Monday, December 6, 2010

Sex and Gender in Video Games

Female video game characters tend to verge on the extreme opposites of sexuality, neither of which are particularly flattering or accurate. On one end of the spectrum, there are women who are portrayed as helpless damsels that lounge around in long pink dresses, waiting to be rescued by your typical hero, and on the other end you have self-reliant, empowered women who risk endless sexualisation from video game developers or the gaming community as a whole
* Men fear strong, empowered women because these women make men feel weak. Sexualising these characters portrays them as having a weakness (i.e. sexual hunger) that can only be cured by men, thus returning the male to an alpha position.
* Video game developers felt that games featuring independent women in the title role would alienate traditional male gamers so the characters were sexualised to entice players.
* Men are so shallow that every woman they see offers the opportunity to create a vacuous sex object in their heads. Video games (and the internet) have offered society the opportunity to share these musings.
* Female characters with large breasts and little clothing sell more games; we’re in a shady business after all.[*]
History of Female Game Icons
The first video arcade, Pong (1972), was released by Atari in the early 1970s, later to be released on the first home console, the Atari 2600 (1977). Four years after the first game console and nearly a decade after the invention of popular video games, gamers would be able to play the first female protagonist, Ms. Pac Man (1981).

But just as quickly as the empowerment of female characters entered the picture, so did their degradation: the damsel in distress and the sex object. A year later, Nintendo's Donkey Kong (1981) would introduce the precursors to Mario, Bowser, and Princess Peach--Jumpman, Donkey Kong, and Pauline--, based off the Popey-Bluto-Olive Oyl triad. Pauline and her successor Peach would become the archetype of the damsel in distress character. On the other hand, you also had the release of three of the most mysoginistic games of all time by a developed named Mystique. In 1982 they released three a trilogy of disgusting including Custer's Revenge, in which your objective as Custer is to dodge Amerindian arrows so you have sex with (rape?) a woman named "Revenge" tied up to a cactus, Beat Em' & Beat Em' in which you control two naked women who must ingest the ejaculate from a man on a roof, and Bachelor Party in whcih you control a man who must bang a two lines of falling women.

While the damsel in distress was a motif that has persisted long in video game history, the release of eroticism on videogame counsels would be very rare (at least within American and mainstream markets). The female protagonist returned in the late 80s and early 90s, including Chun-Li in Street Fighter II (1991) and Sonya Blade in Mortal Kombat (1992), in addition to female characters in Role Playing Games like Final Fantasy III (1990) and the protagonist, Terra, of one of the most popular one's, FFVI (1994). The largest female role of all since Ms. Pac Man would come in the form of Samus Aran in Metroid (1986), a space bounty hunter whom you did not discover until a secret ending was actually a woman. Samus would become the most beloved female lead in gaming (a topic I'll discuss later).

Samus's popularity, however would subside since the sequels Metroid Prime II (1991) and Super Metroid (1994) were not to be followed up by another, Metroid Prime and Metroid Fusion (2002) for another 8 years. Meanwhile, Lara Croft, the star of Tomb Raider Tomb Raider (1996) and the "girls" of Dead or Alive (1996), a fighting game in which the 3D characters' breasts jiggled, became the new face of female game characters. While the Both Lara and the DoA girls were tough, the DoA girls were more eye candy compared to Lara who at least had wit and personality and could figure as an empowering, although increasingly sexualized female game character.

Frustratingly, as one saw the presence of more female game characters, they were either regulated to "girl games" or manufactured as pure eye candy and sex objects. This trend was perhaps anticipated or set a new bar with Grand Theft Auto III (2001), in which one could purchase sex from prostitutes (and murder them to steal the money back). While GTAII was critically acclaimed despite its violent nature for allowing gamers to have one of the most liberating worlds in any game, a host of other games to follow were so bad that they used sex to sell, at least some have argued. These games include BMX XXX (2002), in which topless women riding around nude on motor vehicles, Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball (2003), which centers around oogling at buxom women, and Rumble Roses (2004), a wrestling game with scantidly clad women with jiggly breasts.

