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Opting out of game sexism
by Karl E on 07/10/12 07:30:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


There has recently been a fair amount of debate about sexism in games. However, this debate is somewhat stuck in a distinctly old-media paradigm. In this paradigm, a mass market of players are provided with identical copies of a game, and they play it without really influencing how it looks and plays. Game creators therefore have the power to impose their aesthetics and values upon all players.

But this is not a given state of affairs. Games are not movie reels, they are software. Every element of a game world can be adapted to the preferences of the player. It is not necessary for players that are offended or annoyed by certain elements in a game to be exposed to them.

Consider a simple switch that replaces all revealing outfits in a game with more modest attire. Someone who doesn’t like Miranda Lawson’s pants (the source material for the picture in Brandon Sheffield's article) can flip this switch to replace them with loose cargo pants. A subset of players would appreciate having this choice, including some that would not actually flip the switch, but like it as a gesture. It seems publishers would see some benefits as well, by increasing sales to sensitive customers. They may also be given some arguments to use when Anita Sarkeesian wants to interview them.

Of course sexism in games is not only about how the characters dress. But more influence on the game wardrobe is a good place to start: it doesn’t influence the gameplay and is easy to implement. Creating choices so players can avoid sexist character development and plotlines would be much harder.

There are certainly obstacles in the implementation. One obstacle, which is relevant because it influences developers’ efforts to overcome the other obstacles, is that developers themselves are rather attached to the mass media paradigm. They enjoy the fact that they decide what millions of people are going to stare at every day. They dream of their characters becoming part of an established cultural canon, and usually, the more iconic the character, the less influence do players have on the character’s appearance. So developers might not like people toying around with "their" characters just because they don’t like their clothing.

There also needs to be a certain amount of tact involved. The ”modesty" aspect of the choices should not be too emphasized, as the insistence of men wanting to control women’s immodest dress is a controversial topic in the real world.

The basic problem is not going away anytime soon. Some elements of games will always titillate some players while offending others, and developers will always want to sell as many games as possible to each of these groups. So the notion of mitigating game sexism by giving players more in-game opportunities to change certain parts of the game is worthy of further discussion. If anyone has any thoughts on this topic, feel free to share them.

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E McNeill
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I'm not sure whether or not this is satire. Assuming not, please understand that the people complaining about sexism are not just hoping to avoid encountering sexism; they are hoping to stem its spread. Ideally, sexism would not exist. Making it invisible (or optionally visible) is no solution at all.

Karl E
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Well, I just had an idea and ran with it: would it be possible for players to avoid sexist game design through in-game choices? To me it seemed like a worthwhile question. It was only later I understood the pitfalls involved. By then the ”publish” button had already been pressed.
So if you think that the idea is so naive and misguided that you think it might be satire, I totally understand where you’re coming from.

Ardney Carter
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Without getting into the larger arguments lurking around this post let me just say that more options for customization are always a good thing. Does any remember the profanity filter and gore switch of the original two Fallout games? Genius. Why haven't more devs latched onto the idea? More options like that are an easy way to broaden your market, if only a little.

Katy Smith
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I think you're missing the issue that many women who comment on sexism in games are making. It's not that we object to the character's clothes. It's that we object to the paper-thin characterization and gratuity involved in the depiction of female characters. There are ways to do sexy characters in games without having their jiggly parts jiggling all over the place. For example, if you look at Chloe from Uncharted and Rachel from Ninja Gaiden, both are sexy. One is an extremely well developed (pun not intended) character, and the other is defined by her jiggly parts.

The argument that adding a "clothing filter" to the options menu of a game completely misses the point. I don't care if you put Rachel in a sweatshirt and baggy pants, she's still sexist. I almost feel like it is like looking at the civil rights movement and saying "We'll move the black section to the front of the bus and that'll fix everything."

Ardney Carter
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Oh god, i said I was not going to do this, but here I am typing....

"'I almost feel like it is like looking at the civil rights movement and saying "We'll move the black section to the front of the bus and that'll fix everything." "

This is why I despise these conversations and all these 'movements' because they're aiming at the wrong target and missing the point. The civil rights movement did not 'fix' things by making everyone view other races fairly and equally. The best they could do was legislate the same options for everyone (i.e. anyone can sit whereever they want on the stupid bus regardless of color).

