In Which I Lament The Depiction Of Males In Computer Games

I had sworn I’d never write a post about the topic of topics, the filler of comments with gall and spite, the one topic you must not write about as a male, lest be scorned…

Oh Boy! (or Girl, I guess, to genderize correctly.) In all honesty, I’m scared. I hope the relative obscurity of my blog will prevent me from the dreaded 100-comment discussions. Anyway, here it goes:

I’ve heard the question over and over again. Why do women complain about the depiction of women in computer games, but men do not about depictions of men? The often-cited reason is: Depictions of females in computer games are sexualized to fuel male fantasies, while depictions of males are empowered, to also fuel male fantasies. Hence, guys don’t have anything to complain about, that’s why you don’t hear about it. This is called “false equivalence”.

So I guess it’s my time to speak up and claim that, to me personally, this “false” is a “true”. I want to complain about the depiction of men in computer games. There are two points I want to look at and refute:

Sexualization is bad, Power Fantasies are good?

Maybe the problem is that the female stereotype shown is more offensive than the male one.

That would imply either a) sexualization is inherently bad in itself, or b) power fantasies are inherently good. Now, you can argue that “sexualization” is an over-reliance on sexual attractiveness, and this is bad as it is a stereotype. I will even agree, I hate chainmail bikinis with passion. But on the same level, “power fantasies” are an over-reliance on bullyism, and this is also a stereotype, hence bad.

Now, let’s reduce it from the stereotypes to the underlying concepts. Sex and physical prowess. Sex isn’t inherently bad. We all like it, we like to do it, and unless we cheat nature, which we also all like to do all the time, we actually need it to survive (as a group). Physical prowess also isn’t inherently bad. Back when we had to run 5 hours chasing a gnu, we actually needed it to survive. But we don’t need it any more. Physical Prowess is much more archaic than sex. Therefore, it often gets sublimated: the power of physical prowess is converted into more intangible power over other people.

If that is true (I’m not 100% sure, I admit I haven’t read more than a couple of introductory texts on psychology and psychoanalysis), the male depictions in computer games hint at having power over other people. I find that even more offensive than being sexually available. Why do I, as a male, have to subjugate others to fill my gender role? I don’t like having power over others, it makes me feel queasy. I’d rather “make love than war”. I reserve my right to be offended at those male depictions, because they pigeonhole me into something I find highly problematic.

There is no choice for women?

This has become less and less true over the years. Of course, there are still bad apples. The last wave of posts about this topics was motivated by the TERA demo. I looked at the youtube videos featuring the classes, and I see a problem there: about 90% of the women are scantily clad, about 90% of the men are heavily armored or at least properly clothed. But even in TERA, there are the occasional properly-clothed and even armored females, and the half-naked guys. Then again, the game is going to tank anyway, and we can get worked-up about it all day. What can you expect from a game that has a brainless muscle beating up your target audience as advertising campaign?

On the other hand, many games at least give you a token choice. And if you don’t like that one, you’re equally out of luck as woman or man. Don’t like over-sexualized females? (I don’t, so I follow the rules laid out here.) Better don’t play a Demon Hunter in Diablo III, or a Blood Elf in WoW, or a Norn in GW2. If you’re hell-bent on playing a female character, switch to the Barbarian, Orc, or Sylvari, respectively. If you’re hell-bent on playing the class/race, switch gender, and chances are you’ll be happy (with the exception of the Norn, I guess), because stereotyping in games seems to run along races rather than sexes these days.

Don’t like over-muscled males? (I don’t, so I follow the rules laid out here.) Better don’t play a Barbarian in Diablo III, or an Orc in WoW, or a Norn in GW2. If you’re hell-bent on playing a male character, switch to the Demon Hunter, Blood Elf, or Sylvari, respectively. If you’re hell-bent on playing the class/race, switch gender, and chances are you’ll be happy (with the exception of the Norn, I guess), because stereotyping in games seems to run along races rather than sexes these days.

So, is there no choice in female characters? No, there sure is. Is there less choice in female characters than in male characters? Hard to make a blanket statement, but I can’t see it. Elves are typically a great avoider for the male stereotype, and it seems we’re getting to the point where either evil-ish or hunky races avoid the female stereotype. In that respect, I disagree with Spinks; I think there indeed are different female models available in most games, and that there is choice.

The Final Rant

Stop reading here. Seriously. (Actually, I decided to delete most of it before I hit “publish”, because it detracted from my point.) Just one short summary:

I find many male depictions in video games offensive, because they imply I need to be a power-hungry hunk to be really male. I don’t like to have power over others, and I’m not athletic. Stop exploiting this weird gender image, it’s not working for me. Then again, most games give me a choice to avoid the stereotypes I don’t like. So get over it, all genders and sexes.

12 thoughts on “In Which I Lament The Depiction Of Males In Computer Games

  1. Like you, I’d prefer not to have the 1000 comment firestorm. But I will have to chip in and soon, mostly because I have the odd reaction of thinking the entire debate is hilarious.

