Note: This blog is a continuation of Sexism in Video Games- Part 1, although at this point I believe “Depiction of Women in Video Games” would have been a more appropriate title. Still, there’s nothing that can be done about that now.
There are a considerable number of people who seem to find certain depictions of women in games off-putting or offensive but I believe there’s nothing wrong with creating works which some people may find offensive or uncomfortable, as long as you’re getting peoples consent before they experience the potentially offending content. I’d honestly feel rather uncomfortable around a game that repeatedly and heavily sexualised men, but people have a right to make such content and it’s not something that we should be aiming to completely eradicate.
It must also be remembered that a character expressing their sexuality or acting in a sexual manner doesn’t have to be something shallow or something which objectifies that character. Sexuality is a very core human component and can be dealt with on a level which isn’t all chainmail bikinis and ridiculous breast physics. What’s more, even when a character is particularly overtly sexual, we must remember that promiscuity and deeper character traits are not mutually exclusive. Over time I’ve seen a lot of people acting like once a female character is heavily sexualised that they are somehow ruined, or deeming all sexualised characters to be by default sex objects, as though because they were sexually overt and/or had a sexually pleasing appearance, that they couldn’t have a personality beyond that. This is rubbish.
When it comes to the topic of whether women might find a character empowering or not I’ve often seen far too wide a brush been painted of women’s opinions. Back when the whole debate about the sexualisation of Bayonetta was going on, it seemed like a worrying number of gamers were speaking about whether she was empowering to women or not as though it was a question with a binary answer. There was little regard for the idea that different women might have different opinions, some people were just waiting for a straight “yes” or “no”. Not all women are going to feel that the same characters are empowering or relatable or cool, everyone has their own personal likes and dislikes. Additionally, as with everyone, there are going to be some aspects of characters that women like and some that they don’t. In the Bayonetta debate many female gamers took the position they have traditionally done with video game heroines, that they liked the fact that she was powerful but didn’t like her sexualisation. Despite this, when looking at individuals within the female gaming demographic most people were again, just looking for an overly-simplified “yes” or “no” on whether they were okay with Bayonetta.
Of course, for as many holes as can be poked in these arguments, we have to face up to the fact that video games as a medium do have a problem in depicting females, to the extent that the way they do it has in some cases become an unintentional self-parody. Some industry figures even seem to be preventing games from having female protagonists with the belief that just having a female lead is enough to damage sales of the game.
The way women are depicted in games feeds into the wider societal problem of emphasis being put on the looks and sexuality of women, and I think it’s also very arguable that as video games do have a sizeable female audience, developers and publishers have a responsibility to provide them with at least some games where the majority of them are not completely off-putting or offensive in the way they depict female characters. I certainly doubt that the way video games often depict women now helps games look more approachable to a new and wider audience. Even if you don’t agree with this though, I think we can agree that deeper and more human female characters would certainly be an improvement in terms of entertainment value.
By Men, For Men?
When asked why video games depict women in the way they do the answer that I seem to see coming back surprisingly frequently, even from male gamers, is “They’re made by men for men”. As a generalisation this is of course true, but I think some use it as a more literal statement than it should be and I find that somewhat insulting. The safest bet when pandering to the interests of the traditional video game demographic is certainly to feature women who are sex objects and little more, but I find the idea that because I’m a man, that by default that’s all I want, a little ridiculous. Yes, pretty women in my video games are very nice but I don’t think I’m part of an entire sex who only wants their female characters to be subjects for them to gormlessly drool over.
What I find worse though is the implication that despite the abilities of professional developers when it comes to design, artistry, writing, etc. that because they are men they are inherently doomed to this dull-witted tendency of creating bland hyper-sexualised female stereotypes. I believe that given the chance character designers, 3D artists and writers could do a much better job when it comes to female characters and just because they’re men doesn’t mean that the female cast in their games all have to be large-breasted, revealingly-clothed women with all the character depth of a cardboard box. Video games deserve much better than this.
Solving the Problem
So, how is the industry meant to solve this one? In general I just couldn’t begin to offer a complete answer at this point. It’s that old issue of cracking the problem with the games we play being confined to solely pleasing the young male demographic, and there are people with a much better understanding of the situation than I who don’t seem to have the first clue about how we do that. What’s more, the problem of females’ appearances being far more focused on than those of males, and females being more often treated as sex objects than males is part of a societal problem way bigger than video games, one that it could take a long time to overcome.
None the less, we still do have a small handful of games coming out each year which are genuinely interested in advancing video games as an entertainment medium and/or providing interesting new experiences, and for them one of the many challenges ready to be tackled is creating good female characters. That being said I think the phrase “good female character” is somewhat misleading. Specifically creating characters that appeal to the majority of women gamers out there right now or working out how to portray the average female in games is one thing, but in general I think the future is looking at good characters that happen to be female, as opposed to “good female characters”.
Depicting Females in An Interesting Way
If males and females are truly equal then a female character can be given any traits a good male character would have. This means that making good female characters is more about the industry working out how to make good characters full stop, which is in turn part of the industry better learning how to pull off narrative in games.
However, if a game is setting itself in a realistic world then one thing it can do with females characters (just as it can with minorities), is accurately reflect the way the world treats females. No matter if your female character is strong, weak, smart, dumb, pretty or ugly, the world as a whole is going to have certain expectations of them and certain assumptions about them purely because they are female. Here I think there’s also a lot to be explored. For games that are not trying to depict realistic worlds, there’s really the opportunity for developers to fit female characters into their games in any way they like. In worlds where characters can fight dragons and shoot beams of ice from their hands or display super-human reflexes and skills with a gun, is it really that ridiculous of a leap to have females occasionally assume a different social position in this world?
Duder, It’s Over
Sadly I think we’re far from this kind of deep exploration or seeing the wide-scale inclusion of more interesting characters in games. Like a lot of other major issues in video games, bad depiction of female characters is one we’re likely to be saddled with for a long time to come. Still, I’m looking forward to seeing more examples of great characters in video games, be they male or female. Once again I'm not saying that all games should have deep characters or characters which are just sexualised, but I think collectively we could all benefit from greater variety in the way females are depicted in games. Thank you for reading.