Sunday, June 10, 2012

Sexism and Misogyny in the Video Game Industry

I spend a lot of my waking hours following and discussing politics. In recent years, it's taken up more and more of my time. Prior to taking up an interest in politics, the last hobby that I spent a great deal of time focusing on was video games. Granted, I still enjoy them, but bashing my head against the wall over some terribly designed level in the latest Sonic game, has taken a backseat to bashing my head against the wall over everything Sean Hannity has ever opined about.

However, this was one of those rare instances in a long time where I was able to momentarily ignore whatever moronic bile being spewed by a congressman/cable news pundit/presidential nominee/etc. in order to focus on the most important period in the year when it comes to video games: E3.

For those of you who actually have lives, E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) is the biggest video game convention in the world. It's runs over a span of 3 days (4 if you count the press conferences by the big 3 hardware manufacturers, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo), and it's an event where usually the biggest, and most hyped games become unveiled for the first time. But while E3 is generally supposed to be about video games, one particular aspect of E3 has been garnering more and more attention over the past few years: booth babes.

Every year around this time, there's a lot of discussion on many gaming websites and message boards about the subject. I've noticed that these conversations generally lead to a much bigger discussion on the subject of women in general, when it comes to the game industry. It occurred to me that the past several months of this year were generally more misogynistic than usual. Rush Limbaugh insulted a Georgetown Law student by calling her a "slut" and 69 other slurs, for having the audacity to use things like birth control pills. Political columnist, and cable news contributor, S.E. Cupp was photoshopped with a penis in her mouth by Hustler magazine after she said some things the magazine disagreed with. And some Republican congressional leader thought it would be a great idea to have a panel of witnesses on the subject of contraception, who all happened to be male. 

It was then that I decided that I should continue in the spirit of the subject of misogyny and explore that in the world of video games. So I wound up interviewing several women at E3, who consisted of both gamers, and developers. It was actually very interesting.

Over the years, one of the many criticisms I've heard about the industry is things like super scantily clad characters like Ivy from the Soul Calibur series and booth babes diminish the legitimacy of video games. So I started off by asking some developers their opinions on such things, and I have to say, I was actually a bit surprised at some of the responses.

One anonymous developer who works on indie games said "I don't think any of those things are unique to video games. I just look at such things and acknowledge that I'm not their target audience.". Another anonymous developer, who worked at a major third party developer, which finished working on a game last year that involved a few buxom characters had a similar take: "It's annoying whenever one of the producers or designers decides to add adolescent wank in games, but while I don't like it, I get why they do it." I asked her what it's like to be a woman on such projects. "Everyone on the development team is cool with me, but I just don't make an effort to comment on such things, since they'll most likely get ignored. But when you sign on to such projects, you can't really complain."

I asked the same question to some who didn't work in the industry, but were simply fans of it.

"I roll my eyes a lot when I see someone like Rachel from Ninja Gaiden, but boys like that sort of thing, so whatever." says a young lady named Brenda (25).  "I'm generally more offended when a game's really shitty and they have some big boobed bimbo to compensate for it."

Another young lady by the name of Claudia (23) says: "The games that I like, puzzle games, platformers and such don't really have that sort of thing, so I don't really think about things like that too much." When I asked her if she, as a girl gamer, is offended by those things, she replied, with a little unease: "Well, I'd prefer if they had more clothes on, but I wouldn't stop anyone from developing games with those type of characters."

One thing that was quite common within the past few days was that I kept getting e-mails from female developers that I interviewed making sure to not mention their names, or who they worked for. I found that a bit amusing. Not because they didn't have legitimate concern, obviously nobody wants to have their careers jeopardized, but rather, I was amused at the fact that these developers thought they said something that would qualify as something that would get them in trouble. Indeed, one dev. in particular was hesitant to do the interview because she thought that she would be too brutal with her thoughts. But as I was interviewing her, I didn't get that impression at all. Instead of blistering rage, it came off more as mild displeasure.

