July 23, 2008

Guest post: A feminist gamer looks at gender issues in the gaming industry

Posted in entertainment, gaming, gender, gender stereotypes, guest posts, objectification at 12:00 pm by LB

I have asked Cassandra from No Little Lolita to do some occasional guest blogging about gender and gaming. It is an area I’m very interested in, but not being a gamer myself, can’t give it the treatment it deserves. So I’ve asked Cassandra to fill in that gap here at Don’t you wish your girlfriend was smart like me? Please engage her ideas in the comments with respect.


Hi, my name is Cassandra – I post on No Little Lolita, a blog about popular culture, teenage years and feminism, gaming, and the pursuits and hobbies of a young Canadian feminist. I’m guestblogging to talk a little about the huge problems in the gaming industry, and why they affect women – even those who aren’t gamers.

We’ve recently entered a ‘new generation’ of gaming, and it’s only show how persuasive the siren song of gaming is. The Nintendo Wii broke records when it was launched – it was the first console that appealed to people beyond gamers, and the inventive remote with add-ons seemed more welcoming and approachable than the controllers of their competitors – the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360. In contrast, the Xbox 360 and the PS3 seem to be in a market of their own – both of them are powerhouses that appeal to the ‘hardcore’ gamer and boast libraries of games that’ll last you tens upon tens of hours full of deep storylines and complex gameplay.

With this new interactive art form taking center stage, it would be great if we could shed the tired tropes and disgusting stereotypes that show up constantly in movies and on TV. Gaming is a medium that boasts large amounts of interactivity and choice – wouldn’t it be great if the writing was excellent without leaning on racist or sexist stereotypes, the action was tight without being pandering or offensive, and the characters were engrossing and sympathetic and yet realistic and enjoyable to play?

Unfortunately, it seems that most studios either don’t have the capacity or the willpower to create games that fulfill these expectations. Most games have either a shallow story, with the main objective being ‘blow this up’, or rely on stereotypes and tropes when they bother to develop the characters or the storyline at all. Female characters are reduced to simpering, slender sexpots relying on the main character while being just feisty enough to rile him up more often than not – that is, when they even exist. Even when a female is the main character of a game, she is usually designed to be attractive, available and open to possible advances – she’s tough, but not so tough that your average gamer would be threatened! The main character of a game is more often than not white, male, and straight. Often he’s taking down terrorists or criminals or some unsavory group while some female sighs over his hunkiness, and his POC sidekick serves as comic relief. The art form, so far, is heteronormative, overwhelmingly white, and sexist.

The gaming market has produced some feminist-friendly games for sure – the Mario games are a safe bet, the Metal Gear Solid games have a large cast with both genders, and even though the games are set around the American – Russian – Chinese conflict, the third game had a black support member who helped the protagonist on his solo mission talk about his experiences facing racism from the private corporations in America in the 60s; not something you would hear discussed in most media forms of any sort. But for the large part, games are like a gigantic soggy sandwich: you watch the preparation as you starve and drool, you rationalize “It’s still good! It’s still good!” even after the waitress dumps a glass of water over it, but you give up after having a few bites and mourn over what could have been.

There has to be reasons for this: it’s not like a game is somehow functionally incapable of being feminist. Let’s examine some of the prominent reasons as to why we have these complaints:

  • Game “writers” are a rare breed. Unless you’re a major studio with oodles of cash to spend, there’s a pretty high chance that your writer is just another developer wearing another hat. While the vision of a game studio can look fabulous in theory, with no degree or practical experience, the epic vision falls flat on paper and leads to stilted dialogue, “edgy” and “dark” ideas, and ridiculous stereotypes. Then you put the script in the hands of amateur voice actors with no regards to quality, and the result is… lacking. Some games are trying to solve that by writing amazing scripts and hyping up the story – most notably, the game Bioshock was a look at Ayn Rand philosophies, choice, and free will – but the story in some ways fell flat due to the medium and the way it was presented.
  • Many of the studios and projects listed above are Japanese or American. So you have lots of great games coming out, but they’re being written, produced, modeled and hyped up by men. There’s been disturbing data about women in tech careers – many of them feel like they need to strip themselves of sexuality and gender to be able to succeed in the industry. The rates of sexual assault in tech industries is horrifying, and the rates of women dropping out of the industry are depressingly high. This is not an industry comprised of feminist or feminist allies: indeed, the numbers show the opposite: that men working in this industry are openly hostile to women.
  • Game journalism seems to be suffering from the same maladies. Most ‘game journalists’ are just hype machines. Gamespot is now infamous: a prominent reviewer was fired after he gave a game a subpar score. The problem was that the studio that had developed the game had paid Gamespot lots and lots of cash to hype the game. Other magazines have had muzzles applied. They can’t speak negatively about a preview if they want to play it. It’s also an overwhelmingly male field. I doubt the writers for Edge or EGM really, really care about the *social implications of a naked woman trading card game in The Witcher, for example.
  • Even the gamers themselves are perceived as a ‘boys club’. Whenever a girl is treated to a game designed and produced for young women or little girls, it’s rarely treated with the same amount of hype. When famous American actresses were brought on board to promote the DS for women, they were rocking the pink model as they giggled and cooed at the screens. Women online can expect to be greeted with “tits or GTFO”, pleading for naked pictures, or sheer disbelief that a woman is playing World of Warcraft or Halo. Even when a woman is fully believed and accepted, she will be offered a lot of help that she doesn’t really need and spoken down to by her peers online.

When Jade Raymond, producer of Assassin’s Creed did a series of interviews promoting and hyping up the game, Ubisoft tagged the videos as “Listen to beautiful and intelligent Jade Raymond describe her influences for…” or “Sizzling hot Jade Ramond goes over the combat system for Assassin’s Creed.” I doubt I would ever in my life watch a video captioned “The gorgeous Wil Wheaton talks about Spore” or “The sizzling hot producer of Grand Theft Auto 4 goes over…”, so why do I have to read this now that Raymond is heading up a game?

The video game community reacted with venom. A vicious comic circulated – Jade Raymond giving oral sex to men as she stumbled over words like “creative”, and they all groaned about how they would be sure to buy the game. Every gaming community agreed that the comic was ‘hilarious’, and after Ubisoft threatened legal action, they cheered over “making Jade cry”.

As a woman who identifies as both a gamer and a feminist, these are problems that obviously need to be solved. When video games are shattering entertainment records, making billions of dollars, and yet managing to be in the stone age in their attitudes and story telling, that is an immense problem that needs to be fixed. It’s due to my love for games and gaming that I want to solve these problems. More women need to be in the industry at all levels. More women need to be accepted as gamers by these large corporations. Studios should have absolutely no excuse for objectifying, denigrating and humiliating an entire gender for the purpose of entertainment.


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