I did a gender debate when I was in college and I loved it, so fun. I recently went back and looked at what I wrote and amended it with new conclusions, so I thought I'd post it. Sorry for the length, if there's one debate I love it's how men and women are portrayed in games.
Since the start of the games industry, it has been a male populated market. I'm going to basically talk about “male gaze” and stereotyping within gender, this mostly talks about the discrimination of females in games.
“Only 40 percent of girls play computer games compared to 90 percent of boys.”
This is a quotation from the ESA website, it tell us that 90 percent of boys play games, and so it is a highly competitive market when it comes to creating games for the male audience. Since 40 percent of girls only play games it's often a risk for developers to focus on games just for the female audience. But these stats will change as technology is getting more of a lifestyle, but is the industry up for making games for girls?
The first revolutionary title to portray a female as a protagonist was Lara Croft. Her high action adventures and agility, along with an immersive storyline made her a household name. But who was it aimed for? At first look it would seem that it was aimed at the female audience, with a woman as the lead character and able to do all the things a man could do, with such abilities like agility and strength. But it was soon realised it was aimed for the young male demographic as it was given a “male gaze” perspective into the dream girl. Her proportions unreal, with an unnaturally small waist and robust chest. And even though Lara was a woman, something not seen in the games industry, she was only accepted because of her male characteristics and unrealistic qualities. The term used for this over exaggeration is called hypersexualised, where the female is depicted as sexually active. But since the first editions of Lara this has changed and in Lara Croft: Legends her appearance was made more realistic and less hypersexualised to try and appeal to a wider audience.
If we look at NOLF, you'll see the same happening here, even though it has a lead female character she is corrupted with a male dominated world, and the setting of the game is often extenuated by the interaction with NPC's in cut scenes.
“hints of sexual discrimination from her own organisation. But she handles adversity and manages to throw in clever interactive comebacks to the put-downs from her boss”
(FYI, her boss is a *#%”, I so wanted to hit him many times in the head with a baseball bat)
Even though the extract above is correct, the “male gaze” is yet again introduced within her clothing and body image. Even on the front cover you see the extended revealing neckline and tight fitting cat suit. Another male fantasy character, in a 1960's setting, even though she is an intelligent character this is over-ruled by the representation of her appearance. This game does this because of it's time period of the woman's liberation act and it's suppose to give perspective that even though you play as a female assassin, you still have a vagina and so treated differently. But hey that's not the only stereotype in that game, you have Inge the fat German barmaid with braids, also the ginger bearded Scottish kilt wearing ugly villain and a bald eye patch wearing Russian spy.
So if “male gaze” is that bad then why have it? Well it's not bad, there's a saying “sex sells” and this is what the games industry is doing, playing a game of their own to increase sales. When games are made for the male demographic, “eye candy” is put in the game as it attracts them to play it. If we look at games like Lara Croft, Soulcalibur, Bullet Witch and DOA, all of them have “eye candy” for the male audience and they often exaggerate a females assets in order to sell the games.
In Fahrenheit you have three playable characters, all of them representing a different prototypical person, we have the white male protagonist, the white female, and a black male. In the game we see that the white male gets all action packed scenes and in-depth storyline, whereas with the female, even though her job within the game as detective is important, her gameplay sequences involve controlling her breathing, making her appear weak. This is a common stereotype that is demeaning to women. Even in promotional posters the white male is in the foreground while the female and black male are in the background.
As stated above women are often characterized as weak within games and a drag, this is literal in such games like Second Sight and ICO. In these games the female sidekick follows you around, and without your direction doesn't no where to go. In second sight, often the male protagonist must find a route that only he can take because of his physique and the female will wait until you open a path or gets killed by the enemy.
If we now look at games like Haunting Ground and Clock Tower 3, these scary type genres are aimed at a male audience. So it would be reasonable to assume the main character would be male. But this is not the case, in both these games the avatar is female, and the gameplay involves running away and hiding from your enemies, and very little gameplay is devoted to actually fighting them. The problem is that the biggest age group (16-23) of males is being targeted and they wouldn't buy a game that portrays a man as weak, as it's a countertype of the average male, so they would rather play as a lead character of the opposite sex rather than seeing a character of the same sex in the same predicament.
