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On Menís Sexualization in Video Games
by Mattie Brice on 11/29/11 10:05:00 pm   Featured Blogs

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

 

(Originally posted at the Moving Pixels column at Pop Matters)


Sexuality in games is a contentious topic. Few see video games as open or mature enough to express ideas and create experiences concerning sexuality for players to explore. It’s also rarely pleasant to talk about the topic, usually any arguments settle on the accusation of games as serving as wish fulfillment for heterosexual men and the more vocal of said demographic replying with a “So what?” What’s often overlooked is the possibility of the sexualization of men, as if it’s not an option.

 

My title is misleading; games don’t usually sexualize men. As frequently suggested when discussing the Male Gaze theory in film studies and neatly tied into relevancy for our purposes by Kate Cox in “The Gamer’s Gaze,” men are not sexualized in most media (“The Gamer Gaze, part 1”Your Critic is in Another Castle, 20 June 2011). Because there is a large presence of the heterosexual man’s identity in the development process and in gaming’s audience, the perceived “neutral” vision of game design takes on the influence of the socially appropriate interests specific to straight men. The lack of men’s sexualization is a product of the average straight guy’s impulse to avoid appearing or feeling gay. Men have a fig leaf of sorts when it comes to camera work and character design, while women get more attention and exposure. What sexual bits we do see are “safe” for heterosexual men to view without feeling like they’re watching something “gay,” such as muscular arms or exposed torsos. A common counter-argument concerns the issue of men’s impossible body image in games, which is definitely important, but mostly a different discussion to tackle. The aesthetic of muscles denote strength, agency, and power for the assumed male player to relate to, while emphasis on T&A when viewing women only serves as fan-service. Both rely on problematic ideals, but there is still a power relation present in theis representation that favors men.
  
There are a couple of games that are often cited as examples of sexualizing men, namely Masaya’s Cho Aniki and Namco Bandai Games’s Muscle March. Both games have muscular men in barely any clothing, often viewed in risqué, homoerotic poses. While sexualization is afoot in these titles, these games don’t violate the Gamer Gaze because the men presented in the games are also presented through a completely absurd aesthetic. The design of the game creates a silly context that the player doesn’t take seriously; instead, they laugh at the men and see the nudity as off-the-wall humor. These games don’t give the player room to fantasize or a roving eye to admire the characters’ bodies.

 

What we consider sexual body parts and how we cover or expose them in media helps us figure out how to depict sexualized men. Women’s breasts are seen as sexual in many cultures (to varying degrees), and along with that, come laws forbidding women from exposing them in public. If men’s chests and arms evoked the same kind of sexual focus, they would find themselves in a similar situation. We should note, however, that it is legal and often expected that women partially expose their breasts despite their sexual connotation, effectively always leaving themselves on display. This is the launching point for women’s sexualization in general media by emphasizing what is illegal/improper to show in public without crossing a line. Because the only area that is taboo on men is below the belt, men’s chests and arms don’t threaten anyone’s sexuality. Sexualizing men would involve drawing focus and emphasis to their goods in a manner similar to how we currently do with women: by featuring them in low-rise pants and underwear, tight jeans to emphasis their bulge and butt shape, etc. Because it violates the prevailing Male Gaze ingrained in all of us, this can seem like an uncomfortable idea. However, media geared towards gay men already uses and exploits this technique. Because men’s sexualization primarily appears in a homoerotic context, it’s not surprise why it’s relatively absent in games.

 

While clothing is a large part of women’s sexualization in games, the camera plays a role by directing the player’s attention to their bodies. Cox provides a video of Madison’s shower scene in Heavy Rain, in which the camera “checks her out” by gliding up and down to view the different angles of her body. Compare this scene to an earlier one when a fellow protagonist, Ethan, takes a shower as well. This scene is shorter, and the movement is more about avoiding looking at him directly than checking him out. The camera provides a few glimpses of his chest and backside, but you feel that you’re watching something that you shouldn’t be rather than experiencing any form of interest or arousal. Examples like these link the cinematography of games (and arguably all media) to pornography, a genre that the distilled Male Gaze calls home. The player crosses into something pornographic when watching Madison but into something awkward when seeing Ethan. However, the further away (and more aware) that a player is from the straight male identity, the more clearly these moments stand out. Because pornography typically has straight male consumption in mind, its politics leak into games by highlighting how they look at women and other men in porn. We would have to look to pornography made for women and gay men and apply how the camera looks at the performers for a holistic approach to sexualizing characters.

