Sexism in Games: The Unexceptional Case of Sexism

A few days ago, I read an article titled, “How female gamers and comic fans fight real-life sexism online“, an article detailing rampant sexism in gaming and comic culture, in both the content and the treatment of women in gaming, comic, or fantasy communities. As a female gamer, a friend asked how I felt about this issue. And although I am an avid online gamer and a regular attendee of gaming and comic conventions, I will only comment on my thoughts in the gaming and con communities that I am a part of. I do not have experiences in comic book stores, nor do I participate heavily in fantasy genre communities, so I will not be speaking from these spaces.

Let me preface this by saying that I do not believe that the gaming world is some isolated space where sexism is in some way unique or different from the general tropes and prejudices which we see in society as a whole. The gaming world is an object of, as much as it is, the subject of the social biases and misrepresentations of gender within the larger social sphere. It contributes as much as it reflects societal norms. Therefore, I do not want to single out the gaming world as if it is in some way unique or different from other mediums of representation (e.g. movies, books, comics, tv etc.)

As a gamer who is female, I have experienced sexism on many levels, from general harassment online by male gamers (often in a lewd manner), to being treated as a second-class player in-game, to having to deal with misrepresentations or completely absent representations of women in games. And from these experiences, I have often felt that being a gamer that is female is to accept that we’re often venturing into a masculine dominant space. Now I do not want to say that this is a blanket statement, but it is an experience that I’ve had on many occasions. These experiences are not isolated to in-game.

Having just come back from San Diego Comic Con, I can say that representations of women in the general entertainment world is entirely skewed. I must of seen a thousand or more illustrations of women at Comic Con from comic books, video games, movies, toys, cosplay that hyper-sexualize the female form. Women as fetish was a principal representation at Comic Con. So too was the role of women in these representation, which generally have women as accessories for the setting (e.g background women), sexy sidekicks or villains, or female characters which serve only as hyper-sexualized eye-candy aka what I call Pussy-pops.

Now, many would attribute this to men subjecting women to these misrepresentations. However, women also contribute to this discourse by dressing themselves as these misrepresentations. I am still baffled at how many women I see at Comic Con who interpret female versions of superheroes as bikini clad playboy bunnies, where they slap a “S” sign on their bosom and call themselves Supergirl. The cultural representation of women is not simply male propagated, but has perpetuated itself to the point where women (and girls in many cases) view themselves as only objects of sexual value, and that female strength only comes from exposing yourself as a sexual object. These representations of women do not come from one single source (e.g. men!), but is a discourse which is propagated by men and women. Nor is it something that is isolated to geek culture.

On my trip to San Diego, I also visited Legoland California. Lego, a toy formerly marketed to boys, has now expanded its market by reaching girls. It is not surprising to see that the “girl” Legos continue to be packaged in pink and pastels, with sets containing bricks to build houses and shopping-scapes. Nor is it that surprising then to see a large life size female firefighter constructed out of Lego standing amongst the male firefighters who are fighting fire, while she applies lipstick while admiring herself in a compact mirror. Yes, the gender discourse begins young.

Now how does this all come back to sexism and gaming? I believe gaming, although it began primarily with male developers, is a reflection of the general misrepresentations of women in the media. I do not believe it is more or less culpable than other media, as we see in the ever so blatant ad for the Avengers. However, this does not mean it need not take responsibility for the propagation of sexist representations. As in all media, it needs to make a greater effort to do so.

So this may seem like a broad statement, though I will say it anyways because I think it’s where the solution may begin. And that is that we, women and men, need to actively assess the gender roles represented by the media and to demand better depictions of ourselves, be they female or male.

In game development, women need to be more actively engaged in the production of games, and developers in general need to look at women as viable markets for games. Why I say that developers need to see women as viable markets, is because the reality is, games is a huge for-profit industry. Women are playing more games, and developers and publishers should wisely consider capturing this market. That does not mean though that we should start creating shopping and cooking games because women do not want to play shopping and cooking games! The money lies in developing games which serve a mass appeal, and provide more accurate representations of various genders. World of Warcraft, as one example (though I am certain there are many gender faux pas in it!) provides a generally more fair representation of both male and female (and aliens and monsters) in game. They’re also one of the most successful franchises in all of gaming history (albeit there are MANY factors that make WOW successful, though it’s gender consciousness and mass appeal is most definitely one of its selling points!).

