As I wandered through the living room during winter break one day, I caught a glimpse of the video game my husband was playing. I was shocked.
“Wait. Go back,” I said. “What was that?”
He navigated his player back to the character he’d been talking to. “What? Where?” he asked.
“There. Is that a woman?” I said pointing to the figure on the screen.
“Well, why’s she dressed like that?”
“Is she a nun or something? Why is she wearing so many clothes?”
He laughed. “They all dress like that in this game.”
I was dumbfounded.
My generation is unique in that it was among the first to take their toys with them into adulthood. In 2004, the average video game player was 29 years old, while the average game buyer was 36, according to CNN/Money. And video games have grown up as much as we have.
Take for example the “Grand Theft Auto” series, one of the best-selling video games of all time. In it, almost every female character is a prostitute or a stripper. But video games didn’t always rely on erotic imagery to designate females. Mrs. Pac-man and the princess from “Mario Bros.” were both feminized by pink bows, a gender marker that, while goofy, is not explicitly erotic.
In his book “Theory of Fun for Game Design” Raph Koster, chief creative officer for Sony Online Entertainment, discusses “Grand Theft Auto.” The player’s character can visit a prostitute and pay to receive sex, which restores any of that character’s damaged life points. The player can then kill the prostitute and steal his money back. Koster argues that gamers view this tactic as merely the equivalent of a free “power-up” and that they are not even aware of the social overtones of the act. Well, thank God. So long as they aren’t thinking about what it means, it’s all right, right?
Do video game designers expect women to buy or play video games where women are disposable?
Of course, not all video games are as bad as “Grand Theft Auto.”
Almost 40 percent of United States gamers are female, according to the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association. That figure is the second highest worldwide, after South Korea’s 69 percent. But the association also found women prefer playing games that don’t eroticize women (such as “The Legend of Zelda” and “The Sims”) or ones where gender is not a factor (such as “Tetris”).
In order to entice potential female players, many video game manufacturers depict female heroes in their games as in the “Baldur’s Gate” series and, most famously, “Tomb Raider.” But the tendency to eroticize female characters remains.
In October 2005, Playboy magazine’s featured model was 5’7″ with measurements of 36-22-36. Her name _” Bloodrayne, the digitally generated female hero of a combat video game, released that same month. Also featured in the spread were female characters from other games including “Mortal Combat” and “Tekken.”
Women gamers have started complaining about the disconnect between themselves and their digital counterparts
“Male video game characters embody the fantasy of what men want to be,” wrote gamer Aleah Tierney in an opinion piece titled “What Women Want” on PBS.org. “Female characters represent the fantasy women men want.” Tierney complains that game designers assume they’re designing games for a male audience.
Tierney describes “Tomb Raider’s” Lara Croft as a mixed blessing.
“In many ways her kick-butt presence is a triumph, but the designer’s decision to sexualize her to the point of deformity angered me. I couldn’t get past her proportions [38-24-34], so I put the game away. I’m waiting to see if Lara (or her designers) will evolve in future versions of the game.”
While it is difficult to determine just what effect, if any, these depictions might have on male players, their effect on female players is becoming more obvious.
So for all the video-game designers in the world, here’s a hint: women have money. If you want more of them to spend their money on your product, stop making the female characters in your games disposable and/or disgusting. It’s that easy.