Ironically, the person who exhibited the greatest degree of passionate contempt was the only person I interviewed that DIDN'T want to remain anonymous. That would be a woman by the name of Celia Pearce. She's a co-founder of Ludica, a women's game collective, and Festival Chair for the IndieCade International Independent Game Festival. She's an outspoken critic of the portrayal of women in video games, and also teaches (what I presume, based on our conversation, to be a pretty awesome class on) game design at Georgia Tech. Celia had no shortage of opinions on what she sees wrong with the industry. Regarding booth babes:

"Booth babes make men look stupid. If you're a business executive, and the sight of a booth babe makes you look like a drooling 13 year old, you make the industry look bad."

Celia is also clearly not a fan of what she calls "combat lingerie", the type of battle gear that women like Ivy and Rachel tend to sport. She shares an anecdote about a developer who was designing clothing for an MMORPG, where the lead male was completely covered in armor, but the lead female had clothing that covered a substantially smaller surface area. Needless to say, Celia didn't really approve.

But there were two things that stood out from my conversation with her. The first was when I tried to play devil's advocate, by asking if having super busty objects of wish fulfillment were cancelled out by having ultra ripped, musclebound male characters like Marcus Feenix from Gears of War. Her response, I thought was very enlightening:

"It's not an equivalent situation and here's why. The video game female character is someone the male player aspires to have, whereas the video game male character, is someone the male player aspires to be."

I never really thought of it that way. In both situations, the goal is to appeal to the male, and while the latter may appeal to some females, Feenix isn't sexualized in the same way.

The second item that was also noteworthy, was when Celia recalled an instance regarding a friend of hers. This person was the lead designer on some game, but unfortunately was constantly mistaken for a booth babe because she happened to be quite attractive.

Now this leads me to a very important point, that I'll illustrate with this video clip:

For those of you that can't watch videos on the youtubes for whatever reason, this is a clip from a short lived ABC show called "Big Day" (which I've never heard of before checking out this clip). In this clip, one of the lead character's friends (played by Diora Baird) has just put on a bridesmaid's dress. When she reveals herself, her friends are surprised to find out that she's significantly more stacked than she was since the last time they saw each other (apparently, due to her just recently having a baby).

Now, at this point you may be asking what the hell does this have to do with anything? Well, it's related to Celia's story about her attractive friend. Notice in the clip that the curvaceous young lady is wearing an identical dress as one of her other friends. Yet with her, nobody batted an eyelash. Nobody cared about her. Baird's character, wasn't dressed any sluttier, wasn't going out of her way to display more skin, but she still wound up attracting attention like she worked at a strip club. Indeed, in the same episode, the mother of the lead girl in this clip derisively refers to her as a "porn star", for no reason other than the fact that she's well endowed.

My point is that if you're a really hot female, it's really difficult to find a way to conceal yourself that doesn't attract much attention. Observe the following additional examples (Click to embiggen):

Every one of these lovely ladies is sporting tasteful attire, yet every single one of them will be looked down upon by both men AND women. Now try this thought experiment: Imagine every one of these girls replaced by someone significantly more average/ugly, while wearing the same clothes. Would they still be treated the same way then?

I guess I'm just trying to say that sometimes it's hard to not come off as being some object of wish fulfillment, even if you're not trying. I'm not necessarily advocating for one thing over the other, just trying to point out that sometimes things aren't so black and white. There are a lot of  gray areas occasionally. What's the solution to this, aside from mandating women to start wearing hijabs? Well, that's for someone far smarter than me to come up with.

In conclusion, I would just like to point out (as if it needed to be pointed out) that this wasn't a scientific survey, and shouldn't be meant to reflect the opinions of women nationwide. I definitely think there's an element of sexism in the video game industry, but I feel it's not unique to this one. If you look into virtually any media, T.V./film/etc., you'd find the same problems. Doesn't mean we shouldn't try and improve it, though, and there's plenty of awesome female developers out there trying to do just that. And Id' like to thank all the nice ladies I interviewed this week for taking time out of their schedules to put up with me.


  1. Pretty interesting read. I'm a man myself and I find the whole conversation around sexism and what exactly is going on in the industry interesting.

    The only solution I can think of off the top of my head would be to treat women better while still having the potential for the "wish-fulfillment" character but greatly increasing for the allowance of more well rounded realistic female heroes and enemies.

    The problem is perpetuated by the fact that men will pay for things that get our attention and is sexual.

