How Gaming Stigmatizes Women

While it's apparent that biology has pretty much nothing to do with one's media tastes, the greater problem of appealing to women is one that has stumped both marketers and developers for years. After all, most people seem to think that making a game that appeals to women is a matter of:

  • Make the game colorful.
  • Add fashion options.
  • Appeal to "maternal instinct."

These are, of course, complete hogwash. Appealing to women isn't a matter of making games that cater to a specific socially-constructed set of values. It's not a matter of researching the biological differences estrogen gives people.

To appeal to women, we need to stop treating them so poorly. We need to stop stigmatizing femininity.

Women as Damsels

The most common way we stigmatize women is through that all-too-common trope: the damsel in distress.

The damsel in distress trope is one we are all familiar with. A man must undertake a quest to rescue his lady love (or sister, or daughter, or wife), who is usually, but not always, kidnapped or coerced by another man. The quest acts as a coming of age story for the man, while the woman is either left in a state of innocence or abused by her captor.

The problems with the damsel in distress trope, and just how disgusting it is to women, should be readily apparent. It reduces women to an object to be fought over, usually by two men. It refuses to afford them agency in their plight. It prevents serious character growth of the woman, as she is a glorified trophy; you could replace the damsel in a damsel in distress story with an inanimate object and it wouldn't be significantly different.

When the damsel is the subject of extreme torture, or even murder, the trope turns into an even more openly misogynistic one: the "woman in the fridge." This trope reduces women even further, as the woman is nothing more than motivation for the male character to defeat the antagonist. It is murder for the sake of narrative propulsion, and thoroughly disgusting.

Games have a constant problem with this. Gears of War 2 reduces Dom's wife to a single emotional scene to grow his character. Legend of Zelda is entirely built around rescuing the princess. Even games that star women aren't immune to subjecting their main character to this; the treatment of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider remake makes Lara Croft her own damsel. While there are nuances to these stories, they all reduce down to the same core: women are objects to be fought over, not living, breathing people with their own motivations and desires.

For further reading, Anita Sarkeesian's videos detailing the various ways games create damsels for the player to rescue is a great starting point for learning about just how widespread this trope is in games.

Emotions? Is That Where You Yell?

On top of relegating women to the prison cells of damselhood, the stigmatization of femininity in games does the same to emotions.

The most common point of toxic masculinity (the notion that men are relegated to rigid and damaging gender roles in the same way women are) is that men's emotions are often dismissed. Men are taught that emotions are weak, that rationality and logic should rule, and that they should be ashamed for being emotional. They are taught that anger and explosive outbursts are the way to express themselves. Emotions are the domain of women; power is the domain of men.

This is ludicrous. Men have all the same emotions that women do, and expressing those emotions healthily (including crying!) is important to maintaining mental health. When you teach that men shouldn't cry and shouldn't be emotional, you create a ticking time bomb just waiting to explode.

Games perpetuate this, of course. Men in games rarely show emotion beyond explosive anger, concern for the mission, and occasionally the barest, simplest notion of romantic love. Socially complicated emotions like envy, admiration, affection, and concern are either simplified to the point of uselessness or dismissed entirely. The aforementioned Gears of War 2, for example, has an explosive emotional scene with Dom's wife that is so absurd that it verges on comedy. We simply don't know how to make men be actually emotional, because we see emotion as weakness, rather than strength.

A few games do approach more complicated emotional states, though. Final Fantasy, despite its problems with objectification and damseling, does a fair job of showing a wider range of emotions than the bare basics seen in hypermasculine entertainment like Call of Duty. These sorts of games are far more rare, though, and usually relegated to RPGs, JRPGs in particular.

The Worst Thing to be Called is Woman

Stories and emotions aren't the only things sexist about games; language is just as powerful, and arguably even more stigmatizing.

