Feminism and Games: Rated M for Mature

Posted: October 31, 2011 in Deep Thoughts
Tags: , ,

Men, don’t flip onto the next post or close your browsing window. This really is an issue for you too.

Duke Nukem Forever
This is what 2K Games thinks your maturity level is guys…..

Don’t worry. I’m not going to turn this into a blog for political ranting. But the fact of the matter is that there is definitely some serious conversations that need to take place regarding gender in video games. There have been quite a few forward steps, but considering the age of the industry and the increasing age of the average player, there seems to be little to excuse for the lack of forward progress in the way women are portrayed in game and out of game.

The current thing making me grind my teeth is the warning “This game is rated M for mature.” With few exceptions (Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire for example) what is really meant by “mature” is “appealing to a hormone-laden seventeen year old boy.” Even then, I think I’m not giving the seventeen year old guy enough credit.

Now the problem is not that games that feature sex and violence exist. We all enjoy movies like Die Hard and Something About Mary. But why are video games not moving beyond this mindset? Pong came out almost forty years ago. That was about how old the movie industry was when we got Gone With the Wind. If nothing else, this juvenile “mature” mindset may be keeping us as players from great games.

I do realize that part of it is the incredible risk it takes to make a mass market game. Millions of man hours and millions of dollars go into making a game, you want it to appeal to a large customer base to recover that investment. How much do you risk in the name of evolution and innovation? L.A. Noire bankrupted its studio despite its success.

It’s an easy – too easy – target to pick on the latest Duke Nukem offering (I’ll just give you a link to the Ars Technia Review as they have been pretty thorough). But it really is the pinnacle of the misogyny and pandering. Hopefully it’s also a turning point. The game sold well in the pre-release, but players were not happy at all with it once they started playing it.

It is worth noting that there are no games in which a woman main character has men flock all over her while she makes demeaning jokes about them

The demographic of gamers is changing. Eventually the maturity level (whatever the actual rating of the game is) has to catch up to that. Right?

  1. TimmyMac says:

    To be honest, I think this issue is real, but too much is often made of it. I’ll admit I’m out of the loop regarding Duke Nukum, but I know that it’s a legacy game dating back to around the time of Doom, which is pretty darn old where FPS games are concerned. The genre has clearly evolved, both in terms of graphics and interactivity and as a storytelling medium, and the same sorts of software are used as a basis for everything from Portal to WoW to software used by SWAT teams and firemen to get a feel for a building before entry. (Pitt was working on that last one while I was a student there.) That said, the character is still the same, and the people who buy the game expect that continuity. It probably isn’t the best place to look for a progressive attitude.

    Having said that, we both know that many games do have very strong female leads, and have for a very long time. Samus from Metroid, Sarah Kerrigan, and even Lara Croft (the 150% boobs thing notwithstanding) are all female characters who are every bit as capable as their male counterparts. Even Princess Zelda, the quintessential maiden in distress, has gotten into the fight and rescued herself a few times, and several survival horror games feature women blasting away at zombies and monsters as well as or better than the guys, most of whom often seem to have become said zombies. (Is it just me, or are there generally more male zombies than female in video games? If so, is that sexist?) Women in prominent NPC positions as the heads of governments or companies are also not all that unusual, and while female villains aren’t exactly common, I’d hardly call them rare.

    It seems to me that when you talk about the way women are portrayed in a video game, you’re really talking about the game as a story. For the most part, the choices which are made are there to say something about who the main character is, rather than to deal with the women as individuals. In the case of Duke Nukum, the message seems to be that this guy is at best a hero in the tradition of Hercules (who killed his wife, I believe), Beowulf, and the Vikings and at worst an anti-hero who could easily be considered a villain in other circumstances. The message is made clear in a way that couldn’t be easily portrayed in any other way. If you’re objection is to that type of character or that type of story I don’t blame you, but it seems to me that such treatment is intended to set a character starkly apart from his society rather than to try to influence it. Then again, I haven’t played the game, so I could be wrong.

    • LX says:

      “In the case of Duke Nukum, the message seems to be that this guy is at best a hero in the tradition of Hercules …..,”

      Frome the Ars Technia review:

      You see, the women in the alien craft are being forcibly impregnated by the aliens, and during your journey, you hear a mixture of screams and sexual noises. After I accidentally blew up a few of these female victims in a firefight, Duke made a joke about abortion.”

      The fact that anyone involved in the making of this game thought that the above would in any way be acceptable, much less a charming tongue-in-cheek homage, says worlds about what they think of their player base. And it doesn’t say anything good. It goes beyond me, as a woman, being offended. It ought to offend any men playing it that someone thought they’d have a good laugh about rape victims being killed in crossfire. This is why gender issues in video games are important. It’s not about some kind of Title IX “we need equal and dignified roles.” This hateful, misgonystic crap being sold as humor – as mature humor – hurts everyone who plays. It keeps video games in a ghetto as a form of entertainment that doesn’t have to be taken seriously. It makes gamers easier to ignore as a movement and as a voting bloc by associating us with hateful attitudes like this.

      And Kerrigan might be a badass with overwhelming power who holds the fate of the universe in her hands. But her functional ghost armor has been replaced by a zerg carapace that naturally forms a bustier, corset, and stiletto boots. Not an egregious sin, but still just a bit marginalizing

      • TimmyMac says:

        OK, fair enough; not surprisingly, Duke Nukum is offensive. Not sure he was always that bad, as I never really played his games, but that’s more than a bit extreme. As I said, I was ignorant of the example. Frankly, I think I’ll stay that way apart from what I’ve learned here. I wasn’t part of their fan base to begin with, but I’m not about to join.

        As for Kerrigan, I was actually pointing toward her characterization and role in the story. Pre-Zerg she’s someone you could easily admire, and even post-zerg you can sort of respect her as a villain. If you want to criticize the artists attempts to capitalize on her sex appeal that’s fine, but that hardly puts it out of sync with the balance of the culture and media at large.

        • LX says:

          Okay, we can put Kerrigan aside for the moment. The whole “evil women dress like sexy dommes” trope is far older than the video game industry after all.

          But do you really not see how this is more than just a women’s issue? Do you really not see how incredibly offensive it is to everyone that something like this – with over a decade of development, thousands of man hours, and millions of dollars invested in it – was allowed to ship and expected to succeed? As a man, aren’t you offended that you are expected to find this entertaining?

          Duke Nukem is far from being the only example. This is why it is important to look at the industry through a lens of gender equality. It’s not a matter of “I want to play a girl barbarian.” It’s not a matter of “there need to be more strong female NPCs.” It’s not even about chain mail bikinis. It’s about players – men and women – being marginalized. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for me to be offended about my gender being portrayed in such a way that our suffering is a form of entertainment. And I am suprised and disapointed that developers think that grown men will “get it” and think it’s funny. That there are men who do think this is funny doesn’t make it right.

  2. TimmyMac says:

    OK, last one was stupidly long; this one will be short. It is true that there are no games in which a woman main character has men flock all over her while she makes demeaning jokes about them. The conventional wisdom is that the appeal of such a character would be limited to a relatively small demographic, at least among men (I won’t speculate on women.) That said, there is no doubt that such characters and stories do exist, and that it wouldn’t take a great deal of time online to find them if one were inclined to look. If the costs weren’t prohibitive I wouldn’t be surprised to see this niche market produce a game for itself. Make of that what you will, but it seemed pertinent.

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