The question of sexism in games still intrigues me. Women have been far from helpless in games for a long time now. One of Nintendo’s first icons, Samus Aran, is a woman, and she’d been the definitive example of a smart, independent, capable female in gaming until recently, when Nintendo (stupidly, I feel) handed the production of Other M to Team Ninja, a production company not exactly known for being feminists (they made Dead or Alive, a series of fighting games that introduced the term ‘jiggle physics’ into gaming vernacular).
They made Samus Aran oddly submissive and somehow less competent and independent than she’d always been. But I do not agree that she’d been lessened by her dependency on a man, Adam Malkovich. Having learned her entire backstory, I think she would’ve latched onto anyone with some permanence in her life, and Adam could’ve been Ada, and the story would’ve unfolded the exact same way.
But they did, to a minor degree, sexualize the character. And a lot of people complained that Samus had been objectified, and this highlighted a problem in the gaming industry – a LOT of its characters had been objectified from the start.
Let’s take the all-time classic example out for a spin. Lara Croft has to be THE defining example of sexualized women in video games. And yet, she became that way entirely by pure chance, when a graphic artist accidentally increased her breast dimensions by 150%, and the rest of the creative team argued to leave it that way. And the rest is history.
Ever since then the gaming industry seems almost entirely split in two. There are designers who seem to believe that female characters should have the bodies of porn stars and show them off nearly as much, see above re: Team Ninja and jiggle physics. Then there are those who are trying their best to create realistic, honest feminine portrayals without hyper-sexualization, see Alyx Vance from Half-Life 2 or Jade from Beyond Good And Evil. Or my personal favorite, Zoey from Left 4 Dead.
Is it any different or worse than Hollywood? Granted, Hollywood also relies heavily on sex appeal, but Hollywood can’t control the physical reality of the human body to the same degree that video game artists can. After all, if you want your starlet to have larger breasts, it’s much easier and cheaper to just click and drag a slider. You might be turning your intelligent, dynamic character into a plaything, but hey, think of the extra sales and try not to dwell on the loss of your soul.
And yet, even though I come down on the side of more realistic, less objectified female characters, I have found myself enticed into buying games solely because of their sex appeal. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that at one point, I even owned copies of The Guy Game and Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, games that exist SOLELY to objectify and seemingly even ridicule women. And we still play The Guy Game from time to time, it’s still fun at parties.
And there are some games that I may not have tried if it weren’t for their overt sexualization. Fear Effect is one of my favorite games for the Playstation, and I’m not certain I would’ve bought it if the main heroine, Hana, didn’t have a rack you could balance an assault rifle on. And I’m glad I did – the game features fun stealth and gun play, intriguing puzzles, and an interesting story based on Chinese culture and folklore. Yes, this is one of those rare games that educates as you play – and more people played it because Hana could carry a dinner plate across a room without using her hands.
The sequel is even worse – for Fear Effect 2: Retro Helix, they created another character, Rain, also with the body of a porn star, and heavily suggested a lesbian relationship between herself and Hana. I’m all for more LGBT characters in gaming, but not when their only purpose is to allow your marketing to have two girls scissoring each other. And again, the game is brilliant, fun, original, and forays again into Chinese folklore, bringing aesthetics and story elements rarely seen in America. And I suspect a lot of gamers might not have played it if not for the prospect of seeing two over-sexualized busty babes going muff diving.
Did it bring more attention to games that were good enough to deserve it? Yes. But I’m worried about the kind of damage that can do in the long run. This kind of thing can create unrealistic expectations of women in younger gamers. Is there a woman on Earth with the body of a porn star, intelligence, humor, and the ability to put a bullet in my eyeball from 500 yards out? Possibly. Am I gonna meet her? Nope.
Ask any porn star: huge boobs are going to get a lot of attention. It’s just a fact of life. Will this change over the years? Maybe. But the best thing gamers can do, if we want our games to grow up, is to not buy games trying to entice us with cheap sexuality. Characters can still be sexy with realistically defined proportions – the Mass Effect series is fairly good in that regard, as well as practically anything by Valve – because their women are tough, smart, and funny, and those are sexy qualities.
Sex is a HUGE part of our adult lives, there is nothing morally wrong with having it, and it can be handled in a mature, responsible manner. As gamers we should demand it to be the same way in our games, and designers should strive to make characters that can be sexy without almost popping out of their armor-plated bikini top.