At a conference in Edinburgh in 2006, David Gardner, then COO of Electronic Arts, delivered a grave message to the industry. “We are only reaching a small proportion [of people],” he claimed, “not only geographically but also genetically.” Gardner accused videogames of “failing women”, by allowing the industry’s senior creative positions to be dominated by men, by marketing every key release squarely at a male audience, and releasing condescending products like pink PSPs and games about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.That was five years ago, and while the industry has grown and changed since then, two recent incidents have prompted many critics to question whether anything has changed.
The first emanated from the offices of Gearbox Software, the Dallas-based studio that took over development duties on that bastion of crude masculinity Duke Nukem Forever. In an interview with Official Xbox Magazine, company president Randy Pitchford revealed details of a new multiplayer riff on Capture The Flag. Ostensibly called ‘Capture The Babe’, the mode will ask players to seek out and abduct a woman. However, there’s a twist: occasionally the “babe” will begin to “freak out”, and the only way she can be pacified is to give her a “reassuring slap”.
The outcry arrived almost instantly, with many people assuming that Duke’s slap had to be applied to the woman’s face. Fortunately, Pitchford was on hand to correct their mistake. “Get it right, folks!” he said via Twitter. “In the Duke Nukem Forever MP game ‘Capture the Babe’, Duke can give the girl a love smack on the booty – not face!” Needless to say, Pitchford’s less than eloquent retort did little to dampen the fires of controversy.
The next incident arrived just three days later, when UK high street retailer Gamestation launched a series of in-store adverts for its pre-owned games that bore the legend, ‘Cheaper Than Your Girlfriend’. Again, the complaints began to surface immediately, with one of the company’s female employees writing anonymously to Gamesindustry.biz. “It is pretty openly sexist – girls being cheap, obviously, but it’s also pandering to the old stereotype that gamers are guys,” she claimed. “Any discrimination is banned by [parent firm] GAME’s own employee regulations, so I don’t see why the company itself should be able to get away with it.”
The official reply arrived swiftly, but its defensive, unrepentant tone only served to fan the flames. “The Gamestation brand reflects its customer base, which is still predominantly the traditional core male gamer,” explained Neil Ashurst, head of public relations. “Our marketing and in-store POS does, and will continue to, appeal to that audience. Throughout its existence, Gamestation has always been slightly edgy and occasionally controversial. Our customers love this about us.”
Unsurprisingly, the anonymous female employee wasn’t convinced, telling Gamesindustry.biz, “I appreciate Gamestation’s style, but I don’t appreciate them making me feel I’m not who they think should be buying their products.”
In many ways these incidents have very little in common, but critics believe that this is a key part of the problem: taken together, they suggest that a ‘boys club’ mentality is still prevalent throughout the industry, from production right through to retail, and that mentality has the potential to manifest as blatant sexism. However, many have questioned whether either is evidently sexist at all: that Gamestation is correct to defend its marketing on the grounds that its customer-base is predominantly male, and that Duke Nukem Forever’s ‘Capture The Babe’ mode makes sense within the context of the game’s satirical outlook.
Now, we won’t argue that there’s no logic to those defences, but there is little doubt that ideas like ‘Capture The Babe’ and ‘Cheaper Than Your Girlfriend’ are the products of an environment where testosterone dwarfs oestrogen by several orders of magnitude. However, in the case of Duke Nukem Forever, it seems to be less a matter of sexism than skill. Gearbox has defended the ‘reassuring slapping’ on the grounds of satire, but satire implies a degree of intelligence that the idea simply doesn’t possess – it’s more Scary Movie 3 than Dr Strangelove, and few film critics would hesitate to call a film with similar content sexist.
Duke Nukem has always been a chauvinist pig, and it’s unreasonable to expect that to change simply because the industry is so desperate to grow up. However, it’s eminently reasonable to expect Gearbox to deliver a more sophisticated take on the character than the crushingly unfunny efforts of 3D Realms, yet ‘Capture The Babe’ is arguably the crudest and most offensive ‘joke’ in the series’ history. Duke Nukem 3D was notable for its physics and not its script, but based on this evidence it seems Gearbox believes it was the other way around, and we shudder to think what other humorous treats Duke Nukem Forever has in store. Pitchford and his team have as much right as the Wayans brothers to crack bad jokes, but we sure as hell don’t have to laugh at them.
Ultimately, though, it’s Gamestation that looks like the real dinosaur. Right now, the only major growth areas in gaming are mobile, social and free-to-play – where the proportion of female gamers is far higher than it is in the console space, and growing all the time. Conversely, console games are in a period of steady decline, and any significant future growth will almost certainly be driven by companies bringing this new female audience into the fold. If Gamestation seeks only to preserve a crumbling status quo, it will very quickly be left behind.
Don’t believe us? Here’s some evidence…
Dead Or Alive Xtreme 2
In the interests of fairness it’s worth mentioning that almost every one of Tomonobu Itagaki’s games contains at least one impossibly top-heavy female character. However, the Xtreme Beach Volleyball games are on another level. You seem to occupy the role of a sweaty, sunburnt stalker, plying girls with make-up, perfume and soft toys until they grudgingly allow you to take pictures of them straddling tree branches.
While we admire Bayonetta’s sublimely intricate gameplay and eye-bursting presentation, the amount of time Platinum Games’s Kenichiro Yoshimura spent on giving the titular witch the perfect ass is somewhat disconcerting. “I really wanted to get Bayonetta’s backside perfect,” he admitted on the studio’s blog. “I guess I’m into that sort of thing.” Fortunately, her saucy librarian exterior is balanced out by her strong, self-possessed character.
Verdict: Not Guilty
Resident Evil 5
In all the puffed-up brouhaha over whether Resident Evil 5’s representation of Africa tripped over into racism, most critics missed out on a far more obvious example of subjugation: Sheva’s unlockable leopard-print bikini. Troubling connotations of the choice of leopard print to one side, turning a seemingly strong, wilful character like Sheva into a scantily clad sex-pot is a textbook example of boys club thinking. If it weren’t for the bikini, Resident Evil 5 wouldn’t be near this list.
There’s a convincing argument to suggest that Dead Or Alive is the prime candidate for the most sexist fighting game, but with Itagaki and co already represented by Xtreme Beach Volleyball we thought it best to cast the net wider. And so to Soul Calibur, with its panoply of female characters who are united by their fervent belief that full body armour is totally unnecessary in a one-on-one fight to the death. Just search Google Images for Taki, Cassandra or Ivy and you’ll see what we mean.