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Are video games really sexist?

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Lara Croft. Kazumi. Ruby. Ivy. All female video game protagonists, all festering adolescent wank-fantasies. Yup, games are crap when it comes to depicting women. If they’re not trying to save the world using only the power of their tits, they’re simpering in a tower somewhere waiting for a big strong man to come and save them. Yup, games are sexist in the extreme.

Above: This is not female empowerment

Except that perhaps they’re not. We’re in no way saying that the examples listed above are in any way a justifiable, realistic, or healthy way to portray women. They’re nothing but the opposite, and things need to change. But there’s more at play here than old fashioned, lug-headed misogyny on the part of game devs. The reasons for video games’ insulting female characters go much deeper than that. In fact they start way back in the early mists of both game design and narrative structure. All primed and ready? Well here we go…


The beginning

Early games had little care for story. They were simple programs doing simple things for simple (but feverishly addictive) amusement. They were dictated as much by the available technology as design ambition, and as such were often pretty abstract. But regardless they required storylines, simply because of the way we think. As human beings, we understand everything in terms of a causal narrative. Getting up, going shopping, having a poo, we see them all as stories, because of the way we interpret cause-and-effect and the passage of time. Thus, on some level, we need a narrative justification for the things we see happening.

Above: Space Invaders' 300 page backstory was scrapped for reasons of ROM space, and left out of Space Invaders Extreme for retro authenticity

So games got stories. But existing out of necessity and tacked on by programmers rather than writers, they were crushingly basic, arbitrary scenarios, based around self-explanatory, mass-appealing concepts. “Aliens are invading! Stop the aliens invading!” “You’ve lost all your shit!” Go and get your shit back!” “The princess has been kidnapped! Go and rescue the princess!” And that last one is where things get interesting.

While that particular plot has become one of the most iconic clichés in gaming, it’s important to note why it’s such a relatable plot. And it’s not simply about adolescent male gamers wanting to pull a posh chick. Instead, it’s a plot element inherent to storytelling throughout human history. Stick with us, it’s about to get a bit academic.

Above: What do dead Russians and future freedom fighters have in common?

In the late 1920s, a Russian chap named Vladimir Propp analysed traditional folk tales and worked out that they could all be broken down into 31 broad archetypal building blocks of story and seven character types. It might sound unbelievable, but he was absolutely right. Check them out here and then think of any JRPG you’ve ever played. You’ll see what we mean.

And one of the key narrative driving forces Propp found was in the characters of The Princess and Her Father, who usually give the story’s hero whatever task he may have to carry out and provide the reward at the end. If you take The Princess less literally you can see her in every action movie love interest, every romantic comedy heroine, and as Alyx Vance in Half-Life 2 (coupled with Eli, she’s a classic example).

So while the whole “woman as prize” is hackneyed and more than a bit distasteful, it’s unfortunately endemic to almost all storytelling rather than a trait inherent sexism in video games. The problem is really that…

 


Storytelling hasn’t moved with the times

There are a whole bunch of reasons that outdated and offensive story clichés became cemented into the collective human consciousness. Folk tales always spring out of the aspirations and concerns of the time and place that created them, and after centuries of retelling, those are some pretty tough bonds to cut. The whole idea of a female character being the cause of a heavy redemptive journey even goes back as far as that little apple-scoffing mistake in the Bible.

Above: MISOGYNY BEGINS!

And you absolutely have to factor in the issue that men were the traditional storytellers of primitive cultures, mainly because they actually had the time to be. After a day of hunting and killing, they had bugger all else to do, whereas the women were still busy working their arses off to make sure that the hut didn’t fall apart, no-one starved, and that the kids survived another 24 hours with all limbs intact. See where both gender stereotypes come from now?

The world isn’t like that any more, but after generations of evil witches and seductive sorceresses troubling noble kings and brave knights in fairy tales, our stories are finding it hard to catch up. The problem is that in trying to catch up so quickly, writers are being lazy and clumsy. Thus, when devs make the effort to make games specifically for girls, we get Barbie Horse Adventures and Imagine Babiez. It’s a case of trying too hard while not trying hard enough.

