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Video: Sexism and sexuality in games
June 19, 2013 | By GDC Vault Staff

June 19, 2013 | By GDC Vault Staff
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Smartphone/Tablet, Design, Production, Video

This article is being highlighted as one of Gamasutra's top stories of 2013.

"Are we requiring the female protagonist to work harder and sell more in order to prove herself?" asks Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider, in this GDC 2013 video about sexism and sexuality in games, free courtesy of GDC Vault.

In examining his own career, Gaider takes a brief look at how romantic characters evolved from Baldur's Gate II to the Dragon Age series. While he recognizes not all games can or should be all things to all people, he believes the industry could be less dis-inviting of players who would otherwise be paying customers.

He urges those who choose to design minority characters to consider their roles and purpose in the game. Additionally, he suggests those of privilege to seek out possible groups affected by design choices and talk to them, or if security requires it not leave the office, to hire diversely. Their unique viewpoints, he said, should be considered "assets," not "affirmative action."

Session Name: Sex in Video Games

Speaker(s): David Gaider

Company Name(s): BioWare EA

Track / Format: Design

Description: Games have reached the point where realistic portrayals of sex and adult relationships are possible, but what does this mean to us as developers? How much responsibility do we have in addressing issues of sexism and sexuality, and are we inadvertently making statements about what is acceptable, even when we don't mean to say anything at all? Our industry is struggling with a conflict between the desire to be taken seriously as an art form, and the desire to avoid addressing social issues because what we make are "just games." These things have implications on our sales, and while they can be addressed, it can only happen if we are willing to acknowledge that greater discussion of the topic within the industry is merited.

About the GDC Vault

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent GDC events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers. Those who purchased All Access passes to events like GDC, GDC Europe, and GDC China already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscriptions via a GDC Vault inquiry form.

Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company. More information on this option is available via an online demonstration, and interested parties can find out more here. In addition, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault admins.

Be sure to keep an eye on GDC Vault for even more new content, as GDC organizers will also archive videos, audio, and slides from other events like GDC China and GDC 2013. To stay abreast of all the latest updates to GDC Vault, be sure to check out the news feed on the official GDC website, or subscribe to updates via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS.

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Maria Jayne
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This was a really good talk, he reference something I believe strongly in. It's not about scrubbing away what we have now, it's more about adapting what we have to include others. Variation and inclusion of diversity is far more likely to succeed than turning your game on its head and losing your existing audience.

Further to that it's also ok that all games don't cater to all people, the problem is how you define that as ok when you're trying to explain some games should. I like that Dragon Age and Mass Effect has bisexual characters, I'm not sure making a bisexual character in a video game context necessarily enhances that character as a personality, but at least it's a step in the right direction.

Kenneth Poirier
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Dante's Inferno has a penis. I was pretty impressed they had the guts to put that in.

Harry Fields
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In GTA5, I remember parachuting out into some log cabin compound on the side of mt chiliad. Half the people in said compound were naked, complete with penis. I had to do a double take. And then I just laughed. It was like, "well played, RockStar.... Well played...".

Michael Johnson
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The acceptance of female character is proportional to the number of males playing the game. It's only natural to accept your own gender over the opposite.

Female characters may have to work harder, but that is the product of the market place, not sexism.

Tasley Porter
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@Michael Johnson: What you just said doesn't make sense. Please give us some examples of what you mean and explain.

Michael Joseph
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lazy thinking says
market forces dominate
score one status quo

Abby Friesen
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I just now noticed
your reply is a haiku.
You are really cool.

Bob Edwards
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Interestingly enough, Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and the Damned also had full frontal male nudity. It's also played relatively straight which is interesting, since Rockstar generally fills their games with fairly "juvenile" humor.

Joel Lamotte
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A quick note about the slide about video game box covers picturing "sezy" women: I believe Bayonetta's marketing is, depending on the country, pretty poor because it often don't reflect the actual feminist vibe of the game.

It reminds me of Heavenly Sword. After looking at some artworks I figured the character was not meant to be sexualized, she has long hair and long legs which help giving a nice flow of movements (and also her clothes). I was really surprised when I saw that in the US cover box they removed her clothes....

Which makes me think that really developers should be in control of their marketing, because it's the first message/signal about their games that any people get outside.

