The portrayal of women in video games and their exclusion among ‘gamers’ has, to put it mildly, a long and problematic history. Since personal gaming consoles and PCs started gaining traction in the 80s and 90s, computer games have predominantly been marketed to a male audience, attracting a mostly male demographic, both in the production and playing of games. Unsurprisingly this has resulted in a boys-club mentality with the content of these games frequently rather sexist as well as racist and homophobic. Games have also been used to justify western imperialism too, with war games placing the player in the role of soldiers, predominantly for the US.
Of course there are subversions to this imperial trope, such as Spec Ops: The Line, which depicts the brutality and inhumanity of imperial conquest of the Middle East, but by and large war games are fairly conservative politically. But there is a lot more to games than fighting for imperialism.
As the only major interactive storytelling medium, games are a rich tapestry of stories, characters and ideas. And yet, two content trends remain the norm. First, the central playable character will usually be a white, generally heterosexual, male. Second, combat and/or violence will be a featured mechanic. Another trend is that many of these games poorly portray female characters.
Feminist Frequency (FF), a cultural NGO headed up by Anita Sarkeesian, has presented some important research in terms of sexism in games. Their critiques of games have generally been welcomed by the incredibly diverse group of people who play video games and simultaneously been attacked vitriolically by a minority of gamers who want to exclude games from being critiqued like every other artistic medium, and want to see the medium continue as a boys-only club (that is, ‘#gamergate’).
The harassment of women through #gamergate is entirely unacceptable and has hurt gaming as a whole. Because we have had to deal with these arseholes in gaming forums, we have been prevented from having a proper discussion on what diverse and inclusive gaming would look like. But there have been some important steps forward in this area. According to FF’s survey of games presented at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), 46 per cent of games allowed players to choose the gender of their character; in another 13 per cent, gender was not applicable. This is a huge step forward from previous years.
Of the remaining games, FF found only 7 where players could only play a female character – as opposed to 24 where the player had to be male. In other words, men’s stories are still told roughly 3.5 times more through games then women’s. Perhaps most disappointing was that of the games that offer a gender choice, only one presented at their demo using a female avatar. This indicates that the marketing of games is significantly behind development in terms of equality.
While FF provided some useful analysis regarding gender representation, frustratingly they merged this coverage with criticising the prevalence of violence in games.
According to their statistics, 76 per cent of games ‘incorporate violence or combat’ mechanics. During Bethesda’s presentation, Sarkeesian tweeted: ‘Only a few minutes into the Bethesda press conference and it’s wall to wall glorification of grotesque violence, I can barely watch. #BE3’. Then later: ‘This level of extreme violence shouldn’t be considered normal. It’s not an excuse to say it’s expected because DOOM. That’s the problem.’ One can only conclude from these comments (and others by FF and Sarkeesian) that violence in games is a feminist issue. Whether this is because violence limits women’s involvement in gaming, or that women are adverse to violence in games due to their lived experience is unclear. But such a position – one that argues inclusive gaming should be less violent or non-violent – is not only patronising to women, but it also delegitimises their ability to use force. Ultimately, it relegates women to victimhood.
Whenever people raise the lack of woman protagonists in video games, the stereotypical response is that having a woman in the role wouldn’t be accurate for the world of the game. According to these players, women aren’t: a) as good at fighting, or b) were generally excluded from warrior roles in the historical period the game is set. This is silly, given that these games often include a bunch of tropes that differ from reality (such as elves, magic spells and a variety of steam punk gadgets), and generally untrue.
Women have always been part of struggles, including violent struggles. During the Cuban Revolution of 1956–59, for instance, there was a shortage of arms and Fidel Castro prioritised giving guns to women’s battalions. Some of the men asked, ‘How can we give rifles to women when there are so many men who are unarmed?’ Castro answered that it was ‘because they are better soldiers than you are. More disciplined.’
The same argument about ‘historical accuracy’ was used by some in the games industry to defend not having a female protagonist (Ubisoft’s official reason was that ‘women are too expensive to draw and code’). And yet, history itself disproves this claim: the most notable assassin during the French Revolution was a woman called Charlotte Corday. Sure, men on average may have greater upper body strength, but they also generally have less dexterity and lower tolerance to pain – worth taking into consideration when designing an action hero with a health bar, one who needs to be able to endure several shots from opposition firearms.
Perhaps most importantly, one of the key determinants of how much damage one can inflict is not strength but will. That is, in the heat of battle one’s willingness to carry through with the swing of the axe, pulling the trigger, etc.
While Sarkeesian acknowledges all these things and has argued women characters should be included in these games, by ultimately categorising violence as something which predominantly interests men, as something inherently destructive or limiting, she further excludes women from gaming.
