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

June 19, 2013 | By GDC Vault Staff
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    29 comments
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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Comments


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

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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@Torbjorn

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.

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.

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.

Arman Matevosyan
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I've heard this argument a few times this year. Games are art, therefore they must be taken seriously, therefore they should remedy socio economic imbalances, therefore the gaming industry needs to hire more diversely (aka re-branded affirmative action aka reverse racism/sexism). Is that about right?

Kenneth Blaney
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"Games are art, ... therefore they should remedy socio economic imbalances."
That is actually a great way to put the argument for diversity in games (for example not having straight white heterosexual male be the default). I will likely steal it for future conversations.

The next part however ("... therefore the gaming industry needs to hire more diversely") I don't think directly follows. Simply having a group that is more diverse on paper will not necessarily yield more diverse products. For example, consider that people of color are equally capable of being racist against other people of [the same] color. The problem is, unfortunately, deeper than just hiring practices in a single industry. Additionally, an example of the opposite being true, a mostly white development team making a diversity positive game, is "The Journey Down". So diverse hiring is neither necessary nor sufficient towards the goal of remedying socioeconomic imbalances (but, more diverse hiring will likely be the result of starting to fix the problem).

Arman Matevosyan
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@Kenneth I think it sounds great to say we need more diverse hiring. The real test, I think, will be in a few years. I wonder how popular it will be once people have been rejected from a job they were qualified for merely because they weren't diverse enough.

Luis Guimaraes
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Yes that's the argument. The only bad thing about it is that mostly they tend to do so by less than video-games way.

Confucius said: "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."

In most of the times when video-games have a "message" (actually they're the message IMO, but whatever) it's meant to be heard (meant to be talked about in the news actually, but whatever), and at best in it's meant to be seen.

When the day comes when video-games "messages" go back to the state of being meant to be done (actually it's been like that forever, "I fall seven times get up eight" is about the earliest and most present message video-games have been not carried, been since their inception, and games have been before them for centuries) and only then they'll be able to make any meaningful (oh God I'm using the infamous buzzword myself, drink!) change to the world (still, I doubt we'd have as many indie developers working 100 hours a week to make things everybody else believes to be impossible hadn'd they played the video-games from the arcade era which reflect the struggles and challenges of gamedev a lot more precisely than most of what comes out today).

Robert Crouch
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That's a bit simplistic.

The fact is that games have a limited set of features they can provide to a player. A game is not an accurate representation of a human life.

People in real life have a lot of opportunities. A woman can be strong and smart, a black man can be kind and shy. A white guy can be thoughtful and caring.

Cultures in real life are made up from a collection of individuals. From those cultures we derive stereotypes. We see urban culture and identify that as the culture of black men. We then create a character based on that culture. We don't apologize for that because we're reflecting what we see in our world.

However, there's a couple of problems with that. The first is that for many people, that culture is not something they've experienced first hand, it's just something they've experienced through other media. So you're basing your initial judgment of a person based on a fiction based on a caricature of a culture.

The second is that when you do that, you aren't seeing the forest for the trees. You're saying:
This is a black guy, he talks this way, he acts this way, he's hard, cold, but has a soft side that he doesn't let anyone see. He came from a poor family, he loves his mother, but his dad was never around. He is smart, but puts on a facade to fit in, limiting his opportunities.

This is a white girl, she came from a normal family, but her father worked too hard and didn't appreciate her. She wanted to enter a science career, but nobody had any confidence in her abilities. She had to learn to user street smarts and seduction in order to get her way. She's not as practiced as her white male counterpart, but she's got a different kind of smarts and knows how to use her body to manipulate men to get what she wants.

This is just an example, but both of those are just stories that came from the idea: This is a black man, or this is a white girl. But in reality that is not the case. They are stereotypes pulled from cultural ideas that we hold. What happens when the girl is not that attractive? What happens when the black guy grew up in a normal middle class home with a loving father? What happens when the girl is the strongest person on a team? Or what happens when a black guy is the weakest, but smart? Why is the asian guy good at math and the black guy is the one with the rippling pecs and the minigun?

If you are a black man in real life, you can study math. You can get damn good at it. If you're a woman, you can study math too. You can also get damn good at it. If you're a Chinese man, you can study math. You can get damn good at it. In fact, apart from a little bit of genetic diversity, and a little bit of sexual dimorphism, what a person can actually accomplish is very minor.

