Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Misogyny in video games

I’ve been playing video games my entire life. I’ve been a fan of many games beginning with the original Super Mario Brothers, Zelda, and the like. Many of these games bring back early 90’s nostalgia, but beginning in college (the early 2000’s, that is), I started to notice a more misogynistic tone in video games. While the early games are certainly not innocent when it comes to reinforcing gender stereotypes (e.g. the common “rescuing the Princess” story line), games have become increasingly more sexist and violent - particularly against women. After a bit of research it became clear that too many video games today either sexualize female characters or involve overt acts of violence against women; video games are a popular media that is being used to vindicate the sexualization and abuse of women.

The widely popular Grand Theft Auto is known for its violent themes, but it made headlines when Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas simulated violence against women. In this game, a player can make a character have sex with a prostitute, beat her up, kill her, and take his money back. Having sex with a prostitute replenishes the character’s life but drains his money, thus encouraging both the solicitation of sex and the beating/killing of the prostitute afterwards. Further, the character calls the prostitute a "bitch" repeatedly after sex and while killing her.

Other games are not as overtly violent against women as they are sexist and exploitative of female sexuality. In Killer Instinct, the scantily clad female character “B. Orchid” has a move where she can kill her opponent by unzipping her top and flashing her breasts at them (though away from the camera). Further, the popular game Dead or Alive is best known for its young, sexy female characters. In Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball the entire cast is wearing extremely revealing string bikinis while playing beach volleyball. What’s more, the characters can be controlled to move into sexually suggestive positions and a zoom feature allows players to zoom in on the characters’ bodies. The female characters in all of these games have Barbi-esque figures with young girlish faces, tiny waists, and impossibly large breasts.

The most egregious example of violence against women in video gaming is the Japanese game RapeLay. Though it may be hard to believe, this game is actually based on the rape, sexual torture, and stalking of young girls. RapeLay begins with a subway scene in which the character’s objective is to grope and molest a young girl on the subway platform. From there, the player is enabled to stalk the girl and her sister, rape them repeatedly, capture them, torture them, and ultimately make them his sex slaves. Players can select which girl they wish to rape and choose from a number of scenes as to where the rape will take place. As play continues, “friends” can join in on the sexual abuse. The game even allows the character to impregnate a girl and encourage her to have an abortion. Though RapeLay never made it into stores in the United States, illegal copies still remain available on the internet.

In June of this year the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass'n, holding that a California law prohibiting the sale of "violent video games" to minors violated the First Amendment. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia contended that video games are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment, and that minors have their own First Amendment rights to access these games just like their adult counterparts. Justice Scalia then concluded that the state had failed to demonstrate a causal relationship between violent video games and violent behavior by children. While I am an advocate of free speech, I find it hard to believe that exposing children to these interactive games won’t affect how they will grow up to treat women. Indeed, violence against women is a pandemic and it doesn’t take much to find the manifestations of this problem. I can’t help but ask the perennial question: Does life imitate art, or does art imitate life?

The images of sexualized women and sexual violence that are provided to young people and adults alike via gaming serve to endorse a sort of interactive misogyny that, I believe, only normalizes this behavior. While adults may be at liberty to chose from an array of violent, sexist, and generally distasteful material (and there is plenty to choose from), misogyny does not need yet another audience in today’s youth.


S said...

AMA, I too grew up playing video games and echo your skepticism that "...that exposing children to these [violent] interactive games won’t affect how they will grow up to treat women."

I agree with Mr. Craig Anderson’s observation that two features of video-games have renewed the interests of researchers, public policy makers and the general public: (1) the active role that is required of players and (2) the arrival of ultraviolent games. [1]. As Anderson points out “the active role required by video games is a double-edged sword.” [1] While the active role may serve as an excellent teaching tool for “motivational and learning process reasons” in educational video games, the same active role may prove to be more dangerous than violent movies or television. [1]. Place this feature in the context of the ultraviolent video games, and young people are given a space where they can actively participate in “entertainment violence that went way beyond anything available to them on television or in the movies.” [1].

Add to this equation the decline of social capital [in-person social intercourse] as described by Robert Putnam in his important work Bowling Alone [2], and we have a large population of young people whose social interactions are defined in (I would argue “large”) part not by their (limited) social interactions, but by their wealth of video game interactions. It should be no surprise then that individuals who play violent video games are likely to reflect an “increased aggressive behavior, thoughts and affect; increased physiological arousal; and decreased prosocial (helping) behavior.” [1].

Although I agree with protecting an individual’s First Amendment right to free speech, I believe a line needs to be drawn between that right and allowing for the consumption of a product that encourages violent behavior, especially against women, among our youth.

[1] Craig A. Anderson. Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts and Unanswered Questions. October 2003. American Psychological Association.

[2] Robert Putnam. Bowling Alone.

Megan said...

Additionally, I've noticed that game applicataions on facebook and I-phones have become more violent and sexualized. I recently saw one where the player had to use a bow and arrow to shoot an apple, which was placed on top of a person's head. If the player misses and hits his friend, his friend doubles over spewing blood from his eye, throat, belly, ect. It's incredibly gruesome. Another more subtle, yet somewhat troubling I-phone application allows men to "track" their significant other's menstrual cycle in order to prepare for the "dreaded week."

hanestagless said...

Video game makers are following the trends in the market. AMA, we are the generation that grew up with Super Mario Brothers. Now, we are adults with disposable income. Video game makers recognize this and create more games targeting adults’ wallets, specifically adult males. As you mention, as distasteful as these games are, adults have the liberty to buy these games, and are in fact doing so, unfortunately.