 

There is resistance to sexualizing anyone, but the true issue lies in who sexualized characters are for and how often this happens. In essence, recognizing how we sexualize people equips us with tools to even out the playing field, creating more women who aren’t on screen for a man’s viewing pleasure and allowing players to enjoy the male figure every once in a while. Coupled with an awareness of body image politics and encouraging more character models that stray from Aphrodite and the Adonis, video games can become a more egalitarian medium for expression.


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Comments


Bob Johnson
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Not much demand for sexualizing men in games so you do not see it. If women got off looking at these images and it sold more games then you would see it. If men got off on this then you would see more of it to help sell more games.



To sexualize men just to even the field is missing the point of why women are sexualized in games.



Now I definitely think the images of women should be more realistic. But you walk a fine line then. Do you need everything to be an even representation of reality? Is that practical? Can you not have images that speak to the fantasies of the young males playing the games?



And I would say the males in games are represented in the same light as the females. They are both the fantasies of young males.



If more women played games we would be looking at different images in many games.



Not any different than saying if more older guys played games we would be looking at a different game than today's game that is geared towards the young male.

Joe Cooper
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Women actually are playing a lot of games now. I know multiples that do; some who always have and some who just started cause of that Farmville thing.



It's probably better to not look at the games market as something that "is", but as something that is developing. People have been making and losing for decades the argument that "games look like X, they do for a reason and therefore that is correct and they will continue indefinitely".



Incidentally, one of the first games to get a reputation for a substantial female audience was the Sims and at least from Sims 2 it is absolutely full of sex (including homosexual) and nobody seems to notice. You get things like "woohoo with 9 sims" as an aspiration.

Aleksander Adamkiewicz
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@Bob



Your argument doesn't really follow. After all nobody ever tried serious sexualizing of men in a game. How can you know that there isn't a market for it?



Its like saying that people don't like space-tourism, it doesn't exist yet, so how can we know?



The problem lies indeed, like Mattie pointed out, in the predominance of heteronormative thinking. In our society, especially the US society which constitutes the bulk of the gaming market, sex in general or sexuality is looked upon as disgusting or filthy.



Just look at the Fox News debacle over Mass Effect being a "sex simulator" and "pornography" because you saw some side-boob. Now imagine if instead of the side-boob we would get to see (male) Shepards ass.



Next on Fox News:



"Mass Effect makes you gay"

Luis Guimaraes
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Did you just say "Fox News" in a serious discussion?

Joshua Sterns
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@ Alexsander



I find it odd that Dantes Inferno didn't make it on Fox. (Or if it did there was not as big of an uproar as with Mass Effect 2.)



Second level in your fighting in Lust. A demonic Cleopatra has tongues for nipples.



The last fight faces you off against a well endowed Satan who's not afraid to have his twigs and berries flapping about for all to see. The closing cut scene shows Dante in his birthday suite.



I'm always amazed what makes the 24 hour news cycle.

Bob Johnson
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@joec



In the context of the article I think we are talking about AAA blockbusters not Farmville or Bejeweled etc.



I believe it is well known that the AAA Game buyer is by far and away the young male.



No one said games won't change. On the contrary I think games that appeal to women will be different than the vast majority of the current crop of AAA console games. Sims is a great example. I do not think it is an example the type of sexualized game the author was talking about.



What I was saying is that I got the feeling the author wanted Playboy to include Playgirl with each issue just to keep the score even with little regard to what either the male or female gamer wants. And with little regard to how economics affect the images in games.

Bob Johnson
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@joew





Read the last paragraph. The author calls out for more women that aren't on screen for a man's viewing pleasure. That seems like a call for more realistic images of women. Or that is what I was agreeing with.

