Tag Archives: video games

What Role do Men have in the Feminist Discourse?

A few months ago a friend of mine who is male and a freelance writer and I got into a discussion about video games and comics and how women are portrayed.  He was working on a piece concerning how certain female superheroes were being revamped and asked me, in my opinion, could a man really effectively write on a feminist issue?

 

My first instinct was to say, yeah, of course, but after some additional thought I wasn’t totally sure.  Could a man really write on a feminist issue? A man can’t remove his male privilege any better than I could remove my class or white privilege, and I don’t feel as if I can responsibly write on issues that face poor or women of another race.  Is being aware of privilege, is being against privilege enough?  Well in this case…maybe.

 

First and foremost I do believe that men have a role in the feminist discourse.  When you consider men like Bill Baird, who stood up for abortion rights years before Planned Parenthood and dedicated his life to women’s reproductive rights, it’s unfair and disingenuous to suggest that some men aren’t involved and in fact, some men give up and risk a great deal for women’s rights.  So men do have a role, men definitely do have a role, but I think what men and what role is where things get a little shaky.

 

For example, women in geek culture seems to be a hot feminist topic in which men seem to try and fit their viewpoints in to some pretty disastrous results (from a  feminist standpoint).  This video, while aiming to illustrate how impractical and sexist women in video games are dressed, falls into the trap of blaming women for thriving in the only area of gaming that they’ve been welcomed into by the male dominated industry: “booth babes.”  Or this article, which while pointing out that sometimes attractive women are unfairly characterized as “fakers” in the geek realm and that women are treated pretty horribly in online gaming environments, primarily rails against “booth babe” types and cosplayers that aren’t perceived as being actual fans of the realm they’re promoting with super sexualized outfits.

 

Look.  Both of these men aren’t women-haters, they’re not anti-feminist, but their posts are seeping with privilege.  I already had an article about this, but my point on the women in geekdom stands: it’s not fair to point the finger and say “these women are taking advantage of geek men” when they have been encouraged and embraced into the role and often times are shunned, ridiculed, and harassed for not fitting into it.  If you’re a girl gamer and you’re attractive, you’ll be expected to play it up and “show your tits,” and if you’re not attractive, expect to be called fat or ugly or a dyke or whatever because your looks are paramount to your actual gaming ability.  I’m not exactly sure how you can tell if someone’s a “real fan” or not from looking at them anyway, but that’s the problem – when you have a man writing about a feminist issue without a frame of privilege, things like a misplaced persecution complex rears its head.  You think these women are faking it for attention and money?  Maybe the problem is they live in an environment where their worth structure and acceptance into a group is entirely dependent on their looks.

 

Let’s go back to Bill Baird.  In the 1970s Baird was accused of being a CIA plant, being an embarrassment to the movement, and worked only to “make women appear easier.”  These accusations didn’t come from the far right, they came from feminists and Planned Parenthood.  A man who spent time in jail, a man who lost his family, a man who was nearly murdered multiple times by radical pro-lifers was shunned from the very movement he gave everything to protect.

 

So you can ask me if I think men can write about feminist issues, you can ask me if men have a place in the discourse, and I will tell you yes.  But, I will hope that by saying yes it encourages responsible writing and dialog with a certain level of care and attention given to the privileges held by the men holding the pens and striking the keys.

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Video Games II: Women and Gaming

The other facet of women in gaming is the real women affiliated with the gaming world: the actual industry professionals, female gamers, and the women commonly referenced as “booth girls” – attractive women hired by game publishers and conventions to pose as gamers (who often are not actually interested in video games).  These women often face exploitation for their gender when they are recognized by the industry and are often otherwise ignored.

While female game designers go all the way back to Atari, there’s one woman designer with media prominence: Jade Raymond, of the team that made Assassin’s Creed.  Now, I don’t know Ms. Raymond, and I’m not saying she isn’t talented.  She didn’t get to her position in the game industry without talent and love of gaming.  However, I am saying the only reason her name rings louder than say, Carol Shaw (one of the earliest game designers) or Kim Swift (creator of the game Portal was based off of, Narbacular Drop, as well as a designer on the Portal team), is because…

1. She is attractive.

2. Her attractiveness was used as a selling point for Assassin’s Creed.

Now, it’s totally reasonable for producers to be public about their game – anyone who’s seen Cliffy B’s twitter feed knows that they’re often overly excited to do so.  It’s great to be proud of your work.  But, I have to question of things like this are really necessary to sell a game:

But you know what?  It worked.  Ubisoft put out Jade as an icon and sold their game by selling her.  This is a woman who by her early thirties had a resume including executive level work at EA and Ubisoft,  something respectable for any woman or man in the field, reduced to shilling her project by taking off her clothes.

