Depictions of gender in video games generally don’t work. Actually in most of geek culture they suck – yeah, I’m looking at you comic book industry. Why? Because they create hostility between two parties who really don’t need to be at each other’s throats.
Feminist critics and gender issue aware members of the gaming community decry the blatant sexism in video games, while growing in numbers and in relevance. On the other side, not so gender issue aware game devs, gamers and journalists feel threatened, blame it all on those who speak up, get defensive, retaliate or engage in preemptive attacks.
Female gamers and LGBTIQ gamers are here to stay, which is wonderful, enriching, progressive… and admittedly – for male caucasian heterosexual 29-year-olds like me – also challenging. We need to drastically reform the way we depict gender in our oh so mature and oh so progressive medium, people.
Here is my long excessive attempt at analyzing how character design around gender works, how it currently fails and how to fix it. Let’s discuss!
Signifiers In Character Design
Let’s look at characters and what their design tells us about them and about the intellectual property they belong to. Every design element of a character – every sign, which tells us something about the protagonists or NPCs and the games they appear in is furthermore referred to as a signifier.
Signifiers are used by designers to articulate a character’s ethnicity, age, personal style, psychology, past, occupation, social status and much more… including gender. But the thing with signifiers is – though designers aim at using them effectively – they emerge in the eye of the beholder. Designers simply can’t control how a viewer reads their design…
… they can only somewhat guide it.
The implosion of the Hitman Absolution killer nuns trailer is one very prominent example of this miscommunication. And while many folks feel like they should tell the gender issue aware members of the gaming community to suck it up and be happy with what they get… … you know, stop ruining games… I see the onus on the shoulders of the designers to listen to feminist criticism, learn, and work hard to get their gender depictions working again.
When it comes to signifying a character’s gender and also their sexual orientation, designers can dig into a big library of signs to do so. In most cultures clothing is gendered, hair cuts are gendered, there are clear expectations of what a male or female body looks like, even going as far as common expectations what role a person of each respective gender should play in a society.
In short, gender signifiers come in two forms:
- artefacts of gender norms and stereotypes
- or simply displays of male or female body parts.
All those kinds signifiers are usually easy to read but not always valid or accurate. They are based on ideas of gender normativity. And lets be real here: there is no such thing as a definitive visible feature to determine a person’s gender identity in real life. There are women with penises and men with vaginas out there, cross-dressers, tom boys, androgynous people and so many more.
Reader Ivory Oasis and some others mentioned, that Birdo’s original transgender identity should have been mentioned for greater context. I agree. Birdo’s is originally a transgender character, but in later western releases got somewhat stripped of that part of the character’s history. For more, I recommend this article.
I understand that this paragraph does not address the issue as much as it deserves. I’d like to reserve the issue and expand on it in another article maybe. Unfortunately, there is more than enough to resolve for one article, when just looking at the design of cisgender and heterosexual characters.
Dynamics At Play
Like mentioned, the actual meaning of a signifier (and therefore it’s existence) gets ultimately created by the viewer. Signifiers get recognized, attributed with importance and interpreted depending on the preconceptions and cognitive habits of the individual audience member. Looking at some of the factors that influence the meaning of a gender signifier for individual players, no wonder there is so drastic disagreement about what’s a proper way to depict a gendered character:
There are many methods to guide the average member of a designer’s target audience to the desired understanding and emotional response and many dynamics to keep in mind. I’d like to highlight three of those principles, because I see them to be at the core of most botched gender depictions.
Dynamic 1: Exposure Versus Unequivocal Signifiers
If you give a character some amount of exposure, the player has time and opportunity to get to know the character. You don’t need to bomb the viewer with first glance information, you can roll it out slowly. You can be subtle and organic with your visual signals and in addition express the characters personality via her words and actions. Games characters are most of the time not so lucky.
