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The Masculinity of Gaming

The independent, strong-willed female is an elusive character in video games. Too often female perspectives are dismissed altogether or patronisingly stereotyped into either a two-dimensional damsel in distress or an object of sexuality. However, the gender divide within the industry is not easily simplified into one-sided sexism; rather, via it’s portrayal of emotionless, overly masculine action heroes, male gamers are sometimes stereotyped as well.

We’ve all grown up with characters like Lara Croft, Mai Shiranui (from the Fatal Fury series) and essentially any girl in the Dead or Alive series of games; scantily clad, big busted sex symbols are a stereotype of 90s gaming and, whilst it’s unfair to judge an industry by what it was doing over a decade ago, it’s sad to say not much has changed. However, the representation of women in gaming is at times far more subliminally chauvinistic than those aforementioned heavy-chested characters would suggest; women in gaming have often been relegated to the role of a ‘damsel in distress’. Rather than exerting independence female characters are subordinated to roles akin to that of a captured princess; they merely serve as motivation to move the leading men into action. The Legend of Zelda series and the many Mario games have been bound by this convention for 25 years and, for most games, this trend is the rule rather than the exception.

Nevertheless, it’s far too easy to rant over all the Lara Crofts and Zeldas of video games whilst ignoring the truth that games have actually made a great deal of progress in terms of defining female characters. Metroid is an older example of a solitary female protagonist but many recent games have female characters to brag about as well; in Final Fantasy XIII, Lightning and Fang often serve as great sources of leadership and personal strength, more so than the men of the group, and in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater ,’The Boss’ provides a depth of character and sense of honour that surpasses that of the the archetypal male antagonists of the game. Video games have yet to emerge from and surpass the masculinity that pervades the medium, but characters and games such as these show that they are closer than we think.

Whilst game developers have certainly progressed in regard to female characters, they have largely failed to escape the less obvious problem, of the stereotyping of male characters in gaming. Male characters, especially protagonists (the person that you are supposed to identify with) are portrayed as hard-boiled, thickly muscled men; they rarely express fear nor do they ever show any evidence of emotional weakness. Consider for a moment how many games you’ve played that feature a male main character crying — not a long list, is it?

Some games that do spring to mind are, again, Final Fantasy XIII, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and Lost Odyssey. What’s interesting is that these are all Japanese games; many of the characters we might describe as overly masculinised men in the vain of Duke Nukem (from the Duke Nukem games) and Captain Price (of Call of Duty fame) come from predominantly western developers. So, how do we react to this?

It could be argued that it’s wrong to impose such judgements on video games when many films are responsible for the same stereotyping of both men and women; one need only examine films such as the recently released This Means War and Man on a Ledge to see the truth to this argument. But this doesn’t excuse video games and, especially in the modern day, no industry can react to such stereotypical gender roles and say “we didn’t know any better”. Rather, if video games want to be embraced by the sceptics, they need to be ahead of the curve.

The current state of video games is that, often both genders find themselves pigeon-holed into either complete dependence and sexual objectivism or portrayed as emotionless living weapons; too often characters are defined by their gender rather than their choices and actions. But if we move beyond this, we can develop meaningful characters who truly consider what it means to be a man or a woman and the struggles exhibited by each gender, and when we consider the progress that certain games have made in recent years, we may not be far off.

Tom Mackay

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2 Comments on this post.
  • Dave J
    6 March 2012 at 19:12
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    It’s worth mentioning the Mass Effect series, where the voice actor for ‘femShep’ (the female version of the main character) is far better voiced than the male version. I believe they’re using the female model of Shepard much more in their advertising material for the upcoming Mass Effect game as a result of fan feedback regarding this.

  • Tom Mackay
    6 March 2012 at 21:26
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    It’s a clear sign of progress when a developer is willing to spend time and money on adding a choice of gender for the protagonist; Bioware have a good history of this. As a male gamer I can’t imagine how infuriating it must be for a female audience who constantly find themselves playing male characters.

    I’ve only played the first Mass Effect game but, when I see some of the trailers for the third instalment, I realise I’m going to have to play through the two sequels in the summer break 🙂

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