Electric Sexism

Recently, within the comments of a preview of the Witcher 2 on Rock Paper Shotgun, a small argument broke out over sexism and whether the Witcher was guilty of the term. The sexism argument breaks out in gaming like adult acne, regularly and right before a big date, so I decided I would deal with the subject right now so whenever an argument does break out on some game news site I can just link to this blog and not comment further.

I’ll address the specific arguments a little later.

First, I’m going tell you something that many aren’t aware of (but some of you are so bear with me while I explain it to the rest). Woman become just as sexually aroused by erotic imagery/pornography as men. “What??” Someone sputters. “But all the woman I know say porn is disgusting!/I am a woman and I think porn is disgusting!” Yes, that’s because up until recently pornography has been designed by men and for men, often depicting women in subservient, derogatory, and vulnerable roles where the goal is for the man to get his rocks off with no consideration for the woman’s (or women’s) pleasure. While the discovery in my personal relationships of women that enjoy porn was a delightful surprise, the discovery in my academic studies was more enlightening and topical to this discussion.

Studies were done where women and men were shown erotic imagery or video. The erotica involved women portrayed as equals to men, in which there was sensual foreplay, in which there was caressing and kissing, and overall where the pleasure giving was mutual and realistic. In these studies, the women became just as aroused as the men while viewing these scenes (and in some alternate studies the men became more aroused by the realistic portrayal of sex than they were by traditional porn).

So, keep this in mind as I continue this discussion. Women aren’t overly sensitive. They can enjoy sexy characters just as much as a man. It’s just about how you portray these characters that matters.

A quick note: I am not a feminist. And I’m not a knight in shining armor riding to the defense of women. What I care about is logic and good sense. So, my problems with arguments about whether video games are sexist is that these arguments usually are illogical and are just excuses for people to be self-centered and inconsiderate. If you want to be self-centered and inconsiderate then more power to you, but at least admit to that rather than trying to make up excuses for why it’s okay for you to be an ass.

Anyway, so, some arguments I’ve heard:

There are half naked men in games, and I, a male, am not offended by this (part 1):

That isn’t an argument and it clearly misses the point. The nudity isn’t what’s offensive, it’s the way it’s portrayed. I’ll get to that later. For now I’ll say that the lack of offense taken at the depiction of men in games has more to do with the fact that men design those characters (the way men have historically designed porn). A person isn’t going to create something that will offend him, and while a man is aware of what depictions of men might offend his own sensibilities he isn’t going to be aware of what depictions of women will offend a woman.

I’ll continue this point later.

Not designed by a man.

But it’s only gameplay that matters in a game:

If this is the case then there should be zero problem changing the depiction of women in games.

But these depictions are just aiming for the target demographic of games, men:

Demographics can be changed by changing the product. Those beer swilling frat bros that play Call of Duty weren’t a part of the target demographic for games back in the ’80s and ’90s. That changed.

But these big titty mamas have well written personalities:

This isn’t the 13th century Catholic church where you can donate money to be absolved of your sins. Your well written characterization doesn’t make up for your sexism. Exploiting the sexuality of strong female characters is still exploitation. Even more interesting, this argument is self defeating. If these characters have such strong personalities then why do they need to be portrayed as strippers to begin with. Perhaps they aren’t that well written if the writing alone isn’t enough to keep the audience interested in them.

You’re role playing a misogynist character (found in the Witcher comments on the RPS preview that inspired this article):

If you’re role playing a misogynist character then you should be able to make comments and choices that represent this. The visual portrayal of women shouldn’t have anything to do with the character’s beliefs. In the real world, misogynists see women as sexual objects regardless of what they actually look like, and that’s how a misogynist should be portrayed in a game. (An example exception being Duke Nukem, where the game is so over the top that the Duke isn’t even a character in the game, he is the game itself and every enemy, weapon, and map is a manifestation of his body and psyche.)