In games, many characters don’t get much exposure. Most NPCs are confined to their roles within the game’s mechanics and narration. Shopkeepers are just shopkeepers, palace guards are just palace guards, pedestrian are just pedestrians. They never leave their designated area, have no names, sometimes no faces, no background story. Enemy units just appear in the player’s view to get popped and disappear again. Knowing friend from foe in games is about unequivocal visual signals, which allow the player to react in an instant.
This goes as well for many protagonist or related characters. They need to click with the audience on screenshots, cover artworks, trailers or within the limits of a demo. They need to sell themselves to the target group before the individual player invests money and time.
Like with any strong visual medium (comics, tv shows and films included), games have taught their audience to be satisfied with first impressions and move on. This goes as far as even if you plan on giving a character proper exposure, satisfying the player by covering the character in unequivocal signifiers will drown his interest in getting to know the character.
Here are a couple of common female signifiers (mostly displayed on distaff counterparts), which tend to limit characters to their femininity aspect, especially in combination. Ribbons, flowers, hearts, girlish mannerisms and a lot of pink:
Dynamic 2: Symbolic Creativity
Every signifier in a character design is an artifact of that character’s self-expression. Everything you see at a person – no matter how much a result of outside forces – is influenced by that person… We can expect, that a character did not choose to lose a leg for example. But we can derive information about that character’s self-image and how he wants to be seen by the way he either hides, shows, compensates or decorates his prosthetic limb. We can derive information from his posture, his choice of clothing, level of hygiene, and so forth.
Even if the person did not choose his physical gender features, he or she decides how to deal with it. So when a character has breasts for example, it is a matter of self-expression how they are displayed, how much the character wants them to dominate the overall appearance. Does the character not want them to be part of self-expression (dismiss), accept them as one of many aspects of own self-expression (adopt) or does the character make them a central part of own self-expression (present)?
It’s common and should be expected, that the player will conclude, whatever the character shows on the outside correlates with what’s inside. Except when told otherwise, the player will expect, that the character wants to look like he does.
Dynamic 3: Patterns Versus Distinctions
Signifiers aren’t just seen and interpreted on their own merits. They dim or shine in the framework with other signifiers. Looking at a group of characters within one game or when looking at all characters of a genre, the audience responses to patterns and distinctions. When multiple characters share a strong signifier – creating a pattern – this signifier is no longer representative for the individual character but for the whole group. On the other hand the signifiers, which are exclusive to each character – creating a distinction – become extra-relevant for the assessment of the individual character.
The same goes for derivative characters like clones, sons, daughters, evil twins, successors, and so on. All signifiers which are shared between the original character and the derivative character are representative for the qualities of the original character. But the signifiers, which help us distinguish the new one from the old one are now extra-representative for the derivative character and basically provide the justification for its existence.
Gender Signifier Imbalance
Now those dynamics can work in both directions. Designers could utilize them to either make gender an issue or non-issue for characters of both genders. Unfortunately they don’t. There is a severe imbalance between the ways the genders are depictited.
Dynamic 1: Exposure Versus Unequivocal Signifiers:
The dominant use of unequivocal gender signifiers on characters – therefore the reduction of those characters to not much more beyond their gender – is with female characters way more frequent and severely stronger than with male ones. Most of the time these signifiers limit the respective character either to the concept of femininity or to a sexual entity. There are also by far fewer female protagonist, which puts female characters at a severe disadvantage, when it comes to exposure.
Dynamic 2: Symbolic Creativity
When it comes to characters presenting their gender signifiers – therefore putting them at the center of their self-expression – female characters do it also way more often and more excessively than male ones. Female characters put their femininity or their sexuality at the forefront without demanding attention for qualities beyond that.
Dynamic 3: Patterns Versus Distinctions
In most groups, female characters just appear as one single member or as very very few members of that group. This is referred to as the “Smurfette principle”. It makes the gender of that female character a distinguishing factor, drawing special attention to the character’s gender or limiting the character to her gender.
The same goes for derivative characters. There are little to no instances where there is an original female character spawning a male one. On the other hand, on the subject of “distaff counterparts”, there are tons and tons of popular male characters spawning female counterparts.
