A Debate on Sexualization in Videogames :: A “Review”

I had the honor and privilege to attend a debate at the University of Surrey tonight hosted by the Student’s Union’s Debate Society – the subject was the sexualization of women in videogames. The opposing sides were the SU’s Feminist Society and the SU’s Videogames Society, both of which brought along several representatives as part of a parliamentary style debate. This post is a review of the broad strokes of the debate, with my own commentary.

Read on, and find out what I thought about the debate.

Mea Culpa

Before we go on, I want to issue a small warning. This review is not in any sense objective. I am fallible and biased (although not partisan) and my commentary will reflect that. However, I have done my utmost to keep facts stated plainly and opinion using terms such as in my opinion” or I think that”. I can do no better than this, so I would advise anyone who is not prepared to read a potentially different opinion to their own to watch an objective review instead.

To Begin

The topic of the debate hits the dead center of the Venn diagram which represents my topics of interest, so I couldn’t help but attend – apprehensively, I’ll admit, after the whole debacle involving That Hashtag. I was pleasantly surprised that the debate was entirely civil and significantly less heated than I had feared, for which I’d like to give particular credit to the chair for the session.

Another notable feature of the debate was the immediate condemnation of the whole gamer gate thing by both parties. It was entirely clear that the people at the debate were there specifically to have a conversation about relevant issues and not to throw insults. This was absolutely the best way that the debate could have started, because it dispelled any illusion that either side wished to start a shouting match – a more or less friendly atmosphere prevailed throughout the debate.

The exact title of the debate was “This house would: tackle the issue of sexualization in videogames”, and it became swiftly apparent that the topic was insufficiently well defined for a straightforward debate to be held around. Both sides proceeded to acknowledge that there is a problem, but it was never entirely agreed upon what the specifics of the problem were. With that in mind, the debate was supposed to discuss the actions which could be taken to tackle the problem. I would have liked to see a stronger statement of the problem at the beginning of the debate, but I recognize the complexities on getting societies to even engage on this topic at all – it was probably a reasonable neutral ground for both parties. Nevertheless, I thought that it was good to hear that both parties acknowledged that there is a problem which needs “solving”.

Basic Arguments

Here I am going to simplify slightly in the name of brevity, but I will capture the main thrust of each side of the debate as much as possible.

The Feminist society’s idea was to hold that an official body of some type should be recommended to provide a mediation and communication aid between people who feel that games do not adequately represent them and the publishers of particularly problematic games. This was suggested in the form of a “Videogame Ombudsman” – an official body which can represent the consumer without having any direct power to regulate the industry. It was claimed that this would allow a safe environment for people to make their voices heard in, thus alleviating the problem of women feeling unsafe when participating in online spaces such as That Hashtag.

The Videogame society’s argument was that direct intervention between the consumer and the industry is not needed and could indeed prove counterproductive. Main points for this argument revolved around two ideas; 1) the free market as a driver for improvement by videogame publishers, and 2) the idea that this should be a discussion entirely held and mediated by/for gamers themselves. An additional part of the argument was the progress which the community and the industry has already made away from the objectification of women as evidence that such intervention was unnecessary.

What Went Wrong

Having stated the basic arguments, I want to highlight some mis-steps on both sides of the debate which I think are relevant to a continued discussion. This section is strongly opinionated, and is broken down into several subsections to make it more readable.

Straw (Wo)men

Here is perhaps the most important point, but simultaneously the least interesting to me on a personal level. I believe that the Videogame society did themselves a disservice in their argument when opposing the idea of an Ombudsman by specifically and repeatedly describing it as a “regulator” rather than a “mediator”, despite persistent correction. The difference is significant to the discussion, because “regulation doesn’t work” is a valid point only if the solution suggested by the Feminist society was indeed a regulator. Since it was not, the point was irrelevant to the discussion and caused me to be more critical of the Videogame society’s argument as a result.

The main distinction between the two types of intervention is that a regulator has legal power to intervene and punish offending parties (which does not always work as intended, see also: Ofcom). On the other hand, a mediation method such as an Ombudsman service is an effective way of opening discussion on formal grounds; something which I think That Hashtag sorely requires for it ever to be a legitimate discussion.

Solutions vs. Problems

On the other hand, I don’t think that the Feminist society really capitalized on their idea. I heard a lot during the debate about what an Ombudsman would not achieve (largely based on the aforementioned straw [wo]man) but almost nothing about the positive and unique action which an Ombudsman could achieve which would not be adequately met without it. The fact that I had to specifically ask a question about it (which even then wasn’t strongly answered) kind of shows the serious weakness in the Feminist society’s line of debate. In other words, I think that the Feminist society was overly reactive to the opposing side’s less important arguments and insufficiently defensive of their idea.

I do think that an Ombudsman can achieve things which a non-official body cannot. I think that large multinationals (“AAA” developers/publishers such as Activision and Electronic Arts) are much more likely to respond to an official body’s request for discussion. In the eyes of multinationals, a country-level official body with Government backing legitimizes potential criticisms on the basis of equality or other content which they would otherwise dismiss as noise.

Counterpoints to the above issue were twofold; 1) there are already highly popular places for discussion on videogames, and 2) there exist popular critics of AAA games such as Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, Laura K “Buzz”, TotalBiscuit, and Jim “Effin'” Sterling (Son). There are significant problems with both of these arguments, which boil down on the most basic level to the fact that both are frequently ignored by the people in decision-making power (particularly at publishers such as Ubisoft).