Game designers aren’t the only industry women who face marginalization or exploitation for their work.  Game Journalists who happen to be female also face different professional standards.  Kotaku columnist Leigh Alexander had a piece about this recently wherein she argued that despite all of her work in game journalism, all of her articles and interviews, when people discuss her the most important adjective is “female.”  I don’t always agree with Leigh (her opinions on Bayonetta especially) but I respect how hard she works and it’s infuriating to me that her work gets distilled down to “female” with no attention to the actual vastness of her work.

When I think about women in the industry I often come back to this video because it’s something men generally find more palatable than outright feminist thought on the subject, but I have a couple problems with it, most notably the criticism of the aforementioned “booth girls” but also the suggestion that the best way to appeal to women is to make something pink.

The booth girl is not unique to gaming but the game industry in particular is fairly notorious for it and even embraces it.  It’s easy to point the finger and say, “hey, nobody is making these girls do this.  They’re making money by pretending to be gamers so women only have themselves to blame.  Really it’s men who are being tricked, they’re lured into these games by hot women who don’t really share their interests!”  Well, no.  Society is making these girls do this.

As girls (and later as women), we’re taught by our surroundings that our looks are our most important feature (“you can’t see smarts”) and that our sex is a commodity.  Men like to flip it and say that women commoditize sex to “get what they want” but supply doesn’t create demand (when was the last time a parent told his/her daughter her virginity was only as important as she deemed it so and that no decent man would judge her for having casual sex and enjoying intercourse?) and chances are these women didn’t just show up at a gaming convention one year and say, “hey, do you want to pay us to stand here and look hot?”

It’s not just paid models who fall into the “sex sells” role women are wedged into in gaming.  A half dozen sites and services exist to pair up men with women’s gamer tags.  While I’m not against the concept of matchmaking through gaming (I know I only date other gamers), these sites don’t approach it at that angle: the women get paid (per hour largely) and the company takes a cut.  It’s not prostitution by any stretch, but it’s not particularly good for women gamers either (it enforces the idea that women only pretend to game to get men).

So do actual female gamers and developers have an equal place in the game picture?  Is there any avenue for women in gaming that isn’t inherently exploitative?  Can a woman be just a gamer without attracting any undue attention; can an attractive women be a gamer without having more expected from her?  I think so.  I just don’t think we’re there yet.


Video Games I: Characterization of Women

I’m an avid gamer.  I grew up with a NES and a Sega Genesis, we’ve had every Playstation ever put out, still have a working Dreamcast and Gameboy color, and bought an Xbox 360 in early 2007 after a friend-of-a-friend introduced me to Gears of War.  Chances are if I haven’t played it I still know about it.  The world of video games is wide and vast: it varies in style and theme, target age group, and from single player to interactivity between thousands.

A (male) friend of mine who writes about comic books and had an upcoming article about sexism and misogyny in comics recently linked a video on facebook about the exploitation of the female body in gaming and the differences between how male and female characters are presented.  The video makes an excellent point about body language and characterization:

A recently released picture for the upcoming Mass Effect 3 illustrates this point particularly well:
For those not particularly familiar with the characters of the Mass Effect universe, the above characters are from Mass Effect 1 (and briefly 2): Ashley and Kaidan.   Only one of these characters survives the first game and which one it is depends on choices you make as the player.

Both of these characters are equal – they’re both Alliance soldiers (Ash in the Soldier class, Kaidan in the Adept), both are promoted in rank in Mass Effect 2, and both reach the highly elite Spectre status in Mass Effect 3.  Effectively, it doesn’t matter which one you choose to survive the first game, they come out as equals in rank and importance in the final game.

But despite her Spectre status, Ashley is drawn primarily as a sex figure.  Her body language presents her as an object for men to ogle, eyes averted, hips skewed.  It says nothing about her character and in fact can be argued to be directly contrary to her actual characterization in the games.  One of the stills is even of her turned around so that the gamer can see what her ass will look like in ME3.  Kaidan, on the other hand, holds a firm and confident pose, facing forward.  Keep in mind, these characters are supposed to be interchangeable and equal.

While I agree with Bob Chipman about how clothing is or isn’t worn, I do think he misses the mark on whether or not clothing (or lack thereof) is a concern (and should be) to female gamers.  Let’s continue with the Mass Effect example before moving on:
In Mass Effect 1, Ashley is introduced as a “tough” character – she’s the sole survivor in her unit of an attack on the human colony on the planet Eden Prime by Geth invaders.  However, even with her initial introduction, her clothing is the bigger statement: she’s wearing bright pink and white armor.  Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with conventional femininity and women wearing pink.  “Feminine” isn’t inherently anti-feminist or bad.  The fact that there is pink and white armor (and yellow and black and every other color) in the game is not the problem.  The problem is that out of every single recruitment in the game, Ashley is the only one in an armor color that isn’t remotely suitable for any sort of combat situation wherein concealing oneself might make the difference between life and death.  She is othered for her sex.

