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The Ubiquity of Sexism

The game over screen from the iOS mobile game Flight Control

For her sixth birthday, my eldest daughter has decided she wants a 3DS. And being a doting gamer dad, who am I to argue? But when I had a look at some of the games available for the system, I was struck by the fact that she’d actually never played what you might call an escalating difficulty game before. We take this model for granted: games that become progressively more complex and demanding as you play through them. But if you’re five, going on six, and the only video games you’ve ever played are flash inserts on kids’ TV websites and iPad activities that let you bake cookies or poke aliens in the eye, it’s a new and problematic paradigm. And if you end up falling at that first hurdle, it could put you off video games for life.

Of course there are good games like Nintendogs that don’t entirely fit this model but they’re very rare. So I had a think about how I could discover whether or not she was ready for more challenging games and I hit on the idea of having her play Flight Control on the iPad on the (very easy) easiest settings. You’ll have played some variation of Flight Control before – you guide some form of public transportation to a variety of destinations without having them crash into one another. In Flight Control it’s planes and the touch screen implementation is smooth and very natural – perfect for a child. And it worked, she loved the game, accepted the increasing difficulty, started to climb the challenge curve, which made me very happy. And then at the end she saw the screen you always see at the end, which is pictured above for you, and she asked “Daddy, who’s that lady?”

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So I told her it was a lady who worked on an aeroplane. But I was perturbed by the fact that I’d never asked myself the same question. I was particularly perturbed that I’d never asked related questions like why she was blonde, or why she was always striking a sexy pose in a variety of mildly provocative outfits.

This has nothing to do with prudery: I’m entirely in favour of anyone being allowed to post pictures of other sexy and/or naked people wherever, within reason, they like. Rather I was struck by how commonplace and acceptable it’s become in games, so much so in fact that I’d ceased to notice it. In TV and magazines and other media, it’s quite common now to post alluring pictures of either sex to advertise something, and it’s often done in a creative manner to help you sit up and take notice. If I’d seen something so old-fashioned, so tiresomely unoriginal and so obviously one-sided (where’s the handsome cabin steward?) I’d have rolled my eyes and wondered for the thousandth time why western civilization hasn’t got over this particular hangup yet. But in a game, it took an innocent comment from my daughter to wake me up to the fact I was seeing the same thing all over again.

For this blame not only my lack of observational skills, but the sheer ubiquity of it in the medium. You can see it in the arguments over FemShep. You can see it in the fact that Aris Bakhtanians felt it was okay to try and excuse his repulsive, loathsome behaviour with anything other than a humble apology. You can see it in Lara Croft’s curves, in the comments made during multi-player matches involving female gamers, in the outfit of Ivy from Soul Calibur. None of this is new, or surprising of course and these points have been made frequently and rather more eloquently many times in the past. The point of this post is that I thought I knew how to spot this stuff, and that I was on the “right” side of interpreting it as sexism, and I wasn’t. I was just on the “right” side of the more extreme examples. I hate and despise the way that a lot of the fairly stories, especially the older ones and the Disney ones, that I end up reading to my little girls carry a variety of subliminal messages about women only being validated by the love and attention of a man. I try and steer them away from these stories toward ones with more proactive female protagonists, but I can’t ban them, that would be draconian and only create more desire for the banned thing. But I really didn’t think I’d have to do the same thing when they got old enough to engage with mainstream, family oriented video games. I’m very sad that I’ve been proved wrong.

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Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

5 thoughts to “The Ubiquity of Sexism”

  1. You know what kind of sexism is particularly ubiquitous in games culture? The concept that in order for women to be “equal” to men they have to effectively be men with breasts- yet still remain desirable sex objects. The whole concept of “empowering” women by giving them a sword or assault rifle and skimpy power armor and then making them combatants in martial conflict is sexist in itself. It’s stripping away natural, biological concepts of femininity and womanhood and expecting women to act as men and do the same things as men.

    Because that’s what makes a woman a “strong female character”, right? If they can shoot and fight?

    1. Well, yeah, in a game where the male characters are defined by shooting and fighting, the female ones are strong if they can do the same.

