16 min read
Opinion: Video games and Male Gaze - are we men or boys?
Game Developer's Brandon Sheffield claims the game industry at large still treats women primarily as a vehicle for the display of boobs and butts, saying this is a natural extension of who we put in charge.
[Game Developer magazine EIC Brandon Sheffield makes the claim that the game industry at large still treats women primarily as a vehicle for the display of boobs and butts, not only in games, but within the culture at large, saying this is a natural extension of who we put in charge.] I won't pretend to be above biology: I like boobs and butts as much as the next hot-blooded heterosexual male. They're just about the most aesthetically pleasing configurations of fat and muscle you can find on a person, and I am far from being immune to their charms. But women are a lot more than boobs and butts. That may seem obvious, but the game industry and its fans are demonstrating their ignorance of that fact time and time again.
But I'm not stupid -- I know why we put ladies in these ridiculous costumes, and I know why Blystad doesn't get what the problem is. It's because we, the people making the decisions on these games, are largely men, largely heterosexual, and as such we like looking at boobs and butts, and we are making this game for others who feel the same way, which is inherently limiting. This is the very definition of the Male Gaze theory, which is at the heart of much of the discussion we're having about women in and around games these days.
I'll back up for a second -- Gaze, as an analytical term, refers to the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. The one who gazes, the viewer, is generally looking at the viewed object (or being) with some desire or fantasy projection -- why else would it be a gaze, not a glance? The theory goes that when one is gazed at, the person being viewed loses some sense of autonomy. You realize you are the subject of scrutiny, and it makes you self conscious, or at least more self-aware. This can even happen when we scrutinize ourselves in a mirror.
Male Gaze, then, has to do with the relationship between a heterosexual male viewer, and a female that is being viewed. The theory poses that in media like film, photography, and I would here add games, when a heterosexual male is in charge of the viewing of a female, the resulting media necessarily reflects that male's gaze. In the case of games, this may be more of a collective gaze.
In cinema, for example, if a camera follows the curve of a woman's body, or keeps her cleavage in primary screen real-estate, that is an example of Male Gaze. Or in games, consider the Golden Axe Beast Rider trailer in which the camera pans down from the protagonist's butt to reveal enemies in the distance. This was a conscious choice someone made when creating this trailer. Note also that the two top-rated comments are in reference to this scene, which altogether should give you a pretty good idea of what Male Gaze means, and the simplest forms it takes. [Note: the original version of the trailer linked is this one which has more views, and has the mentioned top-rated comments. It was not viewable in the U.S., so was replaced. -ed.]
As an example, when the camera pans down and looks down her cleavage in a cutscene, what does that show? The developers and the game's viewers are being made to be complicit in Lara's sexualization. These shots are planned carefully -- there aren't a lot of accidents in a large-scale production like this. If the camera says "I want you to be able to see her cleavage" versus "I do not want you to be able to see her cleavage," this makes subtle, but undeniable statements to the player. And it is certain that this statement is being made by a male, generally for other males.
There's a lot going on here. Certainly, almost all heterosexual men like to look at sexy ladies. This is why advertisements ask us to associate access to boobs with Bud Light, or Nascar. May I submit that this is not a positive or progressive way to deal with women, and that this attitude is running rampant in the game industry as a whole, not just in middle America. Even the new Tomb Raider, which is trying its best to be different, seems to be taking a rather uncomplex look at female power. There are a lot of ways to make a strong woman without confronting her with sexual violence. Consider the power dynamics in the movie Labyrinth, for example. Back to the idea of loss of autonomy -- Lara can't choose whether people are looking at her cleavage, that choice is being made for her. Sure, she's digital, and maybe we shouldn't care so much about sexual fantasy. But we also do this with real-life women in our industry.
