28 June 2013
The Hypergendered World of Gaming
Games, Gamers and Sexism
Over the many decades of its existence, the gaming community has become increasingly diverse. Though our stereotype of the gamer often remains the young, white and male socially awkward nerd, women currently make up forty-five percent of gamers and adult women gamers outnumber young boy gamers (“Industry Facts”). Yet the stereotype of gaming being a boys’ club persists, both within the gaming community and amongst game designers and publishers. Like most popular media, video games are typically designed for and marketed towards men despite the diversity within the community consuming such media. Professors Jesse Fox and Jeremy N. Bailenson and Facebook Media Solutions Managers Liz Tricase note in the journal Computers in Human Behavior that in video games “men outnumber women and that female representations are overwhelmingly stereotypical (e.g., kidnapped princesses in need of rescue) and often sexualized” (Bailenson, Fox & Tricase, 930). The question of how gender functions in games and within the gaming community is a salient one. The question is unique due to the nature of video games; not only is the format’s interactivity important to consider, but so is the fact that its representations are frequently embellished and hypermasculine on a level that rivals superhero comics and action movies. By utilizing Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, video gaming can be understood as an important locus for the repetition of gender. When critically examined, the functioning of gender in and around video games can be used to understand the implications of video game representation and community behavior. If video games are to continue to maintain a place in mainstream media, or even grow in importance, it is vital that sexist undercurrents in games and the gaming community be examined and deconstructed.
To situate gender within gaming, we first must situate gender. Judith Butler’s theory of gender as performed “drag” is useful for the analysis at hand. As Butler writes in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,”
Drag is not the putting on of a gender that belongs properly to some other group, i.e. an act of expropriation or appropriation that assumes that gender is the rightful property of sex, that “masculine” belongs to “male” and “feminine” belongs to “female.” There is no “proper” gender, a gender proper to one sex rather than another, which is in some sense that sex’s cultural property (Butler 312).
Butler continues, noting that “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself.” “Heterosexualized genders” are produced by the repetition and imitation of a “phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity” (Butler 313). Hashed out, Butler is claiming that there is no kernel of gendered truth within the ‘I’, but rather that all gender is functionally an imitation of an ideal heterosexualized gender. Gender is performed, and as such is constantly in a state of being repeated, futilely attempting to attain the heterosexualized ideal but only succeeding at repeating an unstable imitation of the phantasmatic ideal.
It is easy to map Butler’s logic on to the functioning of gender in games and gaming. Gaming is a literal performance, especially in games such as role playing games (RPGs), massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) and open world games which typically afford greater flexibility in characterization and action. In video games, roles are typically highly gendered in a way that could easily be described as embellished. Common tropes such as the grizzled soldier or damsel in distress reinforce gendered demarcations and stereotypes. The literal performance of these roles opens space for a greater reification of gendered stereotypes than might be offered by media that is simply watched or read. By looking at gendered game play in video games as a locus of gender performativity, we can understand the ways in which video games can both reinforce gender or provide a point of resistance which can be used to disrupt sexism operative in gaming. To do this I will look at sociological examinations of video games which critique both games and the gaming community. This will lay out both the abstract and concrete ways in which gender functions in gaming and open the door for possibilities about what can be done in regards to such functioning.
To first examine games themselves, the popular multiplayer computer game League of Legends is a good point of departure. League has been reported to attract around 12 million players per day (“League of Legends the World’s ‘most Played Video Game’”), making it one of the world’s most popular video games. As such it provides a useful case subject for an examination of typical portrayals of men and women. League of Legends‘ game play centers around controlling a single character as part of a team of three or five players on one of four different maps. The roster of 100+ unique champions contains a large amount of both men and women (and a few monsters, though they are universally coded as male), and the difference in their characterization is striking. As previously mentioned, games typically have sexist portrayals of women, and they exist in spades in League. Women are generally thin, well endowed and wear skimpy clothing. Examples include Nidalee, a busty woman who wears nothing but a top that resembles a cut-off bustier, a loin cloth, gauntlets and boots and Katarina, whose skin tight outfit displays gratuitous cleavage. It is particularly egregious when compared to male characters who, while sometimes scantly clad (the topless Tryndamere comes to mind), are often fully clothed or armored and are portrayed as robust and powerful. They are granted a Subject position by virtue of their strength, while the women’s frailer, more sexualized bodies are ready made for objectification.
