For my Capstone in college, I had to do a Media Analysis thesis paper. For a study, I chose “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” and focused on the sexual equality of the visual representation of females in video games.
The analysis included a presentation, and this paper that I’m actually really proud of and wanted to share with the myIGN community. I’ve kept the citations for academic reasons, but they shouldn’t pose too much of a distraction.
Please to enjoy:
Over the years, the video game industry has manifested itself from a two-dimensional tennis simulator, to three-dimensional full-length cinematic experiences. Granted, though the media has matured in some aspects regarding technology, story, and even gameplay, there is still one major flaw that is holding it back. Just like music videos that oftentimes use women as sexual objects to lure in males audiences, as shown in Sut Jhally’s documentary “Dreamgirls 3” , video games have been using a similar tactic for decades.
Sexism in video games is not a new issue, as it’s been happening since the mediums’ early years. As early as 1982, a game called “Cluster’s Revenge” featured a character named General Custer who players direct across a mesa littered with falling arrows to commit coitus with a bound and helpless Native American woman. It was so controversial that when it hit retailers it was sold in a leather case with a lock on it (Jensen). Though the game was a pixelated simulation, the objectivity of the Native American woman was clear, as her sole purpose was as a sexual goal for General Custer.
Though those were the 1980s, time has not changed the ways in which women are percieved in video games. Other video games, such as the “Dead or Alive”, a series that began in 1996 as a fast-paced fighting game has in since then spun-out into a volleyball the women fighters and their sex appeal play more of focal role than any sort of gameplay.
Most recently, the game “Dante’s Inferno”, a 2010 action-adventure game that is loosely based on the epic poem of the same title. The game follows Dante, who is reimagined as a Templar knight, as he journeys through the nine circles of Hell to reclaim the soul of his beloved Beatrice from the hands of Lucifer (Electronic Arts). Just like “Cluster’s Revenge”, Beatrice is perceived as a sexual goal, and is shown topless for the majority of the game. Though these games are just some examples of the issue of how females are perceived in various games and by no means speaks for the entirety of the genre, it’s an often enough occurrence to spark anger in feminist.
In an academic essay by Helen Kennedy, she explains that a major issue with feminists and games is how they are perceive, saying that, “It is a question that is often reduced to trying to decide whether [the female character] is a positive role model for young girls or just that perfect combination of eye and thumb candy for the boys.” (Kennedy) In other words, a positive female character is one who is perceived as positive is more ways than just a sex symbol.
For a predominantly visual medium like video games, characters are often asked to communicate their immediate feelings and overall personality by the way they comport themselves. As mentioned in the article “Practices of Looking: Images, Power, and Politics”, the authors Martha Sturken and Lisa Cartwright explain the issues surround visual medias:
“We live in cultures that are increasingly permeated by visual images with a variety of purposes and intended effects. These images can produce in us a wide array of emotions and responses: pleasure desire, disgust, anger, curiosity, shock, or confusion. We invest the image we create and encounter on a daily basis with significant power.” (Strurken, Cartwright, 10)
Character poses, especially default stances or hero poses, become incredibly important, or at least they do for characters who are men. When you look at an official still or an idle stance for a male character in a video game, said male character’s poise and comportment are usually carefully set up to convey or imply a specific attitude in the moment captured. For examples, in the promotional art for fighting games, male characters are often posed to look tough and strong, while females are posed to look hyper-sexualized and alluring. In action games, male characters are posed to look determined, while females usually look sporting a “come hither look” to attract attention as they’re posed as if they’re putting on some kind of peep-show for the audience.
The problem is not that these characters are sexy or even sexualized, it’s that the way in which that sexiness is presented communicates a message from the designers to the players that essentially says that they presume most of their audience are heterosexual teenage boys, and therefore do not care about any other person in the audience. Even though as time as passed, gaming as become a mainstream hobby that includes not just adolescent heterosexual males, but adults, gays and females as well.
However, as more females are interested in playing games, there’s a higher chance of them being involved in game development. With the way things are now, the only way for females in games to be viewed as empowered is “by articulating the elements differently, thereby producing a different meaning: breaking the chain in which they are currently fixed and establishing a new articulation. This “breaking the chain” is not, of course, confined to the head: it takes place through social practice and political structure.” (Hall, 90).
