We Need to Talk About Sexism in Video Games

Every once and awhile one of the big gaming news sites will post an article about sexism in video games, and the authors get ripped to shreds by the commenters. I don’t think these authors would be more hated if they murdered whole neighbourhoods. Sexism is a serious problem in the video game industry, as it is in many industries, and people need to see that. If the internet has shown me anything, it is that racism and sexism in North America is very much alive and strong. Why is it that so many people fight so hard to defend sexism, or are they so blind that they can’t see it? The video game industry is rife with sexism from how women are dressed to how women are written. I can count on my hands how many effective female leads there are in video games, and the number shrinks very fast if you look at their entire catalogue (Samus and Other M). There was a time that the primary audience for video games were 14 year old boys, and at that time, sexually objectifying women and filling the lead roles with male power fantasies was understandable from a marketing perspective. However, times have changed and video games are a medium enjoyable by people of all ages and both genders, but many developers have not moved past the 14 year old boy mentality. It is very hard to take a game seriously when it goes out of its way to undermine female characters for no better reason normally than to titillate, and often for no reason at all. Today we are going to be looking at sexism in the industry, and, as I said the last time I did this, there is no way I can be as thorough as this topic deserves, so this post will not be all inclusive by any means.

I just read an article defending Ivy and her sexualization. I don’t care about the contrived backstory. Ivy exists for one reason, and it isn’t the narrative.

Firstly, let’s look at the myth that men are as sexually exploited as women in video games. You hear this all the time from internet commenters. The idea behind it is that men are all gruff and muscular and are often shirtless. The proponents of this myth assert that this overwhelming masculinity is over-sexualizing men the same way women are over-sexualized, so there is no reason for women to complain. This is a total falsehood. There is a major difference between turning a character into a sexual object and having that character be a power fantasy. For example: Kratos from God of War, in all his muscular, shirtless glory, was not designed with sex in mind, and the game shows it. There is never an emphasis on Kratos’ sexuality in any sense, only an emphasis on the power he wields. If men were as sexually exploited as women, trust me, you would know it. In Mass Effect 2, a game that isn’t really about “the sexy women” there are multiple close ups on Miranda Lawson’s rear during random conversations. Imagine the fallout if they did this with a male character. The internet went crazy with the idea that they may have to talk to “a gay” in Mass Effect 3. If male sexuality was really forced down our throats, you would hear about it. That is a problem. People defend this practise as long as it involves women, but immediately decry it when it happens to men. It has gotten to a point where it is easy to play a game full of sexual exploitation and not notice it because it is so desensitizing.

This really isn’t necessary.

In the article I linked to in the introduction, I discussed gender stereotypes in video games, and I highlighted some examples of strong female leads. Even having a female lead is a rarity, and when a woman does take centre stage, it is a crapshoot to see if female stereotypes will ruin the character. Of course the most common usage of women in video games is the “helper”or “sidekick”. This type of women, exemplified by the coms operator in countless shooters, and exists primarily to funnel information to the main character. Sure, they are often involved in the story, but always in a purely ancillary way. It feels more like these characters were designed by a marketing team who thought that a soothing female voice would be received better by the players. These characters aren’t inherently sexist, but they show what the industry thinks about women. It is a lot safer to use a male lead with a female secondary character than the other way around. Despite making up half of the population, female leads make up less than 5% of video game leads.

10% if you include the cosplay

The reason I wanted to talk about sexism today was because of an article by The Mary Sue about gender in Diablo 3. I don’t think that Blizzard was sexist in its creation. I think they were lazy, which is sexist. Let me explain. Blizzard’s storytelling for Diablo 3 can be describes as abysmal at best, and it epitomizes laziness in every bad way possible. One of these ways was the design of its female characters. Female player characters are more scantily clad than their male counterparts, Leah is pretty much a clone of Star Craft’s Kerrigan, the Enchantress is a ditz, and there is a Lord of Lust played by a sexy spider woman (Voiced by the amazing Claudia Black, so that one gets a pass). However, I don’t get that any of that was intentional. The thing is that all of those problems are deeply ingrained tropes in video games, aside from the Leah issue, which was Blizzard simply copying themselves. Instead of thinking up some kind of interesting armour or personality for the Enchantress, they ran with what is industry standard, and it is the fact that such things are industry standard which is sexist. Blizzard’s only crime is that they hired terrible writers.

