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Gender identification in video games, part 2

So. My post on this topic yesterday was rushed, and that’s unfortunate because it’s not the best idea to rush through a discussion comparing video games to pornography…especially when the subject of depicting attempted rape comes up. Sorry about that. I’m going to work through things a bit more thoroughly here.

The idea that pornography is about the viewer inserting him or herself into the role of someone in the movie is not a new one, and works pretty well to explain some things that otherwise seem mysterious– such as why male porn actors tend to be so well-endowed. This doesn’t seem to have a purpose when you consider that the viewers of porn are most often straight males, who presumably don’t have an interest in the penis size of the guy on the screen. Unless, that is, they’re watching while imagining themselves to be him— the man on the screen, doing whatever he is doing to the woman on the screen. Then it becomes important because they’re not lusting after the man’s genitalia; they’re actually viewing it as their own equipment. The man’s appearance apart from this doesn’t matter, because again he is not an object of attraction for our straight male viewer– he’s a stand-in. Some straight men dislike even the presence of this stand-in and restrict themselves to “lesbian” (scare quotes because sex between two women filmed for straight men is not the same as sex between two women filmed for women) porn, but still the presumption is that the viewer is actually or potentially involved in some way. They’re either having sex for him or their sex is about to include him, or both. This also explains why porn for straight men often isn’t appealing to women– we don’t necessarily want to project ourselves into the role of that woman on the screen, who is doing things and having things done to her that don’t look very fun, and whose primary job is to look good (to straight men) while doing them, though her partner’s appearance may leave much to be desired.

Yellow Valkyrie
shot the food!

Now. I’m not going to say that playing video games is, for a woman, like watching straight porn made for men…but there are similarities. If you’re female and you refuse to play any video game that involves playing a male character, you probably aren’t playing a lot of games. RPGs often give you a choice of gender, but not always. Or they will choose a gender for you if you want to play a certain class– remember Gauntlet, when you had the choice of being a male elf archer, a male human warrior, a male human wizard, or a female human valkyrie? I was quite happy to play any of the above (especially the arcade version, with four kids lined up in front of their respective joysticks, playing on the same machine), but my brothers weren’t. Even a tiny collection of pixels vaguely resembling a top-down view of a female fighter wasn’t desirable to play. Of course, on the intro screen she looked like this:

Highest armor class…because of the shield, I guess.

In 1985 I wasn’t old enough to give a lot of thought to why a female fighter would be clad in a bikini, and have skinny arms and waist and ample cleavage– I just knew that boys didn’t want to play her. Later I would learn that sometimes boys do want to play female characters, but in that case it’s generally because of her physical attributes, and by that I don’t mean her rippling muscles indicating great strength. Most people play World of Warcraft in third person, which means that instead of seeing the world through the eyes of the character (first person), they see the back of their character running around. It’s not at all uncommon to hear a guy who plays a female character in WoW explain it by saying “Look, if I have to watch someone’s ass move back and forth, I want it to be a hot girl’s!” Even so, there are players who actually are suspicious of anyone who plays characters of another gender because they think it means that person secretly wants to be that gender– though for some reason, they don’t seem to be apply this thinking and conclude that people secretly really want to be druids, mages, rogues, and so on.

Women/girls play male characters for a lot of reasons: Sometimes they don’t have a choice. Sometimes they just enjoy role-playing (as a lot of guys do too). Sometimes they would prefer that no one know that they’re female because they’re afraid of being harassed, which is a reasonable fear to have. Just being on the internet is an incentive to hide your sex in order to avoid the hassle of being antagonized for it, and that goes doubly, triply so for how you present yourself in-game. You might not have the option if choosing a female character, but if you do, you will very likely only be allowed to choose one who is…well-endowed, and has selections of armor that accentuate or just outright reveal this. This will get you hit on in-game. If you are able, and decide to go against this and play a character who is less conventionally attractive, you will be harassed for playing someone who is not hot enough.

If anyone tries to tip her, they’ll regret it.