A further criticism of my own would be that legitimizing what the debate saw as “good” criticism (based around sexual objectification and equality) could equally legitimize organizations such as One Million Moms* who issue large numbers of complaints from a much more conservative – less equality focused – perspective. However, if we are to take videogames as an art form then we must allow such criticisms to be heard and show that above and beyond these issues videogames have significant redeeming value. Movies face this kind of criticism, and so do books and music – there is no reason for videogames to be exempt from this negative pressure (despite what we might personally like as left-leaning students).

* – I’m not linking this rubbish. Google it if you really want to know more about it.

The Community vs. … Itself?

Straw persons aside, I think that there was a more fundamental flaw in the position of the Videogame society. To understand it, I should discuss more of the specifics of the argument.

There were two significant lines of argument to the Videogame society’s side; 1) that education is a more proportional response than a more formal proposal, and 2) that it should be down to the videogame community/industry in particular to work through the issue itself. A particular aspect of the former was to make education in schools much more explicit in its exploration of female characters in fiction (English Literature) and general “media literacy” to enable future generations of gamers to have this conversation more competently. However, on the second component the argument was that there should be no “outside intervention” into the gaming community on the issue. Here, I think we are at a dichotomy; explicitly changing the school curriculum in response to this discussion is implicitly intervening in the debate and taking a side – on a Governmental level no less! This is far more controversial a move than simply enabling people to show their own opinions. While I’m in favor of that intervention, I don’t feel like it’s a reasonable argument to say that a fundamental change to the school curriculum is any less “taking a side” or “outside intervention” than an Ombudsman.

Another important thread to the Videogame society’s narrative was that reviews of games should be less objective and much more critical of the social narrative of the game – i.e. reviews should discuss (when relevant) if the reviewer felt that the game represents women poorly. This was presented unequivocally as a thing which gamers want, and I have to take issue with that idea. If That Hashtag and its proponents are to be believed, then a non-trivial section of gamers want more objective reviews, not less! If we expect that the community will more or less sort the whole problem out by itself, then we must be willing to acknowledge that a significant section of the gamer community does not want to discuss the issues which we have been debating. This would seem to be fundamentally contradictory – either we follow “what people want” and make negative progress on this front, or we impose more subjective reviews on a community which does not want them and consequently undermine the first part of the argument!

I don’t think that there’s a good way out of this dichotomy without dropping one of its implicit assumptions, and I would come down on the side which says that the community probably will not entirely “fix this” without intervention. I am all for some kind of intervention on some level in some way described in this post, but I also recognize that this isn’t an entirely well-formed thought on my side.


You’ve read this far? Well done – have a kitten gif (source)!


Isn’t it cute? =3


Games, and Sexuality, as Art

This part is a separate section because it’s something which I have a strong opinion about but which I didn’t get to talk about as part of the main debate.

It was commented several times during the debate that there is a difference between sexualization and objectification via sexualization, which both sides seemed to agree on. Namely, the sexualization of a character per se is fine provided that it does not define the character. A particularly good point was that the objectification of women is a lazy trope which is used far too often by developers to add the illusion of character where there is none. I don’t think that this goes far enough.

I tried to make the point during the discussion afterwards that the frequent use of sexualization as a trope inherently devalues the use of the trope to the point of meaninglessness. In terms of games as an art form, the trope can be useful as part of the characterization process, but lazy and frequent use of the trope prevents it being meaningful in the context of a videogame. If we reduce the overall lazy use of the sexualization trope, those characters which are designed with sexuality as part of a character stand out all the more as important and interesting works of art in their own right.

Thus, I would argue that there is inherent artistic value in the reduction of lazy uses of the trope of a highly sexualized character – less frequent and lazy use results in a more significant meaning and therefore higher artistic value.

I think perhaps that this is the strongest argument which could be nearly universally agreed upon regardless of position on the pro/anti [That Hashtag] spectrum. Everyone wants games to be art, after all, regardless of their degree of Feminism.

Example – in terms of artistic value, how is one to immediately tell Bayonetta from this character from Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball? (Warning: mildly NSFW). One is a lazy use of the trope of sexualization, and the other provokes debate over whether it is a trope at all, but it’s not clear which is which without further context. Less use of the trope will make it clearer which characters are fundamentally linked to their sexuality, which leaves more room for examining the character rather than one specific aspect. In terms of artistic merit, this is an unequivocally good change.

The Good Things

I’ve been very critical of the debate so far, but largely because I am invested in both sides’ ideas and I want to see the discussion progress further. Overall, it was a truly excellent discussion and debate about the consequences of sexualization in videogames, which I have not even begun to do full justice.

More encouragingly still, we actually had this debate. The final point of the debate came from an audience member, who wanted to show exactly how encouraging it already is that we are discussing this issue. He even came prepared with examples of good, interesting, non-sexualized female characters from recent (and less-recent) videogames. The issue is in the public consciousness, and it’s largely thanks to people like Anita Sarkeesian for really forcing the start of the topic. We ended up having the largest round of applause of the night in partial honor of the contributions of these famous names who have brought this discussion to our collective conciousness. That, in my opinion, is a completely encouraging and fantastic thing.

Finally, I’d like to say that were it not for discussions like this one I would not be involved in Feminism as an ideal or as a movement. It’s almost entirely through the discussion of videogames that I have become aware – and supportive – of the movement, and I count this highly among the many blessings which this artistic medium has brought to me. I’d sincerely like to thank everyone who’s been part of that discussion over the years – you have helped to make me who I am today.


About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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