Portrayal of Sexuality in Videogames

A lookback at the gross generalisation of women in the most popular entertainment medium of our era.

  • This is for the women and girls who are told to smile more, stop being ‘bossy’ and be nice a little.
  • This is for all the survivors of molestations and rapes. You did not ask for it and you definitely did not deserve it.
  • This is for those who publicize and support the Bro-culture. People don’t need a specific gender’s culture.
  • This is for the men, women and children who are constantly expected to conform to a gender’s sexual appearance and expectations. You are what you are and people better get used to it.
  • This is for those, who get up every morning, don their cape and fight against sexism and patriarchy.

It’s about time we unleash the super heroes & super heroines in us.

Lastly…

This is dedicated to each & everyone of you. Be the change you want to have.

Chapter I

Introduction

“Games have four defining traits, irrespective of their genre differences and technological complexities: a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation.- Jane McGonigal”

Video games and in general, any form of interactive media has been an integral part in the lifestyle of many for generations. However there is a slight hitch.
For example, take a few iconic spearheads of video games in recent times such as John Romero and Shigeru Miyamoto, and one finds the clear indication that video games have been a male-dominated industry since its inception. It’s not as if no educated women were present at the time, it wasn’t a situation of women lacking programming skills. It was much more than that.

The pioneers of the industry who went on to dominate, influence and shape the video game culture worked in industries unrelated to video games. In fact, the first video game was born as an experiment called Tennis for Two, it was developed by an American physicist by the name of William Higinbotham, followed by the first game for computers, Space Wars and then the first video game for home consoles, Ping-Pong by Ralph Baers. Innovations led by men drove the industry. Silicon Valley had suddenly become a programmer’s paradise and most of the demographic comprised of White Males and it still does.(http://mashable.com/2014/05/28/google-employee-demographics/)

This neither was an accident, nor was it just by chance that a particular field of science turned to be male-oriented. It’s the subtle glimpse of the archaic system of Patriarchy at work. There is absolutely no wonder why games have evolved the way they have, the way they are designed and created. It is because of gender disparity, and the chains of patriarchy holding down the immense creative potential of the female gender. The Male-influenced video game industry lacked, or rather, needed a voice from a different perspective, from the other half- the women.

Statement

-Sexuality is a masterfully engineered “commodity” illusion created by video game creators and publishers.-

Sexuality, especially female sexuality is a hot-cake. It is one of the most defining factors in the purchase of a game. It’s a commodity, a dick-fight, a competition between games. Which one can show more, expose more and get away with it.
It’s the thrill of getting away with it that keeps this going. 
Ever heard the term “Sex sells”? It can’t be associated any better other than for video games. Since the 1980’s, the games are driven by tropes of women such as the damsel-of-distress in Super Mario Bros and Women-in-the refrigerator in Max Payne. The sad reality is that if a video game product has nudity, it will find an audience and in turn a market.

This story aims at bringing about a change to the system and instilling a sense of social and moral obligation among game creators, researchers & publishers. Video games are the ultimate medium of expression & communication and the people who make it have a responsibility to portray subjects in correct light.
Hypothesis

If cultural stereotypes are anything to go by, video games are meant for boys. They are the makers, the buyers, and the players. So why wouldn’t it be right to use a motivational metaphor in the game which in real life, works for the male demographic?

This is the world of video games where the majority of titles features characters with intense amount of nudity or some aspect of sexual content whether it be in the form of language, graphic, gameplay or innuendo. And with no reasons whatsoever, its present because it can be done not because there is a cause or a story to support such portrayals.

To counter these problems, the most reasonable and the easiest solution would be to remove these games from retailers, pass stringent laws against nudity and any sexual content. Censor the games which feature these content or increase their rating from the using PG-13 to 18+ and thus essentially cutting off the majority of gamers who range from 13 to 25.

But that is not the nature of the new media, restricting such content does not curb the problem it actually reinforces it.It is highly impractical to control and exercise the portrayal of sexual content.

In the media of storytelling such as films and video games, some times, nudity and the expressions of desire are much needed to convey sense of loneliness, love, tragedy or a magnitude of a situation. These enable the audience to relate and learn from the hardships that the characters are going through. It is essential for the development of the character and the audience’s attachment to the character.

— The foreseeable and the most doable solution is the medium video games itself. Instead of opting for sexual content as a selling point, the alternative would be to provide correct values and information about sexuality through in-game lore, missions objectives, dialogues and gameplay scenarios. —

Objectives

The problem of gender & sexual portrayal is further enabled by the massive reach and market penetration of video games in the lifestyle of an average family household. According to the 2013 State of Online Gaming Report, more than 1.2 billion people are playing video games

The highly realistic world in games is a technical feat but it also influences and enforces the ideologies presented in the game to vulnerable minds.
With continuous stream of inappropriate media easily available through the Internet, it has become even more difficult to implement solutions to prohibit or rather restrict age-sensitive material. Part of the problem stems from the ignorance of parents or their lack of involvement in the purchases of video games.

