The concept of “male gaze” was popularized in Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The idea is that women are objectified in film because heterosexual men are the ones controlling the camera. The camera acts as the male perspective, sexualizing female characters and allowing men to emerge as the dominant power within the fantasy world of the film. This same concept is applicable to much of modern video games, especially when we consider the popularity of first-person games, putting us literally in the perspective of the male gaze. With recent controversy surrounding gender in gaming culture, I have given a lot of thought to how I as a male gamer perceive the role of both non-male characters and gamers, and how the male gaze impacts them. I will not purport to be any sort of expert on gender politics, and there is still a lot for me to learn in regards to pop-culture’s representation of diversity, a topic I am always open to discuss and invite further education from those more qualified to speak on it. Video games are one of the best tools to facilitate empathic experiences, as you virtually take control of another person and guide them through a story. Sometimes this includes making decisions for the character, while other times it means taking in and experiencing the story being told around them. Either way, video games can be a powerful tool for walking a mile in another’s shoes.
One of the problems pointed out in the wake of recent controversy is the lack of empowered player characters and NPCs who are not heterosexual males, especially in AAA titles. For a long time, mainstream gaming audiences have consisted of primarily men. Demographics and sales numbers support this, as shown by an ESRB infographic which can be found here. The graphic shows that in 2010 40% of all gamers were female, identifying males as the majority audience for video games. I found other sites that list this number as high as 45% in recent years, but how or where this data was obtained was unavailable. Despite a relatively small gap between the number of male and female gamers, this data causes game developers to overwhelmingly market their products towards young males who, in turn, purchase these games, reinforcing this male-centric model for the video game industry.
But what would happen if a developer were to market their games towards other audiences? Would games featuring strong differently-sexed protagonists appeal to those not traditionally considered part of gaming’s target audience? My guess is the answer is yes. While I do not have data to support this, and am unable to conduct proper research at this time, common sense dictates that if you make games about a range of diverse characters, you will attract a diverse audience. The same holds true in literature and cinematic entertainment. By making games that are relatable to a more diverse audience, we might see a shift in the numbers, and close that gender gap even further. Something that should be made clear is I am not advocating for “girlier” games. Plenty of these exist, and most are not only bad games, but often insulting to the intelligence of the very market they are intended for. Rather, I believe that “hardcore” games can be crafted in such a way as to appeal to a more diverse range of players.
Obviously not every game is for everybody, and to try and force developers into that level of inclusion would be bad for all, but the industry at large could certainly do a better job. While gameplay systems and graphics are two of the main reasons to play, a game must have staying power beyond good shooting mechanics or pretty visuals. This can be accomplished through aspects like a deep multi-player system, a plethora of enjoyable content to explore, or interesting characters and a well-crafted story. Those looking for multi-player content or vast open worlds to explore likely already play games, so the potential to draw in new gamers lies in the area of narrative and character development. Some of the games that are most memorable are the ones we feel a connection with, the ones where we can relate to the characters.
Many recent games have offered players the choice of playing as a male or female character. This concept is especially pervasive in games involving a lot of customization or player choice. While some, like Skyrim or the Fallout series, offer deep customization options when it comes to creating a character, they are not particularly innovative when it comes to player choice involving the story. They serve more as giant sandboxes for gamers to live out their dragon- or radioactive mutant-slaying fantasies. Surprisingly, EA, one of the most griped-about companies in gaming, has delivered two of the more interesting player experiences when it comes to diversity, both in character creation and actual story decisions. I am of course referring to Bioware’s Mass Effect (ME) series and Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI). Both give players the option to create either a male or female character with a unique backstory, and DAI takes this a step further by allowing players to choose between a number different fictional races (I would love the option to play as a Turian in ME4). These games are special in that they give players the opportunity to make important decisions within a framework that significantly alter the game and make it unique to every player. There are a number of debates to be had on how these decisions actually affect the endings, but that’s a discussion for another time.
It’s interesting to think about how one’s choice of gender in a game can impact the player’s experience. As a male gamer, I never thought twice about the abundance of male characters I was playing as, but when I booted up DAI for the first time, I remembered an anecdote I heard on an IGN podcast about a male gamer always choosing to play as a female character when given the option. This idea was interesting to me, so I decided to try it out for myself. I built my Inquisitor as a female human warrior. Once I got well into the game and had acquired all available party members, I took this a step further and made my regular adventuring party an all-female group. I kept Sera, Cassandra, and Vivienne with me at all times unless a story mission or character-specific mission required otherwise. What I found was an interesting new experience. I am fairly certain that prior to this the only female character I had played as was the mostly mute Samus in side-scrolling Metroid games. Adventuring through Thedas with a female party gave me a perspective on the game’s world that I do not believe I would have gotten as a male character, and found I perceived the game as being very gender-neutral. In the seventy hours I spent playing, I met a number of female characters in a variety of roles including citizen, doctor, holy figure, soldier, and political leader. In all these situations, Bioware seems to have made a conscious decision to not acknowledge this was somehow unique or different. I never got a dialogue option or response along the lines of “Oh my gosh, you’re a female general. Is it hard to gain the respect of the men?” Instead, this dynamic is normal in this world, and your Inquisitor and the NPCs act accordingly.
DAI also provides gamers a wide range of ways to express their Inquisitor’s sexual identity and preferences. Players have the ability to romance a number of characters, including heterosexual and homosexual options for both male and female Inquisitors, as well as two bisexual characters, one male and one female, romanceable by anyone. Depending on the character being pursued in the game, there are different romance options available. Bioware did a wonderful job of allowing each character to have their own personality and preferences, which in turn allows the player to express themselves in any manner they see fit. Players can choose to flirt with any and all characters that allow it, have a one-time sexual encounter, have a full-on relationship, or have no romantic entanglements whatsoever. Personally, I chose to romance Sera. As I progressed through the story with her in my party, I found that of all the characters she was the one I most related to. Sure it seems a little strange to talk about a simulated romance with a fictional character, but as I played the game, her partnership was the one I felt most invested in. She represents the 99%, the underclass throwing off the shackles of the nobility; she is uncertain about religion and doesn’t know what to believe when it comes to god or gods, She is a carefree spirit who likes to have fun, but is also kind of a baby at times.
In addition to the diverse options available to the Inquisitor, players encounter various NPCs with a range of sexual identities and relationships whose stories play out over the course of the game. We have little agency over what happens to those characters’ relationships, unless they are impacted directly by a quest, and they help to contribute to the idea that this is a living world that existed before we turned the game on and will continue after we shut it off, a world which we as the player are just a small part of.
DAI is an example of a AAA game I believe does a good job of allowing for inclusion and diversity in gaming. I am not suggesting that it is a game for all, as massive open-world RPGs are not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is certainly a model that other developers might look to when considering diversity in the future. This certainly doesn’t solve the industry’s problems, and it does not look to be radically changing anytime soon, but it is a starting point that we as consumers can continue to support and encourage the industry to build upon. To return to the idea of the male gaze, for too long gamers have been subject to this perspective, no matter what their gender identity, race, religion, or sexual preference. We are now in a time when it is possible for a much wider variety of experiences to exist simultaneously. Every day indie game devs are producing interesting and diverse experiences; however, if we want AAA developers to follow suit, we must vote with our wallets. As gamers, we must consider how the male gaze has impacted our gaming experiences, and how we might work towards creating a more inclusive community.