For this part of the series, I’m going to mainly be using World of Warcraft for reference, as that’s the company I’ve had my most recent (and bitter) experience with. I also think that the company’s marketing and design choices have provided me with a clear link between sexist marketing and the creation of a gaming culture hostile to women. Keep in mind, though, that this is a phenomenon that pervades gaming culture as a whole.
First off, I’d like to point out that I’m not the first one to make the jump from advertising and how the actual players treat women:
Further, many of the marketing strategies and magazines are directly exclusively toward guys. I stopped reading Electronic Gaming Monthly a few years ago after I got sick of seeing yet another article on a “girl gamer” with a few squares of cotton stretched over her fake boobs. Those interviews usually focused on whether or not she played naked rather than what was currently spinning in her system. What I find particularly sad about this is not that it tends to alienate their few female readers, but that a large chunk of their target audience is younger boys… so these melon-chested interviewees (surrounded with drawings of the same, ripped from the games themselves… see Dead or Alive) come to represent women for these kids. Sexist attitudes are reinforced. Girl gamers are shunted aside by a new generation as fluffy sex kitties who prance about playing The Sims and giggling behind a hand.[From Girls, games, and a culture of hostility by Legendary Monkey]
One of my main beefs with Blizzard’s treatment of women was that the advertising that involved female characters always showed scantily-clad, hyper-sexualized female avatars. Ever since Warcraft III one of their main “poster girls” has been a busty Night Elf vixen; she is by far their most visible woman, prominently featured in the background of their website and the most visible female in their game loading screens. Check out, if you will, their official wallpaper section and compare the females’ representation to that of the males’.
The focus in the above female featured wallpapers is on their perfectly round, gravity-defying, eye-catching breasts. Also notice the similarity in their body shapes: thin, small waists, similar shoulders, etc. When you rule out the obvious elements like their different races, opposing colour palettes, and hunched versus standing up tall poses, the similarities are actually quite striking, even down to their long hair and magical right hand as a secondary focus. Sure, if you look closely they have different face shapes (the undead warlock has a longer jaw), but I only realized that when I sat down to examine the row I selected. In stark contrast to the scantily-clad ladies, the dwarven rifleman is suited up with leather armour and a cloak and the focus is on his beard and face. I would definitely say that this fits my argument that women are turned into “cookie cutter” objects while men are seen as individuals through these kinds of advertisements.
I’d also like to address another noticeable issue of the gender split: character dancing. It isn’t advertising, per se, but it’s an example of Blizzard generated content that reinforces the misogynist culture the players engage in. While playing my Horde character (Troll female) I started noticing a disparity between the way women dance (sexy, hip-moving, arm-waving way) and the way men dance (active, much movement, often jumping, sometimes silly). The female Night Elves are the worst: they were described to me as “pole dancing without the pole” and when I saw my Night Elf alt dance, I couldn’t help but agree. But, they make a joke about it in their /silly command so it must be ok! (The joke command is another area that’s a bit of a sore point; I noticed that the girls make on average more sexual jokes than the guys, often focusing on their own bodies.)
So, I’ve shown how Blizzard buys into the same sexist marketing ploys as the rest of the industry, but what does this have to do with in-game harassment?
Well, I’d like to return to the quote I pulled from Legendary Monkey’s article: “a large chunk of their target audience is younger boys… so these melon-chested intervieweesâ€¦ come to represent women for these kids.” Granted, in this case she was talking about actual women, but the females in these games do to a certain extent represent actual women. One of the way we learn as humans is by absorbing messages in popular culture (news, advertising, books, games, movies, etc) and the message the video game industry is sending it’s target audience is clear: women are whores on display for your amusement.
Think I’m exaggerating? Hop on to any FPS (first person shooter) game that uses a mic (I recommend Halo 2, since the atmosphere seems particularly virulent there) and say something (or, if you’re a guy, have a female family member play using voice chat). Count how long it takes for the insults like “faggot”, “nigger”, and “pussy” to be replaced with vitriol thrown at the woman player like “whore” or “go back to the kitchen”. Or go onto a ventrilo/teamspeak server for an MMO guild and listen to the way they talk with their female members, chances are they’ll be a lot of talking about cybersex, how “hot” the girl is, boob-talk, etc. No “bad” name-calling there, though, because if she’s in the guild they “like” her.
Any time I bring up the offensive language (all that I cited above and more, not just the female-directed slurs) I’m told that I’m oversensitive, or it doesn’t mean the same thing in gaming culture that it does in real life. Sorry, kids, but I call bullshit. There is nothing harmless about an environment that uses verbal intimidation to dehumanize a group of people, whether or not the person using the language intends it to be so.
But isn’t dehumanizing a group of people exactly what the ads marketed towards these teenage boys do? By reducing the women depicted into not much more than a sexual object the companies are not only attracting people who already feel this way to play their game, they’re encouraging and condoning the objectification, and by extension the harassment, that goes on in their servers.
While stopping the hyper-sexualization of the female characters won’t fix the harassment problem, I truly believe that representing the women avatars in advertising and in-game as individuals/people on the same level as the males would be a step in the right direction. If the companies send the message that all people – regardless of sex, race, sexual orientation, etc – deserve respect, then not only will more people who believe this to be true be drawn to the games, but also it will help foster an environment friendly to all players. Who knows, maybe even the kids who grow up in a bigoted atmosphere might even learn something about tolerance.
Up next: Girl Power? – we all love girls who kick ass, but does showing mostly “sexy” women in these roles hurt more than it helps?