Video Games and Gender

As video games perpetuate the status quo, they also reinforce and extend gender-based inequalities. This element of video games should be taken seriously precisely because these technologies are toys. Children learn ideas about gender through video games – and, many children at that!

These ideas about gender are harmful and are intimately connected with the systematic oppression of women to men in this country and in the world. As women are objectified in the virtual world of gaming, they are objectified in the real world. As men are privileged over women in the design of video games, they are privileged over women in the realm of computer science and the larger economic world. Video games are cultural artifacts that must be taken seriously.

That excerpt is from Technologies of Play: Video Games and Gender, a very interesting site that offers insight and analysis into video games from a gendered perspective. A turgid new report from the European Parliament released recently examines the same issue and avers (take deep breath),

“They believe that there is a need to eliminate messages contrary to human dignity and conveying gender stereotypes from textbooks, toys, video and computer games, Internet and the new information and communications technologies (ICTs), as well as advertising through different types of media.”

Ars Technica, which covered this report, suggests that gender stereotyping is actually much less of a problem than this new report makes it out to be. After listing a number of games where women are as depraved as men (and as capable of redemption) and are realistically depicted (not all of them have Jolie’esque body types), Ars Technica notes that,

Sexist and degrading imagery is common in all forms of media, but this report is coming a little late for video games. As the acceptance of gaming as a hobby grows, so does the width of games made available, including games that treat women with respect instead of seeing how large their breasts can be rendered and what the minimum amount of clothing is necessary to cover them.

The study should not be belittled, nor should the sentiments behind it, although it reads more like an act of political pandering than anything else. 

An engendered mainstream gaming industry is a pipe-dream – the market does not demand it. The massive market for GTA IV even with all the controversy about the hidden sex scenes of GTA III suggests that gender is not even the last thing on gamers minds. It’s not an issue at all. That’s sad, but the answer isn’t nanny legislation or policy-makers turning gender police.

It’s a combination of a lot of other factors, including good parenting, that suggest to the boy or girl child that games they play (and not just PC games, has anyone read fairy tales or seen Disney?) aren’t necessarily how the world is, or indeed, should be. 

This video is taken from the Technologies of Play website. I’ve played almost all of the games here, with Wolfenstein 3D, Doom (the entire series), Quake (the entire series), Duke Nukem 3D as some of my favourites in the by-gone days of DOS games and VESA local bus graphics!

I don’t attribute my work today in peacebuilding to having played any of these games, or not. They were just that for me – games. They didn’t inspire any behaviour, positively or negatively. I would still play them given a chance, knowing that playing them – killing all manner of life on screen and watching their visceral demise now rendered in hyper-real graphics – does not make me any less capable of imagining and creating ICT architectures for peacemaking, reconciliation and negotiations. 

So what’s at play here? 

As I noted Technologies of Play: Video Games and Gender (over time, one of my most read blog posts), 

In reality, gender roles and the development of non-violent approaches to conflict are inextricably entwined with, inter alia, parenting styles, the general socio-political climate, existing gender role stereotypes promoted by media and an individual’s own life choices. While studies may help us better understand the linkages between in-game violence, gender and real life conflict, I don’t think that any study I’ve come across to date help me understand how it is possible for someone to blow themselves up to kill and maim others while others, no less discriminated against, continue to promote non-violent dialogue with their opponents.

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