Now, apart from the development of games, how do we tackle the issue of in-game sexism as players and participants? My strategy has always been, “Don’t put up with it!”. What I mean is, don’t let the gender inequality put you off or push you away. If someone harasses you online, do not give in to it. Do not allow people to disrespect you. Do not tolerate the behavior. In the same vein, participate! Demand that we be represented with more accuracy in game. Write to developers and demand proper representation. Buy games that do this well. Write to developers who do this well. Be vocal about what you like and what you don’t.

The games industry is young, but sexism is very very old. Fortunately, because the games industry is young, it’s very malleable and change is constant. There are developers who are conscious of creating better representations and experiences for women and men. We need to keep demanding it, as we should in all media forms, and this is an effort by both men and women, not women alone, nor men either.

This subject is a difficult one for me because I do not see sexism in games as exceptional. I see it as a market driven problem just as we see this issue in most all media forms. And demanding change must come from every sphere, starting at subverting accepted gender norms and representations in general. Therefore, this post is very broad and likely has been insufficient in addressing any points, but what I do want to emphasize is the importance of participation by both men and women in this issue. Sexism is not a woman’s only issue, but neither is sexism in geek culture a man’s only issue either.

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2 Responses

  1. Mor10 says:

    Nicely done. I do take exception to your claim that LEGO was originally for boys. LEGO was about as genderless as it gets until it started gaining traction outside of northern Europe. The LEGO of my childhood had hairless LEGO men, basic bricks, and primary colours. It is only of late that LEGO has fallen in the trap of trying to skew their products towards boys and girls respectively. Which is really sad because the new LEGO is a terrible facsimile of what used to be. Everything was better before!

    To the subject at hand I have a couple of comments:

    1. You must read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Once you’ve read it we should talk.

    2. Though females are sexualized en masse in popular culture, male characters are also heavily sexualized in that they always have washboard abs, massive muscles, and generally look like they live in a gym. Though this is not the same type of sexualization, it still leaves us normal looking gents feeling somewhat inadequate unless we realize it’s all fake and it’s what’s inside that counts etc etc

    3. In a conversation I had with a random group of people a week ago someone said “Women dress up for other women.” I tend to agree. If you go to a party you’ll notice that on average the women are far more dressed up than the men. And that’s not because their partners asked them to spend two hours getting ready. It’s because they don’t want to pale in comparison to all the other women at the party. If women got together and made a pact that you can’t wear more than 2kgs of make up and that you are only allowed to wear eyelash extensions once a month and that shoes should never cost more than a computer I think things would be a lot better for everyone.

  2. exile2k4 says:

    Good piece, which I generally agree with, the only arguments I would make on what I think is a very interesting and nuanced subject:

    I think the important thing for both men and women is a general acceptance of a diverse range of roles, including roles we don’t personally like. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a woman dressing up in fetish gear/a bikini/body paint if that’s what she wants to do, and deciding that she must have made that choice because she’s been brainwashed by the media is offensive, as you could make that argument about any decision anyone makes in the 21st century.

    I think the problem comes where that hyper-sexualized image becomes so prevalent that it’s the only one that’s acceptable. I think it’s important that “sexy” can be portrayed in a variety of ways, and more importantly that “sexy” isn’t seen as the defining characteristic of all female characters. I also think that something to acknowledge is that because this is a consumer driven, desire driven (not talking about just sexual desire, although that’s a large part of it) sector of culture, telling people they shouldn’t buy what they want probably isn’t the best way to go about it. I think the way to go about it is to try and make interesting alternatives to this that people will actually want to buy.

    The reason that I make this point is – sometimes I think it’s easy to slip into the trap of saying: there’s too many hyper-sexualised images of girls (probably true) -> therefore, hyper-sexualised images of girls are inherrently bad and anyone who dresses like that is letting the sisterhood down (probably not true) -> women, cover your shameful, shameful bodies, you wanton slatterns. I think having more options for people is the way forward, not fewer.