Alright, here we go! I am willingly diving into one of the most controversial topics in the gaming community because many average gamers, men and women, are tired of being pulled into, and polarized on, this touchy issue. Sexism in gaming, here we go… LEZ DO THIS DANCE!
To be clear, I’m coming into this with no agenda other than to look at both sides equally, but that is exactly the core point: there should not be a pointed agenda when discussing sexism in gaming. The readers can see right through it once one gender or the other is stereotyped by the end of the first paragraph, completely changing the tone they are reading you in and also nullifying your chance to spur critical thinking. The key is presenting your ideas, but also countering them with empathy for those you know are naturally inclined to getting defensive; maybe they’d give a chance to someone who attempts to at least understand them. Alright, enough about the rhetoric breakdown!
Why do popular games like Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV all have male protagonists? I believe average gamers of either gender might respond with: It doesn’t matter, these are very fun, unrealistic games and as long as the game mechanics are great, I’m having fun. Allow me to explain why it may or may not actually matter, but don’t expect to find a “correct” answer. Let me give a metaphoric example from my own life involving my upcoming wedding. My fiance asked if I expected her to change her last name, to which I responded much like I would for a character’s gender: I genuinely do not care, do what you want. But see, when it comes to family names, especially if there are kids, it really is just more convenient if you pick one or the other for consistency’s sake. We acknowledged this, but there really is not a better reason to use her last name or mine, we just have to pick.
The parallel to assigning character gender exists here because a game designer may have the same attitude of not caring, but they have to pick regardless. The problem is that, by making a male protagonist, they are “giving in” to the established, skewed stereotype that the strong man saves the damsel in distress. Alternatively, if they purposefully switch the characters’ genders specifically to break this cycle, then their motivations really aren’t any less sexist since they started from a position of it not mattering. So you see, because it doesn’t actually matter, the only outcome is it being judged for being unequal (Damsel in Distress, or purposeful reversal). If they just flip a coin, it’s still getting labelled as one or the other. Just like if my fiance takes my last name solely for consistency’s sake and not some ingrained tradition, we can’t help but feel that we are “giving in”. Me taking hers just to deny that is no better because from the beginning we haven’t cared; it’s a cyclical Catch 22. The point is that assigning character genders will always be subject to gendered criticism regardless of whether gender bias does or does not actually exist. The problem is that previous generations held these stereotypes without really thinking about them, and there is an already skewed proportion of male-to-female lead characters, which affects how we view the decisions made today.
Ask yourself, if Link was female, and Zelda was male, would the games be any different? I would contend not because neither character is designed to be stereotypically male/female with enormous muscles or enormous breasts that have a devoted physics engine. Once a character is defined more physically than by their actions and emotions, then I share the concerns other critics do. The line becomes less defined for something like Metroid, which is sometimes praised for having Samus be a female, but also tends to focus on her in a skintight outfit (the Zero Suit, see below) at the end of the games. My line of thought usually involves me deciding it’s pretty cool Samus is a badass woman in a weaponized suit of armor, but when they have the slow pan up her lithe body in the Zero Suit if you’ve gotten 100% in the game, my thoughts change to “Well that was unnecessary”, and I’m a little embarrassed for the game itself. Some, not all, Metroid games will end with that shot of her as if to say “Fuck yeah, look at this shit.” There really is not a non-sexual argument for why these scenes exist in the way they do. Why not just have her take the suit off, have her wear the Zero Suit underneath, but also have her actually do something, literally anything, other than pose for the camera?
Never start a sentence with a preposition, but I still love Metroid and it is one of my favorite series. To be fair, Metroid: Zero Mission does exactly what I suggested by having her take off the Chozo Suit because you thought it was the end, but instead gets abducted by Space Pirates. You have to fight through them without the Chozo Armor, which adds a new, pretty cool game mechanic. Note, there is a big distinction here, which is also my next point. Sexualizing characters does not immediately mean sexism. The Zero Suit is tight fitting, but frankly, it would have to be in order to fit in the Chozo Armor. Meanwhile, the game is completely challenging in new ways. Samus is wearing the Zero Suit, which inherently sexualizes her, but I would argue that it is not for the purpose of sexualizing her as it does in some of the other Metroid endings. A different example: Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 5 has enormous, almost unrealistic, arms and shoulders. It’s important to note that he needs to be modeled as a very built character in order to punch zombies in the face, blasting them away airborne several yards (lol), but they went overboard with the size. The responsibility of the creator is to make these characters believable given their abilities and situation, but avoid crossing the line to fluff them up.
