Monday, August 25

Where are men from again?

The ideas of masculinity and femininity fascinate me. This is a large part of my life for reasons I will explain in more detail in a subsequent post. Masculine traits exist thematically in games, their characters, online in multiplayer arenas and can be assigned to specific regions. Men aren't really from Mars they're from North America, Canada and Europe.

Development in these countries is predominantly masculine in approach, theme and implementation. GTA IV for instance is so extremely steeped in masculine traits that it's hardly surprising that the only female characters are "victims" of the game. The exploited 16 year old drug addict, the abused mafia daughter, the painfully insecure (admittedly hilarious when drunk) sister of Irish mobsters, and the evil, emotionally manipulative cow who is in a difficult situation because men hold all the power. There's the NPC hookers and strippers and they hold a lot of relevance to the game. Not one female (if my memory serves) has any actual gameplay impact on the game, not in the same way Roman, Little Jacob, Brucie, Packie and Dwayne do. The women are mechanically useless fluff. Thought provoking stuff.

In Mass Effect you get to play a boring goody-two-shoes or a bully who forces others to succumb to his whim. It doesn't matter what gender you choose for your protagonist the traits of play are clearly masculine, a self righteous paragon or a bully. Gears of War. Every first person shooter ever made. Army of Two. Battlefield Rainbow Six Clancy's Men of Killing Stuff in a Manly way because anything else might be gay! Oblivion, The Witcher and Assassin's Creed all informed by the masculine aesthetic. I'm scrolling through metacritic to find games developed in the regions I nominated above and I'm finding none. I'm not saying they don't exist, I'm saying they're rare, very rare. Even Lara Croft is a bloke. Sure she's wearing a female skin but I can't find her feminine qualities beyond the silhouette. If she was an MMO character then a man would be playing her. Shamus Young perhaps?

I can only think of a few women who are indeed feminine that exist in the world of video games. Elena Fischer from Uncharted is one example, although her propensity to play catch up to the men teeters on the brink of de-feminisation I will give her the benefit of doubt as it could just as easily represent the needs of the game's structure and their intent with her inclusion. Ultimately there is enough evidence to claim her as a feminine character.

Possibly the only game developed in North America, Canada and Europe (UK included) that features a clearly feminine lead (that I can think of) is Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. The best part of that game in terms of gender traits thematically implemented in game design is its compare and contrast features that exist between the three main characters Jade, Peyj and H. Jade is a sensible woman, informed with strong feminine traits (mostly), Peyj is the desirable man, the fool, the mechanic, the friend, brother companion. H is the brute, albeit a well meaning brute but he is the man's man. If games can teach and inform then this game suggests ways for boys to impress girls by demonstrating that pig faced goofballs are much more endearing than penis waving (a metaphorical reference - don't buy the game hoping for penis!) machismo bullshit of the boorish H.

In spite of what individuals who will not be mentioned by name might say in the comments I am ignorant. Do you share this impression or do you believe that games developed in the "West" are balanced or even feminine in their themes, construction and character design? If possible could you provide examples either for or against. This is a four part series of posts so there's more to come… where women are from, the genderless experience and finishing with a personal exploration of why this interests me.

If this is actually true rather than a feature of my own delusions, does it mean that feminine qualities are considered undesirable by "western" developers? And if Beyond Good and Evil is an example of a game informed with more feminine sensibilities is that the reason it sold poorly?


Daedalist said...

Is this because the Western game market is dominated by modes of game that are traditionally male? All the games you mention are violent, and while I shudder to pander to gender stereotypes, violence is widely regarded as the province of masculinity.

To make the category more general, I guess these games play on our hunters' fight-or-flight response. It's difficult to have a game without that cathartic release of tension that taps into that animalistic kill-or-be-killed reaction.

Your mentioning of Beyond Good and Evil is interesting. P really enjoyed it. The investigation, the photographs, the steal. It all fit very well with what she seeks from her gaming experience (with the exception of the stupidly difficult disc-shooting mechanic). And you citing that example got me thinking: what do females want from a game?

I'm going to use P's taste as a case study (without her express permission, and all filtered through my own perceptions of her).

She has two main tastes in game: puzzle and simulation. No interest in violence, and almost none in competition. Multiplayer is only good in that it provides a way to get more variation in the puzzles she is presented with.