The year 2004 was a a paradox for female portrayal in video games. On the one hand, it introduced some of the most powering female character yet. Samus returned in her second fifth-generation game, Metroid Prime: Echoes, as well as two of what are considered the strongest and most admirable female roles in video games: Jade in Beyond Good and Evil (2004), Alyx Half-Life 2 (2004). However, this was also perhaps the sexiest year in gaming history since Mystique's gruesome trilogy in 1982. Of this lineup included Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude (2004), in which you play a supersenior in college trying to lay as many women as possible, Playboy: The Mansion (2004), in which you play Hugh Hefner trying to make a buck, the Guy Game (2004) in which the hetero-male player must guess what a videorecorded woman will answer to a trivia question in order to see her breasts. (There is also another game I can't find, that was the first dating simulator game that allowed players to choose homosexual--but not bisexual--characters).

In many of these games, sex was implicit and nothing more than nudity and heavy petting made an appearance. Yet, some content had been cut from the game but not removed form the code, as it was discovered to be the case in the Hot Coffee scandal of the GTAIII sequel, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004), in which there was an unlockable sex game. The following year, another game, God of War (2005), included an un-hidden sex mini-game. Five years later ,sex and nudity has become a regular in major games, perhaps reflecting not only an older audience but also greater graphical capacities and a more sexualized media.

The Sexualization of Samus?

Although last year was no stranger to sex controversies in video games, in August of 2010 the issue of gender representation ingvideogames would jump front and center with the release of the much anticipated, next generation Metroid game, The Other M. While Samus had kicked-ass across the galaxy in at least six previous titles, her reconceptualization (by Team Ninja, the same folks who brought you DoA) was perceived as a step backward to several reviewers. In her review, G4 reviewer Abbie Heppe writes
Yes, that’s right. The woman who in the first five minutes of the game gives the squad access to the ship by using her missiles is restricted from using her abilities... until a bland male character dictates it to her.
In short, you're asked to forget that Samus has spent the last 10-15 years on solitary missions ridding the galaxy of Space Pirates, saving the universe and surviving on her own as a bounty hunter. Instead, Other M expects you to accept her as a submissive, child-like and self-doubting little girl that cannot possibly wield the amount of power she possesses unless directed to by a man.
Interestingly, Heppe's criticism focused little on Samus' appearance and more on her personality. Samus' tight skin zero suit she wore throughout the last couple games, and not her vulnerability, was the target of others criticism.

But Samus had been a sexual object form the beginning, it seems--from her very first "striptease
" in which her gender was revealed. After all, the revelation was a reward for completing the game quickly and little more than a last minute twist in production. Adam Sorice of Nintendojo raises the question whether the gamers were witnessing in the original revelation "the birth of a feminist icon or just another sex object?"
Another commentator reminds us
Modern gamers may not think much of a bikini clad 8-bit image of a woman, but this was probably the most provocative image to appear in a mainstream NES game
Yet, no one can deny that regardless of intent and origins, both male and female fans have attributed their own meaning to Samus' gender. As one blogger writes:
The largely male (and largely very young) demographic of NES players tended to be surprised, “Hey, I kicked ass, and I’m a girl!”, suggesting a the potential for a kind of gender equity for video game warriors and that little boys might think of women’s roles as warriors in a slightly less traditional way.
and another
As for Samus, when I was little, playing the game, and saw the ending of Samus in her skin-tight outfit, I didn't mind. I was a little girl, and the thought of another girl doing something as awesome in a game like Metroid...

