In attempting to examine how and why there is such a huge streak of sexism and misogyny in videogame culture – and there is, let’s just take that as read, shall we, and press on – it helps to look not at sexism in games, but sex. There are bigger societal pictures to take into account, but that’s for someone else to give you.
Part I – The prehistory of game sex
The above screenshot is from the mildly notorious (if you’re a nerd) game Custer’s Revenge. Yes, it’s exactly how it looks. General Custer, sporting nothing more than a dizzying erection and some sweet cowboy accessories, is approaching a naked Native American woman, who would be tied to a stake if the Atari 2600 were up to showing rope. Now, this is a bewildering image because it is offensive on several levels simultaneously but let’s ignore the racism and the historical revisionism and focus on the sex. Sex in Custer’s Revenge isn’t an adult, consensual act. It’s rape, played for laughs. Was this for a sophisticated audience? Mystique Software, the creators of Custer’s Revenge and the equally sexually puerile Beat ‘Em and Eat ‘Em*, marketed their games as ‘Swedish Erotica’, a line which only teenage boys could ever fall for. They weren’t hugely successful – even their ‘All publicity is good publicity’ optimism and Custer’s notoriety-driven sales couldn’t save them from the 1983 videogames crash – but they made their point. Sex in games wasn’t off-limits, provided it was crass and juvenile enough to appeal to the tiny minority of humans who were interested at the time.
Of course, it wasn’t always available. Take the (not, thankfully, literally) seminal Jet Set Willy. The entire premise of the game, should you care to examine the story of so basic a piece of narrative, was that the hero, Miner Willy, was denied access to the bedroom by his shrewish wife Maria until he had completed his task of cleaning the house. If he completed his task, he got to sleep. SLEEP. Of course. The point here is that it’s amazing how much can actually be packed into a tiny sprite. Maria stands guardian over the Master Bedroom, one hand on full hip, the other pointing at the dirty house. Amazingly, considering she is less than an inch high on the average TV screen, she appears to have sagging breasts and a frumpy, knee-length skirt. Sex was not on the cards for Miner Willy, just as it wasn’t for most players at the time. Who, who would pop a generation’s cherry?
Step up Leisure Suit Larry, the original 40 Year Old Virgin. So concerned were Sierra, the game’s producers, with keeping Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards away from childish eyes that they introduced a laughable security system, asking questions which surely, surely only one of mature years would know the answer to before permitting entry. Of course, they were multiple choice and not very varied so HAH!, in your face Sierra. We kids were in, and faced with a glimpse into a seedy underbelly, the like of which we never cared to know existed.
To be fair to Leisure Suit Larry, it wasn’t a terrible game. It was clever enough to know how naff it was, but the puzzles were often quite trying and the fatal errors seemed a bit arbitrary. Still, the prospect of digitised fucking kept a generation of teenage boys playing all the way through. I mean, look at that screenshot. That was cutting-edge digital porn in 1987. Naturally any actual sex was 100% censored, so desire was thwarted once again and we still were yet to see any genuine engagement with sex and sexuality.
Women were trophies, to be captured or olgled (Princess Peach, the nameless scantily clad female portrayed by Page Three girl Maria Whittaker on the artwork for early beat’em up Barbarian, even the titular Zelda). The only big-name franchise with a female lead was Metroid, and even then it was only obvious that Samus was a woman when she had lost her armour and was running around naked. You probably know all this, it’s not news. I’m just saying, think of the audience and think of the creators. Everyone was younger, games didn’t have a staff of hundreds working on them – it was often a very small group or even just one crazy man on his own (as Jet Set Willy was) – few noticed and fewer cared about the role of women. Young men writing for boys; of course women represented Otherness, were the object not the subject. Of course they couldn’t handle sex; the nearest they came was handling themselves. Videogames were built for simple interactions – buttons to pull a trigger, push an accelerator, punch a face. Sex is a complex matter, not suited to the brutish mechanics of early gaming.
Part II – A great leap forward
It took Sony to punch gaming through into the mainstream. Hard to believe as it now is, Sony had zero profile in videogame technology before the PlayStation. A failed collaboration with Sega pushed them into the hardware arena, where it looked as if they would be squished by the might of Sega and Nintendo. Instead, they triumphed, aiming the PS1 at a bigger, older, more sophisticated market and hitting it dead on. Is it coincidence that the generation of snickering boys who played Leisure Suit Larry had now reached early adulthood? Is that a rhetorical question? Of course it’s not a coincidence. The product moves with the market.
The market, then, wanted to be treated more like a grown up. And, while the product was grudgingly obliging, with more nuanced character and narrative work, it wasn’t until 1996 that gaming got its first AAA title with a credible female lead. You know where I’m going with this, but for all of Lara Croft’s overtly sexual characteristics (which have become more pronounced as time goes on), there’s no real hint of actual sex in the games (disclaimer: Those that I have played. There are ten of the bastard things, I’ve only played 5), Lara never seems interested in men enough to actually sleep with them. There are two ways of looking at this.
One: Lara is a treated exactly as her male counterparts are, and sex doesn’t, shouldn’t, have to come into the story of her games. We all know the deal – it’s an adventure game, running, shooting, climbing trees. Sex? Elsewhere.
Two: The producers felt the market couldn’t cope (or the producers couldn’t cope) with the player-character being a heterosexual female. It would mean, effectively, you, the player would have sex with a man. Ugh, that’s like being a gay or something!