Ian Morrison
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Some really interesting analysis in this article. I hadn't really considered the concept of "male gaze" with regards to what it *avoided*. Thanks Mattie!

Christian Kulenkampff
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Thank you for this intersting article.



I keep posting this, I think it is very representative for all forms of media that contain stylized visuals: http://www.br-online.de/jugend/izi/english/publication/televizion
/21_2008_E/goet

z_herche_body.pdf The article shows that girl characters in children's cartoons are generally more stylized in a sexualized way than their male counterparts.



Videogames often depend on silhouettes, but why is it so important that we can differ between females and males on the first sight? I think it's just a cheap trick to diversify character designs. And then there are obvious one-sided sexualizations like when male avatars become mountains of steel while female avatars wear chainmail bikinis and have the same amount of "armor points". Anyone who wants to change something has to boycott these design choices. And if you create "art games" or other risky game projects sex and sexualization are interesting themes to experiment with :).

Hayden Dawson
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It's not at a commercial game level, but if one wishes such titles, check out the indie VN scene using the ren'py engine. There activity has moved almost entirely away from boy MC chasing girls to girl MCs chasing both boys and girls, with a little boy boy thrown in. Now most of these are done with a 'anime' look but they are short enough to try and most are free to boot! It is just another place that new game designers are practicing their skills.

Christian Kulenkampff
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I think the japanese manga/anime/video game culture is much more open to unconventional relationships and sexual themes. But at the same time there exist strong themes of sexual exploitation...

Benjamin Quintero
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If you want to see the sexualization of men, you are probably in the wrong country =). Japan has a successful nitch of manga and anime that is targeted to young girls and is focused on the lives of various androgynous "pretty boys" or highly metro-sexual school boys. It's kind of a popular thing right now, but I don't see that specific market doing well in America, though I could be wrong.



There certainly are girl gamers out there, but last time I checked, girl gamers don't often flock to games made for girls. Those games often try to exploit some kind of motherly instinct or teach family values about keeping your house clean and raising farm animals. I would imagine that most gamers; boy or girl, would enjoy many of the same experiences.



Still, I could see a game asking you (the player) about your age and sexual preference and tailoring some of those heated camera angles. It would be a relatively cheap and effective way to personalize the experience, using the same core game play that any gamer is drawn to.

Isaiah Taylor
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Let's not forget that there is a lack of diversity in the games industry to start with. A game "made by women" doesn't mean that the game's production was indeed under the control of women.



Not only this, but these games made for girls that are trying to illicit a mortherly instinct and teach family values [example: the Imagine series] could possibly be coming from a warped or out dated vantage point.

Kaitlyn Kincaid
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"There certainly are girl gamers out there, but last time I checked, girl gamers don't often flock to games made for girls."



cause 9 times out of 10, games made for us are low budget, have no technical advancement, poor graphics, rotten gameplay, contain sexist cliche after sexist cliche and just plain SUCK!

Gerald Belman
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I've always been a big fan of anthropology (and judging by the way you talk, I can see that that is a large part of your background). And promoting egalitarianism is almost always a good thing for everyone in my opinion. But a little helpful criticism - don't cloak it so much in anthrobabble. Stop pretending like it is possible for you to be neutral or that you would even care about the subject if you couldn't change it. We all desire to have an effect on society. Make your stance clear from the beginning - a disclaimer of sorts. AND THEN try to be neutral.



Anthropologists have a tendency to think that they can repress their moral feelings. That is pretty much impossible. Just make it clear where you are coming from before you begin your analysis.



Oh and by the way - have you seen Gears of War muscle men. Just because it is not illegal to show the male chest in public (in the U.S.) doesn't mean that it isn't sexualized. I cite david David Hasselhof's bouncing pectoral muscles in the Baywatch opening intro. It's legality has more to do with the history of fieldwork being done by men in U.S. culture (as well as the sheer physics of the situation - women often need a little more support in the chestal region).