She loves puzzle games like Tetris, Bejewelled and Hexic. They fall into that visual pattern matching category that she excels at.

Simulations are something like puzzles. They present complex systems that she can learn to manage and balance to produce optimal outcomes. She will abandon the whole world and submerge herself in the Tycoon games or the Sims.

Finally, there are RPGs. They are a form of simulation in that there is a set of very concrete systems to manage (inventory, character ability, combat), combined with (at least in theory) story and character -- two things very important to an English Honours graduate.

So (perhaps fallaciously) extrapolating, what is the common theme there? It seems that it's everything that isn't violent. Intellectualism, non-competitiveness, and simulation (but not necessarily realism).

What's missing from this overall, is that there don't seem to be many memorable "named" characters. Perhaps the western gaming industry thinks it's easier to sell a game that centres around a character that the player can relate to; perhaps this indicates that western males are so unimaginitive that we need such a character to relate to.

I get the sense that P prefers an empty vessel in which to insert a persona of her choosing.

Is that what you seek?

nobody said...

In reverse order.

No. I seek a game that offers me tools to explore the rules, restrictions and laws of the game. If a persona provided by the developer is the best vehicle for this kind of exploration then I'm there. For example, a game where the persona back chats me if I try to do things that are "out of character". Perhaps even downright refusing to do so in a break the fourth wall way by turning to me and chastising me for attempting something that isn't what s/he would do.

It is interesting that P liked Beyond Good and Evil. She is an assertive woman who is comfortable with herself and provides a better test of legitimacy than my own coarse musings. I will have to defer to your superior understanding of the person that is P and her tastes and interests.

I'm uncertain what to do with your circular assertion relating to violence and masculinity. While the two go hand in hand more or less (I discuss it further with survival horror with this post). I am still wondering whether it is a western design principle, it is as rampant as it appears, and why. Do you have any ideas on this?

Daedalist said...

It is interesting that P liked Beyond Good and Evil.
I'm not sure what she thought of the characters or story, and that's obviously important to this discussion, because your original post is about the gender of characters.

The pairing of masculinity and violence seems endemic in Western media in general, not just gaming. However, looking further afield I find plenty examples of it in Japanese games as well (that other bastion of electronic gaming). Although my knowledge of Japanese titles is probably more limited than yours, I sense the general trend there also that violent games are marketed towards males, and that this is reflected in the characters represented: Metal Gear, Soul Calibur, Legend of Zelda, Devil May Cry, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy.

Conflict resolution in all these games is driven through violence, and the main perpetrators of that violence come across as masculine.

Of course, I'm generalising. I know that some people prefer a number of the characters in these games because they are androgynous, but like Lara Croft that is largely superficial. If I have to bring my own context to make a character feminine, then that character isn't really feminine.

But then, perhaps I'm committing that heinous crime of gender stereotyping. Why must males always be the violent, destructive ones? Why must females be either victims or nurturing pacifists (or both)?

I find it lazy writing and game design. I'm not even looking for role reversal, but rather a blurring of the edges. Not only would that give us more interesting characters, but perhaps more believable, well-rounded ones instead of the cardboard cutouts we're expected to pay $100 for and then unquestioningly swallow.

nobody said...


Sorry for the delay in responding, you were crossing into posts I hadn't written yet and I decided to bundle them together to complete the series so that I could respond to your latest points.

Re: Beyond Good and Evil. I perceive the WHOLE GAME as feminine only discussing the characters in more detail as they explore gender more fully than the gameplay does. Violence avoiding, puzzle solving, evidence collection (for appeasement of the super-ego) and protecting others (namely the protagonist's wards) are all feminine in aspect.

I've dealt with violence and the subversion of it's masculinity in my follow up posts. Structures that work to undermine the validity of violence or change its interpretation are probably more universal in their appeal. I gather a larger than average number of female gamers enjoy MGS. I haven't discussed the Zelda series (or Chrono Trigger) because I have nil experience with those games. Would you share your experiences here? Please?

And I agree with the remainder of your points. Particularly your last one.

Daedalist said...

I'm not sure there's much more to tell about Zelda and Chrono Trigger. Both are relics of those golden old days of gaming.

