Sexism in video games. It’s all over the place, in large part thanks to people like Anita Sarkeesian who routinely takes the industry to task on her YouTube channel. She received funding for a documentary on the issue via Kickstarter (Tropes vs Women in Video Games). Anita and other critics (male and female) have been taken to task for trying to discuss the problem. The issue is a lightning rod, drawing many passionate reactions that unfortunately avoid understanding why the critiques are important and valid. Typically, the defensive argument made is along the following lines:
Video games depict women in a poor manner because most video game developers are men and men cannot be expected to understand and/or identify with women. Men and women like different things, think in different ways, and it is unreasonable to expect male video game developers to improve on this front because they’re not female. One only need look at the Romance section of a bookstore to see objectified men and no one has a problem with that. Also, women’s magazines are an excellent example of something that is made by women for women. Men don’t complain those exist either. There is not a strong enough market of women gamers to entice developers to try and cater to them. Demographics show that gamers are mostly men. Teenage boys love boobs and that’s why developers put them in games. They are simply catering to their demographics. Women should just stop complaining and start making video games. Put up, or shut up. Men are not threatened by women gamers and therefore, women should not be wary of the industry. There is a lot of money to be made if women start developing games for women.
Ok, here’s my take on a few of those points.
Gender Does Not Equal Identity
Being born male or female is not the end all be all of your identity. It is merely a part of who you are, and in many cases, a quite small one. All males do not enjoy the same things, do not feel the same things, do not behave in the same way, etc. The same applies to all females. Gender is just one way human beings are classified for marketing purposes and it is the broadest of all brushes. Unfortunately, some industries put entirely too much emphasis on this categorization and don’t drill down further. Toy stores are notorious for this, and the video game industry is very much following suit.
Being One Gender Prevents You From Portraying/Catering To The Other
The major frustration critics have with video games is that they are clearly lazy. How do we know? Human beings have had some type of media in their lives from the beginning. Men have told stories, done paintings, sung songs, written books, and scripted TV shows and movies about women and they have done so brilliantly. Consider please, how absurd it is to suggest that men are incapable of portraying women accurately because they are not women. Nicholas Sparks’ books are adored by women. Henrik Ibsen wrote one of the most complicated female characters in the history of theater in his play Hedda Gabler—in 1890. Neil Gaiman created the fantastic Coraline. Joss Whedon made Buffy the Vampire Slayer a pop culture icon. These aren’t freak examples, these are standards—in every single industry except video games.
No One Complains About Romance Novels And Women’s Magazines
Romance novels are not the only types of books you can get, nor are women’s magazines the only type of magazines available. But what if that was the case? Of course there would be complaints. Any time one industry is skewed so heavily to one gender, it’s going to come under fire because it should come under fire. Skewing to one gender is discrimination and it’s bad for business. And for what it’s worth, a lot of women do complain about Romance Novels and Women’s Magazines. They are cheesy as hell and often feel demeaning.
I’d like to include a brief anecdote in regards to Women’s Magazines. I watched a video that was a counter to the accusation of sexism in video games. As part of his defense, he made a reference to Vanity Fair as a magazine by women, for women and that’s when it really hit home how ignorant people are about gender and how desperate they are to hide behind it. Since 1992, Vanity Fair’s editor in chief has been Graydon Carter. Graydon has done such a good job of catering to an audience of the opposite sex for 21 years, ”He has won 11 National Magazine Awards, including two for General Excellence for magazines with a circulation of more than 1 million, the highest honor in magazine publishing.”
Facts Show Women Aren’t Gamers
Do you know what the term “self-perpetuating” means? It’s something that is capable of renewing itself indefinitely. The argument that games are not targeted at pleasing women because women aren’t gamers is an example of a self-perpetuating problem. Women want to play video games. How do we know? Angry Birds. Millions of little kids play Angry Birds. They are a driving force behind the success of Angry Birds and their creators know it, spinning out Angry Birds merchandise that specifically targets children. When it first started, it was pretty unisex stuff—green pigs, red birds, no problem. As they have evolved, they’ve started making the merchandise a little less so. There is now a girl bird with pink feathers and big blue eyes and there’s lots of pink Angry Birds merchandise. However, none of this was necessary to get girls to play Angry Birds. Girls have been playing Angry Birds since the beginning. And Angry Birds isn’t the only one. Little girls are playing Temple Run, Skylanders, and lots of other games that were not developed by women for women.