Lars Doucet
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This whole thread is really fascinating. I have nothing smart to say that hasn't already been said by the author or a commenter, so I instead present a funny moment:



"the history of fieldwork being done by men"



At first I read that and thought, "Ah, he's saying something interesting and subtle about anthropological field-work being a male-dominated perspective."



Then I realized you were talking about guys doing farm work with their shirts off.



I now return everyone to their regularly scheduled intelligent conversation.

Gerald Belman
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Yea, I actually had an image of David Hasselhof and Pamela Anderson in a wood chopping contest with their shirts off. One of them is a little more practical from a chestal physics standpoint. I would even go so far as to say that Pamela Anderson chopping wood with no chest support is just inherently dangerous and not just for herself - I mean she could hit David in the face and knock him out.

Shawn Covington
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In jest: Come on, we saw how sexualizing men turned out back on the NES when Ironsword put Fabio on the cover!



In seriousness: Doesn't sexualization really take context, rather than simple straight imagery? I mean, skin is skin. That shot of (insert lead female from pretty much any game ever) is emphasized not by how much skin she's showing, but the mixture of angle shots, camera pans and both vulnerable and suggestive poses to suggest it. If she's just showing skin, but taking "normal" poses, it's not going to excite the same way.



As an artist, a truism I like to share is "naked people can be modest, and clothed people can be naughty." It's simply a question of body language and how the camera highlights them. If you really want to sexualize men in games, it has to start with the behavior and camera focus on the character itself, and not just the visual aesthetic.



Also, speaking from personal vantage, I would suggest that certain kinds of sexualization are not discomforting. As long as the character has enough depth, such a character can be the object of envy or a sort of role model. If he's just there to be sexual and has an unnatural focus on his hotness, he's creepy. If there's a brain to him, he has realistic goals and is strong, there's a sort of positive idolization that goes on - "Huh, I wish I could be him."



One game I'm playing right now has a supporting male modeled after Tom Selleck's role in Magnum PI. The guy can get away with wearing a cyan hawai'iian shirt with a pink trenchcoat, (which he somehow makes look GOOD) and mostly this is due to him not behaving as simple window dressing. They showcase a fairly wide range of personality traits from his "manly" side, to his paternal side, to his vulnerable side. From what I've seen, most male players of the game seem to respect or idolize the character because he does everything they wish they could get away with: his list of character flaws are a mile long and they're "MANLY FLAWS!" (Or put another way, they're "flaws" that other guys see as positives, but know are flaws.)



Which gets to another point - Most sexualized characters of both genders tend to have absolutely no negative points what so ever other than being vulnerable to the designated love interest/player. That's just disturbing period, regardless of what gender you are.



To draw a serious subject to a close with some humor: Worst case, an overly sexualized lead male could probably get a pass from most guys just by having him order everything with bacon.

Jeanne Burch
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Someone's already mentioned manga/anime as areas where men are routinely sexualized for a female audience. Likewise Japanese and Korean RPGs/MMOs have male characters that are eye-candy for females. Although the selective showing of skin may constitute sexualization for female characters, I'd argue that's that's not necessarily true for sexualized male characters.



I'll go off on a bit of a tangent by introducing a pop-culture area where I think men are highly sexualized, and that's comic books. Often the depiction of women in comic books comes under criticism/scorn because their proportions (huge breasts, tiny waist, skinny little legs) are completely unrealistic. Although I completely agree that's true, I've noticed that men in that medium have equally ridiculous proportions. Look at Captain America: broad shoulders, deep chest, teensy little waist, tree-trunk thighs. A real man that top-heavy would topple over; a real man with thighs like that wouldn't be able to walk except in a deep-knee bend. Yet Captain America is Marvel Comics' "perfect" man.



Comic book men may not show much skin, but they don't need to. Waaay back in the early days of the World Wide Web, I had a website entitled "The Women of Marvel Comics." The subtitle for that site was "Because there's more to comics than just guys in tights." Guys in tights pretty much show everything. (And if you want to talk hyper-sexualization, very exaggerated "everythings"!)