It’s staying true to the books (found in the Witcher comments on the RPS preview that inspired this article):

If this is the case then it’s incredibly convenient for the marketing department, because apparently it’s impossible for developers to alter the character traits of a protagonist especially if he’s based on a character from a series of books. I mean all the Conan the Barbarian games clearly include the Cimmerian’s racism as depicted in the books and stories. Wait, hold on a sec, my phone is ringing. Hello? Oh hi reality. They didn’t include Conan’s racism in the films and games? Conan never refers to black men as jabbering monkeys nor becomes enraged at the thought of one of these beast-men sleeping with a “white woman”? What’s that reality? The developers and filmmakers decided to avoid offending their audience? Thanks, reality, talk to you later. Okay, I’m back. I guess you can alter your protagonist to be more sensitive to your audience.

There are half naked men in games, and I, a male, am not offended by this (part 2):

Some of you may at this point be convinced by logical sense.

But everything I’ve said still won’t make sense to some men unless they see things from the women’s perspective.

We don’t have many sexually demeaning portrayals of men in pop culture, because media has been controlled by men for so long, but I knew I needed to find a video game character that showed a man in a derogatory, submissive, and even vulnerable position. Luckily the Japanese game industry was happy to oblige. I found an offensive depiction of a male and although it won’t offend everyone, I’m pretty sure it will make a lot of men uncomfortable.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the best example I can find since, again, it’s hard to find exploitative images of male characters in an industry run by men.

Fair warning: there’s some graphic language up ahead. If you’re ready then go ahead, click on the link to page 2.



  1. Adam

    Hey – this was pretty awesome. I have some questions about the final argument – through this violent and “uncomfortable” leveling, does this proposal account for and solve the unbalance between genders; even if only in gaming? I want to believe this, and I like the idea that this could be another way of approaching how each gender and it’s subsequent powers are unevenly constructed. (As opposed to Judith Butler’s quasi-manifesto at the end of “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”: http://www.mariabuszek.com/kcai/PoMoSeminar/Readings/BtlrPerfActs.pdf) In the end, would creating masochistic male characters in games solve the exploitation of women currently found in many games? If the binary still exists how can there be an even ground? This is not to say that this above argument is not an effective way to let some gamers understand, or at least see, their acceptance of sexist norms.

    On a very related note, I played Soul Calibur for the first time a week ago and Voldo was my favorite (most effective) character.


  2. Philtron

    I don’t think what I’m saying is going to solve anything by itself. I also don’t think creating uncomfortably sexual male characters in games would solve anything straight away. What I do think is that all this creates an analogous reference point that people can use when considering sexist portrayals of women. It’s hard to be considerate of someone’s feelings when you’ve never experienced what they’ve experienced. That’s why the person at the restaurant complaining and talking down to the waitress about how she got the order wrong probably was never a server himself. Without an analogous personal experience he can’t imagine or even simulate in his mind a situation where something so simple could go wrong. However someone who has been a server is going to empathize with the nine hour on your feet all day work day and will be more polite and probably is going to tip more as well. So I don’t think my argument would solve anything, but it could give men something to build empathy off of which could lead them to be more considerate in regards to portrayals of women in games or other media.

    As for “If the binary still exists how can there be an even ground?”: Binaries will always exist; it’s part of how humans make sense of the world. But just because the ground is uneven, ’cause you’re like standing on a waterbed or a Bouncy Castle or something, it doesn’t mean that you have to be unbalanced, you can just shift your weight around, unless you have an inner ear infection or are drunk and then you do become unbalanced. So maybe our society has an inner ear infection.

    As for you feeling Voldo is an effective character: sure. Soul Calibur is a balanced fighting game where characters have different styles. But I think what you’re asking is how does your lack of dissonance playing as Voldo fit into my argument(?). I’m not sure; different people react differently to different things. Also, Voldo may not have been the best choice in the analogy. I remember in High School being deeply revolted by him, but when I looked up his images while writing this article I didn’t feel any uncomfortableness. Still, I figured that any guy that can’t see, even logically, why many depictions of women are offensive is probably someone with a temperament that would be uncomfortable about Voldo. Looking back, the gimp/rape scene in Pulp Fiction may have worked as a better analogy.


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