Chapter 2

The objective for this work of literature is:

-To analyze the cause of stereotypical portrayal of genders in video games.

-The dissection of a few prominent successful video game franchises involved in this scenario.

-Conduct personal interviews of people, get them to speak up on the subject and consolidate their responses into a cohesive summarization on the topic and the possible solutions to come up for the problem.

-Perform a small-scale survey which outlines the scope of this story and provides the outcome of the story in a perspective relatable to the majority of consumers of video games.

-Put forth the data in a empirical study with a proposed solution to utilize and implement the gathered quantitative data into the final project-Transformation.

Content Analysis:

For the story, I chose to take on a holistic approach of interviews, surveys and feedback sessions. This approach would assist in seamlessly integrating various sources of information from different media in any body of text to provide context to the reader.

Case Studies

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas by Rockstar Games

GTA: San Andreas is the most popular game of the GTA franchise but it’s all for the bad reasons. First off, the most important reason it being infamous is the Hot Coffee Mod. The mod actually unlocked content ‘available inside’ the game which was hidden just before the wrap up of the production phase.

The said content included:

- Oral Sex,

- Full Sex(Multiple Positions)

- Dildo sex(including being able to kill someone with it)

- Whipping(Being whipped)

- Masturbation

These items were heavily graphic in nature and were supposed to be in-game cinematics

Hot Coffee Mod did nothing to add or modify the original content, all it did was to make it possible, for an average gamer, to unlock the content already inside the shipped game.

Clearly it is easy to imagine the magnitude of this kind, the american video game industry was well known in its stance towards content in-game; tolerance towards violence and intolerance towards sex, which was still a taboo in the medium of video-games even though it had existed in Hollywood block-buster movies and indie movies alike since then 1930's.

Rockstar, as a video-game company, did not have any intention to cause this furor among the general public and video-game critics. For Rockstar, video games needed to claim the same creative and critical approach as literature and cinema were awarded and it was this belief that shaped the company’s vision to expand and explore new horizons in video games since the inception of the company, so it would only be ‘natural’ for Rockstar to move towards the un-touched realm.

The ESRB or the Entertainment Software Rating Board was a tool to monitor and regulate content on video games for healthy consumption of video games.
If there were to be an hitch in this process of rating approvals and if the ESRB found the content to transgress the blurred boundaries of content in video games, it would mean an AO or an Adult Only Rating for GTA: San Andreas, a huge blow for Rockstar which would have barred them from tapping into an almost 80% of the distribution channels existing at that time.

It was pretty evident that the content had to be “eradicated”.

Sex sells…just not in video games.

Patrick Wildenborg once stated:

“ Why would a 17-year-old be allowed to run around the city bearing weapons, a game in which you’re free to shoot cops and beat up women but in which you’re not allowed to make love to his girlfriend after dating her for a while?”

But that’s not the end of sexism. Misogyny is rampant in in-game advertisements and radio stations which encourage players to treat women as nothing but urinals. Billboard advertisements associate men with sleek cars while women as nothing but a mush of gelatinous doll meant for sexual gratification.

Grand Theft Auto series, in general have an unhealthy tendency to portray women as scantily clad entities, created and placed in the game world for the sole purpose of pleasing a “male” protagonist. Whether it be sexually, emotionally or as a plot device, women in GTA are mis-represented in a number of degrees as useless, unskilled and incapable devices.

Carolyn Petit, a reviewer for gamespot.com rightly hits the nail on the head with the statement that GTA V in particular does little for women except portraying them as the usual strippers, prostitutes, man-dependent dutiful wives and radical militant feminists.

Rockstar and Grand Theft Auto series have a long way to go towards achieving the company’s mission but it can take some measures to get a few steps closer to the goal:

  1. Add and flesh out a lead Female protagonist

2. Research the player base and demographics

3. Produce sensible and gender-agnostic content

4. Portray genders in the right limelight

Take the stand & represent the LGBT community with diverse characters and plot. An open-world game definitely can incorporate more dynamic believable characters.

Rapelay by Illusion

Rapelay is 3D eroge where the player dons the role of a protagonist who escapes from captivity and scouts for targets. In the game, the protagonist targets a single mother and her two daughters. The objective of Rapeplay is to force yourself and have sexual intercourse with all three non-consenting women.
Rapelay stands out from other eroge and sex/dating simulation games in that it exclusively revolves around rape and it’s incorrect subliminal message of power and domination over women as a gender.

