Debate Club: Weighing in on the Sexism in Games Issue

Steve’s stance: Let’s be honest–games ARE kind of sexist

If you’re a gaming enthusiast then you’ve undoubtedly heard about the ongoing battle between those who believe that games are sexist and those who don’t.  Of course, most types of rational discussion on the matter is overshadowed by name calling, death threats, social media bans, and hacks.  It seems really difficult to have an open and fair discussion on the matter these days.  Chris and I, on the other hand, have been debating topics for months now.  We never resort to name calling, we don’t belittle one another’s opinions, and we’re typically objective enough to see one another’s perspectives.  So I figured that maybe it was time that we let our level heads prevail and have a discussion worth having.

I’m taking the position that games are indeed sexist because I believe that, for the most part, they are.  Maybe it’s not quite to the degree that some would have you believe but games in general seem to portray women in a number of negative stereotypes.  To be fair, there are a lot of emotionally complex female characters in games who don’t fit the mold of the stereotypical female character.  Ellie from The Last of Us is possibly the best recent example of this, although the reimagined Lara Croft certainly gives her a run for her money.  The problem is that for every Ellie or Lara, there seem to be hordes of big-breasted damsels in distress.

Bioshock Infinite

Like I said, there are plenty of good female characters in games.  It’s just that there are plenty more good male characters in games.  While I admit that I haven’t gone through every single game ever made to compare which games have a male lead to which have a female lead, anecdotally I can tell you that the vast majority of games that I’ve played in my life feature a strong male lead as the main character.  So right there you have a far greater representation of men as lead characters than female.

Furthermore, the way women NPCs are portrayed in games can definitely feel a little bit lopsided.  Sure, there are plenty of scumbag lowlife male NPCs to dispatch, but when a female NPC is introduced there is certainly a high possibility that she, in one way or another, needs your help.  Now, that’s not necessarily so bad on it’s own, but when you start coupling it with over-sexualization it starts to get a little more egregious.

Dragon’s Crown

By far the most overtly sexist part of gaming is the way that females are portrayed visually.  Even when a female character is strong and independent she often times has a figure so incomprehensibly exaggerated that it’s comical.  I mentioned the reimagined Lara Croft earlier.  I emphasize the word reimagined because the old Lara, despite being a pretty big badass, was known far more for her enormous pyramid shaped breasts and her obscenely tiny waste.  Even Samus Aran of Metroid fame, arguably the grandmother of all badass female game characters is portrayed as having a ridiculous body.  What’s more is that in many games (though not all, to be fair) females are dressed in incredibly scantily clad outfits, while their male counterparts wear outfits that seem far less risqué.

Sure, as a straight male I suppose I’d rather look at a hot chick than a hot guy.  Truth be told though, I’m really not interested in either.  Film and TV has done a great job in recent years of promoting some awesome female characters.  I’d love to see video games begin to follow suit more often.  It’s not required that every female in games be completely normal or average, but I believe it’s not too much to ask that women be portrayed in the same way men are.  If the women are scantily clad and have perfect figures, then have the men wear chain mail banana hammocks and have huge penises.  As much as I’m really not interested in seeing that, it seems only fair.  Otherwise, how about everybody be portrayed equally.

A quick aside.

I simply cannot have this debate without interjecting a quick rant.  While I do believe that games are sexist, the truth is that games being sexist is the least of women’s problems when it comes to being fairly represented.  TV, film, print media, and the internet still has a huge way to go, and while I believe that games can be harmful to women’s overall view of themselves, I think that literally every other form of media is still worse.  Most of the time only the most beautiful women make in on screen or in print.  You’d be hard pressed to find the female Steve Buscemi starring in anything.  Furthermore, the internet and print media still promotes a virtually unattainable standard of beauty.  Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Elle only show the most beautiful women on the cover and even those women have all of their flaws airbrushed out.  So my point here is that while games can be kind of sexist, so is everything else.  And if women feel upset about the way their portrayed in games, then they should be just as upset at how they’re portrayed pretty much everywhere else.


Chris’ stance: Actually, games really AREN’T all that sexist overall

As Steve pointed out, the current state of the discussion on sexism in gaming has reached a point where it’s not even a legitimate, rational debate anymore. It seems that you are only really allowed to take one of two sides: You either believe games as a whole are sexist and anti-feminist…or you’re a misogynist, simple as that. There really isn’t a lot of room for a healthy discussion to take place in between those two extremes, and when an issue reaches that point, it’s very difficult for any actual progress to happen. It’s for this reason that I agreed to take the opposing stance in this week’s debate, so that I can hopefully help to encourage a dialogue to happen on both sides of the argument, even the unpopular side that feels that maybe games aren’t quite as sexist as they are made out to be.

