Friday, 21 March 2014

"Fewer Tifas or More Sephiroths? Male Sexualization in Games"

I know it's been another month without any activity and, unfortunately, I currently only have time to write another short post. Maybe I'll write a longer one over Easter.

The Game Developers Conference is currently taking place and on Reddit, I came across a link to a Game Developer's Conference talk called, "Fewer Tifas or More Sephiroths? Male Sexualization in Games". The description of it is short, so I'll just copy and paste the entire thing:
"Sexualized female characters are hotly debated in the industry, but their counterparts, sexualized male characters are rarely discussed, and even more rarely written! This talk examines desirable men in video games, how they contrast with current male character trends, and how they can create a more welcoming atmosphere for straight women, gay men and others. Attendees will learn how (and why) to move beyond "male gaze" when writing male characters while avoiding "equal objectification." We'll also discuss non-Western male idealization, traditional media presenting men as fan service, and games that "get it right," to compile a useful toolbox for writers and designers.
Attendees will take away a greater understanding of how to approach writing more desirable male characters, and why. Developers will have greater awareness of how "gaze" affects character construction and design, and writers will leave with practical, sex-positive tips and resources for making male characters appealing to wider audiences."
If you're a long-time reader of this blog, you'll remember that I brought up how I had issues with sexualised male characters when I was a teenager. Regardless of whether you thought my issues were justified or not, you'll notice that the summary of the talk above speaks about male sexualisation in a way that would never be considered acceptable for female ones outside of an internet forum. The summary treats sexualised male characters as a positive in games.

According to the GDC page, there's a video recording of the talk but as far as I can tell, it isn't available online. I could only find two real pieces of information about the talk; the first is a Famitsu article, which features photos of each PowerPoint slide and gives the impression that the speaker, Michelle Clough, is actually very fair-minded about the subject (although if anyone can translate the article better than Bing Translator can, I'd be interested in reading the details about it). The second is directly from Clough's site and gives the exact opposite impression.

I don't want to make any assumptions about Clough's talk because those two sites seem to contrast each other; the photos in Famitsu's article suggests that Clough is sex-positive for both men and women rather than only being in favour of male sexualisation while her own site is very one-sided. Judging from the PowerPoint presentation alone, the talk itself seems to deal more with facts while the GDC summary and Clough's site both deal more with feelings. Come to your own conclusions about what the talk was actually like because at the moment, we just don't know.

As a result, the only aspect of this that can be properly examined is the way it is presented on the GDC site and on Clough's own website. I have plenty of objections to Clough presenting male sexualisation as, "[a way to] create a more welcoming atmosphere for straight women, gay men and others". I can't imagine someone being given the stage at a GDC conference to defend sexualised female characters with "hey, straight guys and lesbians like 'em!". When the world of gaming journalism has cast female gamers as a demographic to be helped and straight male gamers as an entitled, socially-awkward group who harasses anyone who isn't a straight male gamer like them, I can't see that argument convincing anyone. If anything, it would be taken as an example of male gamers being unwelcoming towards female ones, whereas praising the sexualisation of male characters is not treated the same way.

Likewise, I object to Clough's assertion that androgynous male characters are rare. Even in the PowerPoint presentation, she doesn't seem to stray outside of the Final Fantasy series except to show a piece of fanart (I assume) of Nero from Devil May Cry 4. It's not that Clough is wrong -- in fact, she's dead-on -- but if the way she briefly writes about "China, Korea and Japan" on her blog is anything to go by, it sounds as if she has a better grasp on Eastern games than most. I would've thought she would cast her net a bit wider when it came to selecting characters. Plus, I think Clough is a bit too dismissive of "the common Stubble McBadass archetype", as she calls it. It feels a bit too much like she's falling back on the idea that this archetype automatically appeals to straight men (which is not necessarily true) and nobody else (which is not necessarily true either). There's a good chance that young male gamers feel as self-conscious about those character archetypes as I did about bishonen characters in my teens.

I don't want it to sound like I have anything against Michelle Clough because, for all I know, her talk may have been completely fair about the sexualisation of both men and women. If anything, I have nothing but praise for acknowledging the fact that women are not the only sex who can be sexualised, contrary to popular opinion and the silly "male power fantasy" argument. I'd be very interesting in hearing more from her on the subject. It's simply the promotion of the talk that bothers me; with every single discussion about sexualisation in games being about how negatively-portrayed women are, it's difficult not to collectively roll our eyes and scoff when the one time the issue of sexualised men is brought up on a significant stage, it's about how positive it can be.

And not a male opinion in sight. That's part of the problem. Not that Clough shouldn't be allowed to speak but it's a men's issue. I think hearing how male gamers feel about it might be worthwhile.

Overall, I'm just disappointed in the GDC. Like I said, I can't imagine a talk like this ever taking place with the sexes reversed, especially if a male speaker wrote on his website, "I may have wanted an excuse to cram a slideshow full of Lara Croft pictures" and "how we can use sexualised women to greater advantage".