The absolute best that can be done is to provide options and there are options! The option to play the game, the option NOT to play the game, the option to make your OWn game (and it's never been easier to do this) that espouses your views, and the option to modify the existing game experience as is being suggested here. Complaining at these well meaning attempts to please everybody (a lost cause, to be sure) accomplishes nothing.

[edit]Removed a large portion of my original post. Don't want to have that discussion here.

Jacob Germany
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@Ardney Yet, here we are in 2012, where a black man can get a position of power without a sense of certainty that his well-being is in danger. Where a minority that was barely acknowledged a few decades ago can start earning a place of equal respect. Where a man can become President of the U.S. without having the whitest of skins.

Sooo, yeah, I'd say the civil rights movement did more than lock in bus position. And championing for deeper characters and equal treatment across fiction can land us more than token NPCs.

Katy Smith
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You are right. It's not a 1:1 comparison to modern day women's issues and 1960s segregation. However, I have trouble coming up with an analogy for being marginalized in modern society, if that makes sense.

I think what really frosts my cookies when having this discussion is that it always boils down to someone telling me to:
1) If I don't like it, play something else
2) If I don't like it, make games
3) Stop being so easily offended

so, in order:
If I don't like it, play something else!
But I like 99% of the game! It's just the 1% or less that is making me eyeroll!

If I don't like it, make games!
I do! Quite a few, actually. And I'm only one person in a sea of thousands of game developers. Is it difficult to get an inclusive point across? Yes, but I'm trying!

Stop being so easily offended!
Honestly, I'm not! I'm annoyed that pointing out a better way to do things is often considered being sensitive. Here's another not very good analogy...Let's say there are a bunch of programmers who are using bubble sort to do all of their sorting. Someone comes along and says "you know, there's this thing called quick sort that works like bubble sort but is better". The reaction to that shouldn't be "omg, here we go again! If you don't like bubble sort, make your own games!". That's how I feel every time a discussion about sexism in games goes.

You can sum up my thoughts by saying that I want to make games that don't exclude people. If there isn't a reason for having a female's shirt unzipped to her navel, zip it up a bit. It will make people more comfortable and still be a sexy character.

Ardney Carter
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Thanks for taking the time to elaborate. Let me respond with some elaborations and clarifications of my own.

First off, I'm going to say that I'm not taking issue with you personally but more with the discussion in general and some of the specific things that recur each time the discussion is brought up such as the invalid civil rights comparisons (again, not specifically you. it always happens).

My issue with this whole discussion (or at least the one I'll bother getting into here) is that those points you brought up SHOULD, with minor modification, be the end of it. Here's why:

"1) If I don't like it, play something else"
This is startlingly basic and really applies to everyone. There are going to be games you don't like for any number of reasons. And sure, I guess you can complain that they get made but it doesn't really accmoplish anything useful.

Of course, you expand the point by stating that many times you like a lot of what the game offers but a small portion of that content turns you off. A couple thoughts about that in no particular order: First, it seems odd that you state that following a post in which someone is suggesting we empower players to be able to change more of the smaller details in a game that they don't like. Second, this is a scenario that befalls all gamers, not just female gamers or those concerned with real or perceived sexism in games.

To go back to Fallout and the gore switch. I always turned it off. Personally I feel that a lot of the gore in games is gratuitous and I'm not into that. As a result I don't end up playing plenty of games, usually shooters. Sometimes the content is such that it's not a big enough part of the overall aesthetic to turn me off (Halo) but other times I deem it not worth it. It's a call we all have to make. Have I missed out on playing a bunch of games? Yes. But did I go and play a bunch of others in the time I had? Also yes. So where is the real loss?

And I know that in your original post you stated you weren't merely objecting to the amount and type of clothing but also to other elements. Fine. I get that. Even if something like say, Bulletstorm, had a toggle to remove all gore I wouldn't play it. This would only be a problem if you or I did NOT have other options. But we do. So it's a moot point! What I'm getting at is when it comes to real (or perceived) sexism in games these discussions always seem to take it for granted that no one should ever have to choose not to play a game because it has aesthetic or thematic elements they don't like. I'm sorry, but in the real world that is simply not feasible because the very things you dislike other people love.

