Why Does Feminism in Gaming Matter?
This is the first article in a series of feminist gaming reviews of major PS4 story-based games.
Games are one of my favorite artistic mediums. You get to experience a world outside your own, to move, make decisions, fight for your ‘life’, and make new friends. And yet, I hesitate to call myself a gamer girl. There’s a lot of baggage with that term, and the social expectation of gaming to be a defining feature of that girl’s life. Unlike a gamer boy, who is just called, well, a ‘gamer’.
So I decided to tackle this sticky issue with some of my favorite games to see how well they represent and treat women throughout the narrative. Each game review will be forthcoming, starting with The Last of Us: Part II.
PS4 Exclusives Feminist Reviews
I’m looking forward to experiencing the new Playstation 5 games and features like everyone else, but I’d like to take the time to look at the major PS4 Exclusives we’ve been enjoying for a while now. Playstation has made a name for itself in character-driven narrative games. The Last of Us (Part 1, PS3) stunned gamers with its heart-wrenching narrative and well-developed characters, and they’ve run with the precedent they’ve set for this generation of PS4 games as they come to a close.
What does this have to do with feminism, you ask? (I’m so glad you asked.) Gaming is notorious for being a boys club. Within the games themselves, women characters have been hyper-sexualized and under-developed, and that’s without mentioning the shallow numbers of female characters to begin with. From a development standpoint, few women are involved in game writing, programming, and production. Then, despite female gamers buying in similar numbers to males, men seem to dominate the gaming community, which was brought into sharp relief in 2014 with the #gamergate incident.
Not only are women excluded in the gaming world, but we are harassed mercilessly for any move toward inclusion. A Washington Post article explained it well, including this quote:
“The divide is, in part, demographic: It’s the difference between the historical, stereotypical gamer — young, nerdy white guy who likes guns and boobs — and the much broader, more diverse range of people who play now.” — Caitlin Dewey for the Washington Post.
Basically, “traditional” gamers feel threatened by the changing gaming landscape. As though their masculine shoot-em-ups are going anywhere anytime soon. But the thing is, gaming is not exclusive to this definition of ‘gamer.’ Nearly half of gamers are women, and in 2014, the same year as Gamergate, a study found that there were more women gamers than men.
If the number of women gamers is a surprise to you, thank the patriarchy. Because the gaming industry has been afraid to upset its longtime target audience. Ignoring sheer numbers and common sense, the gaming industry, even in 2021, shuns its female audience. I can’t speak for many older games, but I do feel that the depiction of female characters has improved, slowly but surely. We used to only be damsels in distress. Now we have many female heroes who don’t-need-no-man to help them save the world.
Why don’t gamers and game creators like girls?
Any move away from the status quo takes… a bit of courage (could we say balls? Ovaries, perhaps?). I don’t know that game developers have anything against women heroes. Maybe they don’t. After all, they have a formula that’s worked for decades. Rugged caucasian male hero. Guns. Adventure. Explosions. Why mess with something that works? On top of that, they have loud, whiney pressure from their target audience: Gamer Bois don’t want their games to change just because girls want to play. In fact, when feminists or industry critics point out their sexism, they are met with threats, harassment, and bullying.
Gamer Bois (I believe this is the scientific term) feel that their gaming loses value when it is afflicted with female fandom. What do we do when something is enjoyed by women? Think about little boys — how many of them are raised to appreciate toys targeted at girls? Hand them a baby doll and they’ll probably reject it on the premise that it’s made for girls. Therefore, they cannot play with them. It’s uncool. The same happens as adults but in a sneakier way.
Think about pumpkin spice lattes. No one hated pumpkin spice until it was popularized in coffee — and largely popularized by women. But every year we see memes and tweets disparaging “pumpkin spice season,” labeling women who enjoy them as “basic bitches.” Vox captured the sentiment concisely in a subhead: Actually, the backlash is about our contempt for women.
Whatever it is women like, men disparage and avoid enjoying. Think UGG boots. Taylor Swift. Acai bowls. Our love for these things is ridiculed as a herd mentality — if other women like this, then I will like this too — instead of a choice to enjoy something we like.
So, gaming? By liking it we are sullying the fun. We don’t really like games because we aren’t fun. We aren’t deserving of our place behind the controllers because of our boobs and vaginas. At least, that’s Gamergate logic.
What am I doing these reviews for?
Just as I did for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I want to take a look at a pop-culture cornerstone. These games have a wide audience, no matter what game marketers think, and therefore have an impact on our culture. When we see feminist values represented in media, we are more likely to see that translated in real life. It’s the Gamer Boi’s greatest fear: Feminist gaming will turn the world into feminists!
Popular culture not only influences future norms but also reflects current norms. Obviously, gaming is behind in representing the change we’ve made in everyday life (gay pride is widely accepted, but how many gay video game heroes do we have?). But progress is progress, and it needs to be acknowledged and celebrated so that we can continue to recognize and improve on feminist themes in storytelling.
How do I know if a game is feminist?
I’ve studied culture and communication in college, as well as educating myself heavily in feminism. l am not an expert in feminist theory, but I do know how media codes sexism. There are several things I am going to look for in this series:
- Does it have female characters? — Not just one, but several. Preferably with a personality and backstory. Bonus points if you get to play as a female character.
- Are the female characters in control of their destiny? — Are they helpless maids? Are they a plot device for a male character’s story? Or are they their own agent?
- Are the characters diverse? — Feminism means inclusivity, and that doesn’t stop at the characters’ sex. I’m looking for diverse culture, race, capabilities, age, or other underrepresented demographics.
- Are the characters human? — Masculine gaming tends to leave emotions out of the mix, making the character a soulless soldier. Toxic masculinity tells men to bury their emotions. In contrast, acknowledging the character’s complicated human feelings is a feminist attribute.
- Is violence justified in order to tell the story? — By extention of the last point, acknowledging human feelings is acknowledging all the characters’ humanity. If toxic masculinity rejects empathy, then valuing on-screen lives is a feminist quality.
- Lady villains? — I love a good female villain. But even better? Henchwomen. The patriarchy loves to see women as something to protect. That’s why the damsel-in-distress trope is so popular. We treat women like they are something delicate and special…but not always as someone who can think and make decisions for themselves. Disposable women villains are my favorite feminist quality in video games because it shows that women don’t have to be saved, gentle, or morally inclined. They don’t always have to be on the right side of things. A nonchalant henchwoman death is my personal holy grail of feminism.
So, I’ll start this series with the most controversial and cinematic of the bunch, The Last of Us: Part 2.