Also, I came across a few links on Reddit a while ago that should put the unproven "male power fantasy" claim to rest (although I know they won't). These articles feature some very interesting facts about how often men and boys suffer from body image issues:

Body image concerns more men than women, research finds - The Guardian

Boys want to look fit to be happy - The Sydney Morning Herald

That second one, in particular, struck a chord with me; it mentions that "by the age of eight children already had definite body ideals, which are influenced by their peers, the media and gender stereotypes". The article goes on to say this is largely due to the influence of sports figures but, given that I was never interested in sports but gaming (particularly Final Fantasy) as a strong influence when I was around the same age, much of the article still managed to resonate with me. I also came across this infographic about eating disorders amongst men (I apologise for not knowing the original creator but if you leave a comment or send me an e-mail at, I'll be sure to credit you).

With these facts in mind, it's pretty clear that "muscular male characters are a male power fantasy" is a myth, existing solely to dismiss the issues of one sex while campaigning for the issues of the other. So regardless of Michelle Clough's love of sexualised male characters, I think the GDC, the gaming press and the industry needs to grow up and start telling the other side of the story.


  1. "With these facts in mind, it's pretty clear that "muscular male characters are a male power fantasy" is a myth, existing solely to dismiss the issues of one sex while campaigning for the issues of the other. So regardless of Michelle Clough's love of sexualised male characters, I think the GDC, the gaming press and the industry needs to grow up and start telling the other side of the story. "

    I was going to unreservedly praise this piece but this last line stinks of denial and a bit of self-flogging to me.
    For one, some characters very much DO represent 'male power fantasies' at least to some of us gamers. It's not always tied to looks or muscles - the most recent video game character I've really 'identified' with (I must mention that at 42 I don't tend to do much 'identifying' these days) was Master Chief from Halo. Partly because yes,while you know he is fit, for the longest time it very much COULD have been nearly anyone in that armor. And partly because I enjoyed the games and backstory so much. But I'm not gonna lie and pretend that when I was a child/teen I didn't occasionally 'identify' with Superman (who is always ripped) or some of the mythological legends (always depicted as strong) . Eating disorders and body dismorphia are real problems but while expecting unrealistic levels of fitness as a societal standard is one thing (one thing that video games at most contribute to, not cause in and of themselves) it would be equally problematic to pretend that couch potatoes are equally as likely to show up on a battlefield (where some level of fitness is required, even more so in the infantry) , or that when you are trying to add some sexuality to your male or female characters that all body types are going to receive the same numbers on the 'sexual judgment scale'. It's as unrealistic as expecting the average guy to look like Thor in the movies, or Kratos in God of War.

    Anyway I'd like to write more in the next day or two because some of your points are very well taken, but before I go I'd like to remind you that you will never please everybody, esp when it comes to things like race or sex in video games. Even people who mean well disagree where to draw the lines about things like sexism, 'too much' sexuality, etc, and there are quite a few self-interested and ideologically blinded people who will deliberately pick a fight no matter what. If you ever get to develop a game -which I hope you do for many years - then I would hope you would bring your empathy and intelligence to bear and remember that while you can't and don't have to 'humanize' every single mook, if you work on a good story and humanizing your main characters -male or female- the vast majority of gamers of either sex are going to love what you are doing, and you'll make good games you can be proud of to boot.

    1. You certainly make a lot of fair points and I have to admit that I was probably relying too heavily on my own perspective when writing that last paragraph. You're right about that.

      My big issue is that I've only related to game characters on very rare occasions and my viewpoint is influenced because of that. You mention that you relate to Master Chief because, underneath that armour, he could be anyone. From my point of view, I just saw a space marine with a very bland voice and personality. He isn't the only one either. In fact, it would probably be quicker to list the protagonists I have related to in the past rather than the ones who I haven't. Without fail, it's characters who I've been able to make myself and apply my own ideas about character traits onto, in games with character creation like Dragon's Dogma, Dragon Age I and Fallout 3. However, these characters are not what I would describe as a power fantasy in the same way that it's often used against "Stubble McBadass archetypes", as Clough called them. They aren't intended to represent me or an idealised figure for me to live vicariously through as a power fantasy. If they were, I wouldn't bother making my Dragon's Dogma characters short or overweight, my Dragon Age characters ugly or my Fallout 3 characters female. More traditional characters I enjoy include Nathan Drake, Max Payne or -- going back a few years -- Crash Bandicoot, mainly because they don't take themselves too seriously. I find that to be a trait I can more easily identify with than a foul-mouthed, stoic, musclebound "badass" like Marcus Fenix from Gears Of War.

      I could go on about this but in short, you're right to criticise what I wrote. What I should've made an effort to get across instead was the simple fact that there are reactions to both attractive men and attractive women in games that are not acknowledged by the gaming press at large. I would never demand that any developer change their character designs to suit my sensibilities -- it's their decision. Who am I to interfere? -- but if the gaming community insists on debating this issue, all sides should be represented.

      And thank you for your kind words at the end of your comment. It was heartwarming to read. In all honesty, it's unlikely I'll ever be able to contribute to a commercially-released title. The odds are hugely stacked against me. Nevertheless, it's touching to read your support.

