Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"She was asking for it!": Victim-Blaming and Damsels in Distress

The "damsel in distress" is component of storytelling in many different kinds of media. From the oral story to the novel, from the theater to the big screen, women have often played the role the kidnapped, the beaten, the victim. Video games are a different spin on this trope. Rather than being passive, watching a hero rescue a damsel, video games allow the person playing to have an active role in the rescuing.
A response to Princess Peach victim-blaming

In some games, rescuing the kidnapped damsel is accepted as such an key part of the game-play and storyline that it is taken for granted. These titles include the Legend of Zelda games and the Mario games, both of which hinge on rescuing a captured princess. In the Mario titles, Princess Peach's kidnapping has become so predictable that the developers don't even make it creative or, frankly, important, anymore. In Paper Mario: Sticker Star, a new title for the Nintendo DS, Peach is kidnapped unceremoniously by Bowser, but that issue isn't even really discussed-- of greater concern in the missing stickers. It has gotten to the point that simply rescuing Peach is predictable and boring, so other elements must be added-- and yet Peach's kidnapping remains. Why preserve something that now serves very little narrative purpose?

Similarly, Princess Zelda is captured in almost every iteration of the Legend of Zelda games. While she does play some stronger roles in some titles, overwhelmingly her role is that of a victim.

It is important to note that these characters are always captured by men and saved by men. There is a gender dynamic here. Women are being used as essentially objects to serve as the hero's motivation or goal.

I think the most key result of these dynamics and storylines is seen within gamer culture. In the Mario and Zelda fandoms, many players take saving the damsel one step further. They believe that it is unfair that Link and Mario (the heroes) never receive any physical compensation for their heroism. These fans think that Zelda and Peach owe their male "saviors" romance, affection, or even sex. They blame the Princesses for their own kidnappings ("they were asking for it!") and say that Mario and Link are being "friendzoned".

Princess Peach saves Mario with powers of emotion in Super Princess Peach.
It is clear that video games are not the source of these victim-blaming sentiments. However, video games perpetuate these ideas. Since so many games do not represent women well, or at all, this has obvious effects on gamer culture. Sexism and misogyny in gaming circles can be overwhelming for many women. The victim-blaming that occurs in many fandoms can isolate women and make them feel threatened and frustrated, particularly women who have survived trauma.

I think that a solution to these problems is turn these tropes on their heads. Take these loved characters and give them their own titles. Let the damsels (from these titles and others) do some saving. Super Princess Peach attempted to do exactly this, but it was criticized for the game-play mechanics. Peach's powers in the game involved using her emotions  to manipulate situations (why can't she fight too?) and the game was said to be much too easy.

Nintendo, and game developers as a whole, can and should do better. Not only would better representations and role reversals shift the dialog about damsel characters, it would also be new and different. As a gamer, and a huge fan Mario and Legend of Zelda, I would enjoy the change!


Friday, February 22, 2013

Where are All the (Real/Important) Women?

While we discuss how women are portraying the games, how they are over sexualized  or how they perpetuate the homemaker stereotype, we cannot go on without recognizing another way in which women are commonly portrayed. As nonexistent. As pieces of the background. I read a journal article recently, a bit outdate, that brought up an interesting examination of video games back when they were young. In the findings of her 1998 examination of female characters in video games, Tracy Dietz found that the “most common portrayal of women was actually the complete absence of women at all”.  After reading this, I wonder how true it rings to the games of today. Over 14 years later and still I play games where not a single female plays an important role, or any role. I went through the entirety of Black Ops and only saw two women at the beginning of the game, one of who dances for the enjoyment of those in the bar, the other in her nightdress. The first one runs away, the second gets shot. Dennis Scimeca, writer for Control Magazine, noticed the same trend:

“In many of those games women are simply not present. I can’t think of a single woman character from any of my Call of Duty or Battlefield games. If there are any women characters in the Resistance or Killzone franchises, I certainly can’t remember them. There are no female avatars in Brink because the team over at Splash Damagedidn’t want to budget the time and money to create a female model and then make female versions of all the clothing items in the game’s very deep customization system. Women were optional.”

