Feminism and Videogames (Part 1)

-by Gabrielle Friesen, student staff

Videogames are one of my favorite pastimes, but I have a love-hate relationship with them. As much of an escape as they can provide, they are often (painfully often) rooted in a lot of real-world issues and –isms. Obviously, media doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and people living in the real world and carrying around those –isms are the ones making those games. The videogame industry overwhelmingly works from the mentality that straight white dudes are either the only audience or the most profitable audience –which is really a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you make games that are offensive to everyone but the least self-aware straight white dudes, then yeah, only those un-self-aware straight white dudes are going to buy your nonsense. The problems in the industry aren’t things I deny. Analyzing videogames to the point of near un-playability is sometimes cathartic for me. And some games I really love, in spite of their deep problems.

Mainstream feminist academia, on the other hand, is often incapable of holding a similar multifaceted view of videogames. Instead the medium tends to get written off as hyper-violent and irredeemable, and the supporting evidence is always, always, the fact that in Grand Theft Auto IV you can pay a prostitute for sex, then kill her afterwards and get the money back. Which, yes, that is a thing. And yes, it is an instance of awful violence against women. But that game is five years old, which is eons at the rate new games come out, and it’s only one game. There’s other games and other issues to talk about. But the conversation always comes down to Grand Theft Auto IV, and only Grand Theft Auto IV (although occasionally also Duke Nukem in a similarly reductionist way).

The couple of times video games have been brought up in the Women and Gender Studies classes I’ve taken, the conversation has almost immediately devolved to “Well, in Grand Theft Auto…” and then stayed on Grand Theft Auto and how violent video games are. Ok. The film Miss Representation, a documentary about the relationship between portrayals of women in the media and women in real-world leadership positions, is otherwise a pretty good film, but also relies on Grand Theft Auto IV as its only evidence in regards to videogames. The book “Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future” (2008) is overall a good primer on the subject of sexism, but does a similar thing to Miss Representation, and references the second most talked-about game by mainstream feminism: Duke Nukem (1991). Duke Nukem is her only example for why videogames are toxic. Women and Gender Studies as a discipline has, in my experience, been extremely vigorous, enabling deep analysis of film and music. But with videogames it’s for some reason ok to either just center the discussion in a cursory way on how violent they are (cool, aligning with the people scapegoating gun violence onto videogames instead of more legitimate causes that we’d then have to take responsibility for), or just centering on that instance of violence against women in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Plenty of people do acknowledge these issues and are talking about videogames in a more holistic way. The Border House Blog writes about videogames with a progressive lens, and the youtube channel Errant Signal, while generally focusing more on broader videogame analysis does often touch on issues like sexism. And people who play videogames also talk and blog about them on a regular basis. But mainstream feminist academia has yet to catch up with those conversations.

I understand there’s an accessibility issue at play here. Not everyone has the specific skill set to play videogames, or specific genres of videogames (like shooters), and not everyone has the money to access a console or good computer, and then the games’ costs on top of that. Some games take upwards of 40 or 50 hours to complete, which is time not everyone has. Even watching a speedrun play-through on youtube takes lots of time. And there’s the potential for different people to miss parts of the game or make different choices that then change the game, which would make class discussion difficult.  Watching an hour-and-a-half long movie takes way less money and time, and everyone is pretty guaranteed to see all the same scenes. So assigning videogames in class is probably not feasible. But if the topic does come up, it should just be with the acknowledgement and awareness that Grand Theft Auto IV is not the only game in existence.

If you’re writing a book or making a documentary that is going to touch on videogames, and that you’re presumably going to do research on, maybe talk about more recent games, or a wider range of games. Its fine to focus on examples that you think are important but only ever talking about one or two games does a disservice to your audience and weakens your argument overall.

(In part two I’ll be talking about more recent trends and issues in videogames, and moving away from Grand Theft Auto IV)

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2 thoughts on “Feminism and Videogames (Part 1)

  1. Yeah, people do tend to reduce gaming down to its worst offenders. While Duke Nukem may be particularly egregious, gamers didn’t take to it at all, and decried it for its gameplay and its tone. I also think there’s a bit too much accusation thrown around. Every time a new topic comes to the table (Hitman, Tomb Raider) it just gets beaten into the ground. Yeah, maybe that one speaker did say some problematic things, but I don’t really think it was ever emblematic of the game as a whole.

  2. Pingback: Feminism and Videogames (part 2) | cuwomensresourcecenter

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