Marketing gender in video games

In Marketing, Video Games on August 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm

The face behind the controversy: FemShep 5

A recent controversy has arisen around the marketing campaign for the hit video game series Mass Effect. At issue: how should a woman who is also a soldier — a “female Shepard,” in this case, referring to the protagonist of the series — be portrayed in the campaign? According to PC Gamer columnist Kim Richards, BioWare’s not doing it right.

Richards is referring to BioWare’s Facebook-hosted poll to determine what “face” the Female Shepard should have in the new marketing campaign. The results of this poll show “FemShep 5” — referring to a blonde incarnation of the character posted above — to be the clear winner. Her post argues the following:

This is the first time that female Shepard will be shown to the world. The real world. It’ll be the first time she’s used for marketing campaigns, advertisements and, in my wildest dreams, adorning the box itself. Think about it – this will be the first in a long time that such a well-written, kick-ass female hero will be brought into the spotlight – merited not for the size of her dirty pillows and the tightness of her tramp-stamp jeans, but for her ability to dominate the battlefield, unite humanity, and stand up in the face of intergalactic adversity.

She concludes: “it breaks my heart that the mass public have gone for such the wishy washy, Barbie faced personality vacuum that is Shep 5.”

Video games are no stranger to controversy when representing women on screen. For decades, the industry has justly been criticized for any number of offenses, from showing them to occupy inescapably subordinate positions of power, or depicting women as nothing but platforms from which to display balloons.

Women represent about 40% of gamers, and that number will soon hit 50%. (It may even surpass 50%, with the explosion in casual, mobile and social media gaming.) So they should have a stronger voice in determining how women are portrayed in the world’s fastest-growing medium of entertainment.

All that said, I wonder to what degree Richards is simply arguing over minutiae. Tycho over at Penny Arcade has penned a response:

The idea that this tousled, interstellar bad-ass with a sidearm, an assault rifle, and some kind of hard-light holoblade represents some kind of wilting star princess is beyond comprehension. This is the same Shepherd, Commander Shepard, whose exploits have cut this way and that across an entire galaxy; the one who parleyed with Reavers, and released the Rachni. The one who died and was reborn, the one who laid low a writhing and larval world-eater.

She is that Shepard, even though she may not be your Shepard, just like she isn’t mine; I have every intention of Reconstructing the Profile.

Here, Tycho refers to the ability given to the player to construct your “personal” Shepard: you can, as with many games of this generation, determine the “look” and personal life choices of your character. You can choose their gender, and even their sexual preferences. This of course led to some controversy all of its own (either that homosexuality went too far or not far enough), but in the end, was received positively — even to the point where it would break the taboo against male homosexual choices in the third installment of the game. BioWare Senior Writer David Gaider posted the following message on the company’s forums, in response to criticism of the decision to allow these kinds of relationships:

So long as romances of any kind are optional and need to be actively pursued by the player in order to be experienced, they simply don’t have a leg to stand on. Advocating that nobody should be able to have content you don’t intend to personally use is largely pointless—outside of a vague notion that such efforts should go towards other things, instead. Personally, it’s not a lot of effort to include them. The resources we can devote to a minority of players isn’t great, but I imagine to those players it’s quite worth it… and I would hope that some folks could be sensitive enough to be happy for those players, at the very least out of the selfish notion that they may one day end up in the minority of some content issue and receive the same consideration if nothing else.

I think this attitude is commendable, in terms of media representation, including the marketing and publicity of a product.

So where, then, does this leave us with Richards’ lament? Her favorite of the offered Shepards was this one:

What does blonde hair really mean? We’re all familiar with the power of blonde hair in popular media, and all the myths that accompany that. But would Blonde Shepard “have more fun” than “Ginger Shepard”?

More to the point, and looking back at Gaider’s post: who is in the “minority” here? Remember, this marketing campaign does not reflect the ability for that minority to make its own choices, choices which will allow them to represent themselves as they see fit (and within certain constraints) on screen. So is Richards contesting the “look” of women who play video games, or rather the type of woman who might find herself in the situations that Commander Shepard so often does?

Part of me is happy that we’ve come this far: we’re now debating the role of hair colour, instead of allowing women to have any role at all in plot or story. This, indeed, is progress. But while there will be some backlash against Richards — there is a fundamentally silly component to her lament — I think it’s important to keep her basic objection in mind: while male soldiers and protagonists are often portrayed as exclusively “functional” (if often buff and ridiculously over-muscled), women still must carry the burden of ornamentalism. In essence, female protagonists in video games are still burdened by “femininity.”