Women were optional, they opted out.

I know Scimeca’s making the statement to make the impact, but when I think about the Brink developers now, I don’t know about you all, but I’m pretty sure women are not ‘optional’.

Back in 2009, LiveScience posted an article detailing how video games lack the correct ratio of female and minority characters.  While the ratio of Latino characters to Latino players was also no sufficient “video games showed a far greater imbalance for females, who made up just 15 percent of video game characters.” So if there are less females than there should be, and the majority of the few women shown are shown as unimportant or as sex objects, can we really count these few female characters as women? How can we as players decided between what counts as a woman and what is a representation of the female form? A fully fledged character, or just a sexy husk?

So how do we get more women in games? It is possible that as the number of women creating games increases the number of women in games will increase, but it should not rest upon that. Male developers live in the same world as female developers; women still hold important political and corporate positions, women are still in the military, still great athletes, and still great scholars. So why is it that this part of real life, of half of the population, is not being emulated in games. The stereotypes may work as token characters, but not as whole real women.  The ideas such as the Damsel in Distress or the Sexy Villainess should be recognized as a game mechanics, but not as fully fledged thought-provoking women.


For the Dietz journal:

Dietz, Tracy L.

1998    An Examination of Violence and Gender Role Portrayals in Video Games: Implications for Gender Socialization and Aggressive Behavior. Sex Roles. 38 (518): 425-442.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sexualization of Men in Videogames

The sexualization of women characters in games has received attention from numerous sources over the years, including media, parents, and academics. However, Brathwaite, in Chapter 1 of Sex in Video Games, offered that women were not the only ones to be sexualized, but that in fact, several characters such as Duke Nukem and Kratos from God of War represent the sexualization of men.

This assertion confused me. I do not consider these characters to be hypersexualized, or even particularly sexualized. From my perspective, these characters are hypermasculinized. They may possess an over-the-top “idealized” body, but the player cannot, for example, move camera angles around to examine a character’s butt the way a player can for Lara Croft. In conversation H made a good point which is that many of these characters are not what a heterosexual woman would find sexy, but perhaps represent what a heterosexual man’s idea of what they think a heterosexual woman would find sexy. It is clear the the over-the-top “idealized” bodies of the male characters are for the benefit of the heterosexual men playing, much like the over-the-top “idealized” bodies of the female characters are for the benefit of the heterosexual men.

So I began to wonder, what would a (hyper-) sexualized man look like in a video game? J and I threw around a number of different ideas. Would a main man character who was dressed in a Chippendales outfit while everyone else was dressed normally count? How about one wearing a crop top and booty shorts? A revealing police uniform? But then we realized we were verging on The Village People territory. A character like the ones we described would be considered silly, not sexy, particularly to a heteronormative audience.

It is impossible to hypersexualize men the same way games hypersexualize women. This is because even if a man is sexualized, there is not a power dynamic which encourages players to view them solely as objects or possessions, like there is for women. Society does not allow for a man to be reduced to the sum of his body parts. There are no cultural narratives in the United States that contest a man’s place in a position of power or state that a man’s sole value lies in his biology, like there are for women.

- A.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bringing Parents Up to Date

In 2008 Fox News aired this segment entitled “‘SE’XBOX? New Video Game Shows Full Digital Nudity and Sex”.  Newscaster Martha MacCallum, states that a new game enables players to engage in graphic sex. Cooper Lawrence, a good intentioned psychology specialist, discusses the damaging effects sexual content in games can have on their players. Lawrence states, ““Here is how they’re seeing women. They’re seeing them as these objects of desire, as these hot bodies. They don’t show women as being valued for anything other than their sexuality and it’s a man in this game deciding how many women he wants to be with.”

