There’s a great article over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun that’s basically a letter from a games journalist, John Walker, to Volition and THQ, the developers and publishers of Saint’s Row: the Third. In it, Walker makes a lot of excellent points about the game series and the marketing tactics being employed that I wholeheartedly agree with. Like I said in my E3 review, I love these games for a whole host of reasons, including the catharticaly chaotic game play and the sarcastic and satirical humor. Mostly, though, I love the series because they give me the chance to play a very strong, very powerful female character who can be sexual but is never objectified. It’s awesome and Walker shares my appreciation of that aspect of the game (having himself played through the game as a powerful Latina character). But, like Walker points out in his letter, the game series does have some problems both within the games themselves and with how they’re marketed.
The Saints Row: the Third logo
The one problem that keeps nagging at me as I re-play my way through Saints Row 2 is that there is some seriously lopsided sexualization going on. There are half-naked and sexily clad women everywhere in the game, but rarely do you ever seen any similarly (un)clothed men. The most scantily dressed men I’ve come across are the male joggers who go running without a shirt on, which granted, are comparable to the female joggers, but are definitely not comparable to the multitude of female strippers and hookers, or the preponderance of female pedestrians who have a penchant for fishnets. Where are all the men in banana hammocks and chaps, hmm? Surely they would fit in quite well with the rest of the game’s irreverent sexual humor? Guess that’s just pushing it a little too far for them. It must go just a little too far out of their comfort zone of parodying and making fun of sex workers to have a significant presence of overtly sexualized men. A gang of pimps and ho’s is quite alright though *sigh*. It would be refreshing and awesome, in the third game, to see them go out on this limb to at least poke fun at the game industry’s complete aversion to scantily and sexily clad men (and no, Kratos and Conan in loincloths don’t count… they weren’t being sexualized, they were having their strength and ferocity exaggerated).
A screenshot from Saints Row: the Third shows that the same male=clothed; female=nearly naked dichotomy that can be seen in Saints Row 2
Anyhoo, as I was saying, there’s a lopsidedness in the game when it comes to characters being sexualized. Of your four lieutenants, only one of them is overtly sexualized and I’ll give you one guess who it is. Yup, Shaundi, the one woman in the gang’s leadership (other than the boss, if you happen to play as a female boss). It can actually be quite jarring to play through her storyline as a female boss because the boss character is never viewed as a sexual object through the male gaze, but Shaundi almost constantly is. It really is a novel experience to see the dichotomy of active subject and passive, sexual object played out between two women in a cut scene. While the boss character is always shown as a whole person, even if they’re not the one being active in the frame, Shaundi is frequently reduced to just a pair of breasts that the boss talks at or a curvaceous ass that gets used to get the boss’s (and the presumed hetero male gamer’s) attention in a scene (because why else would you pay attention to what a woman is saying /snark). I figure this is a side effect of the developers writing a single story, a single set of dialogue and screenplay, based off of the idea of the boss being male and then just subbing in female bodies and voice acting if the player choses to be a woman. Honestly, this is a side effect I can really get behind with one exception: if my boss is going to want stripper poles (and strippers to go on them) in her gang hideout, at least give us the bloody option of having male strippers (heck give us that option anyways, for the gay male bosses out there too).
A woman in a sexy nurse costume is blasted out of a cannon in the Red Light district. Do you think we'd ever see a man in a similar costume and situations being used as promotional material for a game?
Now, don’t let these relatively few gripes fool you, I absolutely love the game and cackle gleefully every night that I play it. RPS’s Walker does too, well I don’t know about the cackling part, but he does enjoy the game despite finding some of the same faults as I do with the game. However we both take large exception to the way this game series is marketed and would like to see it change. Walker makes the excellent point that hiring porn stars and booth babes to shill your game sends many messages, none of which is that your game is any good or worth playing. All it does say is that you feel the need to associate your game with boobies to get male gamers to buy it and that you don’t care if you offend or alienate female gamers. Which, as I’ve said before, offends both male and female gamers: you’re telling one you think of them as little more than animals driven by sexual urges and the other you’re telling them that they only matter as “transporters for breasts” as Walker so delicately puts it.
Volition/THQ hired models to give "Rimjob" car washes at E3 this year. Very classy.
The same goes for the trailers and screenshots released for the third game. Showing men as actual subjects and leaders in a scene while showing women as subservient, sexy scenery or as just sexy body parts (like say the many languorous shots of tits, asses, and sneak peeks up skirts), definitely does not send out good vibes to prospective players. Seriously, the trailer is pretty awesome in terms of excitement generation, but a lot of my enthusiasm for the game was dampened when I saw just how little value women had to the marketers of the game. Men got to be fun! action packed! shooting things! and women were….dancing…sexily… with only one of them getting to do anything more exciting than showing her panties to the camera.
I’m rather glad that Walker wrote his letter to THQ and Volition. It’s great to see a member of the “normal” game journalism sect to start speaking out about these issues. Its a sad fact that many game developers and publishers feel rather comfortable in writing off feminist gamer criticism as somehow not a part of their real market base and thus not really pertinent to them or their business. It is of course very pertinent to them to listen to us, profitable to boot, because by listening to feministic criticism they make the gaming world more accessible and friendly towards women and other minority groups (which, ya know, make up at least 50% of the total possible audience they could reach). Some game developers and publishers are starting to realize this, as are people in the gaming media like Walker, which is great. What is not so great is that they are meeting resistance from some in the gaming community. Walker caught quite a lot of flak for his letter and his fairly tame feminist-minded criticisms, as did Kotaku for republishing his letter. Kotaku, which has never been known for its high-minded feminist thought, also faced some commenting ire for running a vaguely critical take on the Texas LAN party story which is pretty much a textbook case of “Wow that’s misogynistic”. The Kotaku commenters seemed to overwhelmingly support the organizers of the event and criticized the gaming media’s coverage of it as biased. Apparently being biased against misogyny and bigotry is now a bad thing in some parts of the gaming community.
I think we’re really starting to see a bit of a backlash to the gaming industry opening up to more non-stereotypical audiences. Even gaming companies like Bioware that are widely known and celebrated for being progressive are getting angry rants about just how boundary-pushing they are from their fans. Sadly, I think that between games like Tera and Duke Nukem coming out, with their glamorized misogyny, and the negative responses to even mainstream feministic criticism of games, we can probably expect to see even more of the community actively and unabashedly shut out women from full participation in the medium like the “gentlemen” in Texas just recently did. Which could, in turn, discourage the gaming industry from pushing forward in their quest for progressive development. Hopefully the last part won’t happen and the game industry will diligently ignore the petulant kids who are just angry that they can no longer objectify women or harass minorities with impunity. Hopefully…..