My daughter just turned seven years old. She got a purple Leapster GS for her birthday with some games. My son just turned five a few days before and got a green Leapster GS for his birthday with some games. The two of them share their games which include: Brave, Cars 2, LeapSchool Math, LeapSchool Reading, Monsters University, Pixar Pals, and Tangled. Right now, my daughter’s favorite game is LeapSchool Reading. The LeapSchool Reading game features female characters that are a DJ, a scientist, and a construction worker as some examples. As far as designing a game appealing to both genders and breaking up gender stereotypes, this is a perfect example of getting it right.
The act of playing a video game is not something that is favored by boys over girls; however, as the girls get older, they leave the safe world of educational and kiddie games and come into a world that is supposed to be more mature and complex. Unfortunately, what they find is a plethora of video games with disappointing content that make it extremely hard to identify with the playable character and quite easy to identify with the non-playable helpless character. It’s a turn off. Going back to my daughter, she will play video games with her brothers as long as they play games where she can play as a girl. Mario Kart? No problem. Just Dance? She’ll kick your butt. Mario Party? Fine. Skylanders? Eh, not as many options there but fine. Super Smash Bros? No problem. But other games where she can’t play as a girl just don’t catch her interest.
Looking at a sample of 669 games that had protagonists with discernible genders, only 24 had exclusively female protagonists. Action had the most female protagonists, shooters had even less, and role-playing games had exactly one game with a female only hero. In all three genres, a little under 300 games gave the option of a female lead. That includes games where you can choose your gender or create your own character.
-Games with exclusively female heroes don’t sell (because publishers don’t support them), Ben Kuchera
Clearly game companies are losing potential customers and it’s like they don’t want to know it. Kids today are being brought up in an environment that primes them to be gamers more than any other time in history and yet companies can’t hold on to half the population. Yes, there are women gamers, but there could be so many more if developers opened their minds and thought outside the bondage-bound babe-holding box.
Put Up Or Shut Up
This is a classic argument and I hope you can see why it’s unnecessary. I think it’s a good time to point out women are working on it. Women have been behind men in the world of education and their resulting fields, but they are outpacing them rapidly. Women’s numbers are rising across all fields, including the sciences. But we are still playing catch up. There just aren’t enough women with the skills and education needed to develop video games in significant numbers. If men really are interested in seeing more women developing video games, they should encourage the women in their lives to pursue related education and career paths.
However, the fact remains the industry can be threatening to women. Most heterosexual men admit they would be uncomfortable working for a company that objectifies men like companies who produce porn for gay and hetero women or those Romance Fiction publishing companies. Women go through the same reluctance and unfortunately at this time, the video game industry heavily objectifies the female characters in their games. It’s not exactly a job perk. In general, people are drawn to companies where they won’t feel like the oddball.
Regardless of whether or not women ever end up with a fair representation in the video game industry, people should not count on women to shake up the industry. Video game players everywhere should try and understand there can be even more games, even better games, with even more players if developers break out of their creative ruts. Game companies need to hear from consumers everywhere that they are missing the mark in a huge way on a giant piece of the demographic pie—and it’s their own fault.
It’s Not Just A Woman Problem
Sexism in video games is bad for everyone and this is one thing that’s important for defenders of video games to try and understand. People are criticizing the video game industry not just because it is doing a disservice to women but because it is doing a disservice to men. By resorting to lazy character and story creations, developers aren’t just making a mess of portraying women, they are also making a mess of portraying men. So many male characters in video games are ridiculous testosterone amped stereotypes that men should be insulted this is what game developers believe they identify with. Critics of sexism in video games believe men can be engaged in plot lines more interesting than damsels in distress, or ultra-violent revenge. The success of games like Portal, across all gender lines, supports this belief. Men and women deserve better games from developers. Men and women know developers can produce better games. Advances are made constantly on game play improvements but the storylines are evolving at a much slower pace and that is really just a shame to the entire community.
Where do you fall in the sexism in video games argument? Do you think it’s a problem or do you think it’s overhyped? Do you think the industry is doing its best to cater to both sexes? Do you think it doesn’t matter if they do or don’t?