    1. I think my personal problem with these arguments that come up at least once a quarter is that to me, they don’t have anything to do with feminism. It just happens that one of the silly depictions in video games is that some female characters are reduced to their sexuality. That doesn’t make them better or worse than all the other stereotyping, such as hunky males, alcoholic and/or comic-relief short people, and in-tune-with-nature noble savages.

  2. As a guy, I can appreciate what you’re trying to say. But having been where you currently are in analyzing the scenario, I have to tell you that you’re not sharing any message of value and potentially *only* aggravating others instead of engaging them on matters that you genuinely want answers to.

    If your take is “so what” then …why this article? You are clearly interested in understanding the underlying issues. But your current frustration with it has lead you to blow it off/ sweep it under the rug/ignore/ dismiss EVERYONE. That’s not the way you want to go on this. Your thoughts on this issue MATTER. So don’t blow yourself off with “get over it”. We all owe ourselves a bit more than that. And believe me …we’re not going to get better games with “so what” and “get over it”. For one, the problem won’t go away because of these kinds of statements. But also, games have to grow in order to persist.

    The externalities of sexism (that which we merely see and perceive) cannot be addressed externally (attacking *only* that which we merely see and perceive). To really do this any justice, you have to examine *you* within the context of the culture. You rightly point out the power structure that leads games to place this image upon us as males. Now take it a step further and examine that structure. It is there that you will find out the “why” of sexism. And it is after that that you can critically analyze it and address the issues. Otherwise, as you have done in this post, you’ll talk past and around it.

    You do have an opinion on the matter …clearly, since this article exists. So take the time to actually look into it. And you can start looking into it by not *just* raising questions like “so what?”, but by trying to find out *why* “so what.” Again, you’re writing about it. It clearly matters to you so don’t blow it off. Explore it.

    If you have access to academic resources, like library accounts with database access, I can share some articles with you that I found insightful on the topic — articles which speak specifically to the male experience and to things we can do to help progress this issue along.

    1. Thank you for the long write. I’m not sure I can answer all points.

      Your first point is “you’re not sharing any message of value and potentially *only* aggravating others”. If that is the case, I succeeded in a way I didn’t even think about when I wrote this post: holding up the mirror. The main reason I wrote this post is that I got fed up with the argument of “false equivalence”. To me, this tells me two things: 1) “My discrimination is more important than your discrimination”, and 2) “You’re not allowed to complain because you have a penis and everybody caters to you”. I think you can see how I find this aggravating. So I decided to write why I think you can just as easily see discrimination that is neither better nor worse on the other side.

      About my conclusion: Now that I reread my post, it did take a strange and surprising turn at the end, which is probably because I shortened it before release. To summarize, I reserved the right to be offended, but I do not execute that right. And I think being offended doesn’t help anybody, definitely not the one feeling offended, because chances are, they don’t feel good about it, but neither does it help anybody else: people either are sympathetic already, or they won’t get any more sympathetic by being informed of someone being offended. Typically, especially in online context, it will only mean others will get defensive and/or further entrenched in their position.

      And to shed a bit more light on it, I’ll quote what I wrote in a response over at Spinks’s (with a couple of fixes to typing and grammar):

      Maybe to explain my “get over it” point. I think we actually agree on the problems, just come to different conclusions.

      Your conclusion is to state the problem, state it clearly and loudly, and hope to change things (at least I guess so, otherwise it wouldn’t make much sense except to vent – which, come to think of it, is ok, too). So the classic female and male stereotypes should both go.

      My conclusion is to shrug, say “oh well”, ignore, and move on. Let me state the reasons. 1) As long as I have some choice that vaguely appeals to me, I won’t argue that other choices that don’t should go. I find some of those choices silly and think they’re somewhat tasteless, but others might look at it differently. Knowing that my taste in these things is a minority one, I don’t see a reason to do anything but grumble. And bereaving them of their choices irks me, too.
      2) I won’t change anything by complaining about it. One of the things you learn as a German: always complain, but don’t ever expect it will change anything. ;) So “give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” yadda yadda. The forum posts you cite actually reinforce my opinion on this one. You won’t change any of these. It’s no use arguing with dimwits.
      3) It’s not good for myself getting worked up every time I am offended. I’d literally not stop being offended by other people’s behavior, ever. I’d probably die of a heart attack at 32.

      You’re welcome to send me references. I have access to scientific libraries, though I’m not sure it extends into the areas the articles would probably come from .They’d also go on a quite large pile of “must read eventually”.

      1. Take all of this with my genuine hope and intent to give you some good feedback that can help answer your questions. None of this is intended to make you feel bad or to convey anger. I’m a straight talker and often my words can come off a little too sharp.

        The problem in your approach continues to be that you offer defeatism and don’t acknowledge sexism (perhaps you aren’t sure what it is, in which case that needs to be remedied before you go posting articles on it). To that I’ll add nothing has ever changed by doing nothing. People do change, things do change.

        The other problem is you don’t seem to have a strong grasp of how sexism works (again, remedy this before diving in). This is key and it’s impossible to understand any of this when that isn’t understood and accepted. Sexualization of women is problematic, systematic, and pervasive and we know this because women have told us the ways in which it is true, have opened our eyes. There is no male equivalent. Therefore the discussion revolves around how women feel and what they believe is the solution. This does not disavow males of their responsibility to act and reject the status quo …something which can only be done when they understand how this works.