Just as an aside here, a lot of people are very offended by the word “cunt,” and consider it about as sexist as an insult can get. I get where they’re coming from, but for me a far more pernicious word is “cow.” “Cow” is not even an obscenity, which makes it seem odd to be more offended by it. But precisely for that reason it’s also used a lot more often, and exclusively for women. That being the case I do sometimes wonder what Blizzard was thinking when they decided to create a race of playable characters based on minotaurs (man-bull hybrids) called Tauren, knowing that people would play both male and female. What did they think people would call the females? Don’t get me wrong– I love the Tauren. I think they’re beautiful and powerful, and I appreciate their Native American-esque culture which seems fondly reminiscent rather than like caricature. It’s just that being referred to over and over as a “cow” gets rather stale. To be fair to Blizzard and every other MMO developer, however, they have problems of this kind whenever they try to invent a new race. You’ll notice that the “cow” at right doesn’t appear to have udders (and if she does, they’re well-hidden indeed!); instead she has human-style breasts of a conventionally attractive size and shape. That’s most likely a concession to both male and female players, because I don’t think anyone wants to play a character with mammary glands that resemble those of any non-human mammal. That’s a bridge too far even for those of us who are comfortable playing a human-animal hybrid otherwise– when Blizzard introduced the next such race, the human/wolf combination called Worgen, there was a lot of disagreement about how to make them look, but I seriously doubt any of it concerned what kind of breasts the females should have.

One of my favorite games, which I won’t claim to be in the top 25 or so best video games of all time but which entertained me thoroughly, was Sid Meier’s Pirates for the PC. Pirates was originally published in 1987, but I didn’t discover it until the revamped 2004 edition came out. Pirates was great because it was an open world game in which you had a basic plot line and goals– you played a young man whose family had been kidnapped by pirates years ago for being unable to pay a debt. Your character had grown up, become a pirate himself, and was on a mission to locate and recover them, along with as much gold and notoriety as he could manage, and then give up sailing the open seas for a respectable job and home in the Caribbean, at which point the game ends. You could retire in this way at pretty much any point in the game, but the object was to do so after having accomplished as much as possible while you were still young and able (the passage of years does age you and decreases your abilities, so time is of the essence). Your performance would be tabulated at the end in terms of how many family members you’d managed to rescue, how many notorious pirates with bounties on their heads you’d managed to best in combat, how many historical relics you’d managed to dig up, how many accolades you’d received from the countries represented in settlements on the islands, and…whether you managed to bag a hot wife. Not just a wife; a hot one.

Now, context– it’s a game about pirates. Egalitarianism is not a reasonable expectation, though this depiction of real historical events is about as close to reality as the recent Pirates: Band of Misfits movie. Pirates are not presented as good people exactly, but as sort of chaotic neutral people who could be personally quite nice and loyal to their crews but ultimately served their own interests. And one interest is persuading the daughter of a high-ranking and wealthy official of a Dutch, English, Spanish, or French settlement on the islands to marry you. This is accomplished by giving her gifts, dancing with her, and eventually besting the fiance (which she apparently acquired in your absence) in a sword fight. The daughters look different according to their nationality of origin, and also come in three varieties: rather plain, attractive, and beautiful.
You get the feeling that if “rather plain” took off her shawl and unbuttoned a few buttons she might become worth a few more fame points, huh? Kind of like one of those “nerdy girl to knockout” movies where you can tell what’s going to happen right away because a pair of glasses, no makeup, and unkempt hair don’t do much to disguise things. Oh, and of course some clothing shortening/tightening/removal will happen along the way.
“Beautiful” has it over the two in that she’s got a collarbone that could cut glass and generally more closely resembles a “real” housewife of Orange County, which is a bit odd considering the minimal availability of plastic surgery in the year 1660. I didn’t remember this, but according to a guide I looked up there actually is a benefit in romancing rather plain and/or attractive daughters in addition to beautiful ones, aside of course from their sparkling personalities– they will give you gifts like spyglasses or fencing gloves, whereas beautiful ones will not. Apparently they’re above it? Plain daughters are the first to actually notice you and be willing to dance when you’re just starting out as a pirate, whereas the other two won’t give you the time of day. That means that you get a chance to practice working on your steps with that homely mayor’s daughter from Caracas before attempting to land the hottie governor’s girl from St. Kitt’s. In a blog post called “Bigamy,” one player describes how he successfully wooed and married a fair-haired beautiful girl from an English town, earned his ten points, and returned later to find that the town had fallen to invading Spaniards. When he went to visit the new Spanish governor, he discovered that his wife now looked quite a bit different:

She’s changed from being English to being Spanish, but she’s still my wife. In other words, I’m married to “the daughter of the Governor of Tortuga” — whoever that may be! What an amazing concept: being married not to a person, but to whatever person is pointed at by a reference! You could do strange things if that worked in real life: “I am married to whomever is in this bed with me” or “I am married to whomever pays me the most this month”. Wow! Oh well, at least I have a goal now: attack enough Spanish shipping that they put a price on my head, then attack Tortuga, install an English governor and change my wife back to her original incarnation.

I’m just trying to imagine an action/adventure game in which your character is female, and one of the achievements in the game is to find, woo, and eventually marry a man who is “handsome,” as opposed to “attractive” or “rather plain” (but go ahead and get friendly with those other two as well, because they’ll give you things). You don’t have to pursue the romance option in Pirates; you can avoid it altogether if you want. But you’ll suffer both in the process and in the end, because the daughters (at least the plain and attractive ones) can give you very useful things, and if you decide to retire while still a bachelor your total legacy will be diminished. It’s a nice element that you have a learn an entirely separate skill, dancing, in order to have any luck at all with the ladies, but dancing with you– a fly-by-night pirate who is seeing god knows how many other governor’s daughters at the same time– must truly be the highlight of their otherwise dreary, island-bound lives. Imagine if things were reversed.

If things were reversed, how many guys would play the game? I’m guessing not many. But I’m also guessing they would bitch mightily if the game was otherwise incredibly well-made and enticing enough to make them want to play it, except for that aspect that female gamers face all of the time, which is being made to be the characters you’re playing and not just controlling them, even if they’re the opposite sex.

That’s why, in spite of all of the entirely legitimate concerns people are voicing about the attempted rape of Lara Croft being too close to home, too real, too unreal in terms of how she deals with it (rape, and attempted rape, not being things most women can just fight off or which should be presented as challenges that make them stronger)…in spite of all that, I don’t think it’s necessarily a horrible idea to have that element in the game. You would just need to make damn sure that the player actually identifies with Lara first, actually feels like they are her, in order for it to be of any benefit. Which…okay, is kind of a pipe dream to have about a video game, and one whose primary audience is probably majority male, and young at that. Hmm. Guess I just talked myself out of that one.

1 Comment

I'm not sure if I can agree with you on your assessment of Sid Meier's Pirates. Assuming you are aiming for the highest possible score of 126, you really cannot afford to turn down any governor's daughter under any circumstances for the first 90% of the game because you need the stuff and the information that they can give you, which will be as follows:
BEAUTY              REWARD #1                REWARD #2
Plain               Criminal                 Item
Attractive          Item                     Raymondo
Beautiful           Raymondo                 Montalban/Lost City map
Reward #1 or 2 depends on your performance during dancing. If you mess this up on any occasion with any daughter not yet married to you or fail to beat her suitor in a duel further down the line (they will even make you fight duels with other suitors if you are already married at this point), she will never talk to you again, which is completely independent of any other factors like your rank or her beauty.
Therefore I'd say that the power dynamics are surprisingly even for the 17th century.
The game also punishes settling for 'less'. Even though I actually wouldn't want to romance the women in the 'beautiful' category – they look too much like 2000's porn stars and too little like 'regular people' for me to handle – I don't really have a say in it. This is not only a high score issue. A 'beautiful' wife is also the only reliable source of lost city map pieces on higher difficulty levels. And even then they give you only one fourth of a map every time you do their bidding (making it clear that they have had all the information that you need all along but want to make you pay for every tiny bit that they give you!).
Which leads me to the last point and probably the one you'd most object to (if you ever read that, that is):
The whole game is set up to make the main character an overblown cartoon version of a movie swashbuckler. For this exaggerated pirate hero it is only logical to romance the most beautiful women, change his allegiance at every turn, cheat, backstab and betray and sneak out of prison every time they get caught.
Which makes me okay with what the game makes me do, including everything regarding governor's daughters/wives. But then again, I am a male, so what do I know, right? 😉
Greetings from Germany

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