A Guide to Video Game False Equivalence

Today I got into another discussion with someone who claimed that "men in video games are sexualized too." The examples he gave me were straight from the False Equivalence textbook.

(Comic from Shortpacked!)

I was struck by the fact that he noticed no difference between the characters he compared. To him, sexualization means you aren't wearing much clothing. That's it. But nudity does not equal sexualization. Huge muscles do not equal sexualization. Enormous breasts don't. Short skirts don't. Most baffling of all to some people is that sexiness does not equal sexualization. Sexualization is far more complex than that. Just because you find something attractive doesn't mean that the creator meant it to be that way. Creative intent matters. If you think it doesn't, consider My Little Pony and Rule 34. There are other factors to consider, too, like objectification and societal taboos. (Here's an interesting discussion of objectification vs. sexiness) But I'm not here to discuss the nuances of this issue. I'm providing a quick-and-dirty guide to help you recognize sexualization when you see it.

There are some key points to keep in mind when determining if a character is sexualized:  

Agency: "Having agency" means that game characters act from/on their own desires. They aren't mere props to fulfill players' wishes. There's an interesting discussion of game character agency here. Pre-reboot Lara Croft exemplifies a sexualized video game character with agency. 

Audience: Most video games default to the straight male gaze. (Learn about it on TV tropes.) That's why there are overwhelmingly more sexualized female characters than male ones. Exceptions to this default POV include otome games, lampooned male sexuality like in Chou Aniki, and the occasional MMO/RPG romance option.

Intent: Arguably the most important element. Is the character designed to appeal sexually? Did the creator emphasize certain features or qualities that we traditionally view as sexual? Does the character behave suggestively? If you find the character sexy, were you meant to? Think about Rule 34 again. The My Little Pony creators did not sexualize Twilight Sparkle, but some folks out there still find her sexually attractive. That's on those bronies; she was not designed to provoke a sexual response. Conversely, a character with half-lidded eyes, parted lips, erect nipples, exaggerated secondary sexual features, and whose demeanor broadcasts availability is unquestionably intended to be viewed in a sexual light, even if you personally don't find it appealing. 

Presentation: Think of this as all the elements surrounding the depiction of a character: the lighting, the clothing, the pose, the props, etc. The mood of the image you see a character in. The same character can come across as sexual or powerful depending on all these variables. The Hawkeye Initiative does a good job of highlighting the difference between how men and women are posed in media, and what those different poses convey.

Appropriateness: This is a big one for me. Does the character's appearance contradict their behavior? Are they dressed sexy and come-hither-ish in the middle of serious diplomatic negotiations? Do they seem aroused at inappropriate times (i.e. in the middle of a fight for their life)? Do they look out of place, like wearing a bikini in the snow—or into battle? Are they dressed in a way that seems strange for their personality? While it's mostly jarring to see a contradiction between how a character looks and IS, the discrepancy can be used to make a point about viewer assumptions. Think of Jessica Rabbit: "I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."

So keep those factors in mind as you look at the following characters. (FYI: I linked some of the images to further information.)

 

NOT SEXUALIZED

Gordon Freeman's crowbar placement says it all.

Gordon Freeman's crowbar placement says it all.

 

SEXUALIZED

Tera's Castanic female armor. I hope we can all agree on this one.

Tera's Castanic female armor. I hope we can all agree on this one.

Tera's Castanic armor for men. There's practically an arrow directing your gaze.

Tera's Castanic armor for men. There's practically an arrow directing your gaze.

 

NOT SEXUALIZED

Marcus Fenix is one of the top male characters invoked for false equivalence.

Marcus Fenix is one of the top male characters invoked for false equivalence.

Natural Selection 2's female marine looks like she could kick some ass.

Natural Selection 2's female marine looks like she could kick some ass.

 

SEXUALIZED

Crytek was unusually frank about their double-standard for the Warface skins.

Crytek was unusually frank about their double-standard for the Warface skins.

Kojima insists that we're all going to be sorry we said Quiet's outfit was inappropriate.

