Lecturer examines the portrayal of women in video games
When you think of video games and the people who play them, what is the first thing you think of? Is it someone who wears a lot of black and whose breath smells like Mountain Dew? Do you think of people becoming friends over a shared bond? Or do you immediately remember your favorite video or computer game from when you were a kid, or your favorite game now? (Personally, mine is the classic Super Mario Bros., which I played on my Gameboy).
Whatever comes to mind when you hear the word “gamer,” there’s probably a concept that you don’t think of right away, or more likely, not at all: feminism. Now, don’t let the F word scare you. There is a lot of social stigma behind the word “feminism,” but we can clear that up right now, in terms of understanding. Feminism is the simple idea that men and women are created equal and should be treated as such. Simple enough, and yet it’s insane that this concept needs a name! It should be the default action of humans to treat everyone equally, and yet this is not the case.
In the world of gamers and video games, you would think that feminism was a completely new and foreign concept. It is often treated as a threat to the empire that has been built mostly by, and for, white males. One person who has experienced this firsthand is famously recognized Anita Sarkeesian, who is the founder of the Feminist Frequency, a website that explores the portrayal of women in video games. She is also the creator of Tropes v. Women in Video Games, a web series that explores in-depth the tropes of female video game characters (a “trope” is a common stereotype, like the beautiful girl who is popular, or the manic pixie girl.) Sarkeesian has been the target of much online abuse, often from random Internet trolls, but their threats and harassment are far from random and are often eerily detailed.
Sarkeesian spoke Monday night in the CSU Ballroom, as the 12th speaker for the Carol Ortman Perkins Lecture. Many student groups and clubs on campus, including the Women’s Center and the LGBT Center, graciously put on the event. Sarkeesian is a very informative and entertaining speaker and gets her points across very well. In her lecture, Sarkeesian wanted the audience to know right away that she does not want to only criticize mass media, she wants people to both enjoy it and look at it in a critical way, especially when it comes to female portrayals in video games, television, etc.
However, Sarkeesian has been the target of much harassment, including from groups she calls “Cybermobs,” who try to attack or condemn those who appear to be fighting back against this dominant group of white males. These same Cybermobs also try to keep the “Gamergate” up and running. According to Sarkeesian, a “Gamergate” is an attempt to keep gaming a male niche by silencing those women who also happen to be gamers. When the video games that both groups play are criticized for their portrayals of women, the video game designers—who are usually men—often ignore these calls for change.
In order to bring attention to the changes that need to be made in video games, make them more enjoyable for women, and challenge what is normal for young men to see in video games, Sarkeesian’s lecture was based around one concept, which was the title of her main presentation: Make video games less sh***y for women. Sarkeesian focused on eight ways this can be done:
1. Avoid the “Smurfette Principle.”
The “Smurfette Principle” refers to video games that may have seven or eight main characters, and only one is a women. That female character is now defined by her gender and stereotypes, instead of what she is capable of.
2. Lingerie should not be armor.
A costume put on a character will quickly show what is considered important about them. When female characters are put in provocative and revealing clothing, the message being conveyed to the main demographic of video games, young males, is “the most important thing about a woman is what she looks like and how much skin is showing.” This can be referred to as hypersexualization, which is when sexual characteristics, and not the background information or physical capabilities, are the primary focus of the character.
3. One size does NOT fit all.
The size Sarkeesian is talking about, specifically, is body size. The same body type is seen in female video game characters: tall, slender, and impossible chest-waist-hip ratios. Video games never show a female without a Victoria’s Secret body, unless that character is meant to be seen as gross or evil. When Sarkeesian brings up this point, she is often asked, “What about the men?” She is asked this question because most male video game characters have a superhero–style body. However, there are actually many body types for men in video games, and almost every one of those body types can be the hero. What it comes down to is, the male bodies aren’t meant to cause sexual arousal.
4. Strategic butt covering should be used.
Sarkeesian took footage of video games when she was playing the female character, and the outcomes were absurd and disturbing to watch. When female characters were being played, the camera angles around the characters can be set in such a way that the rear end of the female can be looked at quite clearly, and some of those characters had very little clothing covering their butts. When it came to male game characters, though, Sarkeesian found the opposite: the camera angles either couldn’t be set to look at the butts, or the men had a strategic flap or cape or hood covering their butt. These designs are no accident, either. Sarkeesian interviewed game designers, who were white males, and she found that these were their intentions.
5. Games should NOT be an exotic fantasy.
In video games, it’s not unusual for women of any race or culture other than white to be portrayed in a racist and insanely inappropriate manner. This is clear cultural appropriation, by making cultural stereotypes a normal occurrence in video games. If there are any female characters that don’t have this done to them, then it is often that you’ll see they have a lack of history. Their cultural history or background has been ignored.
6. Escape the fashion runway.
When you play a video game, watch the way the female characters walk. They have a walk like they’re a runway model, instead of going into battle or traveling across space. They also do this while in high heels, making it seem like it’s possible to do more than walk and stumble in heels (believe me, there’s a lot of stumbling).
7. Fighting and screwing are different.
In her presentation, Sarkeesian was cruder in her wording, but the idea is the same. When she played an audio clip from a video game, it was an audio clip of a female character fighting and getting hurt in battle. However, it did not sound like she was fighting. It sounded like the character was having a good time in bed with someone. Why would this happen? Because these female characters have a primary purpose, which is to create sexual desire. Sarkeesian fears that by associating these sounds with battle scenes, we are setting up our young male population to believe that assault against women is actually good, because they’re making the association of battle with sex.
8. Where are all the female fighters?
The answer to this is simple, but in no way has any actual support: game designers do not know how to realistically portray women in battle. Sarkeesian found this when she was interviewing game designers. It’s dangerous when women aren’t able to fight, but instead are fought against, because once again, young males are making that association of battle with sex. When female enemies are made to look and sound sexy while dying, there’s a belief that pain is actually pleasurable. When was the last time you seriously got hurt and thought, “wow, this feels great?”
Sarkeesian is a very inspiring speaker, and her discussion of unfair female portrayal is a good reference when we discuss feminism and assault against women. Obviously, Sarkeesian had one overwhelming tip on how to avoid these problems with female characters in video games: avoid those that promote assault, or sexualizing, of women. Find games that feature strong, appropriate female characters. Sounds simple enough! By doing this, we can start toward creating a gaming community where men and women can stop the harassment and fighting, and can instead get absorbed into those weird and wonderful worlds of video games.
The event had an inspiring and eye-opening discussion of sexual assault against women, both in video games and in real life. If you would like more information, or to attend an event, about sexual assault awareness and prevention, you’re in luck; April is Sexual Assault Awareness month. The next event coming up will be on April 22, in CSU 238 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. The event will be training on how to create a violence-free zone, and after that the Safe Bar Initiative 5K will be held on April 24 at 10 a.m. at Riverfront Park.
Photo: (Yohanes Ashenafi/The Reporter)