For one reason and another I’ve been looking into videogame sexism lately and it will come as no surprise that I didn’t like what I found. I’ve been waggling joysticks since the 1970s and games were treating women like crap back in that misogynistic decade (when they referenced them at all) and they still do today.
Sometimes it’s as simple as just not including them (as seen in the recent Assassins Creed: Unity debacle), other times games include them as flesh coloured wallpaper – sometimes literally in the more slasherific titles. Girls are repeatedly sexualised where men are not; strip a buff man to his undies and guys think he’s a powerful Alpha male, strip a woman to her undies and she’s clearly just ‘asking for it’.
The messages games send out to women are that they are secondary, not welcome (unless naked) and that they are open to be targeted by the ‘superior’ male gamers. The messages games send out to our young female players are that they can’t be the hero, they can’t aspire to careers outside waitressing, prostitution or maybe housewife, and that if their lives aren’t bedecked with pink then there’s clearly something wrong with them. And don’t get me started on what games say about female body image.
But it’s not just women this is affecting. Representing women badly in games gives us guys some odd ideas about the ‘fairer sex’. From ‘Femme Fatale’ to ‘Sultry Assassin’, the women of our game worlds can hardly be called ‘representative’ of the real world, and with people spending hours, days, weeks and months with these characters, it’s got to bleed into our psyche on some level. Particularly if the players are young and impressionable lads.
As an example, my abiding prejudice of all nurses is based on watching Carry On movies, Benny Hill and Are You Being Served?. In my sub-concious I’ve been conditioned to think all nurses are nymphomaniacs. I know it’s not true – I’m yet to be pounced on by any medical professionals (even a vet) – but that stereotype is still the default position in my head. And it was put there by TV. What games have embedded in my head, particularly seeing as they are more immersive than TV, is too scary to even think about.
Some people reading this may think I’m talking out of my pert arse-cheeks, some might even be getting furious with me for even suggesting such a thing. My gut feeling is to laugh in their faces, tell them they’re deluding themselves and that they should piss off and find some other delusional bigots over on a Gamergate forum. But actually, I don’t want the doubters to leave, I want them to stay and see what I have to say. I want them to challenge my opinions and maybe we can learn from each others’ point of views. But mostly, I want them to stay because they were me not too long ago and I still have some gaming habits that are particularly ‘blokey’.
You’ll take my games from my cold, dead hands
I love gaming and when people attack it as a hobby/pastime/habit, I get quite vocal. It’s like any passion; we love it, we want others to love it and when somebody doesn’t we see them as a threat to us and a threat to our continued enjoyment. Think about how heated your own conversations get when you’re discussing “the best movie of all time” or “the greatest footballer ever” or even your choice of drink at the bar (what do you mean you don’t like drinking “Scruttock’s Old Dirigible”?). If the group doesn’t agree with your choice there’s embarrassment, frustration, self-doubt and anger for you to wrestle with. It’s the same with gaming.
I remember passionately defending violent videogames when the media started linking them to this murder or that shooting. It wasn’t just that I didn’t see a connection, it was that by association they were saying I was somehow implicated. That my hobby was a bad hobby and I shouldn’t continue with it. Of course this wasn’t what was said, but that was the threat I felt and it put me in ‘siege mode’. I remember playing the “it’s satire” card when the ‘humour’ of GTA Vice City was getting a little bit ‘rapey’ and I’ve even played the frequently spat “well the male characters are half-naked too” card when leaping around in some Capcom flesh-fest or other. It’s not so much that I was in the wrong or right, it was more the venom in which I spat back my defense. And that was because I felt my beloved hobby under attack.
Since then, I’ve come to realise that many of the elements I was defending are all-too commonplace to be defended as ‘all part of the fun’ anymore. But perhaps most importantly, I’ve come to realise that by challenging game content we make games stronger not weaker, and that’s why I want the doubters to hang about here a bit longer. Don’t feel under threat, hear what people have to say, because for many players – and not always women – the games are an uncomfortable place to be.
Now that feels like a natural place to finish the article, but there’s something else bugging me that relates to both sides of the sexism argument and something I want to explore with you, dear reader. And that is, when playing games, I like looking at gorgeous women. There I said it. Does that make me a sexist pig? Discuss…
I like big butts and I cannot lie…
It’s something that’s been niggling me since a friend of mine took great relish, a creepy amount of relish you might say, in telling me that if he had to stare at a game character’s arse for hours while playing, he’d like those few pixels to be pert, tightly clad and female. At the time, I was neck deep in my sexism research so I smiled emptily like he’d just told me he was into coprophilia (look it up- actually, no don’t. There are some things you can’t un-see). But I couldn’t get what he said out of my head. I wanted to take the moral high ground, but I kept coming back to the unshakable fact that he had a point.
I too like looking at the female form and like him, I’d enjoyed watching Lara Croft’s jungle aerobics far more than Nathan Drake’s gruff exercises. Mr Drake was just a narrative means to an end, whereas Lady Croft was someone with whom I’d enjoyed the journey as much as the destination. But did that mean I was doomed to a realisation that I was a sexist gamer? Was I someone who would rail against Anita Sarkeesian and all she stood for (see her ‘Feminist Frequency‘ website, it’s brilliant). Was I partially responsible for the patronising and demeaning game content my two daughters had to look forward to in the coming years, because of where I put my consumer cash?
I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t being sexist, I was being sexual. Heterosexual. For liking a gorgeous digital heroine or choosing to dress her provocatively, that wasn’t demeaning women (particularly if playing solo), that was just satisfying my personal fantasy. Had the game featured half-naked wenches just oozing ‘come hither’ looks at my every virtual action or had the female characters in the game all been poor little things in need of my big, manly, rescuing abilities, that still wouldn’t make me sexist. It makes the games sexist. I can understandably enjoy that content because it is built around me – a white, heterosexual male – and it is designed to appeal to my appetites. I’m not saying that’s right, but it is fact.
Shake it, baby
Now, because I have a brain as well as a penis, I am aware that this content is poisonous, particularly to women. But as a male gamer of some 30+ years, I’ve built up a resistance to these toxins, maybe I’ve been immune since birth because of my gender. I can enjoy Duke Nukem and still know that some of the content is offensive. I can be offended by the lack of a female playable character in Minecraft, but still play the game as the character I would have chosen in the first place. I can have my Sid James moment staring at Bayonetta’s backside, but still wish that the developers had had more self-restraint than I do.
Being a feminist gamer isn’t about denying our male appetites, it’s about recognising that our appetites aren’t everyones. It’s about understanding that pandering solely to those appetites – such as always having breast-bursting female characters dressed like hookers – is offensive to the women we claim to adore so much. It’s about realising that it’s patronising to think that women can’t indulge their appetites either when playing games – whether that’s sexy male characters or seeing a powerful woman protagonist rise through the ranks of a game’s hierarchy (not all desires revolve around sex!). We can be that wonderful species that causes women to cry “men!” then tut and roll their eyes and still be there beside them crying “equality”.