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.