    There's tons of men who love the look of large breasts, there's also tons of men that find it awkward looking at best. There's also tons that don't really care. Either way a woman can get tons of unwanted attention just because she's the outlier of a group. In other words people will look at something that is considered rare or more specifically out of the ordinary.

    I think the best way for things to change is for women to get involved in writing more, as well as character design and artwork. Also women need to game more.

    I'm also interested though in how male stereotypes (while still being centered towards a male audience for male approval) is seen as a lesser of two evils. I myself was bummed out when I saw Watch Dogs male lead go from a smart hacker that's secretly collecting data and seemingly using his intellect. Then the next scene has him in a gunfight, cover based shooting and hitting a guy with a nightstick iirc and then shooting him in the face.

    I think crap like that sells a false sense of male bravado to people looking for an identity and that identity helps place women as second class citizens. A vicious circle if you will.

  2. stuff like this is why i'm embarassed to admit i play videogames in public. i'd rather say i have no hobby.

  3. I object (somewhat with tongue in cheek) to the comparison of highly-sexed individuals to 13-year-olds and adolescents. Adolescents are just discovering their sexuality and are overwhelmed with hormones, making their sexual frustration and problems understandable from a biological standpoint. Full grown men who act like this don't have that excuse.

    Notice in the clip that the curvaceous young lady is wearing an identical dress as one of her other friends. Yet with her, nobody batted an eyelash. Nobody cared about her. Baird's character, wasn't dressed any sluttier, wasn't going out of her way to display more skin, but she still wound up attracting attention like she worked at a strip club. Indeed, in the same episode, the mother of the lead girl in this clip derisively refers to her as a "porn star", for no reason other than the fact that she's well endowed.

    This is a subject which I discussed in a few posts on Lara Croft on my blog, and why I think she's arguably even more sexualised now than she was back in the early games despite being a bit less buxom - certainly she's infinitely more stereotypically feminised if the trailer for the new game is any indication. Judging a woman to be more sexual simply because she's more voluptuous is as bad as assuming someone is stupid because she's blond, or shy because she wears glasses: just another way to judge people based on appearances.

    I have no problem with cheesecake in and of itself: it's just one form of artistic expression, and it has the right to exist. It's the fact that one form of artistic expression still dominates the game industry despite grossly mismatching the audience demographics (women making around half of gamers) which is the problem.

    1. "Judging a woman to be more sexual simply because she's more voluptuous "

      They dont. Its hardwired for men to see something with fertile women, as positive.

      "Full grown men who act like this don't have that excuse."

      Do they need any excuse? Just accept that men are different, and have different role in society. Not every guy can get a girl, its a truth of our generation.

  4. I'm tired of people hiding behind art as an excuse for lazy design. The characters in video games and comics are specifically designed to appeal to males, which is why in comics there seems to be only one breast size among the female cast: gigantic.

    The Catwoman #0 cover didn't come around because the artist felt it was the best way to present the character. It came about because apparently the industry thinks men will buy anything with breasts and butt on it.

  5. "Every one of these lovely ladies is sporting tasteful attire, yet every single one of them will be looked down upon by both men AND women. "

    Women might pretend to look down on them out of jealousy, men might as well if they feel they want them but that theyll never get them. Its a defence mechanism.

    But its not ACTUAL misogyny, because what men admire and love, what were wired to want to both fuck AND take care of is attractive fertile women.

    And ofcourse theyll have problem with less attractive women, noone likes competition no matter how nice we might force ourself to behave!

    A rich or popular man will have "haters" as well, but he is not actually in a bad spot or looked down on.

    1. Except Andreas, men aren't "taking care" of women gamers or characters in games with this behavior. They are actively denying them a role in any kind of creative discussion, inclusion or contribution to the field by treating them like trophies or props for their enjoyment.

      Imagine going to E3 for the first time, excited as all hell to be there, and find yourself ignored, talked down to, passed over for comment, sniggered at for looking at a booth that didn't match your "gender" type, mistaken for a day-hired booth member with no video game knowledge just because of your crotch, "accidentally" groped twice by leering neck-beards, and surrounded by a plethora of posters, pictures and games filled with members of your gender reduced to the significance of curtains or reward trophies.

      Yeah. Just think about it.

  6. Things will change with more people talking about it