Here is a common example of the imbalances taking place in mainstream games. Not only is the female character the only of one a kind (dynamic 3), the designers made sure we have unequivocal gender signifiers (dynamic 1) and that we understand how much she herself considers her gender to be the most defining thing about her (dynamic 2):
Absolutely the same imbalance applies to the Koopakids. Wendy O’Koopa is the only female, wears pink, make-up, a ribbon on her head, lush lips and lashes, jewelery, high-heels. She makes distinctively feminine poses and blows kisses. On the other hand, her brothers almost have no gender signifiers at all. You can count Morton’s and Ludwig’s eyebrows. But that’s it.
Super Meat Boy is only a boy in name. Nothing about his character design includes any sort of male signifier. He is just a red square with stumpy arms and legs and a smiley face. His derivative character Bandage Girl on the other hand gets pink coloring and a flower on her head. Here again the makers felt they needed to articulate her gender far more explicitly than his.
This imbalance and its manifestations add up to strong implied ideas, which are prominent in a dominant portion of popular games and the surrounding popular cultural (advertising, licensing, journalism, conventions, memes). No matter if intended by game designers, writers, culture makers or fans… these ideas are here and they are misogynistic at their core.
I. It’s A Man’s World, Women Just Live In It
-Groups mainly consist of men, but for some reason one or two women are there too.
-Whatever these women do or are is what it takes to be welcome in that group.
-That woman is burdened to singlehandedly represent her whole gender.
-It’s ideal, when a woman has no female peers. Doesn’t need them or want them.
-It’s ideal, when she is forced to only relate to and interact with men.
-It’s ideal, when women have only male leaders, reference points or role models.
II. Men Be Everything, Women Be Women
-Men need to distinguish themselves from the mainly male rest of the group with their personality, interests and skills. Women don’t. They are already special because of their gender.
-It’s ideal, when a women is satisfied with being a women and only works to play that out instead of acquiring any sort of skill beyond that.
-It’s ideal, when women actively promote their gender, so they add the female element to the group. This is what they are there for.
-It’s ideal, when a woman is only demanding to be viewed and treated as a woman and nothing beyond that.
-It’s also completely okay, if the woman has not much skill. Men are there to get her out of trouble.
III. Women Are A Subspecies Of Men
-With distaff counterparts, the male was there all along, the female is just a derivative.
-It’s admirable, when a woman tries to be like a man. But the man will always be the original.
IV. Women Are Easy
-Due to heterosexual normativity and the fact that she is the only female in the group, members of the group have only one person to be attracted to and to make a move on.
-She therefore can not be part of the group without also being a potential love interest.
-It’s ideal, when she accepts that role and plays her female sexuality out.
-It’s understood, that she is always and constantly desiring a man’s sexual attention.
-Therefore, no matter how inappropriate for the moment, she shows of her hot body and sends sexual signals at all times.
V. Women Owe Men
-Women are dependent on the skills of men, since they themselves are too occupied with being women.
-Women thrive on being a distaff counterpart, an imitation, of a male original.
-Women need male approval, because there are no female peers to get it from.
-Women need to be accepted in male dominated groups, because there aren’t much other types of groups.
-Women need to accept that and contribute to the group with what they can do best, by being feminin, hot and available.
How problematic are those ideas?
Well it depends how much power you ascribe to those ideas. When you consider them just qualities of an entertainment product, you at least need to see, that there is not much reason for female audiences to jump in. I personally have a hell of a lot respect for geek girls, who find a way to be passionate about games, despite the fact, that games are generally not made with them in mind.
You could also consider games to be devices for escapism. A collection of virtual spaces, scenarios and activities to flee to from reality. Enticing fantasies. Then it get’s kinda creepy to contemplate, that these ideas about women represent mainstream desires of the gaming community. The key word is mainstream here, we are not talking about niche interests or kinks. And here as well, there is not much incentive for women to join such a community.
How they are treated like they represent all women.