I was originally planning on listing out your other 2 points and talking about them a bit but at the root of it my thoughts on the matter is largely the same as spelled out above namely "it's only a problem if you DON'T have the option to do those things'. But you do. We all do. And that's largely why I feel all the sound and fury surrounding this topic is a waste of time and effort. If you could not play any other games, if you could not make your own and put them in front of people then it would be a problem worth shouting about. But in an environment with as much choice as we have today, why waste time shouting because someone makes something that we don't love every single part of? Do we really feel that only works we 100% agree with aesthetically and thematically should be produced? Do we really feel that we should NEVER have to excercise our own judgement and opt not to play a game because it has elements we can't get past? I can't believe that to be the case and I'm sure you don't either.

Which is partially why it puzzles me so much when suggestions like Karl's that, while admittedly not a cure-all (he even acknowledges this in his post), might expand the number of people willing to engage any given work are brought up they're always met with such derision from the very people talking about the issues in the 1st place =\

[edit] holy crap, that's a lot of text. I guess I should apologize for the rant.
TL;DR: It's only REALLY a problem if we DON'T have choice. But we do. And Karl is suggesting more choices. Why hate?

Darcy Nelson
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"1) If I don't like it, play something else
But I like 99% of the game! It's just the 1% or less that is making me eyeroll!"

I always say, you vote with your dollars. Giving a publisher your money justifies that 1% sexism in games, because in their eyes, you're telling them it's tolerable. Granted, it will mean you miss out on some otherwise great games, but it's a small price to pay by refusing to enforce the status quo.

Ryan Marshall
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Honestly? Yeah, I think it would start to help. I know that I would most certainly turn on that switch, much as I activate the profanity filter whenever given that option.

It's a step in the right direction. By including it as an option, it lets us know that they're at least thinking about it. If it translates into enough of an increase in sales (which I'm not sure how they could accurately measure such a thing), then they wouldn't be as averse to creating a game where such a switch wasn't necessary in the first place.

Eric Schwarz
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I don't think most games have overt sexism issues. Yes, you get busty heronies and the occasional lingering camera angle, but it's getting rarer every day. The problems in the games industry are moving more towards visibility of women in useful roles, rather than overt pandering that defined a lot of the 90s and early 2000s.

These are the sorts of issue that censorship and filtering does not fix. This is a matter of the fundamental mindset developers have when creating games - male is still assumed to be the default sex/gender, female characters are still shoehorned into stereotypical, one-dimensional "the wife" or "the girlfriend" roles, and so forth. We need more women in game development and design, as well as men who make efforts to portray both genders equitably, from this point on.

Personally, I believe the use of sex and sexual imagery is not something to be feared or shied away from. The way a character or game handles sex is important to the character in question, any artistic statement the game might have, etc. To put in some sort of "modesty mode" removes much of that artistic intent and undermines the work of artists and designers.

Of course, this would be a better argument if there were more games that discussed and used sex intelligently, but just like I don't think you can simply remove blood from a game and say it's child-friendly without losing something, I don't think you can remove negative representations of men or women with a toggle switch and claim to be "socially responsible."

Will So
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It almost seems like the reason behind the victoria secret model female in video games stems from a lack of creativity from the designers vs sexism. It is just easier and safer to do that instead of creating a complex personality with a less attractive female lead. I don't know about other people, I know I don't pick video game based on how hot a digital woman is in the game, that has zero input on whether i enjoy a game or not because the girl is not real, unlike in a movie, where a hot girl significantly increase my enjoyment of a movie. I am not going to not play angry bird because it didn't have virtual hot girls, and I didn't play ME3 because of a virtual hot girl.

Simon Fraser
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I don`t think most people pick games for the hotness of the girls. It`s not like a girl in an adult feature, where her body is the star. In a game, the girl is just a piece of animated artwork that accompanies the gameplay.

Instead, females in games are like girls in advertisements, or Hollywood movies. They HAVE to look good, because if they don`t, people will say, `She`s ugly`. They don`t care WHY she`s ugly, or what her story is, or whatever.