The gameplay is so well-thought out that it brings into question the underlying thinking process of the game designers. Several gameplay mechanics of Rapelay involve extensive usage of suggestive mouse movements to simulate a sexual act.

A few of these egregious acts possible in the game are:

  1. Non-consensual Fondling

2. Non-consensual Groping

3. Non-consensual Teasing

“Ability” to blow the skirt away and ogle at the characters

“Ability” to make the characters naked and insert foreign objects such as vibrators non-consensually.

Gang-rape of the characters with 2 or 5 male characters

The biggest concussion comes from the implementation of these acts to the control system of the game. For example: To grope a female character’s breasts, the user is required to move and rotate the mouse clockwise and anti-clockwise in a very rhythmic fashion and at varying speeds.

This mechanic is further expanded to include sexual intercourse by moving the mouse back-and-forth at a speed indicated by the in-game UI to achieve “Mission Completion”.The game not only rewards and reinforces a player’s game based on their performance but also punishes them for ill-timed ones.

One of the most notable of these punishments is the Internal Ejaculation Meter which informs the player to “stop and pull out” or risk pregnancy and bore the victim’s child.

The game, upon its release faced severe backslash from Equality Now and similar gender rights groups. The game was banned from several retail stores and outright banned for sales in multiple countries.
Rapelay is often labeled as a “rape-simulator” because of its game mechanics and is often cited as an example of the video game industry insensitivity towards women and its stance on gender equality,

It is a classic example of failure of the ethical and moral frameworks.

Pokemon Series by Monster Freak

Pokemon series have been a staple RPG for the Nintendo platform. The player control a character who gets the ability to capture monster pets which can be used to battle other entities. The result conflict provides experience and money to the player and furthers the game progression. However Pokemon is plagued with gender stereotypes. This is a major problem since the game is targeted towards new casual players and young kids; the ripe age where they start forming their own schema. The problem arises with the characters themselves. All the pokemon series offer a major character in just two binary genders; Male and Female. This provides the wrong reinforcement to people that people exist in just two forms of gender and sex. The other prominent issue in the Pokemon series is the portrayal of the female gender and the stereotyped industry roles it associates with it. All the nurses in the game sport a pink colored outfit, and are female. Even the pokemon nurses are shown to be female even though a male counterpart exists in the Pokemon universe. In the Pokemon anime, the male characters are often portrayed as muscular and aggressive whereas the females are showcased as docile and quiet. The secondary character, Brock, often falls for women in the game, and his body language is showed to suddenly change into a chivalrous form. This is a classic portrayal of hegemonic masculinity. There are of course, locations which exclusively feature women as the dominant characters but it agains does so in isolation.

  1. What can the Pokemon series do to imbibe a gender equal approach:-

2. Make the characters more matured and less stereotyped

3. Include more genders other than cisgender roles.

4. Design scenarios which allow both the default genders to showcase their strengths.

5. Make male pokemons take on the roles of the traditionally portrayed roles of women.

Max Payne by Remedy Entertainment

Max Payne, the famous shooter game to popularize the slow-mo mechanic in video games, is filled with instances of blatant sexism and tropes about women such as the Women in Refrigerator, Woman as reward and the Fighting Fuck Toy.

The protagonist of the game, Max, gets driven into a frenzy of rage and hatred after he finds out that his wife and child. 
Why did the story writers killed off his family? To move the plot. It is a classic example of Women on the refrigerator trope which aims at providing an impetus for the protagonist to move ahead with the plot.

The next prominent trope is the Woman as Reward which is filled by the character, Mona Sax. Her role becomes even more intense when in the mid-game she sleeps with the protagonist.
Her role evolves into an even more demeaning segment her personality is changed to the Fighting Fuck Toy. During the last segments of the game, she becomes an ally of Max and participates in the action and thus fulfills this stereotype.

Here are some steps Max Payne series can take to reform the perception of gender stereotypes:-

  1. Not use the archaic trope and instead bring a new story

2. Show women as powerful characters.

Mass Effect Series by Bioware

Bioware did an excellent job portraying several characters in the game sans the gender and sexual stereotyping.

Although the writers did a splendid job nailing down some of the romantic relationships between same sex characters, the game still showed traces of sexism in its characters such as the genderless race of Asari which is heavily and liberally modeled after a luscious and a beautiful human.

Other examples would be the “perfectly bio-engineered” human being, Miranda with assets that are impeccable.

Jack, the strong, iron-willed biotic is portrayed as a semi nude killer with her covered in tattoos.

There is only one female character with a modest amount of costume and a strong personality and fortitude. That is Tali.