It’s true that many games depict women in an overtly sexualized manner. After seeing this occur repeatedly in games, it does give the impression that a woman’s most important attribute is her sexuality. But out of all the games that are guilty of treating female characters like sex objects (and there are a lot), the one they decided to grab their torches and pitchforks for was Mass Effect, one of the few games that provide not just one but multiple examples of strong, competent female characters.
"Mass Effect? Is that what kids are calling it these days?"
The folks over at Fox News assumed that the game is a sex simulator in which sex is an active mechanic. Brenda Brathwaite explained in Sex in Video Games (2007), that “an active sex mechanic allows the players to directly control the action” (2007:3). In Mass Effect, players have no control over the “action”, making the situation passive for the player. The scene is brief, only shows partial nudity, and implies sex rather than graphically depicts it. It’s nothing more than what one would see on an evening television drama. For those interested, one of the scenes and the lead up to it can be found here.

But enough about that. Many people online have already addressed how ill-informed the people in the segment were. What I’d like to talk about today is the context in which the discussion of the game took place. The people in the news segment make two assumptions in the video. The first assumption is that video games are for children.

The entire discussion about Mass Effect revolved around a “think of the children” mentality used to instill moral panic in parents at home. It focused on the negative repercussions sexuality and violence can have on kids. Sure, the game is rated for mature audiences but the assumption is that children will ultimately be the ones who get their hands on it. This is an assumption widely held by people who have not played games since the original Pac-Man (at least one panelist in the segment admits to this). Games have evolved far past winning and losing. They have branched off into complex narratives with set plots and characters. Arcade-style games still exist but that is in addition to a huge variety of other game types.
Super Mario is enjoyed by fans of all ages.
Video games are seen as toys for children and I can see how the mistake would be made. Many parents are probably familiar with getting their child a Game Boy as a gift. They might also be familiar with child friendly game titles such as Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. But historically video games were not created with the explicit intention of being toys for children. As a new artistic medium, one cannot expect every video game title to be child friendly just as one would not expect every film to be for children.

The second assumption being made is that only males play video games. They were not concerned with children in general but impressionable adolescent boys. They cite studies that only take males into consideration and discuss them as the only group “at risk." According to this article by Jamie Frevele over at The Mary Sue, the Entertainment Software Association reported that as of 2010, 42% of gamers are female. Despite this, the assumption that only males play video games still pervades.

In the Fox News segment, the speakers operate under these two assumptions while readily citing examples to the contrary. As one woman states only adolescent males play video games, another admits (perhaps with a hint of judgement) that “there’s a lot of grown men that love video games, lets be honest here.” As Lawrence rhetorically asks, “Who is playing video games but adolescent males?”, one of the men in the panel discussion talks about playing a princess video game with his daughter. The contradictions are readily apparent but go unacknowledged.

Why does this matter? This matters because when the mass media discusses games it is almost always in a negative context. They are written off as being too violent or being too sexual without many people even taking the time to play them. This matters because news segments like this shape how games are perceived by those who don’t play them. They inform legal decisions about censoring or banning video games. This matters because it reduces the issue of sexism in games to “all sex is bad and therefore should not exist in games” (a blog post for another day). The way the conversation is currently framed within the mass media makes it impossible for a truly critical and informed discussion about video games to occur.

So to bring everyone up to speed...
1) Video games were not explicitly created as children’s toys. To think of them only as such ignored their depth and limits the medium.
2) Contrary to popular belief, females play video games. As a matter of fact, “women 18 and older make up more of the gaming audience than boys 17 and younger” (Frevele 2011).
3) There are many types of video games today. Not all games are like Pac-Man nor are all games bloody and violent like Mortal Kombat.
4) Playing video games is a valid form of entertainment. View it as watching a favorite movie or tv show instead of treating unproductive, waste of time for nerds, slackers, and shut-ins. 72 percent of the American population plays video games and that number will only increase as time goes by (Frevele 2011).

- J.

