23, February 2009
Gendering is a process of cultural conditioning, and gender norms are allocations of behaviors and practices in concurrence with the cultural expectations of a sex. Methods of gendering are often symbolic: from infancy an individual is inundated with emblematic colors, clothes, and accoutrements in accordance with gender standards. Infants have not the cognitive skills to comprehend dominant ideologies or complex institutions such as gender, and therefore these presuppositions and their enforcement is “a primary mode of oppression which sorts human bodies into binary categories” (Halberstam 118). This oppression exhibits itself in later development as an “interlocking system of performances and forms of self-knowing” (117). This subjugation of potential affinity and individualized ability manifests itself even in the sphere of play. In the realm of computer and console video games, where “one is literally, albeit virtually, inside the visualization of a symbolic field” (Morse 15), it comes as little surprise that gender tropes are not only rife but enthusiastically perpetuated.
A major trend in computer and console games is idealized hyperrealism. This vogue applies largely to graphics, and works adjacent to the medium’s greatest strength, which is the generation and creative interactivity of and within unreal worlds. These worlds are largely populated by fantastic creatures, characters, and artifacts, many of which are imbued with features and abilities that are entirely fictive. This juxtaposition of photographically realistic rendering and interactive fantasy fiction lends itself to manifestations of stereotypic hyperrealism, wherein the clichés of culture – specifically those of gender ideology – are subject to hyperbolic representation. These distorted expressions of gendered ideals play out in the physical depictions as well as the roles and contexts of both male and female characters.
It is not sufficient to simply point out the ludicrous exaggeration of female mammaries and male muscles in best-selling action-adventure and role-playing games. These digital over-accentuations are byproducts of a body-dysmorphic culture that fetishizes dominant gender ideologies of feminine vulnerability and masculine aggression. What greater testament to the physical mores of masculinity than Gears of War’s Marcus Fenix with his watermelon-sized, rope-veined biceps and granite-slab, steel-encased torso? What more befitting evidence of the bodily ideals of femininity than EverQuest’s Firiona Vie with her tissue-clad, zero-gravity bosom and flimsy, ever-exposed midriff? These overstatements are prolific to such an extent that the hyper-gendered form is no longer entirely recognized as caricature. These forms reflect and reinforce a cultural lean toward these ideals, a fascination with and adulation for excessively and prominently gendered bodies.
Such is the cultural fixation on binary, masculine/feminine gender ideals that androgyny in almost any form causes cognitive discomfort. In digital fields where there is gender ambiguity, game designers innovate and liberally apply tertiary sexual characteristics. These distinguishing features may be as innocuous as the red bow that gives Ms. Pac-Man’s title heroine her ineffable “Ms.”-ness. On the other hand, such features frequently veer outside the territory of whimsical embellishment. Take for example Nintendo’s Metroid series: player character Samus Aran tracks and dispatches space pirates in a genderless cyborg jumpsuit. The game’s finale reveals Samus as what is widely acknowledged to be the first humanoid female protagonist in action-shooter and platform gaming. Since this reveal, however, Nintendo designers have, in subsequent games of the series, altered Samus’ armor with tertiary sexual indicators such as a slenderized waist and enhanced breast plate. A more transparent visor makes visible her long, feminine eyelashes.