      What do you want? An addition to Modern Warfare where the female characters can raise children in a mini-game, using their “natural concepts of femininity and womanhood”? That seems like the sexist angle. Having female characters kick butt like the men while still looking like women is as level a playing field as you can get.

      Obviously the question is whether the outfits for the female characters are designed for men or women to enjoy and identify with, but of the dozens of females I know that game, they all pick the sexy characters for their avatar, not one that is conservatively dressed and built like a man.

  2. I have a daughter roughly the same age. I have stared at this blank comment screen for longer than I care to admit trying to remember. . . there was either a show or a movie we watched recently that had an odd underlying message that I really didn’t agree with by the time the ending rolled around, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was. I only bring this up because I don’t think what you’re addressing is limited to any ‘ism’. As a parent, obviously you want your child to have the right mental toolbox to make the right decisions once they leave the nest, and it can be troubling to see some of the more subtle message infused into something that’s supposed to be family friendly. Hell, turn on the ABC Family channel on any given night and if you can stomach the abhorrent acting, most of the shows are meant to titilate under the guise of being a ‘family discussion’ matter at the end of it. Is this their fault, though? They’re popular enough to stay in production. Is my perception just warped? I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I’d feel if my daughter was 13 and watching that. But that being said, I know every child and parent situation is different. I’ve met people that have no issues letting their kids watch horror movies at age 7. Who am I to say what’s right for their kids?

    There’s always going to be people who have a different idea and perspective on life, and through their work they’re going to try to get that message across. The only thing I can do as a parent is to try to be as active as I can in order to try to help guide her. Sometimes that might mean competing with something on the screen that’s blatent or it might be more subdued.

  3. I haven’t played the game, but it looks like the lady is representative of the people that greet you when you arrive in Hawaii and give you a lei. She’s holding it out and about to put it around your neck. “Aloha! Welcome to Hawaii! Thank you for your tourism dollars.” In terms of game sexism I think this one is pretty low on the outrageous scale. I don’t think you have to defend it at all. “She’s greeting the passengers when they land. If we ever go to Hawaii, you’ll see people that do that.” PRO TIP: They will be pretty.

    I have daughters so I can see where your concern is coming from, but I also see a lot of societal guilt in your article. Your whole “right side of interpreting it as sexism” is a weird thing to say. You make it sound like you are a bad person for not telling your daughter that it is wrong to portray women as attractive. As in everything, I think we want to stay away from extremes.

    As a father, I just make sure I let my daughters know that what other people think of them is a distant second to what they think of themselves. If they want to be Navy Seals or Suzy Homemaker it is their choice and NEITHER is wrong. Maybe they WANT to rely on a strong man to love and cherish them and save them from dragons. Is that bad? Just because it is a stereotypical concept? A simple solution is to just give equal time to both concepts. My girls know about Cinderella and Amelia Erhart. Sometimes they want to be Tinkerbell, other times they pretend to be Annie Oakley. They are Ballerinas and Kung-Fu warriors and they know that whatever they choose, it is the right choice.

  4. There is an ubiquity, but we can overcompensate when recognizing the signs. For the illustrations in Flight Control I would argue that the poses used aren’t sexy, but are attempting to be dynamic, and any anatomy class ever would agree. But the enigma of the female body is that in order to make a pose dynamic or interesting you are showing off bits of her body, and those same bits are what are used to describe sexy. And, no, I am not just talking about breasts and hips, because moving elbows, shoulders, and knees all come back to the torso so there is no avoiding it really.

    And ultimately designs come back to semiotics, or signs, and a lot stems from the traditional roles of parents with mothers being nurturing and fathers being protectors. It’s where brains go when there isn’t more that needs to be said than a quick idea, which the female stewardess provides in this situation.

    Of course that is one example, and the ubiquity can be kind of shocking when you step back and see how you have been caught up in it and not known it. But oddly enough there are a lot of strong female characters in recent media and it’s almost ubiquitous to the point of not noticing they are even there! And hopefully this pattern continues so that a whether a hero is female or male doesn’t matter as long as they are worth looking up to.

    Now Ivy in Soul Calibur, well that’s another story altogether. But be happy she is one character setting an extreme on a scale and not the norm of the series, a la Dead or Alive.

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