My main experience is with "Ocarina of Time" and the SNES verison of Chrono Trigger, so I'm going to stick to those instead of generalising, though I get the sense that the gender stereotypes prevail throughout.

Both are "old-school" adventure RPGs. The player's avatar is a young male who learns to wield a sword (it's hard not to take a Freudian look at this) and makes friends that help him save the world from a menace that threatens to devour it. Standard Hero's Journey archetype stuff.

Taking a very hardline interpretation of the Hero's Journey metamyth (and since they don't deviate from it, there's no reason not to), it's hard to escape the masculine reality of the game. At the end of the day, it's all about solving problems through hitting things.

Female characters have the honour of providing quests, being victims, or vile enemy sorceresses. If females do take more agency than that, they are given masculine traits (wear pants, wield weapons, or are out-and-out tomboys). As soon as they are given outwardly feminine traits, they revert into screaming girlies again.

Ocarina of Time is a slightly more interesting game, as the combat is interspersed with a primitive stealth mechanic, and frequent puzzle solving. Weapons are often used in non-combat endeavours.

This discussion has hilighted something to me, which I may or may not have communicated yet.

While I am able to quantify individual aspects of characters as masculine, I don't necessarily do the same for their actions. I don't know if that is because I've never bothered to consider it that way before, or if I think that society's preoccupation with gender-stereotyping is unhealthy and outdated.

I like games that involve combat, simulation, puzzle solving and character interaction. I guess that's why I prefer RPGs. I don't see any of these actions as necessarily belonging to either gender. Males and females are welcome to like all these activities (and I'm sure plenty of both do).

nobody said...


My initial reaction to your comment was irrational. It goes something like this...

"What? I shared my feelings with you. My thoughts. You said you were interested. And we talked. We shared. I thought we had something special. Until…until, you tell me you're not interested after all! What went wrong? *sob*"

Of course that version is a little more melodramatic than the inarticulate emotional response I had as I felt a little bewildered. Then I read your comment again and reconciled my insecurities.

Thank you for elucidating on Zelda and Chrono Trigger I have a better understanding of what they are like now.

I'm going to cheat. I know that your RPG collection is light on the JRPG. Yet I interpret your words to say that you should have many of these (as many as non-JRPGs) because they have a universal appeal (my phrasing). Why is this the case?

I also really strongly agree with your statements regarding the unhealthy results from stereotyping (gender or otherwise). Yet, if I am to remain on topic, game developers continue to develop games that serve only to reinforce such stereotypes, particularly in the "west". If this is to change then we must as responsible thinking citizens raise our voices in protest.

Daedalist said...

I apologise if my words came across to you that way, especially in light of your recent biographical post. That was definitely insensitive of me, and I could have picked my words better.

It's not that I'm not interested. Just that I sat there and realised that I had immersed myself into doing cultural analysis along the lines that I'm not sure I agree with. Gender stereotyping really bothers me because it's unrealistic and unhealthy.

For instance, there is a perception that sexual promiscuity among men is at least tolerable, if not good. It proves their virility, strength, masculinity. And yet, for women it demonstrates weakness of character, subservience, and lack of self respect. Personally, I don't think either should attract any sort of character judgement unless it be applied to the individual and the circumstances of their promiscuity, rather than by simple dint of their gender.

Anyway, to return to topic...

I'm not sure where I indicated that JRPGs should have universal appeal. Let me know and maybe I can clarify myself.

Finally, yes: we have a responsibility to ourselves to communicate dissatisfaction with the state of games. I vote with my wallet every time I go into Game or EB and come out empty handed. It actually takes a lot to convince me to buy a game these days.

Of course, if you really want to "raise your voice", then maybe we should be promoting this blog more heavily ;-)

nobody said...

Your words were fine, I was just offering an insight into my thoughts as I had done so long ago with this post.

In an earlier comment you wrote;
I like games that involve combat, simulation, puzzle solving and character interaction. I guess that's why I prefer RPGs. I don't see any of these actions as necessarily belonging to either gender. Males and females are welcome to like all these activities (and I'm sure plenty of both do).

Which I distilled to universal appeal. Are you saying they're not synonymous? Didn't you get the memo that says I'm always right?

If RPGs are genderless (mostly) and you like RPGs, why don't you have more (any!) JRPGs?