What some may call unabashed sexualization, I would call practicality up to a point. I really don’t see a problem with sexualized characters, again, as long as it has a basis in reality and is not overtly superfluous. Women do in fact have breasts, but most aren’t absolutely enormous.
They also wear some outfits that might show part of said breasts, but not in combat. On the swing side of things, being upset with a game creator for purposefully making over-sexualized characters is placing too much blame on the wrong party. Why is it that I think “Meh, not necessary.” when I see the slow pan up Samus’s Zero Suit body in Metroid Prime 2? It’s because my ideas on the subject are already set and Metroid Prime 2 isn’t really affecting them. If kids are getting their ideas about gender roles from video games then they probably already have some related emotional issues to begin with, which is where the real problem originates. I guarantee a man somewhere has jacked it to Alyx Vance from Half Life even though she is widely considered the best developed, “real” woman in video games. Do we blame Valve for creating a character that tempts this man so? I absolutely don’t want to downplay real life circumstances, but this is a very watered down version of victim blaming Alyx and her creators… as if we better not put media out there because men might get the wrong impression and not be able to control ourselves. I am pretty confident that average gamers, both men and women, find that pretty offensive. To be clear, jacking off to Alyx Vance really isn’t the issue, but we should be holding the specific person to blame if s/he also happens to be sexist, not the games they played.
By blindly, and inarticulately, blaming the game, we are also inherently accusing anyone who has ever played it of sexism and I cannot stress this enough. Communication is important and this is exactly why you come away from a gender-focused game article either completely disagreeing or circle-jerking; there is no critical thought involved and your mind is made up before you read even half of it. Rather, we should be holding sexist individuals accountable, while making it clear to everyone else, men and women, that we know they’re intelligent enough to think “Meh, whatever, it’s not really making or breaking the game for me.” I think too many people are doing the accusation part, but completely disregarding the empathy. This, meanwhile, puts many (mostly) male gamers on the defensive, rather than ganging up on these pieces of shit individuals who harass women online. It is the responsibility of both sides to communicate more effectively and also not get so damn defensive in response. An intelligent way to phrase it would be to say that certain games validate already established sexist tendencies and those of us who are not sexist need to stand up and hold those players accountable. Why are we so scared to do this? It’s the BYSTANDER EFFECT! There are always going to be asshole gamers who just absolutely insist on boobies in games, but I must step forward for the silent majority and say it just is not important to my gaming experience. I’m not at all saying the problem does not exist, instead I’m being open about why bringing it up generally has not helped. So yes, let’s get some more realistic female representation in games, the rest of us simply do not care!
If you make an engaging game, even if I’m playing as an anthropomorphized birdhouse, I really would not give a shit about what my playable character is (dependent on the game’s background obviously). Boobs are boobs and dicks are dicks, they’re really not a big deal to look at anymore. They’re abundant, and having them in your game does not increase its marketability like they might have in the 90’s. As some behind-the-curve developers open their eyes to a more diverse gaming population, and the gaming world as a whole makes it clear we want normal, practical boobs and biceps in our games, I am confident we will see a natural shift to a much more realistic in-game gender diaspora; I would say it has already begun. The indie gaming scene particularly is more willing to take the risks necessary to break out of the old-style market groups, but it’s also happening in the mainstream more and more. Take from this what you will; I tried to avoid polarizing and accusing by touching on how men, women, and game developers each need to look at this more objectively and empathetically, but now it’s time to wait and see if my article about avoiding a gender flame war by bringing up sexism in gaming ends up starting a flame war! Let me firmly end this by saying that if you troll online based on your victims gender, or any specific stereotype for that matter, you are trash and it’s time the rest of us realize that we can, and should, treat you like it.