It would be nice if it were that easy. Even casual gamers have surely noticed the conversation surrounding women in videogames, from their dismissal as consumers to the declining number of female protagonists to the now infamous ‘tropes’ of their marginalization. The industry pours untold millions into marketing campaigns and the repetitious sexualization of the female body is an industry wide pledge of allegiance to the age old adage: sex sells.
Unfortunately, selling sex is becoming compulsory. In mere hours,Danielle Riendeau’s review of Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown has already become infamous for its understated discussion of the alienating effect of the ubiquity of sexualized women. While Riendeau praised the game’s lush visuals and addictive (though repetitive) dungeon crawling, her view of the game was lowered in part by its treatment of the female characters. Riendeau writes:
[quote style="1"]Dragon’s Crown’s serious liberties with female anatomy are distracting. Two player characters — the Amazon and the Sorceress — are explicitly sexualized, with breasts literally bigger than their heads with rear ends to match, and plenty of the screen real estate is dedicated to their respective jiggles and sashays. But at least these characters are powerful women, with agency and a penchant for destroying rooms full of bad guys. The same can’t be said for the female NPCs that fill Dragon’s Crown’s dungeons and other environments. Most of the women in the game are barely clothed, with heaving chests, backs twisted into suggestive positions, some with their legs spread almost as wide as the screen. They’re presented as helpless objects, usually in need of rescue. It’s obvious, one-sided and gross.[/quote]
Well, the internet wasn’t having that. The commenters rebelled against Riendeau, with accusations of a feminist bias repeated dozens and dozens of times with some gamers even calling it ethically unsound: personal opinion shouldn’t factor in a review. Certainly readers have a right, if not duty, to be critical of reviews but the hundreds of negative comments have distressing similarities to the notoriously unconscionable treatment of female critics like Leigh Alexander or Anita Sarkeesian. In a previous article, I connected this silencing of female critics with gaming’s creative stagnation. For this industry to evolve, it must accept a plurality of criticisms and viewpoints.I’ve already cited the brilliant Chris Franklin’s take on reviews, but it bares repeating:
[quote style="1"]If you really think games just need a funtional [sic] review of mechanics/stability then you strictly view games as product & I feel sorry for you[/quote]
A holistic review of a videogame goes beyond the bounds of “objectivity.” The very nature of the medium denotes interactivity. Certainly, the degrees of success in the design and execution of the mechanics and concepts within a game can be parsed out, quantified and discussed but that alone is a gross dilution of what games are capable of. This medium is more than its mechanics. Every player engages with every game unique to the experiences they bring to playing it. Erasing the player’s role while citing “objectivity” devolves the medium. Compounding this is a climate of anti-feminist misogyny, which codes the women, especially feminist women, as alien and hostile to the industry. In actuality, the feminist perspective has potential to enhance the industry. This is captured beautifully byMatt Sainsbury’s take on the Dragon’s Crown controversy:
[quote style="1"]So here’s the thing that these people just don’t get; to hurl abuse at someone because they’ve written a feminist critique of a game is to argue that games are not art. The point of art, and the reason art is so valuable, is that it creates conversations around it. Those conversations don’t have to be pleasant, they can be critical, and through it we come to better understand the artwork and the context through which it exists. Feminism concerns itself with the way both men and women are portrayed in art, and questions the motives and social implications of these portrayals. To feminism the male power fantasy is as much a concern as female objectification, and it’s for much the same reasons; because it represents unhealthy expectations and attitudes towards what is considered “ideal” by both genders in society.[/quote]
Is feminism subjective? Certainly. But it is also a crucial lens in contextualizing cultural artifacts like videogames. To foreclose on feminist criticism of videogames because of its “subjectivity” is fallacious and reductionist – it decreases the possible ways that videogames can help us to understand and contextualizes various cultural expressions. In a 2009 interview with Gamasutra, Dear Esther creator Dan Pinchebeck said spoke of changes within games, as the industry “[has] been chipping away at the idea of pure, escapist, fun, or changing how it fits with the [FPS] genre. We don’t demand that any other form of media has to make us feel great and happy and powerful all the time, it’s quite the opposite often. So it makes sense that games are getting into this, that there’s no contradiction between wanting to continue an experience and the experience itself being quite harrowing or unsettling…of course games are going to tap into that and I think it will make them better games as a result.” As more games feature an expanded emotional spectrum, newer, wider and more expansive tools are necessary to fully engage these games. We shouldn’t be reviewing games in 2013 the same way we were during the PS1/N64 era. We need to change and evolve and appropriate newer, perspectives: a new “gen” of criticism. And this includes feminism.
The problem here isn’t just that widespread industry sexism disincentivizes the feminist subjectivity, it’s that it demarcates feminism as exclusively subjective. The Dragon’s Crown reviews omitting a critique of the women’s portrayal is seen as “objective.” In truth, either is subjective because videogames are personal. As an interactive medium created and engaged with by humans, they must be. And rather than pluralizing the number of culturally legible subjectivities, too many gamers take a single subjectivity (typically a male’s) and codify it as “objective”, othering the feminist perspective as subjective, ruled by illogic. Had Riendeau removed the clause on how alienating the representation of women is, it still would have been a subjective review. How? Ask yourself this: why is there more than one gaming review site? If reviews are “objective” wouldn’t they be identical across the board, negating the need for more than one? Objectivity implies a homogeneity just not possible in an interactive medium.
