Monday, May 16, 2011

Games vs. Gamers

[rant on]

So I've been doing a lot of writing here recently about female characters in games, particularly in the Beyond the Girl Gamer series.

It's been a frustrating and challenging process -- but the games themselves are not to blame.  I've been trying to find photos to illustrate my posts with, and I don't usually get to take my own screenshots (because I realize what image I need when I'm far away from the PC with the game installed on it). So I go to Google Image Search to find screenshots, from the games I am playing, of the characters I am talking about.

This is a mistake.

Although Ashley, Miranda, Liara, Jack, and Tali are all clothed (with certain definitions of "clothed" for Jack) while you're playing Mass Effect (2), you sure as hell wouldn't know it from the photos that make it even to the first page of the image search.  And do yourself a favor and don't look for GLaDOS images unless you're keen on some evil robot hentai bondage.  Seriously.

This is where I develop immense frustration with the misogyny inherent in so much of gamer culture.  The designers of the games and franchises I've been writing about -- Uncharted, Mass Effect, Portal, Assassin's Creed, Fallout, and more -- have been working hard to give us strong and non-sexualized female characters.  I'm spending 3000 words a week in this joint giving credit where credit is due.  But no credit whatsoever is due to the fan base who, on first getting their hands on mod tools, immediately mod their female characters into nudity.

I mean, what the hell?  Why is this always what comes first?  Why is the pain of this image search for female characters just as inevitable among gamers as the construction of phalluses is?  (My first venture into Mario Kart DS multiplayer, almost every single racer on my course had drawn a penis as his avatar.  Clever, guys.  *rolls eyes*)

I get that there is actually a sizeable contingent of 13-year-old boys in the gamer world.  We all know it.  It is the nature of such children to be jackasses for a while, until they grow out of it.  And I can accept that.

But we collectively, as a subculture and as a consumer group, keep insisting that we are more than that.  And I want to believe it.  Until I look and see what the fans have done with any of these characters.   (Hint: even the drawings, screenshots, and mods that are fully clothed are generally in pin-up style or otherwise provocative poses.)

I can't pretend that this is a gamer-only problem, but it is front-and center in gamer culture in a way I don't find it to be in other fandoms.  There's a whole metric ton of non-worksafe fanart out there of Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, and a host of others.  (Not to mention the stories.)  But at least it's not so frequently sought-after and so frequently designed that it goes straight to the top of the charts, as it were.  You can actually find illustrations (from books) and screen shots (from movies and games) in spades before you get to the kinky stuff.

I hang out mainly in a pretty safe corner of the internet, and my part of the gamer world is filled with people like me.  Like seeks out like, sometimes.  I've mentioned before how for me, PAX East 2011 was almost entirely a girls' weekend.  The regulars who come here to comment (hi, regulars) are smart folks who generally think like I do about this stuff.  The designers of the games I play are getting ever better about it all, so even while there's a ton of work to be done, I can see the progress.

But sometimes I have those days where I can tell this club doesn't want me for a member, and that's great because I don't want to be part of it anyway.  This is the same system that forces booth babes at PAX, that still doesn't give my RPG character any pants when she equips greaves, and that ensures it will be years before I run out of things to write about.

[/rant off]


  1. I think the reality of the situation is that the label "gamer" has become so broad a term that it's becoming ever more useless. It's not a subculture anymore, it's a burgeoning part of life as we know it on Earth in the 21st century. Even people buying the ultra-cheap Nokia 1100 can play video games, this on a phone designed for really backwoods areas.

    The behavior of "other gamers" that annoys the hell out of us is just something that has always been with us. Cro Magnon cave painters were drawing big penises and big breasts on cave walls thousands of years ago, and that's continued through "fertility symbols" throughout history. Trying to stop it is futile, so the necessary course of action is schism.

    There's already plenty of schism based on preferred style of game or amount of play (rpg gamers, fps gamers, mmo gamers, casual gamers, hardcore gamers). Some kind of uber-schism may just be what's needed. "Serious gamer" sounds overly pretentious, but maybe we need a little more pretension or elitism to build a useful social filter?

  2. I can't pretend that this is a gamer-only problem, but it is front-and
    center in gamer culture in a way I don't find it to be in other fandoms.

    respectfully, i think your impression here is wrong. the "other fandoms" you cite (harry potter and lotr) are first and foremost literary fandoms, and fan appropriation of those most often takes the form of fanfiction (in which all manner of things are inflicted upon characters). a more apt comparison would be of video games to comics, which are also visual, and for which female characters are also overwhelmingly sexualized in the hands of fan artists.

    but your larger point is absolutely true: this is a serious problem.