In Mass Effect 2, your team consists of many male and female companions.  See if you can spot a difference between the men and the women in this picture:
With exception to Tali (third from Left), none of the women are wearing armor suited to intergalactic combat despite every single one of the male companions being dressed for the occasion.  Jack (far right) has belts for a top, Samara (second from left) – a warrior hundreds of years old – wears a catsuit with a revealing cut down to her navel, and Miranda (center) wears a bodysuit so revealing you can see literally every contour of her body during the game.

The problem is not simply that these characters are hyper-feminized, or that their outfits are revealing, it’s that they are explicitly treated differently from the male characters and are dressed entirely inappropriately for the situations which they are presented with in the game.  They are all presented primarily as sex objects and secondarily as characters (and their characters leave something to be desired – Miranda, Tali, Ashley, and in a way Jack all have major father issues that define everything about their actions).

Just to clarify because I don’t want it to seem like I’m railing only on Mass Effect, it’s one of my favorite games.  It’s in no way unique in the problems it has with female characters.

As another example, let’s look at Anya Stroud and Sam in the recent release Gears of War 3 alongside their male counterparts:
Gears of War 3 takes place decades after Emergence Day, the apocalyptic cataclysm between humans and Locust on the planet Sera.

Let’s do some math.  The first Gears of War takes place 14 years after Emergence Day (4 years after the incarceration of the protagonist, Marcus Fenix).  It’s established that Marcus, his best friend Dom, and Anya are all veterans of the previous war on Sera, the Pendulum Wars.  So, assuming they only fought one year of the Pendulum Wars and all enlisted at 17 (which isn’t true because Anya is an academy grad officer and Marcus is a decorated hero from the wars, but for argument’s sake, we’ll lowball the numbers), at the onset of the first game they’re all 32 years old at the absolute youngest.  The second game takes place six months after the first, and the third eighteen months after that.  So 34 is the absolute youngest any of these people are.

In the third game Marcus, Dom, Cole and Baird are all visibly older.  They’re grizzled, worn, scarred and dirty.  They’ve been fighting an unstoppable and unrelenting foe for sixteen years!  Anya and Sam, however, remain ageless and clean.  They have flawless makeup, no wrinkles, no scars, and cute haircuts (as opposed to keeping their hair tied back and out of their eyes, or cut short).

Again, the problem is not that they are attractive, busty, and thin women.  There’s inherently nothing wrong with being attractive or having large breasts or being lithe from a lifetime of being on the run (though it’s more than a little unrealistic).  The issue is that these women are presented so clearly different from the men with whom they have shared identical experiences and time alive.  These women should have battle scars, they should have lines around their eyes from peering down a rifle scope for years.  It takes away from the realism of a “this is the end of the world” mood when all the women seem immune to everything around them including physical damage and the space time continuum.

It’s interesting to consider this problem when applied to games with visible female protagonists, such as Lara Croft and Bayonetta, versus games with completely covered or not visible (first person) female protagonists like Samus Aran (of Metroid) and Chell (of Portal).  There’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said about Lara before (she’s actually a poor role model and protagonist, her character is more or less void of characterization beyond her sex appeal though the reboot may attempt to change that) and the “subversiveness” of Bayonetta and the destruction of her foes through her femininity is arguably the most offensive ploy at “see, using/commoditizing sex and sex appeal to get what or where you want or need to be is empowering!” in gaming, but Samus and Chell are actually interesting to examine.

Samus is probably one of the, if not the most highly regarded female lead in gaming.  The reveal the the end of Metroid that the form under the power armor was that of a woman was a great twist and really forced the player to re-examine any misconceptions he or she might have had about heroines (even if it was done in the sleaziest “look, a girl in a bikini!” way).  Up until the unlockable Samus in Super Smash Brothers Brawl and later Other M, Samus kept her power armor on most of the time (unless you unlocked “good endings”), which was met by an interesting dichotomy: some game critics rightfully though it was pandering her character should have been above while others heralded it as an “about time” as if somehow, despite years of space ass kicking, she was totally unaccomplished until they could see her body on constant display (there’s multiple articles on “hot babes” in video games pointing out her curvaceous backside and large breasts).

Chell is seemingly the bright light in female game leads: she’s pretty average looking, she’s a woman of color, and the fact that she’s a woman is entirely inconsequential to the game.  In Portal she’s a woman trapped in an experiment gone wrong, using her wits and some neat technology to escape a homicidal artificial intelligence.  But what does it say about the industry when the best female character they can make is one that’s never seen, heard, or given a background?


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