What do you think about this tempest in a teapot? From a marketing standpoint, do you think this is a smart move? From a gamer standpoint, will this influence your decision to play the game?

  1. My take – the assertion that male video game characters are depicted as solely functional just ain’t so. They surely aren’t “pretty”, but they are always (when shown shirtless) depicted as being very buff and corresponding to all of the masculine virtues of visible strength and virility; even when their faces are careworn, they’re done in a way that emphasizes their attractively masculine qualities. You never see slightly-flabby-but-healthy male video game characters with weak chins.

    In the case of Mass Effect, the female character has been depicted as being characteristically female. She’s not exceptionally pretty (that is, I would encounter women as attractive as her in the course of my daily goings-about… but then I do live in Montreal), but she has been shown to be about a feminine as male video game characters are depicted as masculine. Maybe within the context of the video game it doesn’t make sense for her to be petite and spritely, but then all those “show muscles” on male video game characters aren’t exactly realistic either.

    • Good point, Geoff. Perhaps I understated “functionality” in reference to “beauty” when considering masculinity. The question is, is “buffness” a purely ornamental quality when looking at, say, a soldier? One could argue that it is an attribute which bolsters one’s capacity in that role. Whereas the “hair issue” (in reference to Richards’ case) is that the fallback position for showing a female character in a similar role is always to leave significant space for non-functional “beauty.”

      But you’re also right: if the hair issue calls attention to the larger matter of the portrayal of women in video games — that we rarely (if ever) see a (to borrow your words) non-spritely, non-petite, and non-attractive woman — then it should equally apply to men. (Although I doubt the world is ready for any out-of-shape, large, easily-fatigued suburban dads as galactic saviours.)

      The irony in this case is that BioWare is, relatively speaking, incredibly progressive in their portrayal of both men *and* women. That the case of FemShep 5 should be seized upon as an example of cynical marketing strategies is a bit much, really.

  2. Somewhat uniquely, I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some real honest-to-God supersoldiers (or Canada’s nearest approximation), and I can confidently say that the prevalence of “show muscles” is very low. Generally, they’re wiry little guys who can run for days on end and make a point of not carrying any more weight on their bodies than they need to. Suburban dads, not so much; but even less so are they bodybuilders.

    I have a feeling that the trend in the depiction of both sexes finds its origin, at least to a degree, back in the days of low-res graphics: the only way to show “healthiness” was with bulging pecs and biceps. Likewise, the only way to show “femaleness” at the time female action game characters were introduced (à la Tomb Raider) was with a cartoonishly small waist and fulsome bosom. Just a theory.

    • That is a reasonable theory, but it presupposes that prior to low-res gaming, that things were on a (more) even playing field, and that it was the technology which dictated the stereotype. I don’t disagree that a certain cartoonish profile may have been necessary at one point, in service of mere verisimilitude. Given the persistence of stereotype and profile, however, I think the cultural impetus runs somewhat deeper.

  3. I feel its important to note that Richards did not advocate the one non-white design for femshep. It can’t be argued, then, that this is an issue of race. That’s the whole problem I have with her article – she completely overlooks the only relatively serious issue connected to this event. Instead she confines the argument to one entirely about white women, and thus reduces the entire power of her article. Choosing to venerate a blonde woman over a black woman has a specific negative weight to it. Choosing a blonde woman over a redheaded woman… not so much.

    You mentioned it casually in your post, as has almost everybody who’s addressed the “controversy” thus far, but the model she chose is literally the exact same design except with a different hairstyle. How are we expected to take her argument seriously? Are we to acknowledge that she has a point, that being blonde in itself represents something somehow un-feminist? Make no mistake. Richards is not attacking the stereotype of the dumb blonde bimbo, she’s actively invoking it. She’s imbuing the female character with all kinds of negative qualities based entirely on one aspect of her physical appearance. And while valuing a woman based on her innate* attractiveness is certainly wrong, so is penalizing her for it.

    *Note: I am not saying that blonde hair is necessarily more attractive, but rather acknowledging that this is the premise of Richards’s labeling of blondeshep as a “bimbo.” Of course it would be intellectually dishonest for me to not recognize that the prevailing culture values blonde hair above others. While this is a problem, I think that valuing “whiteness” as a whole is a more important issue to address, and in any case none of these issues were what Richards was arguing anyway.