As you also mention, the problem is that minors are still able to acquire adult games. Despite the increase in adult games, video games still carry the stigma that they are for children. Unlike movies and television, parents are more likely to perceive all video games as being for minors, instead of distinguishing between games for adults and games for children. Thus, parents are less likely to filter the content children receive through video games than other media. Of course, this assumes the parents are filtering such content at all.

Furthermore, unlike movies and television, video game makers can hide adult content in video games. As we discussed a few weeks ago, game makers may create cheat codes to allow players to access adult content in video games. The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) is responsible for assigning ratings to video games. Game makers can create a game that gets a Teen rating, but encodes a way for players to access content that would otherwise get a Mature rating. This typically involves a misogynistic content such as nudity or violence against women.

Consequently, today’s youth engage in misogyny unbeknownst to parents and without guidance that misogyny is wrong. As you point out, misogyny in video games tragically shapes the next generation of youth. Getting video game makers to stop including misogynistic content is a daunting task. In fact, doing so probably requires larger systemic and societal changes. However, we can at least work on preventing such content from reaching today’s youth. We can improve the current rating system and inform parents of the content in today’s video games.

Ringo1985 said...

I used to think video games were a rather innocuous form of entertainment. The games I remember from childhood fall into the more innocent category. For me, MarioKart and Tetris were enough. However, I unsuspectingly purchased "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City" for my MUCH younger brother. I was aghast when I played a game with him. We were able to fire machine guns, kill police, and pick up prostitutes within 5 minutes. Needless to say, I was horrified, and its still a running joke in my family.

The main problem with violence and exploiting women in video games is that very young children are exposed to sexually graphic and violent images. I think that many parents who would be hesitant to show a 9 year old "Show Girls" or "Scarface," might show less trepidation when purchasing a video game. When such young children are exposed to explicit images, I find it impossible to believe that they can successfully disassociate reality from the video game.

For me, the sex and violence present in these video games is astonishing and somewhat hypocritical. In a society that criminally punishes prostitution, how do regulators find it acceptable to almost promote such activities in games that are marketed towards young children? I think this paradox between "moral" rhetoric and the misogynistic behavior that we allow is indicative of a larger problem- apathy towards violence against women.

One thing I have always found particularly interesting about video games is that they are mostly a male phenomenon. Though I'm sure some young girls occasionally play video games, I don't think it can EVEN COMPARE to the amount that men play (at least from the boys/men that I have known in my life.) This makes it even more bizarre, because the only people who are "committing" violence against women in these videos are males!

I am also shocked that Justice Scalia found that a law prohibiting the violent sale of video games to minors was against the First Amendment. Often times, the Supreme Court has taken a paternalistic approach to the constitutional rights of minors, especially when sex and violence is involved. One would think that a crafty "obscenity" argument could formulated. Or, since the Court has outlawed vulgar speech (Federal Communications v. Pacifica Foundation) when children may be exposed (even though this was in a public forum) it would seem that a similar argument could be crafted to prevent the sale of violent video games to minors who could unexpectedly come across obscene language

When young children are confronted with, and subsequently awarded for, playing a gun toting criminal, who can indiscriminately shoot prostitutes, the end result cannot be positive!

Girl Talk said...

Great post. I also grew up playing video games, and still play them (way too much, I might add). While I am aware of GTA, I was not aware of games like RapeLay, and, although part of me says I shouldn't be surprised, I am. Usually games include some form of sexual objectifying of and violence/subordination against women, but that is only one sort of side aspect to the game. To have a game solely focused on the sexual victimization of women is just appalling.

I do want to add that while many games have become increasingly violent toward female characters, there are also many games that have incorporated more empowerment of women, or at least made female characters equal to male characters.

I find it interesting that parents and people in general are more concerned with their kids turning "violent" from first-person shooter and war games, but there is little discussion or concern about how violence against women specifically affects kids. This brings up what I consider the "backwards" taboo that exists especially in movies and TV shows: things of a sexual nature (not sexually violent) are more restricted/prohibited in film, tv, and games than things of a violent nature. A film can be exceptionally bloody and gory and get a PG-13 or R rating, where a film that shows a penis gets an NC-17 rating, which, if you know anything about film, kills a film's chances of success because very few theaters will show an NC-17 film. So, it's ok to show someone's limbs being blown off, but the minute you show an in-tact penis, it's black balled from theaters.

Alejandro said...

With regard to Scalia's assertion that no causal relationship has been demonstrated between violent video games and its influence on children, it would seem that such an assertion runs counter to what seems like common sense to most of us. Naturally, children are influenced by what they see on TV and in films and what videogames they play. We should, however, be careful not to over-hype this issue.

I can remember clearly growing up with a Nintendo and Super Nintendo, playing such games as 'Street Fighter' and 'Mortal Kombat,' the latter in particular featuring lots of gory violence (e.g. beheadings, severing of limbs, people being driven through spikes and much more). While it can be argued that viewing such acts of violence may potentially help to normalize such acts of violence in the eyes of many kids (and it cannot be denied that many deadly incidents have occurred involving kids acting out what they see in video games), I think most have enough common sense to distinguish such games from real life.

With regards to sexualization and misogynism in video games. While nearly all kids immediately understand that the violence they see is not approved of in real life, many will not arrive at the same conclusion regarding treatment of women, in part due to the fact that such misogynistic attitudes are still approved of in mainstream society, though, for the most part, in more subtle fashion.

Thus, kids who already may have inherited misogynistic views from their parents, peers, and/or other mass media will see these views reinforced in video games and this will help to deepen such attitudes in kids as they grow up, a development which will certainly not help to break down negative, stereotypical views of women that, to a great extent, still prevail in our society.