemly overcome any obstacle in their path. Odds are if you’re playing any game it is important that your character does overcome any obstacle, but the way he or she is portrayed means a lot. If a character breaks down, sniveling and whimpering at every challenge before him or her, the player will quickly dislike the character (unless written well). If, however, the character is a man foaming at the mouth with testosterone it is pretty easy to enjoy the character’s company. It becomes a power fantasy. A lazily written character can still entice people since by speaking little but breaking everything that moves he can still fit into the cliché societal role for men.

That isn’t to say that women don’t appreciate manly men, but they are not the reason the trope is so prevalent amongst male characters. How often do you see a debonair, sophisticated man as the protagonist? Sure, the occasional spy game might feature this, but more often than not the male lead is meant to symbolize what every man wishes he could be.

Some games are improving on this front. The developers for League of Legends, Riot Games, have said several times in the official forums that overtly sexualized females are the easiest way to identify gender in a game. From a third person, near bird’s-eye view, a well-endowed woman will be easier to identify as a woman than one covered in plate armor, but that doesn’t make it a valid excuse to make every character in game a sex icon. Such design is done out of laziness more than sexism, but that doesn’t make it an acceptable reason. However, in the past year Riot released their first two  male characters that could be seen as breaking the male archetype (excluding joke characters). Similarly, complaints of over-sexualized characters have led to them designing more unique female, including revisiting some of their already existing female characters and revamping them.  While it is a small step, as one of the biggest games out there at the moment it is good to see them responding to feedback and creating positive characters for all genders.

A before and after of Sejuani, the character in question. The leader of an army of mountainous barbarians really shouldn’t be charging into battle in a bikini.

Links:

Is League of Legends Sexist?

Female League of Legends Champion Dons a New Wardrobe.

 

Interesting note: the above character Gragas sees little to no play regardless of his character’s strength simply because he is neither a power fantasy nor sexual icon. Playing with a player’s fantasy is important in gaming, but there has to be a line between freezing ice princess and fat, drunken sex icon slob.

  1 comment for “Sexism in gaming: a one way street

  1. April 28, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    Your basic argument here is, as I understand: “Some people defend games against accusations of sexism by arguing that they sexualize men just as much as they do women. Those people are wrong.” If that’s what you’re saying, then I agree. Basically. I just want to point to some assumptions you make in the course of your rebuttal that illustrate how complex the situation might actually be:

    The expression, “women want [him], men want to be [him]” applies here. Men in games are portrayed as alpha males, overly masculine, with biceps the size of small children. They are confident, aggressive, and can seemly overcome any obstacle in their path. … [If] the character is a man foaming at the mouth with testosterone it is pretty easy to enjoy the character’s company. It becomes a power fantasy.

    See what you did there? You argued that male characters are not desirable sexually by presenting it as a given that the type of man you describe is not sexually desirable. But surely someone out there finds that kind of man desirable sexually.

    I’m sure this is unintentional on your part, but you’re argument pretends that a large category of people doesn’t exist, which is the very problem real critics of sexism in games are trying to point to.

    Also, in reference to agency, you write

    Oddly enough behavior seems to be the biggest controversy whenever a sexist female character is released (see: Metroid: Other M).

    What’s “odd,” in your analysis, seems to be that critics would focus on what a woman does more than what she looks like. You’re once again (unintentionally, I assume) reducing the masculine/feminine power dynamics to the question of who looks at whom by assuming that the primary target of those attacking sexism in games would be the overly sexualized portrayal of women.

    From a masculine point of view, women in games exist to be looked at (as you point out), so whether that “look” is prurient or chaste, it’s still putting them somewhere on a continuum of sexuality as opposed to a whole sphere of personhood available to men.

    Anyway, I don’t mean all this as a critique of your post. I just wanted to try and think through how sexism in games can be a difficult thing to write about without falling into the same linguistic traps that contribute to the problem in the first place.

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