I could understand the outrage over exaggerated female anatomy in comics, but because the males were equally exaggerated it was hard for me to be indignant despite my feminist leanings. In video games, however, I'm often rolling my eyes at impractical female fighting costumes or breasts that are bouncing for no good reason. I remember writing a review about Dragon Quest VIII that started something like: "Poor Jessica. Forced to go questing without the appropriate sports bra." I winced every time she cast a spell because all that bouncing just looked uncomfortable. There's a lot of posing in comics; in video games, where there's movement, the absurdness of female outfits with their selective skin-baring bits (and lack of basic support!) is hard to ignore sometimes.

Kaitlyn Kincaid
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but, is Capt America ripped because readers find that attractive, or is it to convey a sense of power and strength?

Darcy Nelson
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I imagine if someone were to make the Twilight game they would see the sexualization of males put to great use for games. Whether that would be a moral or ethical move is totally up for grabs.

Harry Fields
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LOL, yep, they'd have to license Lautner's abs for the game, then you'd sell a gajillion copies.

Luis Guimaraes
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Last time I checked, Batman was a billionaire, all made of muscles and had a very low voice pinch, and could beat a dozen bad guys with his bare hands.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutraís Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Rob B
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Well men like to see a female body more than women like to see a male body. This isnt a myth, you just have to look at porn, thats an industry that will shamelessly bow to the lusts of the public. The amount dedicated to men is vast compared to that which caters to women. There are no good explanations for why this would be so outside of men like it more. (Not even personal image because these days its easily obtained anonymously and even when it wasnt it was always perceived as seedy.) Unless you really believe our society is so sexist that people would throw away the millions you could make by catering to an unfulfilled market.



So to a degree games are simply catering to this fact just like virtually all forms of visual media do. I dont really see this as homophobic indeed many of the aspects of masculinity that men admire are often greatly emphasized far beyond the heterosexual features. (Though the fervid denial of this fact by many probably is a bit homophobic.)



Frankly I dont really care if the cast of your game is made up of the chippendales in a hooters bar. I think this idea of sexualising characters is massively overblown and covers over the much more important issue of characterisation. You could dress someone with a single piece of tinsel but if they had a compelling, complex personality, life and situation then who cares. Whats more youll find that filling in these details and fleshing out a character will make dressing them up in a bit of tinsel ever more less likely because rounded characters rarely behave like that. (Though lord knows there are some mangas that ruin this theory by taking strong female characters and breaking all suspension of disbelief and characterisation to show panty shots...)



Or to summarise my point, I think looking at the purely objective way a character is portrayed will only ever treat a symptom, until characters are well researched, well formed and not walking clichťs there will be a problem regardless of how they are displayed.



[On a tangential note I feel much the same way about the cat woman debacle. Everyone focusing largely on the sexist comments of characters in game. Why? It isnt even that unrealistic to imagine these kinds of attitudes running rampant in Gotham city. Hell even Bats himself could be tainted by it, none of it would matter _if_ catwoman responded as a strong female character, which lets be fair she really didnt.]

Kaitlyn Kincaid
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"Well men like to see a female body more than women like to see a male body."



[citation needed]



Men will sure spend more money on it, I will give you that. Now, is that due to biology or social acceptance?



" You could dress someone with a single piece of tinsel but if they had a compelling, complex personality, life and situation then who cares. "



yeah... somehow I think the the shoe would be on the other foot if it was your 10 year old kid playing the game.

Wally A
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To see how male sexualization has been used to good effects in other media, just take a look at the recent crop of Marvel comic book movies.



Thor and Captain America arguably sexualized their male characters to a far greater degree than the leading ladies of the respecive movies, with lots of slow motion close up action, heaving muscles, perfect abs and romance novel cover-esque shots. Lots of teenage girls squealing in the theatre during those movies.



Assuming that sexualizing men has to do with lingering the camera around their pelvic region is exactly what a man would do, clueless as we are as to what women want.



Solution: Hire women and ask them to give the girls the cheesecake they want. You may be pleasantly surprised with what you see in the end.... and I'm pretty sure it won't be easily mistaken for soft homoerotic porn.


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