Brathwaite, Brenda. 2007. “Chapter 1.” In Sex in Video Games. Class River Media.
Frevele, Jamie. 2011. “New Round of Gaming Statistics: Gaming Audience Getting Older, Slightly More Female.” The Mary Sue. http://www.themarysue.com/gaming-statistics/.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Plea for More Monstrous Ladies

When discussing the treatment of women in gaming circles, I often come back to the designs of the characters themselves. I feel as though a lot of the sexist harassment experienced by players in game is often backed-up by the portrayals of the women characters in the game. In games where very few women even exist in the world, it may be simply under-representation that creates these tensions resulting in male players feeling like they are in a "boys only club". In games where women characters are rather prominent, however, representations take on more layers and complexities. Reading this blog post, I was especially struck by the reaction that this woman received when attempting to ask for more reasonable outfits for many of World of Warcraft's most prominent lore characters.

She has an excellent point, many of WoW's key characters are powerful women, including the Dragon Aspects. That being said their outfits are in many cases bikinis-- creating confusion when compared to their often heavily armored and certainly more covered male counterparts.

For some examples take a look at Alexstrasza, the Life-Bringer and leader of the Dragon Aspects compared to Kalecgos, the youngest Dragon Aspect. She's much more powerful than him-- in charge of life itself-- and yet her outfit appears to be right out of a Victoria's Secret catalog, as the woman at BlizzCon noted.

Dragon Aspects
Need more convincing? How about two Forsaken lore characters. Both are undead (zombies essentially). Sylvannas, the leader of the Forsaken and an extremely powerful character has the bikini on, while Putris, a male Forsaken gets an awesome mask and full body coverage plus bones showing, displaying that he is actually undead and frankly, creepy. An archer and leader with an exposed stomach? This just doesn't make a lot of sense.
Sylvanas and Putris
What ends up happening is that powerful and complex characters like Sylvannas are reduced to sexual objects. Sylvanas is downright diabolical. She has a tragic backstory. She controls a legion of undead forsaken, many of whom worship her. And yet, as many male players will comment in-game, she is just portrayed as sexy. This kind of representation, degrading even powerful women to sexual objects to be ogled, creates an environment where it is okay to call female players "sluts" and "bitches".

These representations extend into the playable race models for each gender. The sexual dimorphism between male and female models of the playable races is very apparent, and it is clear that the female variations must a) be clearly and without a doubt "female" and b) be sexy, with clear focus on thinness, breasts, and behinds.

The draenei and the worgen are good examples of this. Both are "monster" humanoids. The draenei are a race of aliens  and the worgen are werewolves, cursed with transformative powers. However, the female characters are less "monstrous" and more sexualized. The draenei women are clearly designed to fit a supermodel ideal and the lady worgen are a lot less menacing than their male counterparts. As a female player, I felt especially downtrodden when the worgen models were released. It seemed like the developers felt they had to try to balance "monster" with "clearly female/sexy" and the model that resulted was a disappointment-- particularly in comparison to the very menacing male.

In addition to these tensions in design, there are only 3 or 4 humanoid mobs in the game (besides established playable race models) that are female. This means that there are almost no monstrous and dangerous ladies to kill as an adventurer in the World of Warcraft. Even the Naga, which have prominent female mobs, have clear sexual dimorphism favoring a "prettier" lady monster. (I mean, just compare the female and male faces!)
Naga Models
So what does this all mean? For one, these trends mean that WoW players aren't seeing powerful ladies that aren't bikini-clad or super-model pretty. Whether it's a playable character, a mob or a pivotal lore character, the females consistently stand out as being sexualized and made "pretty" even in a world torn by violence, war and adventure. This leaves female players with a sense that even in a virtual place where their heroism is needed, it is still very important-- if not most important-- that they are pretty, that they are sexy, and that they appeal to heterosexual male sensibilities. Not only does this focus re-enforce the media socialization that women and girls are constantly bombarded with, it allows male players to focus on these attributes of women as well. If the game developers see many women as merely sexual objects, why wouldn't the players immersed in that world feel justified in feeling the same? Ultimately video games are just another type of media and there is a clear focus on attractiveness in the most conventional sense. Being sexy isn't bad, but when sexiness is the focus and one of the only options, it sure is discouraging.

So lets have less focus on attractiveness. I want more monstrous ladies!