More poignant than the steady physical feminization of Samus Aran, however, is the acute understanding that the discovery of the protagonist’s sex is not an incidental surprise; the disclosure was intended to astonish. This astonishment is facilitated by the fact that, since its inception, video game culture has functioned as “an arena within which to learn and practice the ‘doing’ of masculinity” (Alloway & Gilbert 96). Precisely what made the unveiling of Samus Aran revelatory was the discovery that all along a female avatar had been engaged in masculine performance. Until the armor was removed, the gaming world—and indeed the world of casual observers—had sexed her male by default. This assumption was based on dual premises. Firstly, the character was engaged in ascribed-masculine activities such as bounty hunting, exploration, and weapon-handling. Secondly, the character’s engagement in these activities took place within a medium which traditionally serves as a showground for males to refine and demonstrate these masculine proficiencies. In the same way that American culture colors the invisible protagonist Caucasian, young, and fit, the standard hero is also automatically assigned maleness. Women are rarely seen in strong, aggressive roles in video games unless they are representing villains, the vengeful, or the homely; forceful, sure actions violate the standards of femininity as the culture deems normal and appropriate. That Metroid’s avatar was “secretly” female was an affront to gender standards, and reparations of sorts have been made in the way of Samus’ physical gendering and subsequent sexualization.
Video game heroines are typically cut from similar cloth as Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider franchise. With her signature, khaki adventuress-au-go-go Daisy Dukes, Lara is arguably the most successful – and sexualized – female protagonist of video game canon. Once again, appeals to this brand of enhanced feminization are grounded in the conception and perpetuation of virtual worlds as proving-grounds for male masculinity – as well as a new face on the concept of the fraternal order, as online multiplayers become the new hunting lodges and frat houses. This movement is a discouragement to the female gamer as much as the feminine gamer.
Male gamers are far from a homogenous group themselves, and the gendered aspects of gaming affect them as well. If the virtual realm is a ground for masculine grooming and competition, it follows that the ideal citizens of the realm would be those who demonstrate these masculinities most proficiently. Video games depict heroes as rugged, dangerous, and highly competitive. Rarely will one find a video game action hero over thirty—or any race but white, unless representing a side-kick or team-member. He is never a pacifist and seldom a healer. For example, the recent Gears of War sequel saw an addition to the gameplay that enables an injured player character to heal with the assistance of his teammate. This heal is not a potion or medi-pack; it comes in the form of a command to “get up” and “fight through the pain” (Gears of War 2). This disdainful disregard of the most basic of nurturing instincts reinforces the unrealistic masculine ideal that real, masculine men don’t need medical assistance, and that they should muscle through and meet their objectives despite grievous injury.
Failure to live up to the masculine standards of dominance in play has consequences. The inability to win, to execute victory over opponents in online first- or third-person shooters and war games, leaves a player open to verbal attacks from other, typically male, online players. In a culture wherein “sexuality and gender can never be completely isolated from one another” (Somerville 190), there is unchecked confusion between the two institutions, and it manifests rampantly in game forums and voice chat between online players. A player’s sexuality is apt to be challenged as a means of underscoring the derision generated at unsatisfactory displays of in-game masculinity. A player who has not played in victorious masculine fashion is said to have been owned or, even more disturbingly, raped by their opponents. In an almost-male-only arena where overt masculine display is championed, less-than-adept players are the subjugated, the feminized, and the openly denigrated.
As it stands today, the unconstrained and exaggeratedly traditional gender norms embodied in digital avatars and narratives as well as the inherent fusing of digital gaming with strict masculine codes and mores is a hindrance on the medium. The possibilities for digital playgrounds to be the foreground of gender dissolution are multitudinous, but this emancipation “rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility” (Haraway, 149). The potential for creative transcendence over the coercions of gender ideologies hinges on awareness and innovation, not only by game designers, but by the players themselves.
Alloway, Nola and Pam Gilbert. “Video game culture: Playing with masculinity, violence and pleasure.” Ed. Sue Howard. Wired Up: Young People and the Electronic Media. Routledge, 1998.
Gears of War 2. Microsoft: Epic Games, 2008.
Halberstam, Judith. “Gender.” Eds. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: New York University, 2007.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Morse, Margaret. “Virtually Female: body and code.” Eds. Jennifer Terry and Melodie Calvert. Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life. Routledge, 1997.
Somerville, Siobhan. “Queer.” Ed. Bruse Burgett and Glenn Hendler. Keywords for American Cultural Studies. New York: New York University, 2007.