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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.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

June 29, 2012

17 Min Read

[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.

Video games and Male Gaze

Recently I did an interview, an excerpt of which you can find here, with Hitman Absolution director Tore Blystad. If you haven't been keeping up with the franchise, a recent trailer for the game got the internet up in arms, as it depicted sexy dominatrix nuns being violently dispatched by the protagonist Agent 47. Blystad is a nice, well-meaning man that simply doesn't understand why anyone is mad about the trailer for his game. This is actually a very large part of the problem. Blystad isn't sure why this trailer in particular upset people, when he feels this is the way the series has always presented itself. When I asked him why these ladies were in dominatrix gear, and why they had to remove their nun costumes before coming to kill Agent 47, he said the ladies are "dressing as something less conspicuous, getting up to their mark, and revealing their true colors." He does not realize that giving these women dominatrix outfits as their "true colors" is the problem. Think about it logically for a moment -- if you were going to assassinate someone, would you wear the tightest thing possible? Would you expose your breasts to the world, essentially creating a target for a bullet? Probably not. Ryan Consell writes about this clothing phenomenon (and how to fix it) to excellent effect in his article Fantasy Armor and Lady Bits. 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.]

Real ultimate power

Some folks argue that these women are strong, kill lots of men, and thus are positive characters. But take a look at these ladies from Tera Online. They may have crazy superpowers, sure. But they are nearly naked to the eye of the player, and the target player here is clearly male. All their power is stripped away; their primary function, the reason they were created, is to be sexy for a male gaze, to draw males to stare at them. When you look at that picture, do you see "powerful mage" or do you see "hot girl." Let's be honest here! I know what I see. The "but she's powerful! She's a strong character!" argument has been the line of defense for Lara Croft fans for decades. And it's true that recent games have made an effort to decrease her bust size, and her overall sexualization in certain ways. But with the new Tomb Raider, the idea of Male Gaze takes a more complex form. Her grunts and groans throughout the game's ordeals have been dubbed "torture porn," and that's certainly one aspect. But then there are the threats of sexual assault, which the team hopes will inspire you to "protect" her. As producer Ron Rosenberg told Kotaku, "When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character, they're more like, 'I want to protect her.' There's this sort of dynamic of, 'I'm going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.'" Why don't people project themselves onto Lara? Because "people" means males. Nobody (well, almost nobody) wants to be Lara Croft, not even women, because Lara is very much the subject of Male Gaze in her games, and who wants to open themselves up to that sort of scrutiny? Getting a bit deeper, while many women do want to be attractive to males, which is part of why women's magazines often take a Male Gaze perspective as well, they don't want to be only that. They don't want to be stared at all the time, by everyone. Lara is at no point "just a person." At some point in the new game Lara will have to survive an attempted rape [Crystal Dynamics has since attempted to back away from this description -- ed.]. It is possible that the team will attempt to address issues of gender and sexuality in games in a way that will push the medium forward. But allow me some skepticism, when the game is coming from a decidedly male perspective. 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.

Booth babes and a fall of confidence

Walking around E3, I was rather embarrassed by the proliferation of booth babes that had been hired to shill product. The argument I made on Twitter was that if you need to rely on breasts to sell your game, you undervalue your product by essentially admitting it can't get attention on its own, and you make a statement that your game is directed primarily toward heterosexual men. I recognize that sex sells, but E3 is meant to be a trade show, in larger part. It's billed as a gathering of professionals, and that includes female developers and executives. It's insulting that my fellow professionals, who hired these booth babes, think so low of me and my peers that they think they should attract us with boobs in push up bras. Are we all 14 years old over here? It's patronizing, even as a male. Imagine being a female game developer walking through that environment. On Twitter, folks made the argument to me that these girls are getting paid, and thus there's nothing to complain about. Well, their choices aren't for me to judge. There's always someone willing to do something for money. That doesn't mean it's positive. (As an aside, I heard tell of one booth babe putting deodorant on top of her shoulder, given how many sweaty armpits people were putting around her.) I got a little flack for speaking ill of the booth babes, especially from folks saying "well, it's everywhere." But I'll tell you who got it much worse than I -- game industry veteran Brenda Brathwaite (Garno), who made essentially the same arguments on Twitter that I did. The big difference between us, aside from her having more followers to rile up: She's female, I'm male. This is where the concept of Male Gaze comes back in. The reactions boil down to, essentially, "I like this, and who are you to say otherwise?" People are offended at the idea that anything they're doing or enjoying could be wrong, and lash out as a result.

Then why do you wear makeup, slut?

The anger that is directed toward women who speak their mind about gender issues in the game industry is astounding. A few weeks ago I wrote an article about and subsequent interview with the creator of a card game called Tentacle Bento. This is a game where you play as a tentacle monster, and grab as many girls as possible for your own "nefarious purposes." I found the game extremely problematic, and that it trivialized the idea of rape from a cutesy male perspective. You can read those links for my full thoughts, but suffice it to say that others vehemently disagreed with me. The amount of ire I got, which was a lot, was nothing compared to the anger directed against female friends of mine who discussed the article. One friend turned off her Twitter for a few days after too many threats of "well maybe you should be raped." Keep in mind, I was the one who started the discussion, and these ladies who merely took up the banner bore the brunt of the assault. More recently, female blogger Anita Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter for a web series investigating female tropes in video games. The response she received was nothing short of disgusting. There was support, to be sure, but there was also a lot of this. Puerile, juvenile responses from men getting upset about a perceived threat to their world. Comments such as "Why do you put on makeup, if everything is sexism? Why don't you shave your head bald, stop wearing makeup and stop wearing huge slut earrings. You are a fucking hypocrite slut." Now, I don't know what Sarkeesian plans for her web series, or whether she's even got the background to do it properly. I hope she does, because this subject deserves proper discussion. But I certainly know she doesn't deserve this sort of ignorant treatment. Where does this knee-jerk anger come from? There is no anger quite like that of the privileged. Here we see it in the raw. In this instance; "We heterosexual males like boobs in our games, and we'll be damned if you're going to take them away." Because they feel threatened, they lash out without thinking about it, like a dog that thinks you want to take its bone away. The behavior seems nonsensical, but it's predictable. 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.

Defeating Male Gaze

If this is how we depict women in games, and this is how we represent them at tradeshows, and how we treat them in professional interview settings and on the internet at large, we not only make ourselves look like children, we keep women from wanting to enter the industry. If that doesn't strike you as a problem, then more fool you. A balanced industry has a balanced perspective. Female sexuality isn't inherently negative in media, and I do want to stress that. Sexual dynamics can bring up a lot of interesting mature themes across the board, when treated with intelligence and purpose. But most of the time in games it's treated without any sort of thought, as was the Hitman: Absolution trailer. Most of the time the thought is simply, "well... we have to make the female character sexy, so let's show off her boobs and hips." It is an absolute given that female characters must be somehow sexy. We don't have this same rule for male characters. 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.

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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