Above: EQUALITY BEGINS!

Basically, in the modern world, we need gender neutral stories and gender neutral games, because it’s offensive to assume there’s any simple collective gender mind-set that can be easily appealed to.But while we currently don’t have many such games, there is a certain gender equality in video game characters, in that…

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59 comments

  • adrenaline - February 21, 2012 11:07 a.m.

    Blame sexism on the Adam and Eve in the Christian bible. You are a douche bag. Boys like you give decent men a bad name. Go back and do some actual research before writing a crap article like this to share with the world. I see you've had plenty of comments from the 12 year old gamer sociopaths of the future. This is what your writing inspires. Girls and women are gamers too. We're sick of seeing this bulldung in games. We want more realistic looking strong female characters and for media to stop objectifying our body parts and sexuallizing our children. F.........U..........
  • matrikid - March 23, 2010 9:32 p.m.

    I gotta tell you, they are about as Sexist as movies. Also, *GASP* there's actually games that are sexist to men too. It's a 50/50 street that's fueled by stuff like that. Really, nothing new here. Now it's time for me to go back to Anti-Socialness.
  • NassaDane - March 7, 2010 8:06 a.m.

    In no way did the article go into any of the serious Male sexism there is in modern day videogames. In most games what do you kill the most? Men, some times strikely men. How sick is that? Dimented if any thing. There would absolutely be some sort of hub bub about a game where you only kill women characters, no? But countless videogames are being produced with the slaughter of only men in it. Some you can be a woman that kills men. Is that right? I sure don't think so. I can't wait for a game where all you do is kill women, honestely. I want a game like manhunt and you get rewarded how you kill them. Yes games do not have a very ballanced character roaster when it comes to women and i would like to see that change! Also that is a common thing i have seen; when people hear about sexism they immediately think of women in trouble or women oppressed and that is very single minded. And i am happy to see this article addressing the non female sexism that is out there. I just hope more people see the injustices that are being put on men and not just the women.
  • adrenaline - February 21, 2012 10:55 a.m.

    NassaDane- How old are you- 12??? People like you give guys a bad name. You've obviously never gotten laid because no woman in their right mind would have sex with a douche bag that wants to kill solely women in video games that is, unless your a sociopath piece of crap serial killer who lives in his over bearing mother's basement.
  • 49erZ4lyfe - January 25, 2010 9:55 p.m.

    for every dude who thinks this is a dumb article just imagine every wrestling fighting or any other game when the guy is half dressed and he has the biggest schlong ever that's what its like when i play any game with a girl boobs huuuuge boobs and they jiggle its not just about women being seen as the weaker sex its about the extreme sexual nature
  • boyverygood01 - January 25, 2010 7:48 p.m.

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  • boyverygood01 - January 25, 2010 7:25 p.m.

    http://www.wellbbiz.com free shipping competitive price any size available accept the online payment Air jordan(1-24)shoes $34--38 Nike shox(R4,NZ,OZ,TL1,TL2,TL3) $36 Handbags(Coach lv fendi d&g) $35 Tshirts (Polo ,ed hardy,lacoste) $16 Jean(True Religion,ed hardy,coogi) $36 Sunglasses(Oakey,coach,gucci,Armaini) $18 New era cap $16 We do wholesale and retail! All are extremely CHEAP, please visit: http://www.wellbbiz.com
  • g4m3rk1dd - January 25, 2010 5:04 p.m.

    sex sells...end of story
  • Gashura - January 23, 2010 2:46 a.m.

    @cool the DP is just a joke for this set of comments. But a real woman took the picture of her boobs and apparently she had no problem with it so I don't see why you should.
  • skynetiscoming - January 22, 2010 7:18 p.m.