Heppe's review of Other M, triggered serious discourse not only within the gamers' community, but all the way up to the editors of major gaming media sources, such as Tae Kim of GamePro:
It dawned on me that if Abbie hadn’t pointed it out, I would never have thought of Other M that way. I simply didn’t have the necessary perspective to see the larger implications of the narrative decisions Team Ninja and Nintendo had made. I began to wonder how differently GamePro’s review would’ve turned out, had I assigned the game to a woman instead of doing it myself.
reading Abbie’s review and talking to the lone female member of our staff, News Editor AJ Glasser, about this issue makes me wonder if I should start factoring in gender – both of the game and of its reviewer
While games are, first and foremost, a form of entertainment, they’re rapidly taking on the same sense of cultural weight and significance as established art forms like cinema and novels; this is why it’s important to discuss these issues and wonder how things like gender, race, class, and religion can affect our perceptions of the games we play.
Kim, I believe, is spot on. The game industry, especially the media needs more critical reviewers to address questions of sex, race, and gender, among other things, not only within their practice, but also within their hiring. If Heppe did not have the position she did, her voice and criticism would not have reached so many ears and eyes and Kim would never have been conscious of his oversights. More critical reviewers can put greater pressure on the industry and make gamers likewise more aware of problems in gaming. This is critical, because as Kim recalls, gamins has tremendous cultural significance and outperforms even Hollywood financially.

Virtual Sex Sells: The Consolidation of Soft core Porn & Mainstream Game Media

The same year
Playboy released their first major console video game amongst the many other sexy titles, their September 2004 issueannual feature, "Girls of Gaming," in which video game companies submit a nude version of one of their characters. In a USA Today article, Scott Alexander, Senior editor of featured, what is now an Playboy, explained the logic:
Hopefully the purists won't get too bent out of shape. This is just the next version of the pinup [...] We treated these women just like they are celebrities[...] We treated them real, as if they had turn-ons and turn-offs [... ] There's a funny kind of almost paternal feeling that a lot of these game creators have about their creations [...] Are you going to let your little girl pose in Playboy?' is the question we were asking. But a lot of them saw the benefit, both aesthetically, and ... hey, sex is part of life.
While such a maneuver may be celebrated by many gamers as "getting to know" the female character better, being an acknowledgment of the gaming community, and the transcendence of a fantasy world into a real magazine, the inclusion of video game women in the spread confirms that these women have truly become sex objects. The sex object status of these female characters, however, goes deeper. There aren't women who are choosing to be in the spread whether because of financial, prestige, or fun, but rather these are images of wholly virtual women who are little more than their representations--whom have no agency at all apart from their male engineers. They do not occupy an agency all of their own.

This is yet further evidence of pornography's increasing acceptance and integration into the mainstream. Other examples are Burger King's "Singing in the Shower" promotional campaign--being advertised as "The world's first guilt-free shower cam"-, the coverage of a new automated sex doll that can have political conversations by CNN, a reality tv show--the Family Business--about the porn industry, and the use of porn star Sasha Grey to "sell" animal rights messages. Yet these again are not women with some level of agency, some level of control over their representation. Instead, the image of women are increasingly being determined by "experts", becoming increasingly artificial in the virtual sense through technologies like photoshop.

Even porn, which is already criticized for being "artificial," has become even more farcical as photos have been doctored to cover up all "imperfections", so as not for readers to look at women, but merely images of women. As the blogger at Jezelbel comments,
the message is clear: even after a genetic bounty, all-but-certain plastic surgery and dieting, good lighting, a pro-photographer, and dozens of shots, even the fantasy woman is not fantastic enough. Ironically, it's that mentality, and its cookie-cutter sexual sensibility, that's helped make Playboy irrelevant in the years since.
Women have become mere raw material, inspiration for these shoots as they get replaced or cleaned up by the virtual. Women become increasingly absent, yet ever more present. Without representation in the videogame and sex industry, there may be a future in which male heterosexuality is possible without actual women, yet women still must deal with the real consequences of such sexual subjects. Some men, surrounding themselves with virtual porn and sex robots whose form is that of "woman," are but virtually objectifying women as the real objects are no longer female subjects.

What would such a future be like where "woman" has been completely dissimulated into virtual commodity? Will this technological performance function to substitute or marginalize women further, or may it also free female subjects from the supposedly "natural" category and role of "woman"? What role do women and will women have of creating new subjectivities in such a space without returning to a so-called more originary and authentic position?

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