Girl Power? [Girls & Game Ads, Part 3]

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Girl Power: Liberating or Objectifying?

Way back when I did the first instalment of this series, I quoted a description of a GameStop commercial that an employee had seen while working in the shop. The long and the short was that it was an ad for trade-ins featuring guys getting hit by women (representing video games) while on their way to trade them in for women who packed a bigger punch. The employee describes the women as “scantily clad” and, thinking of most video game heroines, I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

These women clearly fit into the idea of “girl power” that’s been floating around the entertainment industry for the past 10+ years. They are valued for their “strength,” as evidenced by how hard they can punch their player being proportional to how valued they are (he trades them in for women who can hit harder). They are women who can, and do kick ass. But, is this “power” that of a true kind or is the phenomenon of women kicking ass a way to co-opt female power and bring it back firmly under men’s control? Continue reading

Pitching Harassment [Girls & Game Ads, Part 2]

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’.

One line of Blizzard’s official WoW wallpapers.

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 interviewees… 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?

All World of Warcraft images copyright © Blizzard Entertainment.

Introduction [Girls & Game Ads, Part 1]

Okay, I’m sorry for the myriad of video game oriented posts recently, but what can I say? I’m a gamer, which makes me obsessed with games. My recent break from World of Warcraft has given me a lot to chew on and it doesn’t help when other people are writing on the same topics I’ve been giving serious thought to. There’s a lot of ground to cover, so I’ve decided to make this into a series entitled “Girls & Game Ads” (sorry, I suck at names and this one is short-ish and uses alliteration). Obviously, it’s going to focus on issues of how the gaming industry chooses to market its games and how it relates to and affects women.

I’d like to turn to a recent editorial at GameGirlz to give everyone an idea of the current atmosphere of the general advertising in the industry. The piece, a letter by a GameStop employee, discusses an in-store advertisement that Gamestop has chosen to run:

A guy and his scantily clad girlfriend are in a car; the guy is driving and he looks like he’s in a rush — and the girl for some reason is punching him senseless. The next shot is of a video game box with the same girl on the cover.

Oh, okay, she’s from a video game. (Or she’s supposed to represent a video game).

Whatever. Somehow, it didn’t sit right with me. In the next scene, they are at a GameStop and the guy tells the salesman “I wanna trade her in” pointing to his punch happy girlfriend. The salesman smiles, brings out another scantily clad woman who punches the boyfriend so hard he crashes into a wall, but he gets up and grins, “OHHH, I’ll take her!” So the guy walks out with his new ‘game’ or ‘girlfriend’ and they live happily ever after. Meanwhile another guy walks in and wanted to buy the other girl, er, game that just got traded in. She starts punching him too.

City of Villains ad on GameStop
I went to the GameStop website in an effort to find any information, images, or even a movie of the advertisement itself. Unfortunately, neither the website nor google turned up anything useful on it*, but when I visited the company page I was greeted by the City of Villains advertisement depicted on the left of this paragraph. Maybe I’m just a pervert, but the first thing I saw was the boobs. Indeed, the first thing my eye was drawn to on the entire site was the advertisement and, by extension, the prominently displayed breasts. Yeah, the guy’s head is bigger but apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought the boobs were more eye-catching (see image below).

Ad line-up on GameStop
Cropped cover art from featured games on GameStop’s official website.

Another thing evident in this particular line-up is something I’ve noticed as another feature of video game advertising: images of women tend to have the large boobs as a focus (either by showing lots of skin or by having skin-tight costumes), while images of men tend to focus on the face, or show a heavily armoured (or clothed) man. While there are obviously exceptions to this (armoured/small breasted women, scantily-clothed men, etc), I posit that this dichotomy is one that is typical in advertisements for the gaming industry.

Now, objectifying women in advertisements is not new. It’s a ploy that the video game industry has been using since I can remember. The “trade-in” ad has apparently jumped on the “sexy fighting chick” bandwagon that’s become popular in the media over the past decade or so since it uses “scantily clad babes + show of ‘strength’ (punching) = desirability” model. Again, nothing new. This is the first time that I’ve seen such a blatant acknowledgement of the whole ownership of women that this kind of gaze gives men, though. Here women actually are the property of the men – to use and then trade in for the newer, better model.

But fear not, ladies, it’s ok because the girls weren’t supposed to be real:

Oh, and also, we received an e-mail from the powers that be from M-A-R-K-E-T-I-N-G and they state that that commercial is not meant to be offensive, the girls were meant to be video game characters and they were trying to appeal to their major demographic target, young males.

Beautiful. Exploit women to exploit young male hormones. So beautiful.

Gee, I guess I shouldn’t be such a humourless feminist. Marketing says it’s funny, so it must be! Seriously, I’m not the only one who finds this sort of bullshit insulting to both the women who are told that our bodies are the equivalent of video games (ie. property of sex-crazed teenagers), but also to the young males that the game is targeting. Last time I checked, their target audience bought games because the gameplay looked good not because they’re some mindless automatons controlled by their dick (“Oh look, it’s boobies! Who cares if the gameplay is awful, bugged, and no fun? Penis says boobies = buy!” Please).

The employee who wrote this editorial said that the commercial made her feel “sad”, “insulted”, and “degraded”. I have to say ads like the one she described make me feel much the same. Is that the feelings that Marketing wants to elicit in its consumers? I may not be their “target” but did I miss the part of “Marketing 101” that says it’s a good idea to put down any potential customers that aren’t in your target audience? Last time I checked, the whole purpose of advertising was to get more consumers, not less.

And, while we’re on the subject, why aren’t women a target audience? Gaming culture is already firmly entrenched with young males, they don’t need to be “pandered to” (if you can call exploiting their supposed lack of hormonal control “pandering” to them, which Marketing may believe but I don’t). Gamers, even casual gamers, buy games based on content – preferred genres, innovative gameplay, staple companies/series/characters, etc. The only difference is that the culture has been such that most guys grow up in an environment that assumes they’ll play games (casual gamers at the very least) while girls grow up in an environment that assumes that they won’t (unless cajoled/forced by a boyfriend). The popularity of games marketed in a way that includes women (female oriented or genderless) should make things clear: women have the chance to make up at least 50% of the consumer base, if only the industry would wake up and stop marketing against them.

Up next: Pitching Harassment – examining the links between sexist advertisement and in-game harassment of women.

* ETA 12/14/2007: Thanks to Feminist Gamers I’ve found the video! The description of it was spot on.