Karin E Skoog
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Interesting you bring up Bayonetta. That was one game I didn't buy and didn't do much research into, specifically because of the box art and screenshots. David Gaider summed up the reason around the 38 minute mark of his presentation, "At some point, you need to consider whether you're actively disinviting players who would otherwise be paying customers." It may seem rather ridiculous to place so much emphasis on the box art and screenshots (don't judge by the cover), but when it's the art that's being used to promote the game, it's hard to imagine there being much of a point to the game as a whole, beyond the hypersexualization of women.

That also happened for me initially with Kill Bill - the cover art and posters with a woman in a full spandex suit entirely turned me off of wanting to do anymore digging into what the movie could possibly be about. (It isn't necessarily a hypersexualized image, though that's a matter of opinion.) While I did eventually end up watching the Kill Bill movies and liking them, it's just one example of how something so 'minute' (depending on your definition of minute) can turn off a potential buyer so completely. The points David Gaider raised in this presentation were excellent, and the examples he gave of potentially turning off specific demographics from playing/purchasing a game strongly resonated with me.

Torbjorn Kallstrom
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Bayonetta is totally hypersexualized. But it makes sense in the context of the game because that's the whole point to begin with.

I do think, however, that sexy women simply sell better than the opposite, to both men and women. It's not just something I'm saying to justify the way things are. But if you go to the nearest store and look at the magazine rack, even the magazines for women, by women, have beautiful girls on their covers. In fact, most of the magazines with attractive looking males on them are targeted towards men. This is something I think goes much deeper than any instance of "male privilege". I also know from anecdotal evidence that attempts to change this standard usually are met with a decrease in sales for the publisher. We'd like these things to be completely black and white, but in the end it isn't quite as simple as just making it the same for everybody.

Steven Christian
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In Bayonetta, as you build up your power combos, she loses more and more clothes until she's completely naked.

Why are people surprised that this game is referred to as sexualized?!

Kaitlyn Kaid
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You talk about how... "stylized" women tend to sell better than men and it reminded me of a story a friend told me once.

She had lent her favorite novel to one of her friends (I'm afraid I can't recall the title anymore). The lead character was a queer woman of colour. After three weeks she asked her friend how he liked the book and he said "Oh, I couldn't really get into the head of the character, so I put it down and started reading < generic sci-fi military shooter tie-in novel >"

And it got her thinking... how must it be to be utterly saturated with media with "you" in it that you can just put down something different and pick up *nearly any other media* and see your face in it? For me to find any media (novel, game, movie, you name it) with someone "like me" I would need to wait a very long time, but "hetero white male" is *everywhere*.

Her friend never needed to try and ID with someone outside his exact demographic because... well why should he? All the "best" summer blockbuster movies, all the top novels, all the best TV shows have people like him as either the sole main character, or as one of the major leads.

The point I'm trying to make is that "stylized" women don't sell great to women because we want to buy a game with a giant pair of body parts on the front, we buy them because there are few if any other options. You want to play games? you buy the box art they make for the boys regardless of what's in your pants... or you put it back on the shelf and don't play.

Steven Bobson
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The Kill Bill cover art isn't sexualized, the suit in both the film and art is a reference back to Bruce Lee's film Game of Death, which martial arts fans would be well familiar with. In this case I believe the art is there to turn martial arts fans on to the film and does a much better job than the films actually deserve.

Steve Jakab
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Criticizing Bayonetta for sexuality is like criticizing Bugs Bunny for violence. It's so deliberately over the top it goes into the realm of absurdism. And as Steven B said, the poster for Kill Bill was about classic martial arts movies, not sexism.

fred tam
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Honestly if Kill Bill and a "spandex" suit can turn you off, I don't think you should be the one to set the bar of "acceptability".

First of all, that "spandex suit" on Uma Thurman wasn't that sexy by any straight male standard, second of all that "spandex suit" was an homage to Bruce Lee, it was a fighter unitard, not a sex uniform.

So not only was that unreasonable, its clearly based on ignorance of the pop culture which the film is referencing. You aren't the target fan, and if your mind isn't open enough to buy something because of box art, its not really something developers should be concerned about, this "policing" of content creators is exactly the problem people should deal with, its just not justified.

And I'm really tired of straight men having to apologize for their sexuality. If a game isn't catering to you, that is fine. Men shouldn't be demanding less words and more pictures in 50 shades of grey either, as the demand would not be genuine no matter the change, and that's just the truth of the matter. It doesn't matter how few words are in 50 shades of grey, I'm not buying it, no different than most men. Men buy most action orientated games, its just the truth of the matter. There is gender difference, and the female preference should not be the universal default.

Marian Lea
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"If a game isn't catering to you, that is fine."