This archetype + Jennifer Hale should have been gold. More testament to the poor writing of Diablo 3.

I am currently playing Dragon’s Dogma, and there isn’t really much in the game in terms of story or characters, but there is one thing that struck me as odd. Female equipment isn’t designed to be skimpy male fantasies. This shouldn’t be weird, but it really, really is. When I wore a piece of armour that was said to be female specific, it wasn’t some “breast shaped breast plate” that you get in every damn game. This was a problem in Xenoblade Chronicles. In that game, Sharla wore skimpy underwear, Melia wore a very short skirt and 7 (Secret story spoiler character) wore practically nothing. What was really odd was that all of those characters were represented in a very serious and often dour light. It is hard to take someone’s tragedy serious when they are wearing lingerie. Looking at games like the recently released Tera, it seems that developers know two settings: voluptuous and really voluptuous. Back on Dragon’s Dogma, it surprised me that you could really minimize chest size and it never gets crazy if you pump it up. Also, you can give women muscle definition, which is a huge no no in video games unless that character is playing the “butch” for laughs.

Notice the lack of breast shaped lumps on the right character’s armour? That is special, and it shouldn’t be.

Of course I’m not saying that every game has to include real serious portrayals of women and that women should never be sexualized. What I am saying is that there needs to be more games like that. Of course there should still be fun, over-sexualized games like Bayonetta or the upcoming Lolipop Chainsaw; however, when a game decides that it wants to be taken seriously, it needs to present serious female characters. There are enough games with real, or at very least respectable male characters, that such a portrayal doesn’t strike anyone as odd. It is unfortunate that such a portrayal of a female character is seen as an anomaly. The day you play a standard military shooter as some boring faceless grunt, but that character happens to be a women, and you think nothing of it, is when you know that video games have reached the point that sexism isn’t a problem anymore.

Great games like this can still exist. They just shouldn’t be the standard for portraying women.

The fact of the matter is that video games are moving away from the 14 year old boy model. It isn’t fast, but it is happening. However, that doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be aware of the problem. I hear so often on message boards that “everyone knows it is a problem, so why are you talking about it”. Excuse me? If you recognize it is a problem then you shouldn’t just shut up and accept it. It is the stupidest logic around, but is an unfortunately common reaction. The more people who are dissatisfied with the way women are portrayed in video games, the more likely that developers will take note and stop developing games with a purely male audience in mind. This isn’t some ridiculous battle of the sexes thing that men so often get their backs up over. The issue is that we have a group of people who have had to justify throughout history that they are more than just objects, that want to be treated with the same respect as their peers. This process isn’t over. There is a reason that the “get in the kitchen and make me a sandwich” meme is so popular, and it isn’t because women love hearing it.

Marcus Fenix is about as big of a douchebag as they come, and he get’s his own sandwich. What is your excuse?

The video game industry is full of sexism, and I didn’t even come close to scratching the surface today, and I look forward to revisiting the issue at a later date. With so many games out there portraying women as nothing more than accessories, or sexual objects, it is easy to see why gaming sites like IGN post articles on the matter. However, if you google “IGN, sexism” you will find nothing but blog posts explaining why IGN is wrong about it. When I see things like this, I understand more why there is still so much sexism in video games. If there are that many people rushing to the internet to defend blatant sexism, I can’t help but worry.

– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer


17 thoughts on “We Need to Talk About Sexism in Video Games

  1. I disapprove of how you stereotype those who are critical of articles that indicate sexism are simply sexist themselves. I'm sure many of them are, but not all. Rather, perhaps they are critiquing the authors perspective of what constitutes "legitimate" sexism and considerably petty-minded assumptions.http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/9.377125-Increasingly-skinny-women-in-video-games-and-flawed-claims-of-sexualisationHere's an article I wrote on the Escapist that pertains to what I'm stating.