    @deathrebellion I agree, I think the only time you even see Faith is the last 10 seconds of the game(other than the animated cut scenes). Forces you to enjoy her character and strength instead of her body.
  • deathrebellion - January 22, 2010 4:32 p.m.

    latest best example of improvement - Mirror's Edge
  • Cool - January 22, 2010 11:53 a.m.

    i also think its funny how some people like gashura, think its ok to be sexist, and have a pic of boobs as their dp......btw gashura, u hav a very interesting point of view. i agree with the fact that if games were realistic, they would be boring. they are an escape FROM reality.
  • Cool - January 22, 2010 11:49 a.m.

    im my view, sexism can be defined by anything from objectification of a gender, or defining a gender as being inferior to another. Characters like Lara Croft are sexist because they objectify women. they portray them as sexy pieces of meat.
  • Gashura - January 22, 2010 9:27 a.m.

    Games like DMC are as gender neutral as I see them. And being sexist is a part of life. Everyone see's things differently and everyone's opinion on things are different. Honestly I enjoy seeing some hot girl on my screen every now and then. I enjoy seeing a cool guy that can be like Dante and be too cool. Because if we had perfect realistic games we'd see life is even more horribly disappointing then the hours around the game. I play to chillax for awhile and enjoy myself till I'm tired. I don't care if looking at a hot body is wrong because I bought the game to enjoy myself. It all boils down to personal preference and what I as an individual gamer enjoy more. If I wanted sexual equality I'd buy galaxian and kill myself 4 hours later. And if your looking for realism in an imaginary world your high because it's not real. I've never walked down the street and Seen a DD breasted girl shooting demons. God forbid it happens now that I've said it but games are the escape from reality we all need in our day to just come down to that level of calm and tranquility we need.
  • austin128 - January 22, 2010 4:45 a.m.

    I don't think men with big guns or girls with big boobs are unrealistic. There's plenty out there and as for the guns part, anyone could have them if they cared enough.
  • MayorMcCheese - January 22, 2010 2:53 a.m.

    Some of you people seriously need an education on what sexism is. Re-read the article more carefully please. Putting a gun in the hand of a female lead character does not negate or eliminate sexism. When you refer to giving teenagers "tits" and "ass" to look at you are being sexist. When you reduce a female character down to a body part, or collection of body parts, you are dehumanizing them - in other words being sexist. That's exactly what characters like the ones mentioned in this article do (I don't know about recent iterations of Lara Croft, but the first few games were an absolute joke in this department). The game developers hide behind BS like "Oh she's an empowered woman because she's adventuring and badass' and you people eat up every word. Good article, thank you Gamesradar. It's high time we as gamers/game developers made an effort to elevate ourselves above the level of idiot beer commercials.
  • JaysonAych - January 21, 2010 4:53 p.m.

    @pimlicosound I often think about the "Condemned" games and how they portrayed the characters. In part one, the devs created Ethan and Rosa as two people that were not glamorized in either their appearance or demeanor, and they found themselves dealing with an extraordinary situation. Because they weren't superhuman hotties, they had a personality and were relatable characters which helped the immersion into the game. Then in part two, the devs sexed both of them up and gave them more stereotypical behavior, which wasn't at all necessary, and gave the impression that they didn't care so much about developing characters as they did pandering.
  • tienesmota - January 21, 2010 12:06 a.m.

    There will always be this "sexism" in games. It comes down to this: is the game entertaining and will people come back for more because of what we did? Believe it or not, THAT'S WHAT DEVELOPERS ARE LOOKING AT. If Lara Croft from here on out had an A cup and a regular body but it made them MILLIONS unlike it ever has before, than damn it their gonna keep it like that. It's the oh idk GAMEPLAY, that makes the game, not if the chick has quadruple D's or not. Personally, I could give a rat's ass if they all looked like Ms. Croft. I'm in it for gameplay and entertainment, not to get a quick jerk.
  • Tomsta666 - January 20, 2010 11:18 p.m.

    I couldnt read all that, I was too busy looking at all the tits and arse
  • GamesRadarMatthewKeast - January 20, 2010 7:11 p.m.

    @The_Tingler: Uncharted 2 did a commendable job of portraying both genders. While Cloe was somewhat sexed-up, she wasn't in a bikini, and she was clearly shown as the less desirable choice after Elena, who was not sexed-up at all. Also, Nathan Drake was not your typical hyper-buff, ultra-macho male character. That's the point the article was making.

Showing 1-20 of 59 comments

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