I see it everywhere the gender status quo is challenged. Kotaku Australia's Katie Williams' experience at E3, in which a male PR person decided for himself that she probably couldn't play PC games, is another recent example. The assumptions people make about women in our industry are further examples of Male Gaze, in an industry that is only 10% female. Is it any wonder that the number is so low, with the way we depict women in games? With the way we treat women, professional and hired, at trade shows? With the fact we clearly pay them less than their male counterparts, as the Game Developer magazine salary survey shows?
Worse than the initial presumption that she wasn't able to play games were the reactions to her complaint. A thread began in Neogaf, ever a bastion of progressive thought, in which people posted images of her they'd found online, discussing whether (and how) they would have sex with her. This is a rather obvious negative example of Male Gaze. Or take the situation of a female player in Capcom's reality show Cross Assault, in which her breasts and thighs were filmed, along with commentary from the competitor who was manning the camera. She was essentially forced to quit the show to stop being harrassed.
Believe it or not, this sort of behavior happens constantly, albeit on a more subtle level, at industry events. I introduced Mariel Cartwright, lead animator of Skullgirls, to a male developer at a party at the last GDC, saying she worked on the game. He immediately responded, "oh cool, you mean like in PR?" instantly presuming she couldn't have possibly done any "real" work on the product. Indie game dev Mare Sheppard (N+) frequently has things she's said about code in games attributed to her male partner Raigan Burns instead, or is ignored in a technical conversation. Erin Robinson (Puzzle Bots, Gravity Ghost) told me when it comes time to meet people at parties, she's the only one who awkwardly doesn't get a handshake. Several other women noted that this had happened to them as well.
Everyone looks at opposing genders differently, but above all, we need to imbue our professional interactions with feelings of respect, and not make value judgments just because someone is female and understands how to dress themselves.
Nobody does this to men in the industry. Nobody says Cliff Bleszinski is wearing such a tight shirt today, and oooh I'd love to rub my hands all over him. At least not to the point where he's uncomfortable at tradeshows. Likewise nobody sexualizes male characters. Some may argue that Kratos represents an unrealistic image of a male, but there aren't massive forum threads dedicated to whether and how people would like to have sex with him. Kratos, Marcus Fenix, and their ilk, are the object of power fantasies, not sexual fantasies. There is a huge difference there. You want to be as cool and powerful as Kratos. Again, nobody wants to be Lara Croft all the time.
Isn't that a little overly simplistic for an industry that can show the horrors of war, the sorrow of losing a child, and other complex scenarios? We can clearly do better. But our views of women are almost always coming from a single perspective; the Male Gaze. When you diminish the female perspective in sexy scenes, and guide the viewer's gaze, they wind up reinforcing stereotypes and tropes that appeal exclusive to heterosexual male sexuality.
There are deeper societal issues at root here, and we can't change all of society. But the fact is we are not all of society. We are an elite group of people that make games that show what we think and feel about the world. We can't change everyone, but we can change our industry, and we can change the depiction of women in our medium. If we do that, we may even influence public opinion.
By representing women in this mono-dimensional manner, both in games and at industry events, we show, subtly or overtly, that we think women are nothing more than boobs and butts. Simultaneously, we males represent ourselves as nothing more than a cock and balls. As males, through our depiction of women in media, and how we treat them in the industry and community, the message we're pushing hardest is the one Katie Williams unfortunately stumbled into; "I would or would not have sex with you."
Right now, any women who are standing up and talking about these issues are being attacked by game communities and the internet at large. Sarkeesian's kickstarter is up to almost $160,000 now, which is amazing. But it also shows that her supporters are largely silent, because how much have you really heard on her behalf? Her detractors on the other hand, are decidedly vocal. I encourage those who see issues like this not to back down in the face of overwhelming adversity. And I encourage game developers to think about this issue of Male Gaze, and how we can minimize it with the addition of female voices in positions of power. At the very least, we can be aware of our own gaze, and take it to task.
And that's just it. Above all: think. Think about the statements you make with your art, your stories, your characters. Publishers at E3 think we're all still 14 year old boys. But we're not ... are we?
Thanks to Tracey Lien, Mariel Cartwright, and Kris Graft for their feedback on this article.