But are men any better portrayed than women? Well, yes, as they are mostly portrayed as the hero, with a large physical appearance and extraordinary abilities. But why can male's be portrayed with such exaggerated proportions and not offend the male audience. The answer could be a number of things, in terms of stereotyping men; most men want to look a certain way. That is muscled chest and abs with a square jaw; it could also be that men don't care as much as women. But as society changes so does the conventional man. This is something the games industry is having problems with, in keeping up with society and the changes in its audience. Look at me, I'm hardly the typical man now am I, in most games I don't like the way the men are portrayed. Look at Street Fighter (the old original one), it is a well known game that exhibits male exaggeration to the extreme, yet it has the male audience hooked on its “beat 'em up” style. If you look at the picture below, it shows a concept drawing of a male character within the game. His physique is distorted and overemphasised with large muscles throughout his body. All but one playable character is female, yet again emphasising that women are weak. This could be seen as racist as well as sexist as the female character is Chinese, does this imply that only Chinese women are strong? Yet in other games the Asian woman is a delicate character with flawless skin and is mainly just “For show”, so did street fighter countertype or stereotype? In my opinion I would stay they countertyped, as I frame the female Asian community as being housewives and fragile (not being sexist it's just what is always seen in films).
Staying on the male subject, there are many games out there that I hate because of the way they portray men, the biggest example being Gears of War...Ehhh, do I need say more? I know I know it's fantasy but since when did men start pumping their bodies of steroids by the truck load? Also the multitude of MMORPG's i.e. WOW and Age of Conan. Oh and God of War, who doesn't go outside and beat harpies with a loin cloth on? Granted men are far less sexualised in games than women and when it comes to realism there is no such thing, only moobs and bulges. Heavy Rain is an epic game that has realistic characters, a good storyline even though its stolen from the Saw franchise. But the game sold well and didn't need the whole big booby women and buff men.
In other games females are portrayed as sexual objects, and are visually hypersexualised. This includes games like Dead or Alive and the popular Grand Theft Auto series. This game stereotypes the African American race with violence and drugs, and also shows women treated like objects, as the player can even beat a prostitute after having sex with her. Should games like this be on the market? In my opinion no, as well as being demeaning to women there's an obvious risk to children because it's a well renown game it often attracts a younger audience than of which it is intended for.
One of the most controversial titles to be published was Duke Nukem 3D. This depicted women as objects and even promoted the killing of them. Even in training grounds, the player shot at female targets. There is also has scene were duke gives money to a pole dancer and she shows her breasts. Even though the graphics may be fuzzy the meaning is clear.
In conclusion I think games can be demeaning to woman, but as the industry progresses and time has moved on, women are no longer just housewives. To appeal more to the female audience the games industry must expand the market and we see this in such titles like Mirror Edge, a title that makes a non exaggerated female protagonist with agility and strength.
“She is a normal person with normal proportions. This approach has meant that she resonates with both male and female audience.”
In saying that I just completed Bayonetta, to be honest I enjoyed the game, and before you roll your eyes and repeat “typical man” let me continue, the game to me was almost mocking the industry in the sense of over-hypersexualisation (now I'm just making up words) and with random pelvic thrusts and very cheesy lines it was fun...that was until my puny little brain actually registered why there was a super easy mode so that you could play it with one hand. For people who haven't caught on, it's so men can masturbate while watching her dance around and get naked. That ruined the game for me, it was just a piss take before I thought of that. Hey I might be wrong and they might have incorporated a one handed mode so Laura could write a letter of disgust at the same time (love you Laura), or so that underage gamers can enjoy the gameplay while building a fort from cardboard boxes and bedsheets.
I also think Final Fantasy incorporates the best of all worlds into the games, integrating female and males as well the diversity, and although some women may be exaggerated their given just an important role to play in the world than the men (although I am bias to FF as FFX was my first Playstation 2 game to keep me immersed, I know others feel differently, so please discuss).