We recently ran an article called sexism in gaming is dead, but we’re now around that time of year where the line between the normal and paranormal becomes significantly thinner. Ghosts stalk the streets; spiders haunt the dark corners of your bedroom, and your porch groans under the weight of candy-drawn zombies. And yes, that’s right, that foul creature sexism in gaming will walk the streets again, do you see it? Over there–its lumbering along the sidewalk, stopping occasionally to gather its breath–it’s getting closer, we have to move... but, but wait. It looks a little too healthy to be a zombie? And it’s not transparent enough to be a ghost... wait, did... no, surely not... did we bury sexism alive? Is it not really dead after all?
I've just finished the Mass Effect series (I know, I know, took my damn time), a trilogy of games that many would consider quite kind to the female sex; you have the option of a male/female protagonist; there’s no glass ceiling for FemShep players (the main storyline doesn’t change), and even if you make your FemShep a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, there’s little chance of up-skirt action; she’s that sensible kind of female protagonist, layering on heavy plates of armor before battle like she’s escaped from the Gears of War universe. With all this in mind, one might say BioWare has done a great job of creating non-sexualized female characters, except...
Miranda happens. More specifically, she “happens” in ME2 and continues to happen in ME3. You quickly learn to recognize Miranda by the shape of her arse, and, failing that, you get a good shot of her face every now and again. Her standing poses are all hips and thigh; every time she leans against a bar or table, the camera feels obliged to cut away or zoom out so that her tessellating rump is visible onscreen. Why? Because sexism in gaming isn’t dead.
Okay, so I realize that that’s not really a strong argument for the prevalence of sexism in gaming–sex sells, after all, and it’s easily found in all manner of mainstream entertainment, from films and TV to books and music, so Miranda’s bum-revealing antics are hardly something new. Whether BioWare felt the need to pump up Liara’s breasts between the second and the third game or squeeze the Asari into increasingly low-cut tops when developing the second is of no real concern; it’s normal, isn’t it? And what about James, the hunky, short haired, flirty ideal of a man in ME3 that has a tendency to wander around the shuttle bay shirtless? Isn’t BioWare just trying to make Mass Effect sexier?
Perhaps... though the token hunk is more than a little outnumbered by temptresses in the later ME games, so there is still some disparity there. The female characters are as strong (maybe even stronger) than their male comrades and are capable of fighting their own battles rather than playing a supporting role. Yet, every time I try to think that Mass Effect is just sexy rather than sexist, I find myself thinking about how Jack spends most of the second game wearing a strap across her breasts and little else, or how the reporter in the final game wears a disturbingly low-cut top. Though these characters have depth and strength (characteristics lacking in female characters in other games), they’re still being objectified, and there’s something very wrong about that.
Let’s freshen things up and look at something else. Heavy Rain is a game featuring a number of protagonists, one of whom is Madison Paige. All good so far, but Madison is little more than a splint for Ethan Mars, spending most of her time nursing Ethan back to health whilst supporting the other characters in finding the Origami Killer. Her actions contribute significantly to the plot, but she finds herself subjected to some of the darkest and most dangerous male characters in the game. Anything in that last sentence sound wrong to you? Subjected to the actions of dangerous male characters? Well, her investigative methods are just as unnerving; being the only major female character in the game, the rules of game culture state that Madison must take off some clothes at some point. She strips, dances saucily for a character, is assaulted whilst in her underwear and is, of course, a potential love interest for the main character.
These games are well known games, games that have sold in the millions and have won various awards, yet nobody has said a thing about their potentially sexist content. Maybe nobody has said anything because nobody has noticed it yet, and nobody has noticed it yet because gaming culture has always had a strong male community, and this community has attempted to create female characters by copying those found in other areas of entertainment. There was a great example of this on a few weeks old post on Kotaku titled What Some Male Gamers Want Female Soldiers to Look Like. Luke Plunkett brings up a good point about the online shooter Warface: “Video game company asks predominantly male audience of shooting game what it wants to see in female characters. Has to moderate results...the sniper covers her head, but not her chest?” This male audience is, however, changing–the number of female gamers is growing, and games developers now find themselves in the precarious position of producing content for an audience that can be very critical of a sex they know well. So I can’t really criticize our previous post stating that sexism in gaming is dead, because it seems like a lot of people working in the games industry have failed to notice its existence in the first place.
That’s not to say that all games are guilty of this. Alyx Vance in the Half Life series is often identified as a well-written female character. She doesn’t strip; she isn’t the love interest of the main character, and though she arguably acts in a supporting role, she proves to be more than capable of fighting on her own. The female characters in The Last of Us come across particularly well, and it is evident that a lot of effort went into writing them, and I hope that the game’s success encourages other developers to put similar resources into character development. FemShep is a great example of a deep, strong, well-written female protagonist, and I’ve heard from Tomb Raider fans that the folks at Crystal Dynamics have done a good job of developing Lara’s character in the most recent title (though I still remember the Japan level in Legend, which seems like an excuse to get Croft in a slim black dress and make it just that little more revealing...).
There is also something to be said for the “it’s only still a topic because people keep bringing it up” argument, but it’s better to bring it up and hash it out rather than create on in ignorance, right? I’m sure us keyboard warriors will rest our hands on the issue of sexism when there’s nothing else to talk about–i.e., when the ground has become even and saturated with fleshed out male and female characters. How this will occur I’m not all that sure: All I know is that women are showing a growing interest in gaming and in games development and, should this continue, the industry will potentially find a comfortable balance.
And BioWare? If you’re listening, no more arse, please.