People want girls to look pretty because girls typically look pretty (it`s something they are known for). Thus, when girls don`t look pretty, people often complain. Since we can control the prettiness of the girls in our games, we make them pretty to avoid complaints. And because it looks nicer.

It`s like having a well-designed wall texture versus having an ugly wall texture. People just want the stuff in their games to look good, to please the eye.

Now I certainly think there is room for well-designed, interesting-looking female game characters that are, despite all that, unattractive sexually. Sex appeal is not the only road to an interesting visual design, even for females. I think Bioshock has a lot of good examples of this.

JB Vorderkunz
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Can someone define sexism here? Cause the definition in many Dictionaries is: the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other.

Making a woman sexy and giving her character flaws or a shallow character (in a game with shallow male characters) isn't sexist but it can easily be offensive. Not everything that offends you perceptually is automatically sexist, racist etc. etc.

I don't say that to downplay your offended-ness, but rarely are games outright sexist or racist, and when so it is often a pointed artistic statement. Take Boobs the Zombie Killing Cheerleader or whatever - while crass and well kinda dumb it's not inherently sexist: she's a skilled wielder of the chainsaw.

I'm being tongue-in-cheek here, but real sexism, like in workplaces that are rife with sexual harassment (cf. Brogrammer) is an issue the industry MUST deal with to advance - portraying sexy women not so much. When Cosmo et al stop portraying sexiness as an Ideal, then you can reasonably expect games to quit it too, but as long as it's a cultural institution it's not going away.

Darcy Nelson
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"Making a woman sexy and giving her character flaws or a shallow character (in a game with shallow male characters) isn't sexist but it can easily be offensive. Not everything that offends you perceptually is automatically sexist, racist etc. etc."

It is sexist, because the pervasive, universal down-play of female characters in games speaks of an attitude among developers that women aren't worthy of the same consideration as males. Women depicted in games are often relegated to cheerleader status; the hero is always male, usually white and hetero without question.

I'm not so much offended by this as supremely frickkin' annoyed.

Simon Fraser
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I don't think of revealing clothing as "sexist". Titillating character designs, and even camera angles, don't bother me. I like the boobs in MVC 3. No one thinks they're real. It would suck if a girl felt inadequate for not looking like Ivy, but if she's a reasonable person she won't.

Frankly I think people should just relax about it. It's no worse than Hollywood, in my opinion. Everything's fake these days, but games do it in their own creative way. Why not exaggerate the appeal of the female form? In games, more so than a lot of other media, we have the opportunity to exaggerate it! This lets us have games like Bayonetta. It may be related to sexuality in some way (I guess many Americans find this sinful) but that doesn`t mean it`s not good.

I think if a game has sexist undertones that are offensive, people (particularly the ones who are offended by it) shouldn't buy it. But VERY few games really are harmfully sexist, IMO.

Arnaud Clermonté
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It would be more useful to reverse the switch:
The gamers who want to see female characters in mini-skirts with jiggly boobs
are precisely the kind of gamers who should be denied it, and be taught about the other facets of women instead.

Daniel Balmert
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The thing about movies is that the guys in them are usually attractive too on account of them having to be played by a HUMAN. An athletic male figure is much more common than a body builder figure in films. The movie "300" was enjoyed by both men and women because the dudes were fit (which never bothered men) and the violence was a lot of fun to watch.

In games, you have disgusting, bulging ugly dudes who wear helmets and armor alongside busty, scantily clad women. There's parity missing. In films, you can let the attractive male qualities leak in almost unintentionally ("he had pretty eyes and facial structure"), but in games it's all crafted from the bottom up. It wouldn't be a problem if the females had their proportions played with equally instead of having one body type.

Of course, this only scratches the surface of the issue, where the heart of it lies in female characterization, interaction, and roles.

Darcy Nelson
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The fact that there could exist a switch to make a game's content less sexist is amusing to me. On the one setting, the female characters are vibrant, are in tasteful states of dress/undress, and add to the game. On the other, they're shallow wallflowers there to enhance the scenery in the view of the Male Gaze.

Realistically, this setting would be nothing more than a modesty switch, which by itself is not a terrible idea by any means.

I say, put a switch in every game that reverses the obvious objectification from female characters to males. It might be a good learning experience for people who think this is a non-issue.