Concern over this is not simply a nitpick, as it has cultural and personal implications. On a cultural level, it encourages sexism in the gaming community, as will be elaborated upon later. On the level of the subject, however, these sorts of images can negatively influence the thinking and behavior of individuals. As Bailenson, Fox and Tricase note, “users may embody characters in virtual worlds and experience the virtual body as their own, which has been shown to have stronger effects than passively watching them” (Bailenson, Fox & Tricase 931). In a game with minimal story line and characterization such as League of Legends this is less of a concern. However, many games carry the same problematic representations as League, but with stronger feelings of embodiment. These can have pernicious effects as Bailenson, Fox and Tricase explore. Drawing on a variety of sources, they note that “Sexually explicit and objectifying depictions of women have been linked to self-objectification, rape myth acceptance (i.e., false beliefs about rape that blame the victim), acceptance of interpersonal violence and violence against women, and aggression.” (931) The Proteus effect is operative when people embody sexualized avatars. Bailenson et al. define it as such:
The Proteus effect occurs when a user’s self-representation is modified in a meaningful way that is often dissimilar to the physical self. The user then embodies the self-representation, observes him or herself behaving in this virtual form, and draws inferences regarding his or her internal beliefs or attitudes based on these observations. After embodiment occurs, the user’s behavior then conforms to the modified self-representation regardless of the true physical self (932).
This can lead to self-objectification in women, and in turn “disordered eating, depression, body preoccupation and decreased cognitive performance,” and both men and women can display increased acceptance of rape myths when exposed to media that sexualizes women (932). Ultimately they conclude that “it appears that users of sexualized avatars may be at risk for developing negative attitudes towards women and the self outside of the virtual environment” (935) and “that women can be affected negatively by the avatars they wear” (936). With Butler in mind, this makes perfect sense. People do gender as they do gaming, and given that games display hypermasculine and hyperfeminine ideals as typified by League of Legends, it sensibly follows that people will be influenced by the extreme doing of gender that video games permit.
It is also important to consider the inner workings of the gaming community. We have seen that games are frequently sexist and can negatively affect gamers. How do the people comprising the game community position themselves in relation to games and each other, however? It is important to observe both men and women who game, and how they experience the games and the gaming community.
The gaming community does not traditionally have the most feminist of images, as has been described. Though “the technologies of the new gaming public put on an air of openness and inclusiveness” (Salter & Blodgett, 401) Penny Arcade’s “Dickwolves” incident displays the way in which this is not quite true. In “Hypermasculinity & Dickwolves: The Contentious Role of Women in the New Gaming Public”, professors Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett examine this incident. Penny Arcade, a popular web comic centering around gaming, had a controversial comic spoofing MMORPGs that made light of rape. A number of people were offended by the banal treatment of a serious topic and instead of acknowledging the problem, the creators of Penny Arcade responded with a sardonic follow up “apology” comic, making “explicitly hostile mockery of the readers’ right to be offended” (406). The conflict was further stoked by the creation of Dickwolves t-shirts for sale at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). As Salter and Blodgett describe, “Penny Arcade’s creation of Dickwolves merchandise shifted the conflict from cyberspace to branded physical space” (407), making the hostility even more palpable. In response, blogger and video game project manager Courtney Stanton made a protest shirt design, emblazoned with a phoenix, the proceeds of which went to charities which support rape survivors. Analyzing the situation, Salter and Blodgett note that “women within the hardcore gaming public are given tightly bound roles to play and punished for stepping outside of them” (411). Salter and Blodgett identify a border war over who is or is not a true gamer has erupted in gaming, with women and femininity often ending up casualties as “boundaries act to alienate, separate , and redefine in groups and out groups within gaming” (412).
It is thus clear that not only is there sexism within games, but also within the gaming community itself. This presumably has a recursive effect, with sexist gamers encouraging sexist games with foster sexism. It is clear that women are capable of resistance and speaking out, despite efforts to silence. How though do women gamers experience gaming itself, though? And what other opportunities are there for resistance? Academics Dmitri Williams, Mia Consalvo, Scott Caplan and Nick Yee examine the behavior of gamers, both women and men, in “Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers.” They address the problem by utilizing gender role theory. The hypothesis is, to put it simply, that “at young girls look to their mothers as role models, and are socialized to behave like them when the mothers encourage this imitation. They thus become nurturing and social. In contrast, young males are discouraged from cleaving to their mothers and pushed away” (Williams, Consalvo, Caplan & Yee, 702). In other words, same sex identification in childhood leads to the fostering of gender roles. Young girls, identifying with the mother, become inculcated in feminine gender roles, while boys push away from the mother and end up identifying with masculine gender roles. This can explain the origin of the entrenched gendered “drag” which we all contain.