Now, in reality, the best female powerlifter will probably be a fair bit behind the best male powerlifter. The best sprinter of African descent will probably be a bit ahead of the best sprinter of European descent. That said, you're rarely dealing with the absolute best of best. A woman might be stronger than a man, even with the same training. A white guy might be faster than a black guy. Anyone can learn pretty much anything, and anyone can struggle with it too.

The problem when it comes to games is just that we give the characters limits on what they can do. A woman in real life might approach a problem in one way. Give a scenario like a woman is locked in a improvised cell made from sticks and wire. The player is also a woman. Now maybe the player would like to try to kick out the door when the guard is distracted and make a run for it. Maybe she would choose to pick the lock with her bobby pin. But instead the game forces her to seduce the guard to get out. It's just the only option given to her based on what is written into the game.

It's that sort of problem that is caused. It's essentially telling people "You can't kick down the door, you can't even try. You're a girl, and girls use their sexuality to get what they want from men with the power."

The fact that she has a bobby pin in her hair isn't sexist, it's a common reality. The fact that she might be a bit weaker isn't even really sexist, it could just be the character. However, the fact that the player is not given the opportunities to do anything except the stereotyped actions that have been written into the game can be. Then those stereotypes persist. Instead of the average man being stronger than the average woman, it turns into every man is stronger than every woman. Instead of women being varied, they all invariably exist to foil men with their sexiness, OR prove their virtue by being incredibly sexy and not using their sexiness to foil men.

In my opinion, that's the issue. It's not even just that we need to be reverse-sexist, it's just that we need to be more normal. Not every woman is hyper attractive. Not every black man is from a broken home in the city. Sometimes the woman is stronger than the man. Women are generally smart enough to cover their abdomen when they are wearing full plate armor. Characters normally have goals, dreams, strengths and weaknesses. We often just let certain characters exist in too abstract a form. The princess who needs to be saved and just hangs around is a classic example. Nobody can identify with that character. That's less of a problem now, because we have the ability to tell a better story, but there's still a common occurrence where stupid girls get themselves into trouble and need men to come and bail them out.

In the end I think what it often boils down to is that people like to play characters they can relate with, and people who see a group they identify with represented in a game want to be able to respect and identify with them as well. When a woman comes to play a game and they are forced into playing a male character, that might not be their first choice since the might relate better to a female character better, but it's tolerable. When they then have to go and save the ditzy girl who keeps doing idiotic things to get herself into trouble, and has no real motivation except to keep getting the protagonist to save her then it's insulting. Likewise when the NPC exists solely to tempt the man with promises of sexual reciprocation.

It's a matter of respect, and a question of whether you can respect the character, because people who identify with the character will interpret that of whether you respect them or their group.

Reverse discrimination doesn't help that. In fact it's patronizing. Sometimes it's a change of pace, but still it's saying "I'm inverting reality for you because you need to be treated specially." when what you should really be saying is "I recognize that an individual's characteristics are different than the stereotype of a group"

The reason diversity helps is just because it will give more perspective. If you have a bunch of white guys working on a game all of their ideas of how women or other cultures would act in a situation is based on just an idealization or stereotype. The more diversity you have, the more resistance you have to those ideas, and the easier it is to break out of those ideas.

For instance, with a bunch of white guys writing a story, if they have to say what an American white guy would act like, they would be hard pressed to come up with a definition. What kind of white guy? There's all sorts! But then you ask what a Jamaican would be like and you'd get a caricature of a black rasta man in dreads and smoking a joint. If you asked them about a Russian they would give you a muscular guy who drinks vodka, or a sexy smooth talking female spy. Put a Russian writer in there instead and you would get a more varied look at the Russians. Put a woman writer in there and you might get a more varied look at women. That's assuming that their ideas aren't shot down by the bro echo chamber.

But enough diversity will start to cause everyone to think a bit more deeply, not just because being sexist or racist is mean, but because being sexist or racist makes for bad character, but if your only perspective is your own stereotypes, you might not even recognize that the character is bad, if you end up reminding yourself "I don't really know the culture, but as a character this would make sense" you will make things a bit less offensive to start with.

When you do something as simple as make an incredibly sexualized woman the cover art, you just send a message to women that it's going to be "that kind" of game. Where the women are there to entice the men. It might be a fun game, but it says to women "this is what you are" even if they want to be more.

Arman Matevosyan
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@Robert I'm sorry but I'm not sure what you mean.


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