Rape in video games: “Sex Sells”

Video games and controversy, especially where sex and violence are concerned, seem to go together like two things that often go together but really shouldn’t.

Advertisements

Violence in video games is no new thing.

Just poke around the Internet or listen to the news for a little while and you’ll uncover a treasure trove of articles and talk show rants about how video games are corrupting America’s children with their gratuitous sex and violence.

Personally, I’m of the belief that violence in video games does not translate to violence and real life, and the idea that it does or will is a myth perpetrated by overly anxious newscasters and parents. While you can argue that we have seen an uptick in casual violence in recent years, I think that’s as much a product of other societal factors including news coverage of wars and crime, gory TV shows and movies and explicit music videos as much as it is a result of teenagers killing pixelating people.

But that’s an issue for another blog.

Instead of picking apart the conservative argument that violence in video games causes violence in real life, I’d like to take a look at the other element of video games that tends to draw controversy like moths to a flame: sex.

[READ: Why sexy modding isn’t really sexy at all]

As a culture that holds conflicting attitudes towards sexuality, especially in regards to women, America often invites controversy over sex and sexual content as a way to sell products and push political or social agendas.

The age old adage “sex sells” is heard so often around some advertising agencies — or in some news reports justifying and/or condemning said sexual content — that it’s become an accepted mode of communication, especially persuasive communication.

Take, for instance, the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. commercials that feature heavily sexualized, buxom blonde babes taking monster bites out of a hamburger too big for her plump all-American mouth. These commercials are so outrageous and over-the-top they’re almost parodies of themselves. Despite recent claims that Hardee’s will dump the “Slutburger,” commercials featuring the sexy models still air in many states, perpetuating this ideal image of American women as sex objects and icons.

father son hardee's commercial screenshot
Even this new commercial with its central message of changing cultural attitudes within the company features big-breasted women with their juicy burgers even if the context in which they are shown is made to satirize such representation. Source: Youtube.com

In a contrast so sharp it may give you whiplash, the LPGA has recently announced a new dress code for female golfers intended at making their outfits less revealing and more “professional.” ABC News reported this tonal shift on morning talk show “Good Morning America” by showing stock footage images of female golfers in low cut, tight tube tops while actual footage of female golfers on the course showed women in skirts, long-sleeved tops and, in a select few cases, colorful racerback tanks.

michelle wie action shot
This dress code has been criticized as a form of slut shaming by the LPGA and, like the “pinky-length” dress codes enforced by overzealous middle school teachers, humiliates women when the real problem are the men who are so often “distracted” by such displays of skin. Source: Guardian.com

This strict divide between how American popular culture depicts women and what society actually wants them to be is confusing, hard to navigate and often leaves many women trapped in a social limbo where they can never fulfill cultural expectations without running afoul of actual societal assumptions.

[READ: ‘Wonder Woman’ calls for a reimagining of cinematic feminism]

But what does all of this have to do with rape in video games?

The answer lies in a discussion of one of the most pervasive social influences of this century, one that plays a hand in the conception and design of everything from TV shows to music videos to movies to video games to news stories to policy and political agendas while simultaneously coloring our perception of events in a way that tolerates and even condones violence and sexual violence against women.

Rape culture.

For anyone familiar with feminist discourse and rhetoric, the concept of a U.S. rape culture should be no new thing, but for those confused as to what rape culture means and what it looks like in our society, buckle in.

It’s a complex and evolving social concept, one that is decried and highlighted as much as it is ignored and tolerated. It’s also one of those social shames that nobody wants to talk about or admit has a hand in shaping how they perceive things. But in order to talk, really talk, about rape in video games, we need to talk about rape culture, what it looks like and how it affects us. The “Sex Sells” mentality of advertising is only one aspect of rape culture, a multifaceted, multi-headed Hydra beast.

Next week I’ll take a crack at defining rape culture and delineating its affects on our societal social perception, but for now just think about the LPGA golfers and the Hardee’s commercials I talked about above. Not only are they results of the rape culture mentality so prevalent in our society, they also further the kind of thinking that most feminists — and most rational people, if they actually stop and think about it — want to eradicate.