  4. Thanks a lot Alex. Although I think your use of the term “reverse-discrimination” invokes notions of angry “whites-rights” wackos complaining about affirmitave action. I’d say that that the assumption that a physically attractive woman must be stupid or otherwise incompetent isn’t “reverse-” anything. I’d say that as an issue its one that falls completely under the purview of conventional feminism.

    Jumping off from that, I’d like to say that while I definitely agree with you that the marginalization of minorities in video games, and specifically the marginalization and obligatory sexualization of women in particular, is an important issue that needs attention. unfortunately I think Bioware’s sins RE: femshep are so slim that its a tough case to connect this recent controversy to it. Overall, I was pretty impressed with how Mass Effect navigated gender and sexuality, and specifically pleased with how the armor in the game seemed a great deal more practical than provocative than in other games with female protagonists. It goes without saying that they lost some good will with Miranda in the second game, but I chose to give them the benefit of the doubt that her character wasn’t intentionally exploitative. Your mileage may vary, of course.

    • I agree, BioWare’s sins are fairly low on the “outrage” scale (note the references to homosexuality not going far enough for some progressive critics). The argument about attractive women and intelligence is clearly a given in “conventional feminism,” as you say — but the venue of video games is also pretty far off from a level playing field for a nuanced discussion of the tenets of contemporary feminist ideology. People simply react too strongly to signs, symbols, and appearances in this kind of popular media. I’m not saying that “people are stupid,” but that so strong is the stereotype of the “blonde bimbo” that the project of convincing people that “actually, she’s super-smart” may be a harder battle than simply showing someone who is NOT conventionally beautiful, but awesome in the main areas we should be judging her anyway (ability as a warrior, etc.). I guess that perspective is somewhat cynical, but then again, so too is the decision to use a “conventionally beautiful” figure like FemShep 5.

  5. As a note to the comments, the idea that beautiful women are stupid and or incompetent is certainly not a tenant of feminism.

    The arguments Richards makes are pretty awful, and the omissions just as much so. My immediate annoyance was with the lack of diversity among the potential Shepards, and a long standing grievance has been that fact that any female shepard one designs wears makeup. Period.

    All three caucasian models have identical faces and bodies- the only difference is their hair. Thus, her claims rest solely on hair color and hairstyle. These somehow cause Richards to think that this woman, who looks like she might be *this* close to shooting me, is more concerned with her nails than with the state of the galaxy she’s saved a couple of times. Pretty pathetic, really.

  6. Who says in our modern society redheaded women are not more objectified than blonde women. One thing my girlfriend (a natural blonde) consistantly resents is the lack of positive blonde rolemodels. Sure there are lots of blondes, but thats just a haircolor. The fact that you automatically assume making her blonde makes her “soft”, or a “barbie” is insulting in itself.

    Also you will note a current trend towards glamourizing redheads. (not really current it goes back to the 70s’)

    • Well, personally, I don’t think that “blonde = soft” (either in reality or in media representations), but apparently Kim Richards does to a certain degree.

  7. The game is all about choice and you can design your character any way you want, so why fret over some box art that you know is just a placeholder anyway?

    The whole issue with females in games was originally about characters looking slutty or wearing skimpy armor just for fan service. The armor is clearly not skimpy or revealing, and there is nothing sultry or slutty about the face(both faces are exactly the same). Looks pretty intimidating and badass in my opinion. The hair in both images is short enough to not seem ridiculous, or out of character of a soldier. And most importantly: Humankind has many different hair colors. It’s not like Bioware can put every single hair color on the same character on the same promotional piece of art. It’s pointless to fight over the choice, as it means nothing. Obviously the color was completely arbitrary and unimportant, as Bioware decided to let the fans decide.

    Yes, one can go into the “blondes have more fun” argument, but really? It’s a matter of personal preference and there just so happened to be more people who prefered the look of blonde hair on the figure sitting around on facebook, browsing the Mass Effect page.

    I will admit that the Shep with her hair down looks just a teensy bit more feminine, but that’s not the hair color doing it. It’s only the fact that her hair is down. Imagine each Shep with the opposite hair color and you will see what I mean.

    I see nothing wrong with the choice. What does it matter that her hair is a different color if you can change it anyway? What does it matter if the game is fun and entertaining?

    Shepard is one of the most badass video game characters in history, regardless of what he/she looks like.

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