Despite its strong points in terms of handling the intimate scenes between same sex and other sex characters.

What can the Mass Effect series do for a better portrayal of characters :-

  1. Improve character designs of females

2. Turn the tide by portraying the men in a similar limelight.

Interviews

The interviews were done of a few people with knowledge on this topic. They were interviewed according to the research questions and the surveys on demographic and stance on video games.

Survey

What can be done to portray stereotyped genders in New Media such as video games, correctly.

This was another survey which I conducted online. The purpose of this survey was to find answers which would explain the ways game makers could better portray characters in their game.

Survey & Interview Analysis

A face-to-face interview process was used to survey people. Respondents were asked to fill in a simple questionnaire that sought their views and outlook on video games.

73% of the respondents belonged to the age group of 23–27 years. India’s huge young population makes it an attractive market for video gamers to stream videos that can interest that age group.

Majority of the people surveyed are asexual (60%) and 35% were heterosexual. The usage of emotional and sexual content to tell a story would therefore not be of much effectiveness. Game content written in a more straight-forward logical way and devoid of explicit content would communicate the story better.

50% of the demographic reviewed were females and 45% were males. The remaining 5% were transgenders thereby revealing the presence of this group of gender as part of the present demographic makeup of population. It also meant that transgenders no longer felt the need to hide their gender and sexual identity and were embraced by local communities and society.

In terms of stats, the sex of the target demographic comprised about evenly with 59% biologically females and 41% biologically males.

86% of those surveyed were Indians, Asians — 5% and Others — 9%. Video game stories in india therefore needed to be constructed keeping the Indian culture in mind. However, that would at the same time be a limiting factor for a game that in reality had a wider scope. Video games therefore ought to embrace a global cultural/nationality ethos that finds resonance with people from different nations.

When questioned about the usage of video games as a potential educative and reformative tool, 45% of the respondents considered this potential to be a available in the future but not now. 27% of the respondents stated that they were not sure about its potential at all. It might be possible to consider these results inconclusive as the people might not be gamers at all but people from ordinary walks of life.

Only 27% of the respondents were confident about video games and its potential and absolutely agreed on its communicative power to shape the world. The ability to harness video games in a socially responsible manner to convey issues, increase sensitivity towards gender issues and shape opinions is therefore most potent and worth exploring.

The open ended questions soliciting comments gave a wide range of answers. Majority of the respondents were appreciative and supportive of the idea of a gaming genre being used creatively. Among the suggestions that came up; respect, sensitivity and inclusion were the key words that the respondents spoke of. Clearly the generation of today is far more embracing than what was the scene a decade ago.

In terms of the survey regarding the steps to correctly portray gender, the majority supported the idea of including Gender Studies in classrooms and about creating a community-driven program for instilling a sense of equality among children.

Conclusion

Issues pertaining to the portrayal of sexuality are very sensitive. The very nature of its sensitivity brings with it the urgent need to raise awareness about the injustice subjected to women, girls, boys and men. The unhealthy outlook of looking good, staying fit, sporting abs is nothing but a rotten fruit of sexist marketing. Video games should be used as a powerful communication tool to amplify the concerns of regarding the wrongful portrayal of sexuality and create sensitivity where none or very little exists. However, the stereotypes of attitudes and thoughts towards these things need to be challenged and changed if one were to bring about a perspective change.

Video games are the best suited medium to venture into unknown territories and learning new ways to tell stories. The ability to utilize and harness the potential of this medium lies untapped and unexplored.

While studies upon studies link violent and aggressive behaviour to violent games the time has come to use video games to portray the right kind of sexual orientation, gender sensitivity & equality and attitude that we want the Millennials and the next generation to imbibe.

People no longer play games as a ‘past time’. The games of today have the ability to suck you in its world, draw out your emotions, align your thoughts with those of the character and at times also transpose you in its world where often the lines of reality and gaming can get blurred. Imagine the power of this medium if these qualities associated with it were utilized to bring about a “Transformational” change for the better and lead a silent revolution to that aims to change the world order where gender insensitivity and sexual stereotypes are challenged and eradicated.

Recommendations

Some of the goals outlined below can help attain the preferred solution towards a more gender-fair audience and portrayals.

  1. Purchases of games from proper, regulated channels are a must.

2. Creating awareness among the game development community through game jams and developer-gamer sessions.

3. Feedback and discussions with gamers irrespective of sex, gender, race, ethnicity on approaches towards gender and sexual portrayal in the media.

The survey and the research highlight the positive outcomes of playing video games when used constructively to shape behaviour and attitudes on gender and sexuality. Involvement of parents and children together to reinforce right behaviour can go a long way in changing attitudes in the real world.

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