        You and I *do not* get to say who should be offended and who should get over it. Understand: *you* do not have any authority nor any “rights” on this matter. I encourage you to react to this statement constructively instead of lashing out over your perceived “rights” — please study this and try to understand what this means.

        It is why few females will likely come over here to join in your discussion: you’re sitting from your lofty position telling them to get over something that they feel is dehumanizing. You then try to use a false equivalence to “prove” you’re a victim. Be offended by male fantasy art all you want, but it’s not even remotely the same as the offense against females. You’re not, in other words, being helpful in any way. You may as well not even pretend you’re interested in the topic; you come off as only interested in propagating your own views. Which so far have shown that you don’t know anything about what you’re talking about. It’s all “gut” opinion and no substance. This is how your posts are being received in many circles.

        Lastly, your article is oddly devoid of personal context on the topic. You don’t reference where your “knowledge” of this is coming from, where your opinions are springing from. Therefore, if you want to give weight to your arguments, you have to approach this in this order: 1) What have you studied of this topic to inform your thoughts and, 2) just as important, after the study, what is your experience with the topic? That will be how to establish *your* point of view, which you’re currently lacking. You’re doing what Tobold is doing: you’re intellectualizing it instead of internalizing it.

        It will not do to throw around your frustration with questions and “conclusions” which serve only to demonstrate you have limited understanding of the topic.

        You’re just alienating readers who *want* to see you understand but whom, all too often, end up dealing with guys who dismiss their concerns or who hijack the discussion by trying to point out how *they* are the victim. It’s arrogant and preposterous. You can do more harm than good if you continue this way, not just to others but to yourself.

        As patronizing as this may sound, you should do a bit more reading on this and a bit more self introspection. The first book, as a male, I would say is a must. It’s more or less a collection of essays relating experiences some men have had with sexism and how they came to their own conclusions. The introspection aspect is a phase all of us (males) must go through to understand the problem, because the problem is in our own perceptions and behaviors as the beneficiaries of sexism.

        Here’s a list I hope you find helpful and insightful:

        1) For Men Against Sexism, ed. Jon Snodgrass (male perspective)
        2) The Second Sex, by Simone Beauvoir (the most thorough research available on the origins of sexism)
        3) “The Damnation of Women”, by W.E.B. Dubois (essay, male perspective)
        4) Women and Philosophy, eds. Carol C. Gould and Marx W. Wartofsky
        5) Feminist Theory From Margin to Center, by bell hooks

        From there, if you continue to be interested, you need only look at the bibliographies in these books to find more. This website has also been cited in the community and which I have also found extremely helpful in getting answers:

        1) http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/the-faqs/faq-roundup/

        Actually, that link is probably the best “quick stop shop” for answers to your most immediate questions. Use that as a jumping off point for the books.

        I strongly encourage you to pick up one of these texts and do some investigation. You cannot begin to understand the discussion you’re trying to have without some education — for which only *you* are responsible. It’s OK to ask questions, but it’s not something people should be teaching you wholesale. Look into it for yourself and join the conversation like the rest of us guys through introspection and study.

        Sorry for another long reply, but hopefully it was worthwhile and you found something useful.

  3. Oh and I forgot these fine points (got ommitted in the cut/paste from Word). These answer more directly to what you said in your reply:

    1. Don’t hold up the mirror. Look into it.
    2. You’re not the target of discrimination, you’re the beneficiary.
    3. You’re allowed to complain, but not to equivocate the suffering of women with your “suffering”. You’re a beneficiary, like it or not, whether you want the benefit or not. You still have it and you have the *privilege* to reject it while women are *taught* to accept it.
    4. Offense is the impetus of action.

    1. I get mail notifications on comments. That way, I read this summary first. Based on that, I don’t think the discussion will have any fruitful outcomes.

      Furthermore, the way you run comments at your own blog is not the way I want to end up here. I prefer people to be nice to each other.

  4. Just a random thought after reading the article. Computer games and interactive entertainment are still very much fledgling fields (when compared to other entertainment media such as literature or cinema at least) and as such is still basing the majority of it’s themes on pre-existing concepts or stereotypes.

    If you read enough of the “behind the scenes” discussions that games developers share on their products, particularly where the product in question is the type of game (RPG, fantasy MMO as prime examples) where the stereotyping you mention seems most prevelant, then it’s not uncommon to find references such as “we were inspired by this piece of literature or this other pen-and-paper game”.

    So with that sometimes being the case, and knowing that some of these source themes pre-date the age of political correctness and the drive for gender equality, isn’t the reality in a lot of cases that the developers are merely being lazy and copying these pre-existing stereotypes into the new interactive medium, or conversely trying to portray an authentic recreation / depiction of these same stereotypes for the sake of staying true to the source material?

    I readily accept that this won’t always be the case, but with imitation being a common occurence in the gaming media doesn’t that surely place the burden of blame (or at least a portion of it) on the authors of yesteryear who created these worlds during less enlightened times?

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