Bigoted gendered language, like "bitch" and "cunt," are rare in single-player games, but not unheard of. Arham City was notoriously criticized for its overuse of "bitch" when villains would refer to Catwoman. While Batman was called "the Bat" and "creep" and various other non-specific insults, Catwoman was referred to as a bitch frequently. While there is an argument to be made that these are bad people, and they therefore treat Catwoman poorly, the simple fact is that there are so many other insults, so many other choices, that relying on "bitch" is lazy at best, sexist at worst.

Join a multiplayer game, though, and you'll be subjected to some of the worst bigotry around. The most common from of bigotry, though, is misogynistic. Whether it's as clean (but still as harmful) as calling somebody girly, or as vile as calling somebody a bitch or cunt, our online communities are full of men who seem to think that the worst insult is to be a woman. God help you if you are actually a woman and play in these spaces, as you'll be subjected to the worst verbal and sexual harassment specifically targeted at your gender and body.

This stigmatization of women through words is prevalent in culture in general, but it's magnified in the competitive field of gaming. By joining in on the beratement of man-as-woman and women proper, players create an environment where being feminine results in ostracism. Is it any wonder women leave communities when subjected to such gross bigotry?

Why Would You Want to Play a Woman?

On top of stigmatizing women players, games also stigmatize playing as women.

Games overwhelmingly have male protagonists. Plenty of people will point to this as being because women don't play as much games as men (a problem created by stigmatizing their involvement in games) or because women can't be as strong as men (bioessentialist and not relevant, considering games are fantasy), but the simple fact is that our community simply has a lesser view of women.

This ties back into gendered insults. Why would you want to be a woman? Why would you want to play a woman? Men are obviously stronger, more powerful, more rational, and so on. Why wouldn't you want to play as a big strong man who can save the day?

It's not just horribly sexist, it's condescending and dismissive of all the men that enjoy playing women as much as women do. Realistically, games should have an even split of protagonists; 50/50 male/female. Instead, the majority of women protagonists in games are relegated to titles with character creation, titles aimed specifically at women, and titles about sex. Even in games with multiple party members, like Final Fantasy, most of the party is usually composed of men.

Women Are Bodies For Your Enjoyment

If the woman is not a protagonist, there's also a fair bet that she's used for the majority of the game's sex appeal.

This trope is almost as widespread, arguably moreso, than damsels. Women in games are often treated as little more than eye candy; see all the shots of Miranda's ass in Mass Effect 2 dialogue for just one game's grossly sexist depiction of women as sex objects. Even if they are intended to be more than eye candy - such as the party members in RPGs - they are usually dressed up to also be eye candy on top of their existing attributes, which reduces them down to an object to be desired.

This sort of consideration doesn't extend to men in games. While there are powerful, muscular, impossible men in games, they aren't there to appeal to women. Rather, they are masculine power fantasies; where women in impossible clothing are designed to appeal to a sexual fantasy, muscular and armored men are designed to appeal to the fantasy that you can do anything, be anyone, conquer any obstacle. The two are not comparable.

By reducing women down to objects that are meant to be owned and slavered over, rather than as self-possessed characters with their own agency, we create a community that treats real women poorly and ostracizes them.

The Invasion of the Game-Snatching Women!

All of these factors, passive and active, leave us with a mainstream gaming community that is blatantly hostile to women.

This isn't disputable. Demographics data supports the notion that women are being frozen out of mainstream games. There are countless anecdotes of women in competitive circles being forced out by gatekeeping men or grossly sexist behavior. Prominent game developers and critics engage in discussion about how women biologically can't handle certain games. If we afforded women the same opportunity to speak and contribute as men, these problems wouldn't exist.

Games should not be a hostile space to anybody, least of all half the population. Women should not have to defend their interests from sexist men seeking to undermine their legitimacy and force them out of games. Women should not have to see themselves reduced to little more than objects. Women should not have to put up with constant, unending abuse just to play videogames.

Women should be able to enjoy games that have confident, powerful women in charge of their own destinies. Women should be able to discuss games without having to defend their gender or their interests. Women should be able to browse the game rack at Target or Wal-Mart and see a wide selection of games that treat women well.

Women in games, plainly put, should not be stigmatized.

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