Here's the thing Fred, I play the same games as you. And I'm never fucking buying 50 shades of grey. Our gender difference is clearly an ocean?

I am female, and I play the games that are being catered to you. No games that I want to play are catering to me. Perhaps they never will. I'm not asking for the games I want to play to be catered toward me. I just want them to not be constantly telling me I don't matter in the slightest to them. Because that's what they do. And that's what you're doing. The main difference between us is, you seem to expect the things you like to be catered to you and only you. Congratulations, the privilege of having that actually happen must be awesome. It never happens to me. So, I don't want to be catered to, I just want to be invited to the fucking table. I'm setting the bar low here.

And let's be clear, your imagined "female preference" isn't what I'm looking for. I'm sure I wouldn't like whatever the hell that may be. I don't want the games to change in content, I just want to see more strong, kick-ass female characters showing up. Because that wouldn't change the content of the games at all. It wouldn't change the characters, other than their external genitalia. I wish you could understand what it's like to LOVE sci-fi and video games and almost never have a character of your gender that you can relate to. It sends a really bad message about what it means to be female. And that's messed up.

You know what would have changed about Halo if the Master Chief was female? Not a damn thing. Are Metroid games catering to women because Samus Aran is female? Nope. You want to assign Metroid to "female preferece" because of that? Doubt it. That's all I want. More Samus Aran's in the gaming world. Because the overall message is that female characters are somehow less or weak or different, and that's bullshit.

Bro. Your table. I want a seat at it. I want the industry to look at me and say "Oh hey, come on in. You're welcome to hang out here." You already get everything. I just want to not be ignored. How can that be too much to ask for?

hanno hinkelbein
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amazing talk! really nailed these issues on the head. i hope a lot of people on the money giving end will see this and listen

David B
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Simple. If the developer worrys about the likeliness of parents refusing to purchase their game for their older teenage children (because honestly, who hasn't had a game bought for them when they were growing up, which was not suitable for their age?), or for those who's personal or religious beliefs prevent them from looking at nudity or sexual films/games, or perhaps maybe it just seems morally wrong to mess with pixels in that way.
- simply make some parts of the game that introduce the sexual content, as Downloadable Content purchasable via a small in-game store fee.. for the pervs of the gaming community. :P

Like for example:
You get to a scene on the next mass affect game where you see the lady character undress. Without the DL content this would not reveal the naked body, and would only show you stuff that we currently get to see in games these days. But say you download the extra content? Get to see them naked, any hidden sex scenes added, possibly some stupid perverse costume where you can run around naked lol, etc. Why shoot yourself in the foot when you can provide both for the customers? Parents win, pervs win, developers win, everybody wins.
Anyway have you checked out the skyrim steam mods? Got more nude and sex mods available than any other game out. o.o

Jonathan Murphy
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I argue the most disturbing trend is asexuality. Chris/Jill Resident Evil, Street Fighter, Mario Brothers. They have relationships but no children, seemingly no progression. Scores of game franchises display asexuality, or brush off the idea that kids equals no more adventures. Entire decades go by for games like Resident Evil. Chris is still hunting bio weapons. Tales based on Moby Dick? Every main character is a semi Captain Ahab?

How are gamers supposed to learn anything about relationships when given examples like this?

Steven Bobson
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Why is it the responsibility of video game to teach gamers about relationships?

Luis Guimaraes
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"How are gamers supposed to learn anything about relationships when given examples like this?"

By going out, meeting real people and having real-life relationships, like it has been done for tens of thousands of years maybe?

Not everything is supposed to be video-games (in the case of relationships, if you're gaming it, you're doing it wrong). Video-games are for the things not safe, not feasible, not affordable, not healthy or not supposed to be done in real life.

Some things are meant to be Real. Not Fictional nor Virtual. Real.

It's the "a game you can wipe a tear of a child's face and feel the wet in your finger" thing. Really, lots of real children cry in the real world every day, go wipe their tears instead! The worst thing you can do is making a simulation to pretend to be helping fake Virtual and Fictional people while Real people are in need, I can't think of anything more pretentious and useless than that.

And this went a bit off-topic and became a rant about a tweet from years ago... dammit. Well, I had to get that off my chest.

Happy New Year.

Jonathan Murphy
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If you argue we aren't supposed to have real life examples, then why argue games are too sexist? If you want to change it you need to address all the offenders, not pick and choose the most offensive.

Asexual based characters are just as much a problem as sexist ones. There's a gap between playing it too safe and going too far. Not many companies have bothered to fill that gap. We need more variety.