  2. Of course I'm not saying every article on sexism is good or even on point; however, even the most idiotic article that misses the mark entirely is more useful to the droves of forum posters denying sexism. I am not being unfair. For every one legitimate complaint about the author, there are at least a dozen people denying/supporting sexism. This is not a good thing. I agree with you that people overreact, but that doesn't mean that sexism in video games isn't a major proble that needs to be addressed. Fear of talking about it is a problem and I would rather support those that do even if they miss the mark then those who believe there is no problem at all.

  3. And yes stereotyping in all forms is bad; however, it is such a disproportionate amount of people, It is hard to focus on the bare minority, when the problem revolves around the other group.

  4. Sorry for the 3rd response (serves me right for writing responses early in the morning). Looking at the other response, they seem to have a hostile tone, which would be indicative of the morning, but not intentional. I got a chance to read your article and I thought it was very well made. I agree with your distinction between sexualization and sexism. I may end up referencing your post at a later date if you don't mind. I agree it isn't the skimpy clothes that make sexism, but the characterization. Also, good example with Catwoman.

  5. Wow… I can't thank you enough for not classifying me as "another surreptitious sexist." I'm amazed at the maturity of your response, and it's men like you that should be at the helm of the battle of sexism. Thank you!

  6. "The idea behind it is that men are all gruff and muscular and are often shirtless… character into a sexual object and having that character be a power fantasy."You don't seem to realise that power, as you elegantly state, is in fact what attracts women to men. Certainly that is never the only factor but by and large, power is what women find attractive in men; just as men find womens' outward appearances attractive. So, while sexism goes both ways, it is always looked at from the woman's point of view only! Why is that?Also, while I have not and will not be playing Diablo 3 anytime in the near future, so I cannot comment on how good or bad the story may be, I would also like to address the statement "I think they were lazy, which is sexist." which is stupendously erroneous and well, for lack of a better word, just plain stupid. Laziness is sexist? Since when?The truth of the matter is, video games are a form of entertainment meant to appeal to the human animal, our nature; and often does so using our most primal needs. This is seen everywhere from movies, comic books, literature, music etc. The goal for any business is to sell their product for profit and pretty girls with big tits appeal to men while good-looking, buff and powerful men appeal to women. Is it sexist? I don't know, but I also sure as shit don't care. I do however, hate it when arguments are completely one-sided!On a final note, when gaming companies publish successful video games that star Seth Rogen as the lead character, that's when I'll accept video games that star Conchata Ferell as a female lead. (Their likeness I mean, not voice overs, 'cause I think that would be awesome!) 'Till then, leave well enough alone and leave gamers alone to enjoy their video games without your, and by extension your groups', whining about all the 'sexism'.

  7. Showing a powerful man is sexy there is not question and I agree with you. However, this is very different from a power fantasy, which is about ego self-inflation. Women in video games are more often than not used to titillate male audiences. On the other hand, men in video games are most often used to be a fantasy for the same male audience. The major difference is how it is shown, not what is shown. Also I wrote a post about male gender stereotypes if you are angry about a lack of representation on sexist representations of men. Laziness is sexist in terms of Diablo 3 was a statement I made in relation to the very sexist nature of fantasy tropes. Blizzard was lazy with their character designs and simply took from stock character types. These character tropes are sexist. There is nothing hard to understand or stupid about the comment. For your complaint that "big tits appeal to men while good-looking, buff and powerful men appeal to women" with the ending about one-sided arguments, I direct you to my sixth paragraph, which is very important. I don't think that they should ever stop over-sexualizing people and ramping up the violence to insane degrees, but they shouldn't always to it. There is a time and a place for everything. However, I think we are past the point that the only games that can sell are those that appeal to the young boy market. I think that companies sell men short on the fact that all we want are big tits and nothing else.Your final note seems to be about body types showing you missed the point. I am not arguing for uglier or more realistic body types. What I am arguing for is a lack of over-sexualization in games. In many cases it undermines the game. I want games to remain as fun and free as anyone else (Also I don't belong to any "group" as you stated), but the simple matter is that games are full of sexism. Hiding behind "sex sells" as an argument is ridiculous. All you are saying is that there is a problem but it makes money so it's all good.

