Thursday, August 08, 2013

Masculinity In Gaming: That Other Side of the Discussion We Don't Really Talk About

The image of the manelist man, who looks
somewhat real...more real then Duke Nukem.

For the recent run of discussing sexism and feminism in games and the gaming industry, we haven’t been talking as much about masculinity. I brought it up briefly in conjunction to one of the Tropes vs.Women in Video Games pieces, but other than that, I have been focusing a lot of the female aspect. The problem is that many people who go down this path tend to take it from a satirical standpoint and/or with the intent to bash women. It’s difficult to make a case for men when you see the industry and the fan base saturated with comments that dismiss women. The E3 Microsoft demonstration of the XBoxOne was a painful reminder of how far we still have to go before we can see more equality not only in sex, but race, religion, and the like.

I have wanted to write an article like this for a while, but didn’t know where to begin. While we have been focusing on feminism and sexism from a female standpoint over the past year, men are sometimes subjected to the same type of glamorization of their video game counterparts.

This article from the Boston NPR station Cognoscenti helped spawn this piece. In it, the writer discusses again all of the things that we have known about since the feminism in gaming series kicked off. It discusses Anita Sarkeesian’s video series and the backlash women face on a daily basis from playing a game. How the demographic of who is buying games has changed that we’re nearing a 50/50 of women to men ratio on the purchase power. And the article ends with a nod to a movement by a group called The Doubleclicks, which has started a campaign to stop the need to “prove geek cred.” The intention behind these articles is fine, but we have come to a point that we need to be honest with ourselves and discuss the other issues that have been a part of the industry for decades Racism is a prime example or sexual identity (the latter mostly reserved to chat room antics).  This feels like an appropriate time to discuss masculinity in the gaming world.

True. But every one of those leading men has a
"normal" gaming counterpart. How many women
can you name that are "normal" in a game?
More often than not, male characters are personified versions of themselves. Men are typically going to be depicted as strong, rugged, muscular, and their ideal of handsome. This isn’t a new phenomenon and has been occurring since we were drawing pictures on cave walls. Humans have always been depicted in all forms of media with exaggerated features that we considered “perfect” at the time. Ancient Greek and Roman’s loved pale skin, fuller figures, and defined arm muscles. Egyptians preferred tanned skin and petite bodies. The Chinese believed boxy feet were attractive for quite some time, and women would wear painful shoes to adjust the bones in their feet to replicate it. Our visions of beauty have changed over time, so it’s no surprise that in a fantasy setting we want to see attractive men and women. I’m not surprised to see ripped muscle men in Gears of War or God of War, just as I’m not surprised to see half naked women in World of Warcraft (…I swear to Bob I did not intend to use the War titles). Here’s the difference: For every Kratos, there’s a Mario. For every Duke Nukum, there is a Leisure Suit Larry. There are counterparts to the “ideal” that are more prominent with male characters versus females. While the concept of the ‘everyday Joe’ is still uncommon in comparison to the ideal, it is seen as part of the norm when compared to women. It’s difficult for me to name female characters that fit into this pattern that are either primary or secondary to a story. Background and side characters do not apply. Left 4 Dead is one of the few examples that I can think off-hand that utilizes the “normal Joe” for both men and women in a thoughtful manner. None of the characters are particularly unattractive, nor are they overtly sexual: they are the types of characters that you can see walking down the street.

I’m starting to get away with my thoughts, so rounding back to the first point that I’m trying to make: This concept of “male characters as sexual objects” is real, but not AS apparent as with female characters. Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 5 and 6 is a prime example of this. He was seriously beefed up and looks to be pressing hardcore into steroid-land. His image sets the tone for the game that looking hot is part of the job. By the 6th game, it’s standard procedure for male characters. Were the muscular improvements necessary? Not at all. They were part of the eye candy that is Resident Evil.

(Now I’m not going to gloss over the fact that Jill Valentine was given a complete makeover from a logistical cop-like uniform to a skin-tight bodysuit with a plunging neckline. Or the other villain Excella is weird a short, tight, ridiculously low scoop-necked dress. Or Sheva running around with a tank-top, with an alternate outfit of a bikini and minimal butt coverage. Obviously, all of these examples showcase how much more sexually idealized women are compared to men, but it needed to be stated that in the context of the universe, both the lead male and female characters underwent this transformation.)

This does happen to men too, just
not as often. And usually it degrades
back to referring to them as "women,"
"gay," or a racial slur.

Resident Evil 5 is one example of the myriads that exist. What women are concerned about is the concept that females in games are sexualized. It’s how much and how often it happens. Even for something as simple as Super Mario, the few female characters in the game are pretty. Peach, Daisy, and Rosalina are all very feminine characters with lovely faces and bodies. Compared to the male characters who are not what we consider typical “heroes.” A short, overweight plumber, and his taller, lankier brother with bulbous noses and mustaches. The villain isn’t attractive either; a boorish spiky monster by comparison. As I’ve stated before, for every ‘ideal’ male character we can easily found a counterpart of the ‘normal Joe.’ It’s difficult to do so with a female character. And before you all say Laura Croft, even in her new iteration of Tomb Raider she is a beautiful character and sexualized by the world around her. That’s the problem women have with games: we can’t find a normal woman. Plenty of normal men, not so much women.

I don’t want to dismiss the fact that a number of men are intentionally made handsome in games. And yes I’ll concede that the concept of “it’s a fantasy, it’s not real” is a good justification for allowing it to occur. What seems to be overlooked is that men are not the objects of desire in the game. Very rarely do we see a man being rescued by a woman, killed as a plot device to propel a female character forward in her journey; the male character is never the trope but the primary proponent to the entire quest. When you review games from this perspective, the handsome man becomes an after-thought. Our focus is more on what is the goal, and what does ‘she’ look like.

What this boils down to is mental perception (my next point, finally!). It’s a gender stereotype that has been played for centuries that women are weak and are in need of rescuing, especially if the maiden is beautiful. Men are expected to be the rescuers, and while they may not always look handsome, they are strong and capable. It’s an easy, overused plot device that every medium abuses. On the flip side, as a man it is considered demeaning, even stripping ones masculinity if he is the one in need of rescuing. The man is perceived as weak and in many cases feminized because of it. These stereotypes on gender are what prompt us to follow the same plot lines over and over again. Because we have difficulty accepting that a man can be weak and a woman can be strong, the social constructs are going to replay constantly. And yes, that is a problem. It’s okay for a man to cry, to show emotion other then anger or joy, and to be helpless in a situation. In fact, that makes the man even more masculine and REAL when we see them vulnerable, because no man is a manly man man (even the most interesting man in the world has a commercial where he cries-so it’s okay!). We have to remove ourselves from both male and female stereotypes if we want to progress forward in gaming and with the media industry as a whole.(I could go completely overboard regarding the way people are treated in online chats via a game and the use of derogatory terms and sexism stereotypes, but it could take me years to get through it all.)

Sexism is not new. It’s not limited to just women and it’s not uncommon. But in the gaming industry it is rabid. It’s easily accessible and glorified. Lightning from FF13 has been given a full breast cup size increase for no reason other than to pander to the male audience. Just as Chris Redfield got a few more muscles to beef up against the infected/undead population of the world, the reasoning behind these changes is flawed and unacceptable. Just because sexism has existed does not mean it should continue to be acceptable. Both men and women are victim to this, and if we expect our medium to grow into an art form, we need to start making better decisions about our games and our characters.

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