By the year 2012 it is estimated that there will be 190 million households worldwide that own video games consoles, with 93% of children playing video games at some time. Many individuals have looked at gender in music or film, but rarely has it been looked at from the perspective of interactive entertainment. One of the significant differences between video games and other forms of media is the participation of the user. In films and movies, the individual has a very passive role: simply observing the stimulus. Individuals who play video games are actually acting out the behavior being prescribed to them. For instance, while someone may listen to a rap song about sexually assaulting and degrading women, that person actually may actually performs these activities artificially in games like Grand Theft Auto, which embodies a much more active role. This allows individuals to play the gender roles that are presented to them and further cement them into the social construct of the individual and society.
Two major games that many people of all ages have had at least some exposure to are Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. Both of these games have undersized male heroes going on epic journeys. The more important aspect I am concerned with is whom they are trying to save. In Mario, the character who is trying to be saved is Princess Peach, and in Zelda, it is Princess Zelda. Both characters have been portrayed in very similar gender stereotypes. They are both women who have been kidnapped across the span of over twenty different adventures, and the same formula is played out in each game. The story can be generalized in that the princess keeps getting kidnapped by some sort of monster, somehow calls to the hero for help, and the man must go through a difficult adventure to save the princess. I think it is important to look at the underlying assumptions that are key to these stories. The first is that the princess is portrayed in a very delicate and fragile role, which needs to be defended by a male. Rarely in these games is the princess even given a voice other than calling for help. She enjoys butterflies, the color pink, and surrounds herself with delicate accessories. The next assumption is that women are trouble, which is a stereotype that has been repeated in many forms from The Bible to classic literature, and even in reality TV. These women through their kidnapping have become a burden that the hero must bare. This point is emphasized by the continuous and repetitious use of the hero/damsel in distress formula, spanning across twenty different games. The princesses are most often portrayed as victims who must be both protected and taken care of by men. The message sent to men–the primary consumer–is that women are delicate and fragile, and are in need of protection, which perpetuates the idea of male superiority and female dependence.
Although women are sometimes portrayed as the helpless victims in interactive media, other times they are presented as dominatrixes, which represent the other extreme stereotype of women. The primary game I will be discussing is called Bayonetta. In this game you play as the character Bayonetta who is a witch whose clothes transform into monsters that attack enemies, rendering you as the player naked for a short period of time. In addition, many of her attacks involve the spreading and contorting of her legs. Bayonetta also represents an idealized female form that is unattainable by the majority of women. She has a very tiny waist and extremely large, unrealistic breasts for a woman of her size. The clothes she does wear are leather and skin-tight, pistol-equipped high heels, and glasses that can be described as librarian-esque, which no doubt imply an aura of sexual vulnerability and fantasy for men. Compared to her counterparts in Mario and Zelda, she is substantially more sexual in nature and her language reflects this as well. This, like the other roles females play in games, reinforces a variety of stereotypes. The first is that women are sex objects, and that in order for them to be powerful they must embrace this sex object role. The character of Bayonetta is a powerful woman, but she is a sex object first and foremost, and this is the message that is sent to the player. If Bayonetta were not a sex object, men would be less likely to accept her as a powerful character. This implies that if women want to be powerful, they essentially must accept their objectification and celebrate it. The next stereotype that she represents is the unrealistic ideal female form. She is proportioned in an hourglass shape that a very small percentage of women could even become close to replicating. This is significant because it sends the message to the player–predominantly men–that women can and should look this way in order to be perceived as confident and powerful. Most women would most likely agree it would be very difficult for her to perform the acrobatics she performs with her small size, heels, large breasts, and leather clothing. This reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are objects, which men may rate and evaluate. These attitudes by men further perpetuate internalized objectification for women and result in lower self-esteem, greater body shame, and higher anxiety.