  8. The argument that men in video games are often used as fantasy concepts for the same male audience is, in my opinion, outdated, worn out and entirely false. To borrow for example a frequently used argument by the female gamers who often complain about over-sexualisation of women in women, back in the 'golden age of video games' you had Mario, Link, DK and a host of other characters who were, for all intents and purposes, the definition of normal men doing extraordinary things for whatever cause. Therein lies the fantasy that most males desire. The ability to perform extraordinary acts of bravery, despite their normalcy; which in real life would be close to impossible either through lack of physique, health, cowardice of character etc. While the varied style of leading men in video games is frequently used by gamers who support the possible existence of sexism in video games as proof that men in video games have a far wider range and scope than the quintessential good-looking and sexy female characters, I actually see it as the exact opposite. The leading men in video games in this day and age all closely resemble what the Hollywood definition of a man is; which is not created for the fantasies of men, but for the fantasies of women. Mario is replaced with Ezio, Link is replaced with Sheppard, DK with Kratos and so on and so forth.

  9. Hence my 'big tits appeal to men while good-looking, buff, powerful men appeal to women' comes into play. It is not meant to suggest that men or women as creatures are one-dimensional and think of only one thing, but it is important to accept that it is part of our psychology. What I am saying, is that there is no problem, that people nowadays are overreacting for the sake of political correctness and to pander to whatever it is that women feel violated by at this moment in time. Hence why men are often less likely to complain about the portrayal of men in video games as women are to complain about the female characters. Again, there is no problem! That is my point. As for the 'it makes money', so what? It's meant to. We see something we like and we buy it. Other people worked hard to create the product and they should get paid for their troubles. Often we as consumers overpay, but the morality of the video gaming business is a different discussion.These days people too quickly confuse sexualisation with sexism simply based off of a character's designed looks. There are certainly video games which are indeed sexist, just as any other medium, but to call for any character who has skimpy clothing, a nice ass and slightly larger than average breasts sexism, which is the common theme these days is lopsided, one-track minded, wrong and completely undermines the long hours and hard work that many animators, designers, writers and programmers have put in, simply to appease the false sense of insecurity that for the most part female gamers have. Not to mention the fact that while people compain about looks, they often forget to look at the actual depth of character, which goes to show that I in fact think less about body types than the people who complain about those same body types. I refer you to the recent Tomb Raider, 'protect her from rape', debacle.I won't go into the Diablo 3 issue, 'cause as I stated I have not and will not be playing it for other reasons, so I cannot ascertain how sexist, or lack thereof, the characters might be; but if I'm judging by the rest of the article, you may indeed be over the top on that as well.

  10. On a final note, I assure you I did not miss any point in your article, the body image type comment was very specific to the points I made in both comments, in that stereotyping is not inherently wrong or evil and it is in fact what makes most people comfortable; and at the risk of sounding rude, as the article was actually well-written and thorough, it was also banal and filled with the same overused excuses that you hear from any other site which discusses the same issue. There were in fact no new ideas, simply re-worked and reiterated arguments which are at their core one-sided and over-simplified. Also, the 'group' comment was not meant to say that you belong to a specific group/organisation of individuals, but at the group of like-minded people who share your opinions, who are unfortunately too common these days.