Friday, February 8, 2013

Viewing Yourself After A Gaming Life

Recently I finished reading a study by Downs and Smith for the third time. I read one line again which, for a scientific paper, hits me on a rather personal manner. Downs and Smith write that “[d]ifferences between female body sizes in the media and actual body sizes have been linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, feelings of objectification, and to the attitude that women’s bodies are projects that need to be worked on”. I knew this before I read over it, I see it spelled out plainly in documentaries or by pop culture critics online or I can easily deduce it by reading magazines or just turning on the TV.  Video games are a recently new, but quickly growing, form of popular media that is open to more and more people every year. I grew up in a generation of children vastly influenced by games. And while I had always been warned about TV and magazines, no one warned me from my computer, N64, or Sega Genesis, and during my adolescent no one warned me from my Xbox or PS2 (except that I spent too much time with them).

But when I look at what I do now, when I look at how I constantly work to better myself, when I try to look at myself, I see the influence I tried to avoid has seeped in through the cracks. I have wonderful childhood memories of playing videos games, alone or with friends and family, and I love so many games as they were and as they are, but while they have changed me for the better in many ways, I also recognized that they have manipulated me negatively as well.  I can say that I do hold a view of body dissatisfaction, and the feeling that my physical appearance is a project that needs to be worked on.  While body dissatisfaction is clearly a useless negative way of thinking, I recognize it.  I’ll never have the bodies of the women I played as, I’ll never be Lara, but that also doesn’t mean I can just stop trying. In contrast to some extent, the idea of being a project that I myself work on doesn't feel bad at all. It feels empowering at times. I read a story about Marcus Dickinson a while ago that made me feel great about the way games can inspire people. If I want to emulate the women in games I grew up viewing as heroines, I need to work at it.  I am a project that I won’t let fall by the wayside. Lara was intelligent, physically fit, and successful. None of those attributes seem like things I should not work towards.  So, I am taking the good with the bad because I know both exists and neither is fully exempt from the other.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

I know the case of Marcus Dickinson is different from what most women face. He had the capacity to become a fit and physically strong man through natural means. Women sometimes, if not most times, face physical impossibility, such as a waist too small to physically support all the space for human organs, or modifying chest size (without artificial means).  These common depictions of women in games lead to those popular aliments Downs and Smith described, and it will take some time for the video game industry to right these problems.

I hope to examine Lara more extensively later on, but I would like to make one note here first. While Lara is called a Sex Object by many, she doesn't have to be. The mods that show her nude, the increased attractiveness of the Lara model over time, and other actions taken to turn Lara in to the Tomb Raiding Babe were taken by people who wanted to see her like that. But I choose to see her the way I saw her first; as a little girl wanting to see a confident woman shoot a few baddies every once in a while. Can we really base a character off of a popular opinion shaped by just a portion of anonymous gamer males? Maybe she can be reclaimed, this time on our side, ladies.


PS: To take a look at the study for Downs and Smith:

Downs, Edward & Stacy L. Smith
2010    Keeping Abreast of Hypersexuality: A Video Game Character Content Analysis. Sex Roles. 62:721-33.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Starting Off

I am K. and I will be one of your writers for this evening.

I was conducting a study at a comic book shop when I stumbled upon the realization of gender in the gamer subculture. I didn’t mean to find it, or try to find it, but it was certainly brought up. I knew about it before, but for the longest time I just brushed it off. Over time, outside of the comic shop it came up more often, which was strange seeing as how those more involved in the subculture should have recognized the gender discrepancies more so than those looking in. Or not, as it would seem.  But I took that itching little idea in my head, the one that told me something was wrong and had been wrong for a while, and found a group of women who had a similar state of mind. Now, we, the women gamers, want to take a look at how women, girls, or females in general are portrayed in multiple ‘geek’ subculture staples, such as video games and comics.  I am proud of myself for this, and my fellow gamers here, for stepping up to the plate and taking on a problem that irks us from a part of our lives we generally enjoy.

Topics here will be covered by several writers and span several topics, so enjoy and I hope anyone who reads these posts will come away a little more knowledgeable about women in games, comics, and more.