When categorising violent games, FF writes, ‘we mean that the player is either required to or can choose to engage in violence as a means of conflict resolution.’ But what is wrong with that? Violently fighting back against your opponent is almost always an option. Indeed, for the oppressed, being able to fight back is a form of empowerment. Video games allow this to be experienced directly rather than watched passively. The idea of the women fighting back formed the basis of 90s TV series Buffy: the Vampire Slayer. As creator Joss Whedon pointed out, there’s a ‘blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed, in every horror movie. The idea of Buffy was to subvert that idea, that image, and create someone who was a hero where she had always been a victim.’
Feminist Frequency argue that ‘when game narratives consistently take place in inescapably hostile antagonistic environments, it severely limits the kinds of stories that can be told,’ – but the reality of lived experience for the vast majority of people on the planet is a hostile antagonistic environment, and disproportionately so for women. Why wouldn’t our stories indicate this reality? And I reckon most video games epitomise the slogan of the union movement – ‘if you don’t fight, you lose.’ So unless you want a depressing ‘game over’ screen, gaming encourages you to struggle and eventually win.
For Feminist Frequency, non-violence in games is about ‘what’s possible when games approach human experience through a lens of empathy rather than one of violence’. But I strongly disagree with this idea: most violent acts in games are inherently empathic within a particular framework – you are fighting for your side (whichever side that is), and many games even allow a degree of choice in that fight, depending on your own moral framework. While games frequently use violence as a storytelling mechanic, rarely is the goal actually violence.
Take your standard war game, for instance: it’s about overcoming your antagonist, protecting your comrades (real or computer-generated) and sticking it to those who are trying to keep you down. Rarely is a game’s objective to inflict suffering on those we empathise with.
The extremely controversial Hatred, released on 1 June, is an exception. Hatred has been heavily criticised by ‘gamers’ universally precisely because the entire objective of the game is to kill innocent people. As Justin Clark from Gamespot notes:
Bystanders are not simple victims of collateral damage: You are explicitly told to kill, ‘cleanse,’ and ‘execute’ the innocent. Problematically, Hatred isn’t fun to play. Its attempted power fantasy comes not from the exhilaration of superhumanity, but from the slaughter in and of itself, and unlike listening to a Slayer album or watching Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, this is not a passive experience. Best of luck to anyone who can answer the question of why Hatred is meant to be, in the developer’s own words, ‘pure gaming pleasure.’
The reason Hatred is so hated, even among those who enjoy violent videogames, is simple: it is sadistic and nihilistic (the exact opposite reason that most people play games in the first place).
By focussing on violence in gaming in general (not gendered violence and sadism, which I’d argue is marginal to the gaming experience), FF is calling for not so much a decrease in ‘harm’ but a decrease in antagonisms in gaming. That is, a reduction in oppositional ways of thinking, or for the oppressed to not fight back against their oppressor. Such ideas are very popular in pacifist circles that raise non-violence as the only means of social change, and reinforce the idea that we should work within the system rather than being prepared to challenge oppression and oppressors. Such challenging may include violence or at least the threat of violence, even if it is one the player chooses not to use. As a philosophy, working with the powers that be rather than saying that your character will level up and finally take on the boss, is pretty moribund, and it obfuscates actual divisions.
Every year there is a new FIFA game and sooner or later there will be a game that takes place in the still-under-construction Qatar stadium. It is estimated by the time the stadium is complete, 4,000 workers will have died building it. Now, it is unlikely that such a game will have combat mechanics, offer the potential for you to burn the stadium to the ground or kick corrupt FIFA officials in the nuts. In short, it will add to FF’s non-combat game statistic – but it will not in any way be satisfying to those people who are rightly angry at the situation and aren’t satisfied by a pleasant game over the graves of construction workers.
FF’s hostility to violence dominating gaming doesn’t only sideline the oppressed, or discourage imagining possibilities of fighting back. It also privileges discussion of the act of violence over the reasons why violence might have been committed (positive and negative). Moreover, this abstract rejection of violence is raised as a feminist issue, implying that violence is something that is inherently ‘male’. This contradicts the real and incredible history of women fighters (in every arena). It moves feminism away from the kickarse nature of Buffy fighting monsters or Commander Shepard winning the intergalactic war against the machine and reduces women to pawns in the system. It argues that even with greater representation and diverse marketing, women are going to recoil from being part of the games which are currently ‘core’ to the popular gaming cannon.
Ultimately, it sees Feminist Frequency making the same argument that Gamergaters make: that women don’t belong in such games. Instead, they’re arguing for a whole new type of game that will supposedly attract women gamers. But we already know ‘separate but equal’ doesn’t work. What such an approach will do is justify poor inclusion of women in mainstream games because there are those lame-duck feminist-approved games over in the corner.
Don’t get me wrong. Some non-violent games are great, but it is proscriptive to think that a lack of violence makes them better games, either morally or politically. Feminist Frequency and Anita Sarkeesian have done some amazing work on problematic gender representations, but this move toward anti-violence plays into the arguments about them wanting to eradicate what people most enjoy about games. And I want strong women as my comrades on the picket lines and to play games with, rather than keeping them separate from struggle because of some essentialist version of what it is to be a woman or a human being.