[8 September 2009]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
From Mass Effect
Several surveys over the past year have pointed out the glaring discrepancy between the treatment of men and women in video games. Although most games show men that have bodies that are just as physically absurd as women, the difference is that women are almost all sexualized and objectified in video games. This often does not vary even if I am actually playing as the character myself. Considering that this a video game, one has to wonder if a player is relating to their avatar in the game the same way that they do an NPC.
The logic behind having me play as a woman in a skimpy outfit with large breasts goes back to a fairly simple discovery in advertising: heterosexual men will pay attention to you if you have one in your commercial. There are basic rules for how to maximize this effect. Skimpy clothing is obviously a factor, but it’s a bit more complicated than just getting naked. A pursed, open mouth indicates submission. Shoulders wide, arms to the side and hanging also arouse attention. Characterizing this sexuality in terms of dialog usually involves the female asking lots of questions or needing the male figure to do something for them. As a consequence of these classic Hollywood and advertising formulas, video games are overflowing with them. Why do you think so many games have a woman, typically very attractive, constantly portrayed as the one giving you orders and asking you to do things? In a medium that targets men with empowerment fantasies, the objectified women in them are often just another part of that formula. And yet when you change the hypersexualized female from a person I’m observing into one that I’m playing as my avatar, none of these concepts work anymore. You are not sexualizing an object for the player’s desire, you are sexualizing the player.
From Tomb Raider
This is the same issue that a study raised a while back, and they were kind enough to post the results on the internet. They applied a two part test to a group of men and women. First, a picture of a hypersexualized female game character was shown to them and they were asked what role they thought she played in the game. The second test presented the subject with two types of games: an FPS where you play a woman and a third person game where you play as either a hypersexualized avatar or a curvy, more reasonably proportioned avatar. Players would randomly start on one kind of game and could switch to the other whenever they chose. They had a set amount of time to play either game. Afterwards the subject filled out a lengthy questionnaire asking how well they identified with the avatar and which game they preferred. The results are not what you’d expect.
For the first part of the study, both men and women immediately noticed the hypersexualized state of the avatar. Although there was a portion of men who thought she might be the damsel in distress, for both genders the overall reaction was to assume that the avatar was the villain or a secondary character. That is, men did not rate the character any more positively than women in terms of liking her.
To summarize the study’s brief description of the sexualized versus curvy avatar, a hypersexual body is a comic book style figure, Curvy is a more normalized ratio of breasts to waist. That is, something that’s physically reasonable. Men both preferred playing as and rated more highly the curvy avatar. Women preferred playing as the hypersexualized avatar. The questionnaire asked men if they would recommend the game to a friend along with their sense of immersion or presence. The study explains, “Men had higher responses on presence and recommending to a male friend when playing as the Curvy figure, whereas women were higher at the Hypersexual figure. In fact, both of these interactions were strengthened. In addition to these two variables, two other engagement variables became significant in the control groups…Men said they would recommend the game to a female friend more often when they played as the Curvy character, while women again indicated higher recommendation when playing the hypersexual avatar.”
The reasons behind this radical departure from expectation are guessed at in the survey. It explains, “The men may be rejecting the hypersexual’s abnormal stature as ridiculous, as one male participant relayed how they often laugh at such portrayals when they play games featuring such characters. A more realistic body type, while still somewhat idealized in terms of voluptuousness, may provide a better draw for male gamers.” Given the inherently empowering nature of a video game, they further speculated that the discovery that women preferred playing the hypersexual avatar says more about the media’s message to women more than anything else. The study notes, “It cannot be simply concluded that women want to play as such characters, as they did not indicate enjoying playing as these characters, nor were they overtly supportive of them in their appraisals. While they might have had some negative perceptions of the character, this did not prevent them engaging with the game more when playing as that character.” That is, they didn’t particularly like the avatar, but they were more engaged and felt more powerful playing as the hypersexualized one. The study theorizes, “A woman may see such a body type as desirable due to the positioning it has in society as the form required to achieve success, particularly in regards to heterosexual romantic relationships. If women perceive this is what men want, and there is an importance ascribed to being attractive to men, then they may be more likely to accept at some level the hypersexual portrayal as the goal.”
A film critic named Laura Mulvey outlined the distinction between when a film is sexualizing a woman and when she is shown as ‘possessed’ by the male character in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. The male audience is first shown the character as voluptuous and beautiful. Every character in the film is in awe of her beauty. But as the hero wins her over and she becomes his romantic interest, her sexuality is played down. The male hero, the male viewer is supposed to be empathizing with, asserts his dominance and this dominance then should not be contested by having other people interested in his objectified female. The problem with video games is that the player is both the hero and audience. The avatar who is sexualized is also the person that we are identifying with anytime we are playing the game. As Mulvey points out most men, “cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification. Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist image.”
The issue of objectified and hypersexualized women in video games is often glibly dismissed because the target demographic for games is still 18 to 35 year old heterosexual men. That’s why the study is really interesting, it disputes the entire notion that this demographic enjoys playing as these hypersexualized avatars. Mulvey’s explanation for this discrepancy obviously comes with caveats: a great deal of this comes from Western Culture instead of any universal rule for men. Still, it’s important to realize that appreciating the trailer and images from Bayonetta engages this group with the usual formulas taken from film and advertising, but playing the game is another deal entirely. Perhaps the reason a game like X-Blades bombed was not just the shoddy gameplay, it’s that no one in the primary demographic that is targeted by it wants to play as a woman in a thong.