How they need to prove that they are more than pretty faces.
How they are expected to conform to be accepted in the male dominated culture.
How they have to deal with male entitlement.
How male geeks treat females like imitators.
How they are treated as fair game, when it comes to uncalled for sexual advances.
How they per default are considerate less able.
How women who are good looking and play that out get more attention.
And how they get ostracized, when they publicly reject and criticize the standards above.
If you think that ideas in media, explicit and implicit, do not influence our thinking and behavior… you probably never ever bought anything because of advertising and Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are just wasting hundreds of millions of dollars on campaign ads, just for shits n giggles.
Reader Bel pointed to me in a comment below, that this article contains a lot of subtext, which supports the notion that feminine traits are somewhat inferior to masculine traits or neutral traits. I’d like to point out that I do not think female signifiers are generally inferior to others and furthermore don’t think that femininity as a concept, female sexuality or the proud expression of one’s own femininity, are an inferior set of qualities.
I’m just trying to discuss prevalent design habits, which collectively create a very questionable and overall very limited representation of women.
The most important thing to do is get more women into the industry and into the community. I’ve learned in my years of teaching and working with people, that women are much better at coming up with fair and women-friendly scenarios and concepts, than the guys are. And the kicker: Those concepts are super interesting, refreshing and a total enrichment for the art form.
Many botched gender depictions are a result of male designers aiming at including women, but somehow just adding one female character and then overcompensating with female signifiers or falling into the trap of listening to marketers, who told them, that all women actually have pink as their favorite color.
Develop some appreciation for female critics, stop being surprised by the mere presence of women in your interest group and have some courtesy. And make sure you support gender inclusive efforts, like female centered conventions, education and projects.
Now on the design side, here are 3 simple rules to follow:
1. Pass the fucking Bechdel test! Pass it magna cum laude.
2. Design female characters as interesting and competent persons first and as females later. Just remove female signifiers until the personality of the character is uncovered.
3. Add female characters with non-idealized body types, add old ones. Don’t make good looks a raison d’être.
4. Tilt the scale. Be equal by the numbers. Both genders get the same amount of characters, the same amount of sexuality, the same amount of respect and relevance…
Of course not every game needs to be like that. There is room for male-centered exploitation and porn (be honest thats what mainstream games are, just without the maturity to actually show sexual acts). But we need some diversity on the shelves. Just imagine what Mass Effect would have been like with this gender signifier overload bullshit:
A reader took issue with the statement about mainstream games being porn without the maturity to show actual sex acts. While I see this quality in many mainstream games, the statement in my opinion is too generalizing. Of course mainstream games do not in general deserve that criticism. Many do, but there is also a growing number of mainstream games and franchises getting it right.
I asked my twitter and facebook friends to send me female characters, which were memorable to them. I gave no additional qualifiers. I just wanted to know which characters impressed them or stuck with them for any other reason. I got roughly 300 responses from women, men, gay and straight and a few transgender people.
Here are the ones that managed to get at least three mentions:
Ellen Ripley (13 mentions)
Buffy Summers (6 mentions)
Sarah Connor (5 mentions)
Faith from Mirror’s Edge (4 mentions)
Jade (Beyond Good & Evil) (4 mentions)
Pippi Langstrumpf/Longstockings (4 mentions)
Starbuck (Battlestar Galactica, reimagined) (4 mentions)
Alyx Vance (3 mentions)
Amelie Poulain (3 mentions)
Arya Stark (3 mentions)
Commander Shepard (3 mentions)
Hermoine Granger (3 mentions)
Juno MacGuff (3 mentions)
Lara Croft (3 mentions)
Major Motoko Kusanagi (3 mentions)
Ronia the Robber’s Daughter (3 mentions)
How many of them fit into the narrative of the virtual patriarchy above? Not many and none of them cleanly. Many characters maintain their gender as an integral part of their identity, while never valuing their gender over their personality and skills.
Thanks for reading. Please share, like and add your thoughts in the comments below.