Dustin Browder got himself in some trouble this week. Talking on Blizzard’s MOBA title Heroes of the Storm, Browder got hotter than a ginger in a sunbed when asked about the game’s oversexualised female characters.
You can find all that verbal fumbling here. He later apologised, but it was one of those apologies that doesn’t really mean anything; an apology because I have to. I think he may not really understand what he’s apologising for exactly, and perhaps we don’t either.
How do we even feel about this issue? I think a lot of people know by now that they’re supposed to think its wrong, which tends to split those uncertain individuals into two camps. Those who blindly crusade against it without really knowing why, and those who think everyone else are over-sensitive extremists who need to lighten up.
In light of this, I took to the interwebs and did some soul-searching, to see if we can’t hash this thing out.
Here’s the truth – sex sells. I know it, you know it, and everyone else has known it for a damned long time.
If you go to E3, or Gamescom, or any major video game exhibition, you’re going to find scantily-clad women at the various gaming booths vying for your attention.
Technology magazines feature women in their underwear on the cover, despite the content of the magazine being not even remotely related.
Miley may be the first person to lick a sledgehammer, but she certainly isn’t the first to take her clothes off to sell music.
Which brings us full circle to video game characters – where once again, sex sells. Since Tomb Raider first introduced Lara Croft’s laughably oversized chest, female characters have been consistently getting the adolescent-wet-dream treatment.
I’m not going to waste your time by listing examples, because we all know this is a thing. Female characters that aren’t made to look like the cover of a “men’s magazine” are in the minority; that doesn’t warrant a debate. What does, however, is the factors maintaining that pattern and whether or not they need to be re-evaluated.
Know Your Audience
The general perception of the “core gamer” audience is a group consisting primarily of males age 15-35.
This is essentially the exactly same demographic targeted by the likes of FHM or Maxim. These are the people who are buying magazines to look at half-naked women (excuse me, “for the articles”). These are the people who are buying the League of Legends skins with more boob than clothing, the people who are “playing” Xtreme Beach Volleyball.
You might think I’m oversimplifying or undermining an entire group of people, that I’m being sexist against my own gender, if that is even a thing. That’s not my intention. What I am being is realistic; this is my demographic after all, these are the people I interact with.
If you go to a big LAN such as rAge and walk around, you’re going to see plenty of desktop wallpapers of women. Be they genuine photographs, video game characters or stylized Japanese art from anime or manga, the one thing they have in common is more skin than not.
Men like looking at attractive, underdressed women. It’s a generalisation, sure, but it’d be tough to argue against. That, to me, is a basic fact, and if you’re a game developer who thinks 80-90% of your player base are men, you’re going to try appeal to that group by selling what you know will sell – sex.
The fly in the ointment, of course, is the assumption that everyone playing your games are men.
Looking at the Stats
It is absolutely undeniable that the number of women who play video games is on a consistent upswing.
Advocates for female gaming and those fighting sexism in the industry are quick to point out that 45 percent of gamers in the United States are females. Furthermore, adult women make up 31 percent of the “game-playing population”, while boys 17 and younger only take up a 19 percent slice of that pie.
Others will hastily dismiss these figures, saying that “housewives who play Angry Birds and Bejewelled” aren’t a consideration for big publishers such as Activision.
While that response is overtly sexist and depressingly common, the statistics are unfortunately unclear. The stats above come from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), and in their report they fail to define what constitutes a “video game” or even a “video game player”.
If you narrow the focus to include only Halo, Call of Duty and Battlefield, will the stats still show adult women taking up a bigger percentage than adolescent males? Probably not, but there’s no data to back this up either way.
What I’m getting at here is whether or not the assumptions seemingly made by game developers are in fact true. From their perspective, if the majority of the audience are male, it makes sense to make games directly marketed at males.
However, that line of thinking leads us directly to…
A Self-Fulfilling Hypothesis
Women like games. That much is already clear, regardless of where the data is extracted from. Whether we’re talking about Angry Birds or Halo, women like games.
People are so quick to label women as not being “core gamers”, but let me ask you this: would you be interested in playing Gears of War if Marcus Fenix ran around in a g-string? What if Gordon Freeman spouted seductive sexual innuendos at you or the next Dead or Alive title had men in jockstraps on the cover?
Perhaps there’s an entire market of potential female gamers who would love to play more FPS or MMO titles, but feel alienated, uncomfortable or even insecure with the portrayal of women in these games.
It’s a self-perpetuating problem – if you continue to make games unappealing to women, women will continue to not buy them, which will maintain a male-dominated industry.
We’re quick to point fingers at developers for filling their games with sexist eye-candy, but perhaps we should pop the thumb back at ourselves.
Passion for the project aside, the objective here is to sell copies. They’re making what they (think) will sell. Perhaps they’re making assumptions about what we want, but perhaps they’re sticking to a formula that works.
If we don’t want this in our games, we need to tell them that. The problem is that a vocal portion of the male gaming populace does, and the females’ voices aren’t being heard; drowned out by sexist remarks about Angry Birds and sandwiches.
Personally? We have crap like FHM and Playboy. We have porn. We have Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and we have the vast resource that is the internet. We have all the ogling material our perverted little hearts could ever want, so let’s get it out of our video games. Let’s make women feel comfortable playing games. Video games are awesome, and women deserve to enjoy them just as much as we do.