Last month Lollipop Chainsaw hacked its way onto shelves, reviving, among other things, the great debate about the portrayal of women in video games. While the general crudeness of the game was echoed throughout the community, some critics and gamers took offence to the blatant female sexism on display, citing it as the latest in a string of sexist games. But does this string really exist? Previously, perhaps. But today, not so much.
Right up until the end of the 20th century, the gaming world was seen as a real boys club, leading to a less than flattering portrayal of women in games. Revealing clothes, big breasts, little to no chance of self defence, these were the hallmarks of female video game characters for many years. As time rolled on and gaming ceased to be a male dominated pastime, the bodacious damsel in distress quickly became associated with sexism, not just due to their portrayal, but because of the continued over-emphasis the female body.
Recently however, games have undergone a revolution of sorts. Rather than continue down the path of sexualising the character, many developers have opted to present empowered women whose body and attire does not share the attributes of a stripper. Take Elena Fisher from the Uncharted series as an example. She wears cargo pants, a white button top, and is more interested in making a documentary than making it with Nathan Drake, despite his best efforts.
Or how about GTA IV, a game which has attracted its fair share of criticism. Three of the leading female characters, Mallorie Bellic, Elizabeta Torres (the dealer in Bohan) and Kate McReary are presented as people with almost zero sexual emphasis on their gender. McReary appears in very conservative clothing and frequently rejects sexual advances from Niko Bellic, while Torres wears jeans and a zebra print top, while maintaining and empowered role at the head of a drug cartel. These are not isolated examples, either.
Yet the claims that women are sexualised in all games continues to linger and rear its head every time a game like Lollipop Chainsaw is released. This is because the debate has become intertwined with another; namely that of the identity of female gamers. Despite a vast increase in the number of girls playing games, it is unfortunately still seen by many as a boys club. The gaming world still insists on defining these females ‘girl gamers’ rather than simply referring to them as gamers. By portraying women as sex objects in games, the image of a girl gamer can instantly become related to this image. In short, these women wish to be taken more seriously and sexist portrayals do not help.
Unfortunately, in condemning sexism, broad, inaccurate statements are thrown around and idealised, or specific portrayals of women are being misinterpreted as sexist. Take Harley Quinn from Batman: Arkham City, for example. Her chest isn’t exactly subtle, yet the focus of the character is on her commitment to The Joker and mental instability, not on her body. This is but one example of a female character being drawn into the sexist debate purely due to her appearance, and if we are indeed at the point where we criticise developers for being sexist when presenting women such as Harley Quinn, then we appear to have forgotten about reality.
Women come in all shapes and sizes in real life, so why can they not appear as such in games? The aforementioned examples clearly show that all female forms are presented in games, and those that choose to focus on a particular idealised version of this form can do so tastefully or contextually. If it is not done in this way, it may be considered sexist, but this is up to the interpretation of the player. The fact is, large breasts, booty, blonde hair, long legs or whatever other classic example comes to mind, do not denote sexism provided there is no over-emphasis on such elements.
As mentioned above, there are still plenty of games that include overt sexism, but those that embrace such content are easy enough to spot and exist purely for the market that enjoys such content. The most recent iteration of Mortal Kombat overtly sexualises women, but those who play the game know what they are getting into, thus making such a portrayal a contextual element of the Mortal Kombat series. Again, in GTA IV, there are scantily clad, big breasted women in the strip clubs: a contextual location where women remove their clothes for male clientele.
Does context serve as justification? That’s up to the opinion of the opinion of the gamer. The point here is that we are no longer forced to endure such elements in all games, in the same way that no one will force us to watch porn. Saying “I really wanted to play this for its gameplay elements but I couldn’t get over the sexism,” is like saying “I really wanted to watch this porn film for the plot, but I couldn’t get over the sex.” It’s part and parcel of the whole game’s package, just like having to deal with violence if you pick up a copy of Modern Warfare. To request that legal, but arguably sexist, portrayals of females be removed from all games is akin to lobby/interest groups who demand that violence be removed from all games.
The fact of the matter is, we don’t live in the 90s anymore and female sexism in games is not as widespread as it once was. Games which still embrace it are almost always very clear about doing so, making it much easier to avoid such content. Gamers should understand that there will always be a market for entertainment which portrays sexual elements of women and men, in the same way that there will always be a market for games which are intensely gory. While such content may make you irk, there are others who enjoy it, and provided you can avoid it, they have the right to be able to view it. Ultimately, suggesting that the majority of games continue to portray women as sex objects is now incorrect and disrespectful to developers who are attempting to make a difference.