  11. I still can't see what you are trying to say about sexualized men. I don't think anyone is arguing that Mario, Sonic, etc were intended to be related to sexuality in any way. Nor would I call them power fantasies. There is a difference from creating a character as an avatar for adventuring, and power fantasies. A power fantasy is an ego trip, not simple fantasy. Also, there is nothing wrong with handsome men and beautiful women, but how it is used. I hate how I have to keep saying this. I agree with you completely that there is a difference between sexualized and sexist. However, the problem isn't that a bunch of games oversexualize women, but that this is the norm. You will never see a camera linger on Commander Shepard's ass (women like asses too), but you will get many shots lingering on Miranda's ass in the same game. To put it simply, if you sexualize a women in a game, there is nothing wrong with it, but when an unsexualized woman becomes strange, there is a problem. While men in video games are traditionally handsome, there is a difference in how they are portrayed and represented in video games than women.Is every game that over-sexualizes women sexist? No, of course not. Are developers sexist from making a single costume choice? No, of course not. It goes further than that. Look at how women are treated in video games as a whole. How many women are simply relegated to be a damsel or a helper over the intercom, being basically used as a carrot for the player. Does this need to bother you? Of course not, but don't pretend like it doesn't exist. I also don't think the problem is just a bunch of over politically correct women, as you seem to put it. Complaining that people are just too politically correct is a cop out and ignores any real issues.While I'm not sure what kind of breakthrough sexism arguments you were expecting from a gaming enthusiast blog, the same arguments that you throw out are equally as common. I picked out "sex sells", "people don't want to play as ugly people", "we're all wired to like sexual things what's wrong with that?", and "this doesn't bother me". I really think that the one trying to dismiss the entire argument based on the fact that you don't see a problem and that you think a bunch of people are getting upset over nothing is the one that is over simplifying the issues.Also, what other side you want. Do you want me to talk about sexism followed by an explanation that there are those that don't believe that there is anything wrong with how women are portrayed? Listen I'm not arguing about sexism in video games because I want to pander to all groups. I'm arguing about it because I think it is a problem. If you don't that is very sad, but fine, you are free to move on to like minded people.

  12. I'll start with the Miranda ass shots first, since I've heard those arguments a lot and that is actually my point. Girls do like asses too, they also like nice chests with six-packs; hence why there are also numerous shots of Sheppard and Kaidan shirtless. A couple of ass-shots of a clothed female, does not sexism make.A power fantasy is an ego trip. Agreed! But what I was trying to actually say was that the newer characters, Kratos for example, they're build and designed the way they are to appeal to the mainstream. Mainstream being, trying to seduce non-gamers to become gamers, which for the most part includes modern women. Hence why Mario, Sonic etc. did not require to look like male models while fulfilling their tasks, because women were not playing those games (I'm sure a small minority was, but they were in fact the minority!). Which is why I mostly disagree with your statement that they are built to be a power trip for men. They are built to appeal to women(and possibly the occasional douche-bag).Finally, there are only so many stories one can tell. They are limited and, while the details might change, it is why often one may draw similarities between books, movies, video games etc. This is nothing new as I'm sure you know, in fact most likely all stories were told as far back as, at least, Shakespeare, if not earlier even. The arc of male tries to save damsel for example, is by no means sexist. It is a common arc as far back as the Greek tragedies and is not meant to make women feel weak, but to show what a man will go through to prove his, for lack of a better word, love or respect for her. In fact, it raises women and puts them on a pedestal, it doesn't demean them.That's it from side of the argument and well I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the subject.

  13. It seems like we agree about the power fantasy characters, as you put it, newer characters have been suffering from this. I disagree with the abs argument as those are never lingered on in the game. The camera never forces itself in a very awkward angle to focus on it, nor are they are sexual as you describe in any conceivable way.I also disagree that stock stories aren't sexist because they are old. Greek stories were sexist. Really, really sexist. As were many medieval ones. Just because they are old doesn't mean they aren't. They were of a different time and that was acceptable. This is not that time anymore.

  14. Thank you so much for this article! This is one of the most objective, intelligent posts I've read about the subject. As a female and a gamer since I was about six, it does get incredibly frustrating to be met with the same condescending standards in almost every game. It's so true that it isn't open sexism, but lazy developers that keeps this tradition of sexism going. They can do so much better.We take up over 40% of the industry's consumers. When will the games reflect that?

  15. Thanks for the comment. I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's been a while since I looked at this post and despite the huge backlash from "Unknown", I still stand by its points. It's sad, looking at the recent Adam Sessler/God of War controversy, that so many people get so angry with even the mention of sexism that he would receive death threats. Sometimes, it makes me very worried.

  16. When you get the diver top and bottom during Xenoblade, the time you get it, it’s actually a very good piece of armor for ether(Mainly reserved for Sharla or Melia, the two ether fighters.)Also, Melia and Sharla have their own tragic stories, and all you want to focus on is an equippable piece of armor? Melia has one of the most tragic stories I’ve ever experienced in a video game, and it doesn’t matter how revealing her armor is, it doesn’t take away how awesome of a female character she is. Also, Seven(Spoilers ahead.)CANT wear anything. She had her organs ripped out and turned into a face mechon. So there.

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