The feminist movement in gaming over the last several years has been a fun one to watch. At least for me because I'm a guy and nobody threatens to drive a bomb truck through my house for talking about the subject. Still, it has been very interesting to see gaming and the people involved in it start to take notice of some of the weaker aspects of their storytelling and working towards a less sexist, more inclusive world.
That being said, the fight to preserve gaming as a male-dominated space that only begrudgingly seems to offer anything outside typical male power fantasies is ongoing, loud, and awful. Throughout that fight there seem to be a small set of arguments anti-feminists keep using, and I have to tell you that these are not the slam dunk you think they are. Such as...
Gaming Has Lots of Strong Women Heroes There's no doubt that gaming has some fantastic female protagonists. The last Tomb Raider was excellent for its writing, strength, and the death of the sexual objectification of Lara Croft. There's also Mirror's Edge, debatable Bayonetta, and my personal favorite Chell from Portal. Things are better than ever before.
That doesn't mean that we're anywhere near making up the ground in gender representation that needs to be made up. Take a look at this article from Penny Arcade Report. Out of 669 action, shooter, and RPG games released on the seventh generation consoles at the time, only 24 had exclusively female leads. Slightly fewer than 300 gave you at least an option of a female lead, but that included games that offered fully customizable characters. In the RPG category that year there was only one female lead.
The presence of strong female characters having already come before is awesome, but they still make up a tiny percentage of our heroes relative to men.
Most Gamers Are Women 52 percent. That's the percentage of gamers that are female according to a Internet Advertising Bureau study that gets widely quoted. And if so many women are playing games then it must mean that they have no problem with the games as they are otherwise they wouldn't play them. Right?
A closer look at the data reveals much about the changing face of gaming. Women make up a larger percentage of gamers, but much of it is due to their participation in either mobile gaming or MMOs. Both of these areas tend to have titles like puzzle games where gender is largely irrelevant, or offer customizable options that allow your protagonist to be a wide range of options. When critics like Anita Sarkeesian talk about games, these are not the games that get mentioned, and coincidentally, they tend to be the games that women most flock to.
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Sexy Games Are Not Meant for Women Another wave away of the subject is that the sort of games that receive the most scrutiny is that they are largely a problem of misplaced marketing. Women simply don't understand that games like Grand Theft Auto and God of War are meant for men that want boobs, blood, and things like that.
Leaving aside the problem that most of the big console games of any given year seem to assume a straight male audience and cater to it, which is sort of the point of the criticism, it also tends to assume a much wider range of exclusively male interest than is warranted. There's no special reason a woman might not be interested in the complex life of Agent 47, and then find herself annoyed with the dead hooker distraction trick. Or take Sleeping Dogs, a great gangster/tough cop where for some reasons blowjobs and anal sex from strippers can be used to restore your hero's health.
Look, if you open an issue of Playboy any reasonable person is going to assume you're going to see beautiful women posed for your pleasure. However, when you're selling your game on a complex story, stellar voice cast, realistic combat, and the like, you're just not marketing to a straight male audience.
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Beating up Hookers in Games Doesn't Cause You To Do So in Real Life Whether or not violence in video games (Or movie or comics or books) causes violence in real life has been a subject of debate for as long as any medium has been around. There are studies that link the two in at least the short term, but there are also studies that show aggression might be linked more to frustration rather than the violence itself. In short, there's no real answer.
Regardless, it's not so much that a violent video game may cause real-world violence like smoking causes lung cancer, but more that it normalizes it. The same can be said for sexist and misogynistic content. The more you are exposed to the abuse of women, their sexual objectification, and situations where their agency is removed the more normal it is to see women as less than human in real life. No, playing Grand Theft Auto won't turn someone into a serial killer who hunts women, but it might turn someone into a person that starts a fake Twitter account to harass women in the gaming industry.
The important thing in the discussion it about gender roles in gaming is to remember that it's not a zero sum game. Rape and sexual violence and the death of women have a place in gaming as they have a place in all art, but the conversation that is going on right now is not to remove those things entirely from the sphere of gaming but to examine if they are being overused as a subconscious symptom of a sexist culture. Are they telling a story, or are they just props used to shore up a crooked, misogynistic society? That's all anyone wants to know.