Unsurprisingly, women and men’s experiences of gaming are slightly different. Williams et al.‘s study of the popular MMORPG Everquest II found that “males were much more motivated by achievement than female players… In addition, the analysis revealed that females were slightly more socially motivated than male players” (710-711). Surprisingly, however, women had more hardcore players than men. As they concluded, “adult women do indeed play online games, including casual and persistent games, and for large numbers of hours weekly. And although women are the minority of players, they are more committed to the game and play for more hours than their male counterparts” (717). However, “females underreported their time [playing] at a rate nearly three times that of the males” (717), so just as women proved themselves to be frequent and competent gamers, they quite possibly often felt compelled to disassociate themselves with a pass time that is largely considered masculine.
This is where the possibility for resistance lies. In her essay, Butler quotes philosopher Michel Foucault, noting along with him that “discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy” (quoted in Butler, 308). Gaming can likewise be utilized as a stumbling-block against the discourses within it that enforce heterosexist gender roles. By playing in a way that values women, such as playing for social reasons rather than for achievement, the meaning created through gaming can in a way be hacked so as to value transgressions of the typical gaming order. Finding or creating spaces for femininity, or for other marginalized positions, can be used as a political tool to reform gaming.
This is what Bonnie A. Nardi notes when she discusses the experience of finding space for herself and others, as a women, in World of Warcraft (or WoW), another popular MMO. In My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft, Nardi calls WoW a “Boys’ Tree House” and identifies the social space as one that “was maintained as one in which males set the rhetorical tone” (Nardi 152-153). However, she also found a feminine elements in the game, both created by players and embedded in the game itself. One example of the former is the way in which a fellow player, Mrs. Pain, “accommodated to ‘rudeness’ [sexist and homophobic profanity and language] by cultivating an in-game social network and through the resource of her maturity” (155). By creating alternate spaces, Mrs. Pain was able to cope with the patriarchal rhetoric in the game. Nardi also found aspects of femininity directly in game play. She explains, “Rather than being expressive of stereotypical masculinist sensibilities, WoW was more nuanced, introducing elements appealing to women (and many men) in both game activities and the presentation of the game space” (167). Through things such as the counter-protests in the “Dickwolf” debacle, the creation of alternate spaces within games, and the encouragement by consumers of game designers to make games more egalitarian, gaming can advance to a more nuanced and equal level.
Gaming is a relatively new media form, so it is unsurprising that it still has a ways to go before it manages to carve out the same potential for alternate, egalitarian spaces present in other media such as film or literature. As shown, gaming’s hypergendered nature provides a unique location for both the reification of gendered roles and their resistance. Just as sexualized avatars can reinforce sexism, so can pro-rape survivor protests, the pro-woman management of game spaces and the woman friendly games provide the opportunity for just the opposite. Because, as Salter and Blodgett identified, negotiations over gamer identity are entrenched in negotiations over women’s place in gaming, it will be a complicated mess to untangle. There is, however, always room for Foucauldian stumbling-blocks. As games and gaming evolve as a form, their content and the behavior of the community have the potential to evolve with them. In the mean time, we can only do our best to help gaming level up and reach its full potential as a media form.
- Bailenson, Jeremy N., Jesse Fox, and Liz Tricase. “The Embodiment of Sexualized Virtual Selves: The Proteus Effect and Experiences of Self-objectification via Avatars.” Computers in Human Behavior 29 (2012): 930-38. Web. 28 June 2013.
- Butler, Judith. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. Ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina. Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York: Routledge, 1993. 307-20. Print.
- “Industry Facts.” The Entertainment Software Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 June 2013.
- MacManus, Christopher. “League of Legends the World’s ‘most Played Video Game'” CNET News. CBS Interactive, 12 Oct. 2012. Web. 28 June 2013.
- Nardi, Bonnie A. My Life as a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2010. Print.
- Salter, Anastasia, and Bridget Blodgett. “Hypermasculinity & Dickwolves: The Contentious Role of Women in the New Gaming Public.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 56.3 (2012): 401-16. Web. 28 June 2013.
- Williams, Dmitri, Mia Consalvo, Scott Caplan, and Nick Yee. “Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers.” Journal of Communication 59.4 (2009): 700-25. Web. 28 June 2013.