Until then, let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

huffington post pic
It should be this simple, but it often isn’t. Source: Huffingtonpost.com

The secret history of video game advertising

This blog has become more of an outlet for all my video game frustration than a place of discussion and learning, but who says it can’t be both?

Way back when I first started this blog, I may have mentioned the fact that my original concept for this experiment in self-actualization included a discussion of a paper I wrote for my English 105i class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Obviously, I’ve deviated considerably from this intent statement, but there are still some important points I would like to address regarding that paper and what I learned while writing it.

And the first is sexism.

Sexism in gaming is an incredibly broad topic, one that cannot be comprehensively tackled in one, two or even sixteen (now seventeen) blog posts . Anita Sarkeesian, gaming’s fearless godmother, and many others have tried tackling this overarching topic but even they have just barely scratched the surface of this pervasive norm in gaming culture.

In this entry, I’m going to narrow the field a bit and talk about sexism in the early days of gaming, or more specifically the marketing strategies used to sell video games in the 90s and how those tactics spawned the toxic reality we now live in.

A good chunk of my paper focused on this topic with nearly all the research pulled out of a Polygon article entitled “No Girls Allowed” by Tracey Lien.

In it, Lien discusses the “chicken-and-egg” marketing strategy that led early developers to target male players.

Screen Shot 2016-10-17 at 1.51.40 PM.png

Source: Polygon.com.

Basically, early polls suggested that a large part of the early consumer audience were teenage boys. Marketers then took that information and intentionally crafted their marketing campaigns and products to cater to that audience. This led to a cyclical loop that reinforced stereotypes that men were the only ones playing video games, which increased their numbers in poll results which lead to more targeted campaigning, and so on and so forth.

A lot of earlier advertising techniques were incredibly sexist, using sex and violence to sell exclusively to boys with little regard to any female audience that might want to play these games.

Note: some of these pictures are hard to look at. Not just because they’re overtly sexist and piggishly disgusting but because they are mind-bogglingly forthright in their quest to disregard female audiences and cater exclusively to males.

This just makes you think, what advertising executive signed off on this degradingly sexist display?

Even today, when the ratio of male to female players is almost one to one, there seem to be a lot of games with commercials and advertising campaigns meant to emphasis the maleness of those games.

“Call of Duty” is a franchise with a history of catering specifically towards a male audience with little regard to potential female players. Even games with female leads, like Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate” for example, focus almost entirely on the men in the game.

Don’t believe me?

Both the E3 cinematic and the US debut trailer make absolutely no mention of the playable female character. Even the “Syndicate” box art mostly features the robust and rugged Jacob Frye rather than his badass and beautiful twin Evie.

in the corner.jpg

In case you didn’t see her, she’s off to the right and easy to miss if you don’t know who you’re looking for. 

And Jacob is the only Frye in this trailer, despite the fact that they play equal roles in the story. 

And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Erik Kain of the game section of Forbes magazine devotes an entire article to the sexism in the box art of a game that focuses equally on both Jacob and Evie, yet fails to include Evie in most of the box art and promotional features.

These are the kinds of subtle advertising techniques that perpetuate sexism in an industry that is just starting to outgrow its early sexist stagnation.

While I can offer no outright solution to this problem in gaming, I can conclude that this disturbing trends needs to change, especially now that there are more games with female leads coming out every day.

“Rise of the Tomb Raider” and “Horizon Zero Dawn” and “Mass Effect: Andromeda” and “Dishonored 2” all feature female leads in some capacity or another. And we should showcase these women and all the others to come rather than burying them in an onslaught of marketing and advertisements meant to cater to men and only men.

Just for clarification, this post definitely isn’t a cry to have more video games cater to women exclusively because Lord knows what kind of disaster marketing execs would come up with to address “female needs.”

In this day and age, when our children are still separated by colors, I don’t want to imagine what stereotypical depictions those execs and the game designers they work for would try to pass off as the female ideal.

Just make more games with female leads and use them in advertisements. Focus on the women just as much as the men and try to be as inclusive as possible.

Continue making the games we love, but don’t blot women out of the picture because we’re a growing demographic. And one day you might regret cutting us out of the picture.

But for now we’ll just game on.

Let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

my-precious-cinnamon-bun