In the article “Inventing the Cosmo Girl”, Laurie Ouellette discusses how Helen Gurley Brown was able to take control of Cosmopolitan Magazine and change it to a medium that she felt was a healthy alternative for women in press. Much like Brown, there are go-getters in the game industry, most notable Amy Hennig the creative director at Naughty Dog and the lead script writer for the acclaimed Uncharted series.
As a business, Naughty Dog is began as an independent studio developer that as acquired by Sony Computer Entertainment in 2001, which is a wholly owned subsidiary and part of the Consumer Products & Services Group of Sony Corporation. Being a owned by a technology company allows for Naughty Dog to be provided with state-of-the-air development technology for their games, which explains why the games Uncharted series are often regarded as cinematic eye-candy. However, in-house Hennig explains that when it comes to actual development there is no social hierarchy as every person involved with the game as a say in its development. As Hennig explained in an interview, “titles at Naughty Dog are pretty amorphous, we all collaborate on everything together” and allowing for a group to fully bring out a group project.
Though there are three games in the Uncharted series, it is the second installment “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” that showed the most maturity regarding its female characters. In the game there are two main female protagonists, Elena Fisher the honest journalist, and Chloe Frazer the shady treasure hunter. Throughout the game, both women are perceived a certain way, Elena as the goody “girl next-door” type, and Chloe as the mysterious “bad girl” type. Though both are seen as attractive and interact romantically with the main male protagonist, Nathan Drake, nethier of them are hyper-sexualized in the promotional art, or the actual game itself.
Instead of being used a merely means of plot progression for Nate, the girls become fleshed out characters of their own, with their own personalities that make them as interesting as the main male lead. Throughout the game’s narrative, both Elena and Chloe come across as real human beings as they have distinct personalities, and are driven by different motivations.
Naughty Dog treated both these female characters with respect and what feels like a high regard for their own individual motivations, and personality. For example, Elena is driven by a strong sense of justice, meanwhile Chloe has a strong sense of self-preservation. Elena is more of an idealist, whereas Chloe would probably call herself a realist. Regardless, both women come off as tough, smart and funny, and therefore making them just as likable as their male lead.
It also becomes quite clear during the game that both women can take care of themselves, and neither fall into the “damsel in distress” category. Although Nathan Drake mentions that these women are skilled and capable, the audience also see it in action. Though both women act as computer-controlled allies, they are right in mist of action and are often shooting their way through tides of enemies. They are able to stand on their own merits, and their fortunes do not exist to solely serve the personal development of Nathan Drake.
Both women are well-rounded characters rather than plot devices, which is a strict contrast to Beatrice in “Dante’s Inferno” or the Native American woman from “Cluster’s Revenge”. Chloe and Elena are pursuing their own interests, which at times conflict Drake’s and therefore forces him to reflect on his own choices. However, his personal growth doesn’t take place at the expense of Elena or Chloe, but rather as a result of their own characters.
Realistically speaking, video games are an expensive medium to develop and publish and therefore money speaks louder than words. The reason behind the video game industry using such degrading pictures of women on their promotional art or for their games is simply to sell more units of their games. There is still the immature notation that sex sells, even when the product is a completely digitalized experience.
However, in a free market like the United States, consumers have two similar types of power: consumer control over marketplace goods, and the freedom of consumer choice (Campbell, 428). Due to these two aspects, in the game industry how well one game sells can usually dictate how other games are developed afterwards. It is due to this consumer response, as it were, that there are certain trends in the games industry. This is also why games are typically aimed to be sold to male audiences, as they are the majority of the ones who have bought the product in the past.
Regardless of these factors, through Hennig’s script Naughty Dog had managed to unobjectify both these female characters in a game that was marketed predominately towards males, and their efforts were well rewarded. At the end of the year of its release, “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” was crowned Game of the Year by many game media outlets, and was the top-selling game in the United States for October 2009, and as of October 2011 4.9 million copies of the game had been sold as reported by the NPD Group. These kind of numbers indicate that not all video games need to be marketed with a scantily clothed woman to sell copies.
Though games like “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” are few and far between, as mentioned in the quote from Hall earlier, the only way for an misrepresented audience to change the status-quo of a medium is for them to take control and change it themselves. Media as a whole is an ever evolving changing means of communication, and video games are simply a small branch of larger picture. Though males have been a predominate target for decades, the most effective way to change the target is for more women to step-in and make the changes they want to see in the media. Women like Amy Hennig at Naughty Dog and Helen Gurley Brown at Cosmopolitan are able to pave the way, but other women will need to follow for their change to have any kind of significant ripple effect.