  2. Michelle Clough's point about bishonen I saw it in many feminist blog and it starts to irked me why because it doesn't make games, manga or anime being less sexist against women. Let's take some example: Saint Seiya over used of the Damsel in distress trope but it's ok we have bishonen. Naruto where most of the women cast have few character development it's ok we have bishonen in order they can imagine Yaoi's fanfiction.

    Honestly if putting bishonen makes a game appealing for both men and women why complaining about:
    -Dragon's Crown because both fighter and wizzard are
    -DOA when you have Hayate, Ryu Hayabusa (in the second episode it was not wearing his mask)
    -BlazeBlue when you have Ragna, Jin, Hazama etc (it's funny because in Japan it's the reason why the game is popular among female player)
    -King Of Fighters when I stop to count the number of yaoi fiction involving the male protagonist it's exist and there is a dating game for girl when you can date the male cast.

    It's more a status quo, the female characters are still shallow and superficial with an unrealistic body type but the female audience are pleased with cute effeminate men to fulfil their fantasy( see the dark elf in Lineage 2). It doesn't improve the situation, it makes it worst because all the complaint about female character sexualization can be summed to it's because you don't have your effeminate men.

    Appealing male character in western video games exists without being bishonen, see Nathan Drake or Ezio and the male protagonist of assassin's creed, they receive many good feedback among female gamers.

    Little fact Yaoi is not very appreciated by gays in Japan who think it's more the homosexual relationship idealized by straight female in a similar way straight men with lesbian relationship they prefers bara who has more muscular men. Muscular men are more likely to pleased homosexual men example Arnold "Terminator" Schwarzenegger was a model for a gay magazine.

    I recommend reading the webcomic "Manly Guys doing manly things"
    Drawn by a woman who gives her opinion about the bishonen guy and the stereotype of the action men through the pages of her comic.

  3. about male power fantasy, I cannot say it doesn't exist because I played Metal Gear Rising, I think it's a good example what is it. We have a badass character (Raiden) doing badass and over the top action. Feminist assumed male power fantasy is just because they have big muscles and are hyper masculine traits no. Dante is a male power fantasy like Kratos, the former is maybe less masculine than the later but they are both stereotypical and doing badass action. Batman is more a male fantasy than superman despite supe is more powerful is not as cool as Batman. It's the same way Wolverine is a male power fantasy by excellence among the X-men even if he is not the most powerful.

    "Fewer Tifas or More Sephiroths? Male Sexualization in Games" sounds more to me it's ok you have your male power fantasy at condition you make him a cute effeminate guy so women can have their part of the cake too. Why I'm not including gays it's because in homoerotic fiction for homosexual men they are great variety of male body type including the hyper masculine muscular.

  4. They are always shouting how it's not made for women how it's 'male power fantasy' but the moment you turn around there's bunch of women writing gay fanfiction about those men - sexualising them to hell - saying that it doesn't matter because intended audience are male. But I don't find that quite so true.
    I never found the Sephiroth or Marluxia type of bishounen appealing. Like maybe when I was 14. I very much prefer the Zack or Axel type. And Stubble McBadass archetypes can be very hot too. (Nathan Drake is purposefully made to be appealing to women, and I even stumbled upon Call of Duty Yaoi)
    Just as we could say that for some men it's male power fantasy. I know plenty of women who consider the 'objectified female heroines' to be their female power fantasy. Me included since I care more about the actual character rather than what they look like. For the love of god I can never understand why Sarah Kerrigan is not on those lists of those 'strong female characters' (and I don't even really like Starcraft that much she just left an impact)
    I'd say that Japanese dating sim games reflect this best since they are made specifically for both male and female audience. It really shows the differences and similarities between the male and female 'sexual' and power fantasies.

    1. Thanks for the information (and about Fallout 1 and 2 on your other comment too). I actually had no idea that Nathan Drake was intended to appeal to women. That's interesting to know. And thank you so much for being open about the types of characters you find hot. A lot of the time, I think people who discuss gender issues, including me, are so wrapped around saying "no, we don't find those characters appealing" that a lot of the time, we forget that some people do find them appealing.

      I've sometimes thought the same thing about female players enjoying the "objectified" female heroines too. Back when I wrote about Dragon's Crown, I searched for images and found a ton of female cosplayers for sexualised characters like the Sorceress. This was before the game was even released. I think having an interesting design is a much bigger deal than being sexualised or not.


    1. Read both of those before. As someone who has felt self-conscious because of objectified men in games before -- specifically Japanese RPGs, which the people in both of those "articles" steered clear of -- it just looks like the typical dismissive attitude, wanting to do away with character designs they dislike but not ones that others dislike. It's trying to have their cake and eat it too. That kind of hypocrisy and promotion of double standards is why feminism does not receive a warmer welcome when it comes to gaming; one rule for one sex, another for the other.

  6. I posted here as the subject is male objectification. You should take a look on this link it shows how feminists have no problem to justify their double standards about male objectification.