Before I discuss men, it is important to have a theoretical framework from which to work with. On the topic of technology, our society picks and chooses which aspects perpetuate masculinity and which do the opposite. For example, changing oil or putting new speakers in a car are considered masculine activities, while reprogramming software or installing a new sound card represent a nerd stereotype that is the opposite of masculine. Some argue that the activity of gaming walks the line between the two. Although playing with a machine by oneself may be a “nerdy” activity, the fantasy of playing as a hero or on your favorite football team is very attractive to even the most masculine. Regardless of gaming’s place in the masculinity spectrum, the behaviors individuals perform while playing through the games are very masculine in nature, and ultra competitive. Often, homophobia makes an appearance during this time as many gamers call each other “fags” via Internet chat in order to compete for dominance. These same men will call one individual a “fag” and then turn around and pretend to dip their testicles into another male player’s mouth (teabagging).
Men play a more linear role in most games. Often they are “the protector” with a hyper-masculine emphasis. Most male characters are rough and tough, have no reservations about killing, usually have super human strength and abilities, and always end up with the girl. Generally, their body type is substantially larger than the averages male’s and contain very large, well-defined muscles. The game I will look at for masculinity is titled Gears of War, a story of two warring worlds. In the game, there is not a single female soldier and the men are giants who wear metal armor. They carry enormous guns which have chainsaws attached to them. The men talk “like regular guys,” signified by competing for dominance through insulting their enemies as though war is just a game. They also downplay and punish anything emotional in the game. They deal with their emotional problems through action instead of internal processing. The game prides itself in being manly and not being for “sissies.” It is ultra violent, full of blood and gore, and portrays a few dominant masculine stereotypes. The first is physical perfection for men’s bodies. These men are not only in shape; they are almost monster-like in appearance. This allows the man’s body to exert the maximum amount of action, which represents the idea of the “body of action” ideal that men strive for. Next, the men create a system of communication among them that punishes emotions, care-centered thinking, and compassion in general, while rewarding the use of brute force, anger, and violence as a means of expressing oneself. This emotional processing is an externalizing defense style, which means rather than processing their feelings the soldiers externalize their pain, in a form of violence or anger against an objectified opponent. Men are generally portrayed as ill tempered, independent and self-sustaining in games and this results in very poor models for boys and men to follow and act through.
Almost all modern video games are targeted toward the 18-24 year old male demographic. One question that may be asked is why is gender in video games important? Isn’t it a good thing to have women playing video games too? In the book From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins discuss the social ramifications of games being gendered. They tie together the need for technology literacy and gender equality. Many careers, especially those in which women have a difficult time accessing, have a technology literacy precondition that may filter women from these job markets, and therefore allows for gender segregation. Boy’s access to computer games which involve networking computers, interpreting technical jargon, following technical directions, creating peer to peer networks, and general computer use, greatly enhance their technical abilities when entering the job market. This allows men to gain experience while women fall behind. It is important to create less sexist video games that are targeted for women; to give men better male role models in media; and to reinforce realistic and healthy ideals about women.
Overall video games are very sexist in nature, and although there are a few that break down gender stereotypes (Metroid, Beyond Good and Evil, and Heavy Rain) for the most part they seem to perpetuate America’s patriarch. This has been very trying to write for me personally because I am an avid video game fan, and it was difficult to label something that I enjoy “sexist.” These games are not just a hobby for me, but also large part of my childhood and adult life. I have tried throughout this piece to set aside my emotional reaction of defensiveness to this subject in order to give an objective and realistic look on the subject. Although difficult at times, I felt that this article was a great way to challenge my beliefs, defensiveness, and some of my own sexism. I would ask you to do the same.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Kipp Pietrantonio.
*** Editor’s note: As a standalone piece, I feel Kipp’s article is well-written, and it states his point of view perfectly. Gender equality for some continues to be an unfortunately controversial subject matter. This is a first for Elder-Geek.com, but I’ve decided to remove commenting for this article. Some comments have been disrespectful and so for this article, I’ve removed the ability to comment altogether. I understand that the Internet is a jungle and everyone has a right to say things on their mind, but on Elder-Geek.com, I simply cannot stand for intolerance of any type whether it’s for race, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation. Let it be said that I am always open for and highly encourage healthy discussion about our articles here on Elder-Geek.com and hope to encourage more in the future.- – -Randy ***