Gender Portrayal and the Meaning of Game Elements

In any discussion about gender portrayal in games, someone will talk about how female characters are unrealistically hyper-sexualized. Many people argue that it may have a lot to do with the fact that most game game developers are male and so don’t have anyone to act as a check against their juvenile urges.

Regardless of the reason, I wonder why hyper-sexualized elements, or any elements of a game, end up in the finished product if they aren’t specifically called for by the game designers.

In many good films, every scene is planned out in painstaking detail. If it’s on screen, it’s probably there for a reason. I remember an art teacher in high school talking about a film about people getting into brawls. He said that as far as you can tell, it’s just mindless fighting, but then if you listen to the director’s commentary, he’s talking about the symbolism of the design in the carpet during an overhead shot. If you are paying attention, you might appreciate the parallels with Greek mythology or some modern-day conflict.

In good books, every piece of dialogue, every name of a character or town, every situation is absolutely needed to push the plot along. Nothing is there without a purpose. If the protagonist encounters a dog on the side of the road, it isn’t because the author just happens to like dogs or decided on a whim to add this encounter. There is some reason why this encounter exists in the finished text.

And so with good games, shouldn’t we also expect that the game designer will add elements to a game on purpose? If you’re going to create hyper-sexualized female characters, how much thought have you given to why? Does it add anything meaningful to the game, or was it thrown in without much more thought than, “Well, I’d prefer to see this sexy figure if I’m going to be playing this game, so why not?”

I recently watched Kim Swift’s Indie Games Summit 2007 talk about her team’s journey from student developers to Valve employers. Narbacular Drop is the precursor to the very popular game Portal. While the entire 32 minute video is a good for indie developers to watch, I found her comparisons of Narbacular Drop to Portal fascinating. She mentioned that Narbacular Drop‘s art design and theme wasn’t well thought out at all. The dungeon didn’t have much meaning besides being a place to host the game. The laboratory setting for Portal, on the other hand, was carefully thought out from the beginning.

A long time ago, character design was limited to what blocky pixels allowed. Today’s Mario has overalls, a hat, and a mustache because it made it easier to see him in his first games. Today’s technology removed such limits from developers. They could be more purposeful with their art direction. Is your own personal variation on the hyper-sexualized female character really adding anything meaningful to your game? Is its presence meant to say anything other than “FEMALE PLAYERS UNWELCOME”?

7 comments to Gender Portrayal and the Meaning of Game Elements

  • […] of GBGames chimes in with an excellent question about Gender Portrayal and the Meaning of Game Elements. Go and see if you can answer […]

  • Novack

    I dont get it. Why do you think that a sexy-well defined elf girl its ofensive for a woman, and a warrior with the muscles of Hulk Hogan, the armor of a medieval night and the sword of He-Man, its not to a man?

    Maybe you should explain a little more what exaclty do you mean by “hyper-sexualized”, or even say what game/s are you thinking that shows your point.

  • Novack, I didn’t say anything about what exactly offends women or doesn’t offend men; however, there is a difference between tasteful sexual content and content for titillation’s sake. I didn’t say that sexy was offensive. You can have sexy characters in a game, and it wouldn’t be offensive. I’m all for sexy characters. The problem with gender portrayal in games, and other media for that matter, is that it tends to be misogynistic and/or chauvinistic, and it sends a potentially horrible message to the people playing.

    As for specific examples, do a search on “hyper-sexualized”, and you’ll find that the term is used in complaints against the content of movies, music, advertising, and other media. The results specific to video games go into examples you can find if you want to read those articles. I didn’t want to address the topic of specific examples because I believe that there has been enough written about them by myself and others. My purpose in this post was to ask if such content in games is being put in consciously and for good reason as opposed to being thrown in on a whim with no thought to how it would impact the overall vision for a game.

  • Thanks for the great article. I just played Portal and was struck by how gracefully it handled with a lot of the game-related gender *and* story issues that I’ve been mulling over.

    For Novack… the difference between idealized female figures and idealized male figures in games is this: For women, sex can be threatening. For men, it never is. Duh.

    When women look at gaming culture and see a lot of double-D nipple cups… they might find themselves wondering if those representations really do indicate how male gamers see them. And it quite naturally might turn them off from the whole experience.

  • themcp: Actually, sex can be threatening for men as well. Still, many people have written to argue that, in general, there is a difference in audience reaction to hyper-sexualized characters. It isn’t enough to “even things out” by making hyper-sexualized characters out of both genders.

    I just wonder why the designers of these games deemed them necessary.

  • Well, I think it’s a matter of picking a target market and maybe focusing on it too heavily. Somebody in the marketing dept had a hand in deciding how these games would be designed.

    The gaming industry found out that it could sell games very quickly and reliably by targeting teenage boys and 20something men.

    The downside is that I think they’ve let other markets stagnate. They are only just now realizing that they need to develop other potential game buyers if they are going to stay healthy.

    I was talking with my partner about gaming memories as a kid… I remember our first game machine (Texas Instruments, anybody?). My whole family played those games. I used to come downstairs at night for a drink of water to see my dad or my mom plugging away at TI Invaders or some such.

    Where are those gaming experiences nowadays? Hard to find, as far as I can see.

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