  3.  This is a good point. I'm not involved in fanfiction at all so I'm speaking from ignorance, but even that which I've come across has been mostly sexual [Harry/Draco anyone?].

  4. There is non-sexual fanfic?

    ...kidding.  I know it exists.  Theoretically.

  5.  Also those fandoms skew more female, and so I doubt that male gazey art is as integral a part of it partially for that reason.  But I doubt the gender ratio, or the medium, is the full story here.  A cross-subcultural comparison would probably help.

    I play a lot of tabletop RPGs, yet I don't know much about RPG 'fandom' beyond occasionally posting on white wolf's boards and RPG net.  It would be interesting to do a general survey of tabletop RPG fandom generally (which I suspect has an overall gender distribution similar to video gaming) and see how sexualized the fan works are.  My general impression has been 'not as much' as what Our Critic describes above.  Just another data point.

  6.  Are you familiar with the phrase, "bad money drives out good"?     It refers to coinage.   If there is counterfeit or suspect coinage in circulation, that coinage will become what is commonly used, since the "good" coinage will be hoarded.

    If I were to log in to a Mario Kart racing site and find a bunch of penises driving cars, I'd leave.   It's a clear signal that the maturity level is at a level that I wouldn't enjoy.   

    In effect, you and I are being driven from these public spaces because they are unregulated.  Which works to the advantage of the penis-wearers.   This is not to the advantage of Nintendo, though, so you would think they would do something about it...

  7. Yeah, but we're talking about fan works here, and from my brief survey of them they don't tend to sexualize characters more than cannon does, as is the case with video games.

  8. True, but that's only because the canon has been sexualizing them already. The old World of Darkness books played the adult angle as far as they could in the art and setting, pushed hard through innuendo, and created Black Dog Game Factory so they could go even further.

    Not that I'm trying to slam White Wolf, because I'm not, but I'm not sure how much further you can go than they did. If you're into that kind of thing, you're probably putting that time into a LARP or pen and paper campaign that I'm not really interested in getting anywhere near, and isn't likely to show up top of the list when you look for some character image on Google or sundry.

  9. This exact sentiment is why I feel like those of us who are out there proving that gaming isn't all penis-drawers need to keep it up, and publicly.  :)

  10.  I know Dragon Age isn't idolized here, but I'd suggest that it does an unusually good job of not sexualizing female characters and NPC's. And most of the top rated and most downloaded mods seem to be adding pornographic elements to a game that stands out for not having them.

  11. The mods bother me more than fanart and fanfiction, in all honesty.  Far more.  It's one thing to imagine what characters you fancy might be up to in their off-screen time.  It's another thing to decide that their on-screen presentation needs to be different (and more pornographic) than it is.

    It bugs me how much time and effort is put into adding porn to an otherwise good game, by the modding community.  And worse, it bothers me how quickly those mods go straight to the top of the ratings and downloads charts.  I mean, seriously -- there aren't already enough boobs in games?  You need to start adding them to the few places they aren't?

    Just... ugh.

  12. Yeah. I give cannon Morrigan's nudity a pass for the reasons you mentioned for Jack vos Normandy. Witches, punks and pirates make a point of not conforming and love shock value.

    But the pornmods are just silly. I mean damn, I'm an immature boy living with my parents too, but I spend my worthless life playing the games not modding bigger and barer boobs into them. 

  13. I don't disagree on the main points, but I think White Wolf may not be the best cases to compare, for the reasons that you cite actually. They'd didn't just use sexualization to sell their work, sexuality was often a theme. Your mileage varies depending on which line you played, but WW aimed itself at a specific audience different than most tabletop rpgs. A lot of video games have sexy characters that you play, but they're about something else. WW games (depending on the group) could be about sex outright. That chainmail bikini you mention above, that's a different genre of game, I think, but I think the better example.

    I lean toward enstarstar's pov though, that comics may be a better point of comparison. Both comics and tabletop scenes have aged up since their last crests, but the latter has contracted to a point where from what I see with a (amateur) glance what's left is a devoted crowd doesn't get attracted to sex as sizzle as much...mostly because you can get that elsewhere. Video games, say.

  14. I was surprised to hear about that kart thing, actually. I think in most video game conversations Nintendo gets flack for putting up blocks to socializing indiscriminately...the wii has long hard to input wii numbers, which both parties need to install. Comments in games like Animal Crossing or Smash Brothers have preprogrammed comments, or severe limits, etc...