Katie Williams looks at how gamers and game developers are tackling sexism, and how some of us are just making things worse...
Ten years ago, I tore the plastic off the latest issue of an international PC gaming magazine. I'd already been a subscriber for a few years, and I knew that this was the time of year that publications were packed with flashy new game titles and vivid screenshots from E3. This year was no different, though it seemed the editor of this particular mag had chosen to approach E3 a little differently. Instead of a pages-long preview of Doom 3, the biggest feature article of this issue instead posed the question: “Who were the hottest booth babes at this year's E3?”
I remember regarding the bikini-clad girl on the double-page with a kind of guilty wariness. Wary, because I was seventeen, and old enough to be in the thick of the typical teenage body image crises that I knew were perpetuated by such images. At the time, I didn't realise that the guilt was the more disturbing factor; I felt guilty that I should feel wary of this. I felt guilty because I knew I was willingly looking into a window of lad culture, and it wasn't my place to say, “Hey, this isn't right.” I knew that I was the outsider. It wasn't something that I had a right to question.
So yes, I've been in gaming circles for awhile now. It's been a decade since I opened that magazine and dismissed the disquiet in my own mind. But one decade later, the disquiet no longer resides just within me. It's begun to spill out, in the last year especially, with a kind of ferociousness that's left some gamers angry, others resentful, and others still simply depressed. It fills the internet, blogs, and Twitter with enough debate to clog the internet's drainpipes; soon after we think the latest sexism controversy has bubbled down and we can all get along smoothly, something else happens to start it all again. ‘Sexism’ and ‘feminism’ have become extremely loaded words that now invoke an instant reaction in gamers. It seems that no matter what their opinion is, everybody is on edge.
But if I was reading an article rating the booth babes of E3 ten years ago, why is this backlash only occurring now? Is there space for us to discuss the issue maturely as adults, or will the problem of sexism only go away if we ignore it? Let's look at some of gaming's most recent controversies and see how the debate is influencing the medium.
Not a Hit
In the lead-up to this year's E3, Square Enix released a trailer for the upcoming Hitman: Absolution, called ‘Attack of the Saints’; perhaps better known since its release as “that Hitman trailer”.
It featured the bloodied Agent 47 bandaging his wounds in a motel bathroom, as outdoors, a band of eight women dressed in stiletto-heeled boots marched towards the building, tearing off their habits to reveal that they were dressed as sexy nuns beneath, their bodies shamelessly wrapped in thigh-skimming latex with crucifixes resting in ample cleavages. One carried a rocket launcher, with which she blasted the motel, but Agent 47 had managed to beat their attempt on his life. One by one, he killed off the women in gruesome, undeniably sexually-charged ways. One was garrotted, her petite body buckling beneath the Agent's strength; another was shot in the neck, blood spraying onto her barely-covered breasts. When a third assassin pinned him to the ground, we were treated to a shot of her standing over the Agent, the camera peering up her very tight skirt, before he flipped her over and beat her into the asphalt.
This was the layering together of numerous fantasies. Whether that of the game's developers or its marketers, this was apparently what they thought gamers wanted to see – the ridiculously muscled, bleeding brawn of Agent 47, the erotic attractiveness of forbidden females turned sexy and nasty, and hyper-violence against women as a validation of manliness.
Ludicrous enough was the absurdity of these supposed assassins – in what universe would a sneaky female fighter dress in attention-garnering, uncomfortably tight latex? Why is this level of hyper-sexualisation never afforded to male characters? But this wasn't merely about the depiction of ladies, long a contentious subject in the gaming arena. Now they'd been blended with Agent 47's near-gleeful strangling and nose-breaking punishing of them. It was an audacious glorification of not just violence, but violence against women; as video game critic Brendan Keogh argued, it served as a glaring indication of “the rape culture complicit in gaming”.
Since the early days of gaming, the oversexed depiction of women was a distinctive feature; but in recent years gamers have begun to question it. So how had it escalated to this? How were we now not just looking at scantily-dressed women, but seeing them beaten in the name of a fetishistic violence?
The internet storm that followed the Hitman trailer was immense, and serving to amplify the backlash for its unashamedly sexist overtones were the gamers who insisted that there was no reason for the backlash, that such a trailer was an innocent bit of good fun and that the hubbub was unwarranted. It was, literally, “only a game”.
As frustrating as the all-too-common sexist things to come out of our industry is the dismissal of a problem. It's something we've even discussed here in Atomic before, with David Hollingworth's article on homophobia and gamers' insensitive use of the word “gay” (also published in Issue 135). When we speak out against something that is racist, homophobic, or sexist, we are too often told that we're simply creating a problem, trying to whip up a controversy from thin air. We're told that we're too sensitive, that we can't handle a joke.
We're told that if we stop acknowledging or admitting that it's a problem, it will go away.
But it's not going away. The Hitman trailer showed that the problem is only intensifying, and the rush to defend the criticism suggests that we're finding it confronting. This is, after all, calling for change in an industry whose views on women haven't been challenged until very recently. But more women are gaming now; half of gamers are women. This can no longer be seen as a vocal minority choosing to be offended. This is a full half of the gaming population speaking up; they're saying that this treatment isn't right, and we can't push it back any more.
Sadly, the treatment of those brave enough to speak up suggests how badly entrenched many of us have become in the boys' world.