Kojima insists that we're all going to be sorry we said Quiet's outfit was inappropriate.

 

NOT SEXUALIZED

I think Nathan Drake might be my next-door neighbor.

I think Nathan Drake might be my next-door neighbor.

 

SEXUALIZED

There is something disturbingly tentacular about that vine Lara is swinging on.

There is something disturbingly tentacular about that vine Lara is swinging on.

Larry Croft doesn't even exist in a real game. He's just a hypothetical male version of Lara.

Larry Croft doesn't even exist in a real game. He's just a hypothetical male version of Lara.

larry croft1.jpg

 

NOT SEXUALIZED

So many straight men point me toward Kratos as a hypersexualized male character.

So many straight men point me toward Kratos as a hypersexualized male character.

 

SEXUALIZED

Uh…I'm not even going to try to explain Chou Aniki. 

Uh…I'm not even going to try to explain Chou Aniki. 

Think Lucifel isn't sexualized? Click the pic to have it laid out for you.

Think Lucifel isn't sexualized? Click the pic to have it laid out for you.

 

NOT SEXUALIZED

This would qualify if Dragon Crown's barbarian had insane crotch physics.

This would qualify if Dragon Crown's barbarian had insane crotch physics.

 

SEXUALIZED

Nobody argues that she's not sexualized, but some people think there's parity with the guys.

Nobody argues that she's not sexualized, but some people think there's parity with the guys.

 

Got it? Now you decide.  

Sexualized or Not?


false equivalence taric.jpg
false equivalence chell.jpg
false equivalence dante.jpg
false equivalence cld.jpg
false equivalence femshep.jpg

As a final note, I'd like to say that sexualization, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with having attractive characters. It only becomes a problem when one gender is always sexualized and the other isn't. Or when there are only sexualized characters. Or when there's nothing to characters except their sexuality. I look forward to seeing more games that acknowledge multiple player gazes and that allow all genders to have equal experiences with attraction.

UPDATE: I've had several requests for examples of presentation. How angle, pose, and all the other elements of presentation can sexualize a character. So here we go.

 

NOT SEXUALIZED

false equivalence lara not sex.jpg

SEXUALIZED

false equivalence lara sex1.jpg
The angle of these shots makes it hard to focus on the danger Lara's in.

The angle of these shots makes it hard to focus on the danger Lara's in.

NOT SEXUALIZED

false equivalence dante not sex.jpg

SEXUALIZED

Do I really need to explain this one?

Do I really need to explain this one?

UPDATE 2:

This post generates more email than anything else on my site. The notes I get are usually some variation of "here's a sexualized male character that proves you're wrong." And it's nearly always a false equivalence. It's like they didn't even bother to read my post…

Let me clear up a few issues:

1) Male characters can be sexualized. I'm not saying they can't. I give examples of sexualized male characters in my post. Do video games overwhelmingly sexualize male characters like they do female characters? Hell no. If you think of a sexualized male video game character I could/should use an example in my post, please contact me. I would especially welcome examples of POC. 

2) Sexualization usually involves more than one bullet point from my list. Just because a character is shirtless, that does not mean he's sexualized. You have to consider all of the factors listed above. If you are pulling out a single issue—like exaggerated physique—and arguing that it demonstrates sexualization, then you're missing the point. Look at the pictures directly above this update. The exact same character can be sexualized or not depending on presentation, intention, gaze, etc. It's not just about nudity or physique.

3) This is the most important point of all. Characters are sexualized independent of whether you find them sexually attractive or not. A lot of people write to say "But I think Alyx Vance is super sexy!" or "I think the sorceress from Dragon's Crown is gross" or especially "I know a lot of girls who think Kratos is hot." Attractiveness does not equal sexualization. Individual tastes do not determine sexualization. Factors  like agency, presentation, cultural context, etc. are what sexualize characters. Twilight Sparkle is not sexualized, but some people find her sexually alluring. The sorceress is unquestionably sexualized, but (apparently) many of you find her unappealing. Your reaction to sexualization doesn't change it. 

I hope that clears things up.