The first option is reasonably high-minded, as far as these things go. It treats women equally to men and doesn’t bow to the idea that female protagonists are more ‘emotional’, and should have storylines which play up affairs of the heart. Of course, that rather conveniently forgets the fact that Tomb Raider doesn’t quite treat Lara as if she were a man; I’m pretty sure the camera angles focusing on her bottom and breasts in cut-scenes wouldn’t be there if it was a straight-up Indiana Jones adventure. Indiana Jones, incidentally, would be considerably more robustly dressed when exploring these snow-bound tombs, too. But still, progress is progress, even if it’s tiny steps rather than giant leaps.
There was small progress in gaming’s approach to sex, as well. Novelist turned developer David Cage has been attempting to give players adult relationships for years; from Omikron: The Nomad Soul to Heavy Rain, sex in Quantic Dream games has been treated with the sophistication of, oh, at least Hollywood. Yes, that’s a backhanded compliment, but it is a genuine improvement on the way things were. GTA: San Andreas’s infamous ‘Hot Coffee’ mod may not have been intended for inclusion in the final game, but it certainly showed Rockstar – probably the finest games studio currently in existence – was thinking about how to include sex within the structure of play. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time includes a dreamily-lit sequence in a bath-house the very equal of anything in a 12-rated high-budget film. Again, honestly, in context that is a compliment. Ubisoft continued this sterling work with Assassin’s Creed, which carries off its romantic interludes with a certain amount of dignity. Maybe this is due to the series being under the directorial control of one of the most prominent female figures in game production, Jade Raymond. Maybe it’s just that its market is the generation that grew up with games; 30something men (and, increasingly, women) who don’t find sex embarrassing or funny (except when we want to**). The product moves with the market. Audiences in the late 90s and early 00s had a sense that maybe the shifting demographics were cracking the videogame industry open, that equality was on its way***.
But, as ever, trouble was brewing elsewhere.
Part III – The conquest of cyberspace
Elsewhere, in this case is online. Online, of course, is a vast, amorphous term. You should know, you’re on it. It’s the best and the worst thing to happen to gaming since Spacewar! first bleep-blooped its way across a green screen at MIT. It has undoubtedly opened up the games market far beyond its usual boundaries; the casual gamer, a term which started out as abuse for those players unwilling to invest the time and effort into becoming ‘hardcore’, now controls a massive share of the market.
The process of bringing new players was started by Nintendo with its phenomenally canny Wii campaigns and continued by online gaming sites such as PopCap and Big Fish, whose easy to pick up products had appeal beyond the hardcore twitch-gaming crowd and carried games aggressively marketed at women. Finally, the market exploded to near-universality. My Mum, in her sixties, is as addicted to Plants vs Zombies as I ever was to Double Dragon. Games are everywhere, and played by everyone. The hardcore gamers have become exactly that – a compacted centre, a tight group in the middle of a vast network. As anyone who has played a co-operative multiplayer game knows, though, when the group is outflanked like that, outnumbered and enclosed by swarms of The Enemy, that’s when they band together and come out fighting.
Multiplayer online games are a new type of game. Before, when you wanted to play a game with another player, you’d have to be in the same room, using the same machine. In the old days I used to play two-to-a-keyboard. Eee, but you tell kids that nowadays and they don’t believe you. Now all you need is a decent broadband connection and the skin of a rhino, because you’re going to get abused online during a game. Have you ever had a younger relative throw the Monopoly board in the air when they lost? Did you ever feel irritation and anger when someone taunted you for losing a game of [insert sport of your choice here]? Pfft. Child’s play. An online gamer isn’t happy unless they’ve wished death, rape and mutilation on you, your children and your mother, and can only enjoy a win if they have teabagged your still-twitching corpse. These are testosterone-galvanized killing fields, and even we grown-up, jumper-wearing, muesli-quaffing, paid-up Guardian reading men of the world are dragged down by the filth and the fury, even women find themselves joining in the misogynist taunting.
The (literally) vocal minority are gaining ground, pushing back the progress made. The simple fact of the matter is that the games industry is wide-eyed at the possibilities the online market offers and is pushing in that direction with blind force. Away from the cosy world of casual gaming, games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, alien to the burgeoning sexuality of the solo gamer, dominate the console-based multiplayer arena. The multiplayer servers are barely policed, and the industry seem happy to let ugly, misogynist abuse proliferate. With the requirements for play being ‘a lot of disposable income and time, interested in shooting people repeatedly in the face’, it’s little surprise that they have found that the majority of this audience is young and male, just as it was twenty years ago. Attempts to address this are derided, attacked and dismissed.
That the Tomb Raider series has played up the objectification of its central character more and more is something of a sad indictment of where we are now; the latest ‘attempted rape is an empowering thing!’ debacle is a low point – Lara is no longer the player’s avatar in these thrilling environments, she is a sexy puppet to be ‘protected’, guided past the evil that men do. Tomb Raider executive producer Ron Rosenberg spelled it out in a now-notorious interview with Kotaku – “She’s definitely the hero but— you’re kind of like her helper,” he said. “When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.” Oh, ok. Doesn’t that make us a bit more complicit? You’re explicitly placing us outside the character, putting us at a remove, so we’re the observer, the voyeur. We have gone from perpetrator to eyewitness, but don’t be fooled. This isn’t progress.
*You play as a naked woman, catching globs of semen and they fall from the giant penis of a masturbating man at the top of the screen. NO SERIOUSLY YOU DO WHY WOULD I MAKE THAT UP WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME TO DO THAT?
**Boobies. Heh. Willy.
**Footnote to this optimism: At the same time, Dead or Alive was taking a perfectly competent beat ‘em up and selling it on the physics modelling of its female characters’ breasts. You could even set the jiggle rate. And I haven’t touched on interactive CGI sex games (Click here to fondle!) or the terrifying subgenre of Japanese hentai games. But this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive history, otherwise I’d be here all year.