One thing I want to get out of the way right off the bat is the issue of how video game women look. Is the average game girl sexy? Yes. Does she typically have all the right junk in all the right places? Yes. But I would argue that there really aren’t a ton of shlubby or even average-looking dudes running around in games either. Video game characters aren’t actors, they are artistic creations.  And as such, they are typically designed to be “perfect” representations of the human form. That means everyone has a gorgeous face, perfect hair, flawless skin, and is in amazing shape. It also means that the guys are perfectly chiseled Adonises and the women are curvacious goddesses. Both women and men in video games look the way the general populace would consider to be a perfect 10.

Do women’s features sometimes get exaggerated? Sure. But so do the men’s. For every woman who has an impossible bust-waist-hip ratio there is a guy who has biceps the size of basketballs or abs that only celebrities with personal trainers and unlimited time to work out have (and these are guys who would not have the time or resources to work out that much). Do women typically show more? Yes, but again, while cleavage and bare midriffs are not uncommon for women, neither are shirtless guys. There have been a lot of shirtless men in video game history. Not to mention the fact that, as it stands, I have seen two completely exposed penises in mainstream, AAA video games, and literally zero vaginas. Just sayin’.

Sure, fantasy games are still full of women running around in armor that wouldn’t protect them from anything other than a direct strike to the three inch circumference around their nipples, while the men have head to toe armor. I’m not saying it’s perfectly balanced. But it’s not nearly the thong and cleavage fest that it’s made out to be, or that it once was. Games like Dead or Alive Xtreme, Onechambara: Bikini Zombie Slayers, and Rumble Roses are by far the exception these days. When is the last time a game like that even came out, let alone was anything close to a critical or commercial success? We just don’t typically see that type of thing anymore, and when we do, it’s almost universally looked down on by anyone but the type of gamers who are already predisposed to those sorts of games. Just looking at the evolution of Lara Croft is a great example of how far the industry has come in how it designs a female body. The latest Lara has a figure and a build (and outfit) that you could realistically see on any random woman at the mall. Compare that to her Barbie doll physique of her inception and it’s hard not to acknowledge that the industry really has come a very long way.

Now onto what is probably the more important aspect of this issue, and that is the actual non-physical portrayal of women in games. Steve named several recent games that featured strong, complex, realistic, and not overly-sexualized female characters: BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us, the latest Tomb Raider, Metroid. To that list I would like to add Uncharted, The Walking Dead, Mirror’s Edge, Portal 2, Mass Effect, Final Fantasy XIII, Half-Life 2, Enslaved, Red Dead Redemption, Prince of Persia, StarCraft II, Gears of War, Child of Light, Gone Home…the list goes on and on. I defy anyone to make a list of recent games that feature females that supposedly fit all of the negative tropes–weak, damsel in distress, hyper sexualized–and have it come anywhere close to the list of games that disprove that rule.

I think people do with games what they do with everything else and only take a quick superficial look at the worst offenders and apply it as an across-the-board trend. Every female musician doesn’t use her bouncing ass to sell albums or get YouTube clicks just because some of the biggest hits of the moment are from plump-rumped pop stars and their odes to their own impressive backsides (with videos to match). It’s the same with games. A few busty bad apples shouldn’t spoil the bunch.

I would also argue that in a lot of cases, we are the sexist ones for what we are projecting on the characters. Most NPCs in games generally need you to do something for them. When it’s a guy, it’s just a dude who needs a favor. When it’s a girl, it automatically becomes a “damsel in distress.” I don’t think that’s fair. I feel as though we are bringing a lot of our own assumptions and preconceived notions to the table and are ready to apply them to every female character we come across, which is just as closed-minded as we accuse the developers of being for designing these supposedly helpless little flowers who need a big strong man to rescue them. Are female video game characters not allowed to be vulnerable in any way? Is every woman who needs any kind of help in real life a damsel in distress by default? Is every real woman who has moments of fear or vulnerability weak and helpless? I can only speak for myself here, but I certainly don’t see it that way. I don’t think it needs to be all or nothing when it comes to female video game characters, that they are either 100% strong and ass-kicking at all times, or they might as well be a princess locked away in a castle waiting for Prince Charming to rescue them.

Yes, as a whole, games are still behind movies, TV shows, and books in how women are portrayed, and video games are still a largely male-dominated and focused industry. To deny that–or accept it but say that there isn’t anything wrong with it–would be ridiculous. I just don’t think they are given enough credit for how far they’ve come in a relatively short time (this is still a very young medium, which people often forget). I also think that there has been far too much stereotyping of male gamers as a whole because of the stupid, small-minded, and in some cases dangerous actions of what is honestly a vocal minority. The average male gamer isn’t a dudebro misogynist who wants nothing but big guns and big tits in his games, despite what a very loud subset of them would have you believe. And to assume that is just as sexist as a big-breasted, half-naked damsel in distress.