The Unbalanced Portrayal of Gender in Video Games

Remember Borat? The touching tale of an innocent foreigner and his quest to kidnap a woman and force her into sexual slavery? Remember the laughs, the awkward pauses, the humorous cross-cultural misunderstandings? Remember the swimsuit that looked like an over-stretched hammock cradling a hairy banana? It was great, wasn’t it? Flat-out hilarious.

Now imagine if Borat didn’t give up on that look after one scene; imagine if he wore it for the whole movie. In fact, imagine that every man in the movie took up the bum fluff jock strap, in an awkward display of near nudity that no one commented on, or acted as though it was out of place. How long would it take before the joke stopped being funny? How long before the humorous became the uncomfortable? How long before it grew frankly tiresome and you started to wish that they’d just put on some clothes, like normal people – the ones that exist in the real world; not just in some weird moviemaker’s deluded fantasies?

Congratulations! You’ve just discovered what it feels like to be a female gamer – collect your prize at the door (it’s the chance to be called a dumb bitch by headset-wearing ten-year-olds across the world).

To say that the video game industry has an unbalanced view of women is to say that nerds love Batman – there are exceptions, but you probably won’t find them at a games convention. Nowhere is this ridiculous bias illustrated more than in the depiction of clothing.

Where men are outfitted in military uniforms or simple pants and shirts, women are portrayed in singlets, sexy skin-tight leotards or skimpy bras that offer more strings than support. Even when they manage to score a complete outfit, their necklines will be lower, their shorts shorter and their likelihood of a nude or underwear scene far higher.

Some would argue that this isn’t the industry’s fault – that they have to cater to consumers, to give the people what they want. Some would be wrong. It’s estimated that almost 50% of gamers are women – women who, for the most part, find these outfits demeaning. Yet their opinions are ignored, and the whims of teenage boys (a group universally applauded for their good judgment) granted far more influence.

Don’t get me wrong, things are getting better. I can even name games where the female leads remained fully dressed throughout, but for every Chell there’s a Cortana, for every Samus there’s a Bayonetta, for every… you know, that’s about all I can think of – which kind of proves my point.

But it’s not just the general skimpiness that gets my goat, it’s the stereotypes that go with them. Femme Fatale, love interest and damsel in distress – these archetypes must make up 95% of female characters in games and all can be neatly recognised by their outfits – the damsel will be dressed demurely (ala Zelda), the love interest will be clad in something form-fitting but still modest (think Elena in the Uncharted series), and the villainess (or any other character that’s sexually out of reach), will be sporting a look that would get you arrested anywhere outside of a strip joint. I get that video games are a visual media, and that designers use optical shortcuts to tell us about characters, but why does the bad-but-sexy rule only apply to women? How many male villains walk around clad only in fishnets and wet tissue paper – their chests drawn in loving detail and every breath animated so the flesh ripples in all the right ways?

These visual stereotypes irk me not just because they’re getting (really) old, but also because they free designers from the need for further characterisation. They don’t need to give a woman a personality because who she is has already been defined by what she wears. Imagine if that kind of generalisation were permitted in real life. Think about what you’re wearing right now, think about what it might make people think about you. Maybe they’d think you’re a slacker, or a corporate bloodhound, or a nudist who probably shouldn’t have eaten that last cheeseburger. But no matter what they think, such a judgement would be (at best) a small part of who you are.

Games developers aren’t painters; they have more than one scene to conjure the image they want the audience to see. They have every chance in the world to flesh out the personalities of the characters they create, and yet they so often rely on stereotypes to define women that they marginalise them, reducing them to nothing more than window dressing and putting the idea in all those young (and not so young) heads that this is how all females should look, dress and behave.

You may think I’m being shallow, or falling into my own stereotype by focussing on clothing, but the fact that I’m arguing about this suggests that I too am more than what I wear – a real person, with real opinions, not just a moderately pretty face in some very unsexy clothes. A person who’s not so much calling for the loss of bikini babes and g-string gunners (although that would be nice) as she is asking for some female characters with actual depth, with character arcs and motivations of their own, who aren’t defined by their clothes or gender. For a few more appropriately dressed heroines and fewer burly white heroes (I seriously challenge anyone to find me a game where the sole protagonist is a black woman). Who’s holding out for a world where for once, just once, the Princess would give up waiting for Mario and work out how to rescue herself. – GC

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