Luis Guimaraes
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I really don't get how what you're saying correlates to my comment. Are you sure you're not bringging something else into this discussion? I know I went a bit off-topic maybe you got back on topic that's why it makes no sense.

I'm not saying we aren't supposed to have real life examples, but the opposite: that video-games are not supposed to replace real life in healthy and necessary real life matters. And I never talked sexism or argued games being sexist, and the other comment also didn't, I only commented on the sentenced I quoted, that's why I'm lost here as to what you're talking about.

Steven Bobson
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> If you argue we aren't supposed to have real life examples, then why argue games are too sexist?

Games are art. Art doesn't do what you want it to do, it reflects the creator's sentiments. Some of it is uncomfortable, some is sexist, some highly racist, all while still being art. We have seen all of this in the film world... Birth of a Nation, Triumph of the Will, etc.

You don't get to add an external agenda to art... too sexist, not didactic enough, whatever. You don't get to define its purpose either. That's not how it works. People will complain about it until the universe dies. What those people really want is not art that reflects the creator's sentiments, but art that reflects their own sentiments. It's unfortunate as art is one of the best windows we have into other peoples' experiences.

Games are also products. Most are not "pure" art. Agendas are added to them specifically to make them sell. A sexist or racist agenda can affect sales. Mario not having children is not likely to affect sales.

John McMahon
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Sorry Steve, but when something is "art" the creator's sentiments, intentions, whatever does not matter a flicking tick.

Once art is released to the public the culture will either latch onto it or not. They may see something in that "art" that the creator never intended and in some cases really dislikes that the culture took in a way against what the creator wanted.

Art is put into the public domain (not in terms of legal ownership), the public can then twist and turn the images, messages, and themes of that art into whatever they want, the creator be damn.

Kaitlyn Kaid
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Mario Broes also fails to teach children propper firearm storage.

If you are going to argue about the things it fails to teach then argue all the things it fails to teach (see how silly this argument is).

They don't teach about relationships because *that is not part of the game*. Bayonnetta however, skimpy outfits and really strange wobble physics IS part of the game and thus is very suitable grounds for criticism.

John McMahon
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Some games do teach about relationships and others do not. Each game is different, but that is not to say that games should *not* teach anything to kids.

Just like lessons we learned from books, movies, tv shows, comic books, etc games will/have teach/taught many things to many people whether the message/lesson was intentional or not.

Matthias Rigling
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"I argue the most disturbing trend is asexuality."
"Asexual based characters are just as much a problem as sexist ones."

I do realize this post is a couple of months old, but I'm just reading this now and... wow. There isn't even a word for this, is there? Aphobia? Wait, wouldn't that describe the opposite of a phobia... seriously, I had to google this and came up with "acephobia", which has like 4.5k results on google and probably isn't used outside the world of tumblr.

What does it say about our society and media, if not depicting/implying sexual activity could be considered disturbing or even equivalent to sexism?

Abdullah Kadamani
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If it makes you feel any better. Ken From Street Fighter 3 (possibly 4 as well) finally married his long time girlfriend. He still travels the world and delivers boots to the head. And as far as decades go, you have to think of in game time. What is decades for you or me is really more like 5 years or so for Chris. Honestly I kinda like Chris and Jill's dynamic where they are good friends and combat buddies. Kinda nice that something (games movies books, etc.) remember that men and women can just be friends and not force a romance angle. That said how much of that was intentional and how much was because Capcom didn't dare to change up a character dynamic put in place since the first game is up for interpretation.
As for the no children = no adventures thing. Games, movies, books, really any media treat children as the end or at least an extended hiatus from adventures, is because that is what it means for most people in real life.
Kids means settling down, creating a stabilized life for them or at the very least trying to be there for them instead of running off to punch the Shogoth in what passes for its face.
Women in particular are expected to rework their lives to revolve around children when they get the little buggers. Men can get away with having a kid and still adventuring to an extent but players will still give him the stink eye if all he does is adventure and fight ( Like how adult viewers realize Goku from DBZ never got the memo he was suppose to taper off the training)
My points being: Kids are treated as the end of adventures because that is what real life treats them as. Ergo by keeping your characters more or less asexual you can prolong the "good times" as it were.

Abdullah Kadamani
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I have no clue how I double posted, could someone please delete this? I didn't mean to double post.

Katy Smith
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Oh man, Gamasutra's reposting this article now? Are you trolling your readers? ;)

Matthias Rigling
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I actually appreciate it. The talk is relevant and makes great points... it's also refreshingly calm.