But returning to the problem of the male gaze and Riendeau, I must say I did find one turn of phrase disconcerting. She calls the game “a fantasy-obsessed teenaged boy’s dream” in the review’s opening and ends by calling it an “unapologetic adolescent fantasy.” Similarly, Kotaku’s Jason Scheier referenced “teenaged boys” in scrutinizing Dragon’s Crown’s art. The male gaze refers not just exclusively to the sexualization of women, but to the prioritization of (assumed heterosexual) men’s aesthetic values in ocular mediums like TV and film. This is an integral tool in combating the objectifying of women, but has since been problematized because of its assumptions of audience homogeneity. My problem with how Riendeau and Schreier use adolescence here isn’t just that some teenaged boys aren’t into breasts while some teenaged girls are, it’s that this tired phrase invokes a link between sexual attraction and objectification. A teenager can be attracted to women and not attracted to the exploitative fetishization of large breasts. This problematic conflation played out in an earlier controversy involving Dragon Crown’s portrayal of women. When Schreier criticized the art style, Dragon’s Crown Art Lead George Kamitani retaliated on Facebook with the following image and caption:
Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt pointed out the blatant homophobia, erasure of queer gamers and asked that developers “speaking publicly to not forget that just because you don’t know somebody exists, whatever their gender, race, sexuality, religion, ability — however they might differ from you or from your conception of your audience — doesn’t mean they don’t. And they might like your games. So be thoughtful and respectful.” Nutt was right to highlight the homophobia here, but I also want to underscore this queer erasure and its relationship to problematizing the male gaze. By implying that Schreier was gay because he didn’t like the women’s designs implies that a straight man would find them appealing, erroneously linking heterosexuality with sexual satisfaction from the fetishized body. Much like the “male gaze” which was problematized for linking gender and sexual identity and assuming all heterosexual men enjoy similar eroticizations of women. Let me be plain: I can be sexually attracted to someone without wanting to fetishize, objectify or debase them. By implying otherwise, Kamitani is justifying the rampant objectification of women as though it is not an institutional design choice, but a natural by-product of being straight. Not the case at all. This fallacy is why the sexualization of women is becoming nearly ubiquitous – it’s erroneously illustrated as natural; and worst of all, inevitable. This has dangerous echoes of rape culture, which trivializes violence against women by presenting the predatory dominance of men over women as “naturally” linked to heterosexuality. Combating these dangerous notions of sexuality is of dire importance.
Does the heterosexual male gaze dominate the design process of the market? Absolutely. But remember, this isn’t “natural” or a necessity. It’s a design choice made from a specific subjectivity. Reviewing and critiquing videogames are perfect places to isolate, contextualize and discuss the subjectivities involved in each game’s creation. Riendeau did her job and nothing less. She was only castigated because sexism not only renders the feminist lens as “bias” but renders the unquestioned, masculinized, male-gaze centric, perspective “objective.” Absurd. Artistic creations are patched together from an amalgam of subjectivities. What gamers need is a larger vocabulary – an expansion, not narrowing, of the spectrum of understood subjectivities.
The problem here isn’t just that widespread industry sexism disincentivizes the feminist subjectivity, it’s that it demarcates feminism as exclusively subjective
And gamers are up to the task. An excellent project is underway now by gamers and developers hoping to divorce presentations of the female body from problematic eroticization. Titled “The Boob Jam,” it’s a gamejam which seeks to “take boobs back” by “demystifying boobs, reappropriating boobs and appreciating or [depreciating] boobs in a way that is not male-centric,” adding to the industry “a lens that is female, or queer, rather than the straight male gaze we are used to.” The problem is not the female body itself, but the way it is routinely fragmented and debased as part of a larger, systematic commodification of women that appraises them by their physical attractiveness.
Review sites committed to discussing how the mechanics of games interact with the human element need multiple viewpoints and perspectives. If the industry is to evolve to the vaunted “next generation” of gaming, it must evolve. Borrowing from Franklin and Sainsbury, the industry must dispel the myth of objectivity by moving from a ‘product’ self-conceptualization to an ‘artform’ paradigm. Not easy in a capitalist industry, but a bottom-up approach beginning with how gamers discuss and analyze games has a lot of potential in catalyzing this transition. Reviews sites like Polygon would do well to show their cards, freely stating the subjectivities of its authors, giving the site an identity. Speaking personally, when I play games I’m especially interested in narrative and progressive representation of women and minorities. A review emphasizing, say, a game’s combat system and visuals wouldn’t give me a satisfying illustration of how much I’d enjoy the game. Transparency in sites’ emphasis would allow readers to find sites that align with their own particulars, be they technically minded, audiophiles, multiplayer focused, etc. This isn’t to segment, or worse segregate gamers, but to show the equal validity of varying gaming subjectivities’. As queer games, women, and gamers of color resist their marginalization and impact the gaming discourse, a new vocabulary is a necessity because while the feminist perspective requires hundreds of comments and a small firestorm to be processed, the “objective” perspective is understood in only two words: sex sells.
Sidney Fussell is a 24 year old freelance writer, occasional stand-up comedian and fulltime gamer writing on humor, violence, mental health and the inclusivity politics of the videogame industry. His personal site and nom de plume is Sangfroid Fussell